Photo: Corey Winfield
Billy Newton-Davis Learns About his Black Heritage Through Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns”
The Juno-winning singer loves Sammy Davis Jr., Toni Morrison and can't wait to read "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents" / BY Kim Honey / December 17th, 2021
Billy Newton-Davis sang backup for Gloria Gaynor, released a duet with Celine Dion and recorded “All U Ever Want” with Deadmau5, which won the 2008 Juno for best dance recording. The little boy who grew up in Cleveland, where his parents owned a record store, went on to get his Bachelor of Fine Arts from Ohio University and work as a singer and dancer on Broadway, where he performed in Stop The World – I Want to Get Off, starring Sammy Davis Jr. He moved to Toronto in 1980, and later joined The Nylons. The versatile vocalist has collected four Juno awards over his career, and released his latest EP, Have We Met?, in 2020. In this Q&A, Newton-Davis shows us that he reads much more than music.
What’s the best book you’ve read this year?
The Warmth Of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, because the different stories about the Great Migration of Black people from south to north between 1915 and 1970 were so reflective of what I had, and had not, experienced being a Black child born in Cleveland, Ohio. My parents were born in the south; my mom is from Alabama and dad is from South Carolina. I read about things I know they went through and never told me about, and yet they raised me to have a wonderful, normal life, as if they never experienced racism.
What book can’t you wait to dive into?
I want to read Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, also by Isabel Wilkerson, because she dives into the subject of racism and how, even 400 years ago when Europeans came to this land, whites were superior to Blacks. She calls this a hidden caste system, and explores how the many caste systems function around the world.
What’s your favourite book of all time?
Yes I Can – The Story of Sammy Davis Jr. by Sammy Davis Jr. and Jane and Burt Boyar. I read Yes I Can at a very young age, and admire the accomplishments of Sammy Davis Jr. because of where he came from and where he was going. I wanted to be just like him! What a star!
What book completely changed your perspective?
The Warmth Of Other Suns showed me how Black Americans lived and how we have survived – and still survive – despite the colour of our skin. It made me look at a perspective before my birth and how black people lived then.
If you could have dinner with any author, living or dead, who would it be?
Toni Morrison. I was very fortunate to have met her after an event that she spoke at in Toronto. It was arranged that I meet her after to say hello! Well, six hours later, I had met one of the most incredible people in the world. I’ve read Jazz, and she’s a brilliant writer and her storytelling was amazing.