Liberty Silver on Being a Juno First, Blazing a Trail for Black Women in Canadian Music

Manifestation. The first time Liberty Silver heard that word, it was uttered by her father; he used the noun in a conversation following her first Juno. Acknowledging the artist’s ascent to stardom, he told Liberty that she had been visualizing her success ever since she was a little girl.

“All I’ve ever wanted to do is sing and write good music,” she says via Zoom on Super Bowl Sunday from her Brampton home studio. “Grace got me through so many challenges and hard times in this business. I’ve learned to just let things go.”

Some of the best advice she has ever received is to never let people see you get upset. You may be steaming on the inside, but outside you need to present a coolness and calmness.

“That is what grace is. You have to always show grace.”

During her formative years growing up in Peterborough, Ont. in the 1960s, alone in her parents’ basement, Silver belted out arias at the sterile whitewashed walls, pretending she was singing to sold-out stadiums. Silver’s father was the first violin player in the Peterborough Symphony Orchestra, so she always heard the symphonic sounds of her dad and his bandmates regularly rehearsing upstairs. A trip to the local Sam the Record Man one weekend added to her musical education. For 99 cents, she bought an Earth, Wind & Fire album, along with Superfly by Curtis Mayfield. Watching the American variety show “Soul Train” was another eye opener — seeing for the first time people who looked like her.

After talking to Silver for a while — and learning more about her journey from that childhood basement to sharing the stage with legends like Harry Belafonte and singing for former U.S. President Barrack Obama — one wonders how she always turned the other cheek and kept going.

The challenges and tribulations started from the moment Silver started school. The bullying began in kindergarten, and it was constant. Anytime it occurred, Silver’s stiff upper lip trained British parents said things like: “Brush it under the rug” or “Don’t give it any energy dear!” Easy for them to say, not being on the receiving end of these verbal and physical assaults. A strong faith helped Silver survive. Singing was also a refuge from these daily epithets.

“I tried not to let others stop me from becoming who I knew I was going to be … it was still rough at times,” she says.

Silver has shared this story many times before, but it’s worth repeating. One day, a girl on her bus locked eyes and then told Liberty the real reason for the collective hatred.

“That day I discovered who I really am,” Silver recalls. “That girl said, ‘We don’t hate you because you are Black, we hate you because you are Black and adopted!’”

For the 12-year-old, this news was shocking. It never occurred to Silver that who she thought were her biological parents were not her real parents. She did not even know the meaning of the word adopted. Suddenly, she felt her life up until that point had been a lie. Silver got off the bus and confronted her mother — asking if the revelation she had just heard was true. Her mother finally told her daughter the truth: she had been born in Detroit, Mich. and adopted young (her biological parents were of Jamaican-Irish and Hawaiian descent).

“Many nights I lay awake, looked up and asked God questions like: ‘What am I doing here?’ and ‘Did you put me in the wrong place?’” says Silver. “Suddenly, that day, I knew my truth and for the first time I understood why I always not only looked, but also felt different.”

The next day, Silver, feeling betrayed, needed to get away from her parents for a while. She boarded a Toronto-bound bus where she lived for the next few years with her older sister Susan, who had an apartment in the city and was attending college there.

Besides music, sports were a big part of Silver’s upbringing; her parents always registered her in sports like hockey and synchronized swimming. Not long after arriving at her sister’s apartment, Silver was swimming in the building’s pool and singing like nobody was watching when a gentleman walked by, paused, and listened — enthralled by the young girl’s voice. A conversation ensued and the man, who turned out to manage a local reggae band (The Wild Bunch) in need of a singer, asked her to audition. The next thing you know, Silver is on the road to New York City.

“Less than 24 hours later I jumped in a van with eight Jamaican guys and all of their instruments,” she recalls. “We crossed the border and opened for Bob Marley at Madison Square Gardens.”

Hard to top that for a first gig! Upon her return to Toronto, Silver realized that thanks to her manifestations and God’s gift of a voice that can expand six and a half octaves, a music career was no longer just a dream. But, knowing that performing to a sold-out crowd in New York City, opening for a reggae legend, was a one-off gig, it was now time to get to work and learn the business.

“I started collaborating with many other artists in the city,” Silver recalls. “I had seen this magnificent end and now I had to start at the beginning to make all the dots connect and that’s what happened.”

Possessing a voice that could sing any style and any genre, it was not hard to land more gigs. And, it’s no wonder that in the 1980s, the talented singer won seven consecutive weeks on the popular U.S. TV show “Star Search,” hosted by Ed McMahon.

