'Why did Edmonton forget Judi Singh?' Researcher uncovers story of jazz music and Alberta's roots

Her daughter calls Judi Singh a musician's musician and says she developed a loyal following over a successful career through the 1950s, '60s and '70s.

Singh, a Black-South Asian musician from Edmonton, had a successful career in the '50s, '60s and '70s

The cover of A Time For Love, which Judi Singh recorded in 1970 with Tommy Banks. The album used "Judy" as the spelling of her name on this cover. (Supplied by Poushali Mitra)

When Poushali Mitra stumbled across Judi Singh's work in a random YouTube search last year, she soon discovered that the Edmonton jazz singer was a one-of-a-kind artist.

From the 1950s through to the '70s, Singh was a popular Black-South Asian jazz musician from Edmonton who developed a following around western Canada, but today, many aren't familiar with her work.

Mitra was so drawn to Singh's music that she was driven to learn more about the singer's legacy.

"Why did Edmonton forget Judi Singh?" said Mitra, a heritage researcher. 

"And why is there nothing to commemorate such a beautiful, important and unique piece of history?"

Judi Singh's parents, Sohan Singh Bhullar and Effie Jones in 1928. They are holding Judi's sister Helen. Image retrieved from Edmonton Maps Heritage – Sohan Singh Bhullar Park. (Supplied by Poushali Mitra)

An article Mitra wrote about Singh has been published by the Edmonton Heritage Council. It covers the Edmonton singer's journey as a jazz singer, during which she worked with musician-turned-senator Tommy Banks and backed up 1970s soul singer Minnie Riperton.

Judi Singh, who now lives in Victoria, B.C., signs a copy of her album, A Time For Love. (Supplied by Emily Hughes)

Singh appeared on TV networks, including the CBC. She was one of the most well-known faces at the Yardbird Suite and even wrote a jingle for a CHED morning radio show that played for years.

But the singer's music wasn't the only thing to pique Mitra's interest.

Mitra has been fascinated by the Edmonton area's South Asian history since moving to Canada from India in 2011. She had started researching and writing about Sohan Singh Bhullar, who was one of Alberta's first Sikh settlers in the early 1900s. A park in Edmonton's Mill Woods neighbourhood bears Bhullar's name.

He was Judi Singh's father.

Meanwhile, Singh's mother, Effie Jones, was among the Black pioneer families that settled in Athabasca, Alta., at around the same time. Jones and Bhullar married in 1926 in Edmonton and had seven children.

Singh's story is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to early Black and South Asian history in Alberta and Mitra says more stories about this period — where non-white and non-European communities settled in the Prairies — need to be told, she said.

"This is a fascinating history that Alberta has in the 1920s when marginalized communities came together and had such harmonious marriage, such co-existence between South Asian and Black communities," Mitra said.

Judi Singh on the Lenny Breau Show

2 years ago
Duration 2:59
Jazz singer Judi Singh performs on the Lenny Breau Show on CBC in 1966.

Michael Hawley, a professor of religious studies at Mount Royal University with expertise in Sikhism and Sikh settlement in Alberta, worked with Mitra on her research, even connecting her with Singh's daughter, Emily Hughes.

While acknowledging that he's far from an expert on Singh, Hawley said he can see that her importance isn't just her skill as an artist, but what also her story teaches about Alberta history.

"Judi Singh is just an excellent example of how we can start retelling and supplementing what we know about Alberta," Hawley said.

"These are all Black histories and South Asian histories. And the two histories, those two groups, overlap and intersect."

Edmonton jazz singer Judi Singh pictured here with her daughter Emily Hughes. (Supplied by Emily Hughes)

Hughes noted how other musicians respected her mother. Singh was flown to New York to record one of her songs, she was encouraged and motivated by Banks to work with him on albums with a full orchestra, and she was skilled at scatting, a difficult improvisational technique in jazz.

Singh was a musician's musician, Hughes said. But while she never had huge success, she developed a cult following and had a strong reputation as one of the better singers to come out of Western Canada at the time.

"She overcame a lot of challenges. I mean, to be a woman, and then to be a woman of colour, to be a single mother, to be drawn to an art form that's not mainstream," Hughes said.

Nowadays, Singh lives a private life in Victoria, B.C. Having become a fan of Singh's work since finding her on YouTube, Mitra hopes the Edmonton musician's work can be better remembered.

"She had a successful career as a musician," Mitra said. 

"So if Tommy Banks is being remembered, if Joni Mitchell from the Prairies is being remembered, then I don't see a reason why we can't remember her the same way."