B.J. Crosby, New Orleans-born Broadway and jazz vocalist, has died
B.J. Crosby, a Tony Award-nominated vocalist and actress who deployed her stratospheric upper register on theatrical stages and in jazz clubs around the world, died Friday (March 27) at Tulane Medical Center of complications from a stroke and diabetes. She was 62.
Born Joanne Crayton in New Orleans, she was known professionally as B.J. Crosby or Lady BJ. Her stage credits included "Smokey Joe's Café: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller" — her five-year run with the Broadway production earned her a Tony nomination — "One Mo' Time," "Harlemsong" and "Dreamgirls." A 1984 TV special, "Lady BJ Sings Lady Day: A Tribute to Billie Holiday," won her a cable ACE award. She also appeared on TV shows ranging from "Law & Order: SVU" to "Ally McBeal" to "Gimme a Break."
"She was very talented," said retired Orleans Parish criminal court judge Charles Elloie, a longtime friend and the father of Ms. Crosby's adult son, Joseph. "She had a work ethic that was out of sight when it was time for her to learn something. She put her heart and soul into it., and she had a tremendous ear. She's going to be sorely missed. She was a beautiful person."
Ms. Crosby came of age in the New Orleans church and theatrical communities of the late 1970s and early 1980s. She was a regular at Lu and Charlie's, the fabled New Orleans modern jazz club. In the late 1970s she fronted an R&B and jazz band called Spectrum that often performed at the Old Absinthe Bar on Bourbon Street.
"We had one of the first racially integrated — or as we called it, 'salt and pepper' — bands in New Orleans," Spectrum drummer Ricky Sebastian, who worked with Ms. Crosby intermittently for more than 30 years, recalled in a Facebook posting. "It was a great group."
In the mid-'80s, she teamed up with pianist Ellis Marsalis and vocalist Germaine Bazzle for an album called "The New Orleans Music," released via Rounder Records. Looking to expand her professional horizons, she left for Los Angeles in 1987, where she supported herself in part by singing "demo" versions of professional songwriters' songs.
She moved to New York in 1995, where she enjoyed a successful run in several Broadway productions. She contributed to various recordings, including the Grammy-winning cast album of "Smokey Joe's Cafe."
In 2007, Judge Elloie served as executive producer for her "Best of Your Heart" CD, Ms. Crosby's first-ever collection of solo material. The program included original material and songs from the catalogs of Betty Carter, Joe Sample, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Stevie Wonder and Tony Bennett.
At the time, she was splitting her time between New Orleans, New York and the rest of the world. She lived for a time in Paris. She spent January 2007 as the featured vocalist at a new jazz club in Istanbul, Turkey. She appeared in a Dillard University production of "A Raisin in the Sun."
"I'm not 25 any more," she said in 2007. "In the theatrical, movie and TV worlds, they look for youth. You have to hearten your emotions, pull your shoulders back, stand up tall and straight, and step forward and take your place."
On the morning of June 15, 2008, she awoke in New Orleans feeling ill; her equilibrium was off, and she was dizzy. She nonetheless fulfilled a commitment to sing that night at a Father's Day concert at a local club called Sydney's. Two days later, doctors discovered she had suffered a stroke. She had difficulty moving the right side of her body, and could not sing.
"I'm not mad that this happened to me," she said the month after the stroke. "But it's difficult to get through. I'm taking it one day at a time. I'm going to recover. It's just going to take a little time."
However, she never fully recovered, and never regained her full voice. She occasionally sat in with friends at Snug Harbor, and sang at church, but could not relaunch her career. "She never really came back from that" stroke, Elloie said. "That weighed on her heavily."
As recently as early 2012, she remained optimistic. "I've missed the stage so much," she said at the time. "I'm not used to being home and doing nothing. I'm like an ant in a bag of food — I can't keep still. I don't know which way to turn."
In recent months, her health declined quickly; her son served as her primary caregiver. She entered the hospital three days before she died.
She is survived by her son, Joseph Elloie, and three grandchildren.
Friends have set up a Go Fund Me account online to raise money to help with her funeral and medical expenses. Funeral arrangements are incomplete.