Looking back, Silver realizes visualization and a little luck (right place, right time like the Bob Marley gig) played a role in her success, but it’s not the only explanation for maintaining a career as a professional singer and songwriter for a half century. Like the refrain from Paul Anka’s “My Way,” Silver has always followed that song’s maxim. A trailblazer, guided by a DIY spirit, the award-winning artist was once offered a million dollar contract following her inaugural Juno wins, but refused. She knew that a contract like that meant compromising her art and not following her muse.

Forever known as the first Black woman to win a Juno, Silver snagged a pair in 1985: Best R&B Soul Recording for “Lost Somewhere Inside Your Love” and Best Reggae/Calypso Recording for “Heaven Must Have Sent You” with Otis Gayle. Never content to pigeonhole her music — or her art — into a single genre, Silver has performed, written, and sang songs in jazz, reggae, R&B, gospel, rock, and even country throughout her career.

Despite singing and performing on some of the world’s biggest stages, from Madison Square Garden to Massey Hall, Silver remains grounded and grateful. No audience is too small. One day she’ll sing at a senior’s home, the next to some corporate bigwigs, followed by a citizenship ceremony for new Canadians. This ability to shift and take on any work is another reason she has survived in a cutthroat industry.

Over the decades, the accolades and accomplishments Silver has received are countless. Along with three Juno awards, she co-wrote and performed the theme songs for two Olympic Games (Atlanta in 1996 and Athens in 2004), has a star on the Mississauga Walk of Fame, and was part of the group of musical all-stars (Northern Lights) that sang the charity song for Ethiopian famine relief “Tears are Not Enough,” which went to No. 1 on the Canadian pop charts and raised more than $3 million in famine relief, to name a few of Silver’s achievements.

The story of how Silver managed to join the Northern Lights is serendipitous. The night before that all-star cast of a who’s who of the Canadian music industry royalty was set to gather in a Toronto studio, unaware of this gathering, she was singing to an empty house at the reborn Club Blue Note in Yorkville.

“My thing has always been, no matter if there is just one person in the club, you sing your ass off because you never know who is going to be there,” she explains. “After my set that night David Foster walks up to me and introduces himself. I didn’t even know who he was! He explained that there was a bit of controversy surrounding the Ethiopian famine relief song because there were not enough Black people singing on it. He told me right there, ‘You are going to be on it! Be at Manta Sound tomorrow.’”

Silver arrived the next day and was placed in a row with Burton Cummings, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Bryan Adams and given a verse to sing with Loverboy’s Mike Reno. It was a surreal experience.

Northern Lights recording “Tears are Not Enough” for Ethiopian famine relief. Photo by David Lee.

More than 50 years since her first paying gig as a tween, Silver has manifested her destiny one sung syllable at a time. After all this time, she does not intend to slow down. She is still learning. Still listening.

“I always find work,” Silver says. “It is part of the survival blood … the gene all musicians share. If we are really serious about making a career in music, we just need to keep going and going and evolving.”

Speaking of genes, Silver’s best friend, Nancy, gifted her a subscription to a few years ago. She waited until her adopted father passed, out of respect, to finally dig into this unknown past and learn more about her bloodlines. What she discovered is that her biological dad was David Carl Mann – a professional footballer who played for the Arizona Cardinals in the National Football League and the Toronto Argonauts in the Canadian Football League. Mann passed away in 2012, so unfortunately Silver never got to meet him, but she has now met, via Zoom, three sisters, an auntie, and a “barrel full” of cousins.

“I have not physically met any of them yet, she says. “I plan to breathe and take my time. Most of them live in the San Diego area. One sister is a concert pianist, one designs clothes for Hollywood artists, and another one is a singer.”

In the meantime, in between getting to know this family she never knew she had, there is still so much more work for Silver to do and songs to sing. She has completed a new album at her home studio that she describes as a “fusion of R&B, soul, gospel and even some soft hip-hop that thread beautifully together.” A documentary on her life and musical journey is also in the works. One of the tracks on the new album (“304 Cottownwood Drive”) speaks directly to her formative years in Peterborough, Ont. It’s the address of her childhood home. The song was cathartic to write and hopefully others will take inspiration from its message.

“Music is life,” she concludes. “I need it. We all need it. The business of music can be rough and tiring sometimes, but I know I have many more years to go. I’ve still got stuff to do and I’ve got grace to do it.“

Liberty Silver performs at the 2018 Motown Masquerade in Mississauga, Ont. Photo courtesy of Mississauga Arts Council.