Gordon Heath was a triple-threat artistic figure, an African-American actor and theatrical director who also enjoyed a career as a folksinger for a time. Born in New York City in 1918 to Cyril Gordon Heath, a Barbados immigrant, and the former Hattie Hooper, he was raised in New York and gravitated toward the arts at a relatively early age. He studied the violin as a boy, and received his musical and dramatic education under scholarships at the David Mannes School of Music (now the Mannes College of Music) and the Dalcroze School; in addition to his classical training, he also played the guitar and sang, and had a predilection for folk songs, and not just from America. He also acted, and directed, and had his biggest taste of success in the former capacity on Broadway as Brett Charles in Deep Are the Roots (directed by Elia Kazan) in 1945. He met actor/singer/guitarist Lee Payant a year later, when the latter appeared in an off-Broadway production of Shakespeare's Othello that Heath was directing. It turned out that both had similar interests in music and theater -- especially to work with both in Europe -- as well as in personal matters, and later became lovers. In 1949, they went to Paris and decided to remain there.
Beginning that same year, the two opened the Abbaye, a highly successful nightclub -- which evoked as much of Greenwich Village in the latter's relatively pure early Bohemian years as it did of Paris -- on the Left Bank, where Heath and Payant were also the exclusive entertainers. They were written about many times in France during the next few years, both for their music and the ambience of the club, and earned the endorsement of such figures as Art Buchwald in the New York Herald Tribune (which, for those too young to remember, was a true rival to The New York Times in those days); according to a 1953 article in La Semaine De Paris, each table had a candle and was entitled to a song before the end of the evening; after each song was sung, the appropriate candle was blown out, and when all the candles were out, it was closing time. They were both quick studies and by that time, between them Heath and Payant had a repertory of some 10,000 songs from across six centuries and at least three continents, and the act never grew stale because it was constantly changing and evolving.
The club quickly built up a clientele that encompassed both French Bohemians and jet-set habitué of the period, including the actress Rita Hayworth and other V.I.P.s. During the early '50s, they also began recording, including the albums Songs of the Abbaye, Encores from the Abbaye, Chants Traditionnels des États-Unis, and An Evening at L'Abbaye for Elektra Records. By the end of the decade, they were releasing albums on their own Abbaye label, and the two were major figures on the Parisian cabaret scene until 1976, when Payant passed away. Heath also continued acting in theater, and appeared in European and British films, as a narrator, actor, and performer -- including such well-known movies as Orson Welles' Mr. Arkadin and the Katharine Hepburn vehicle The Madwoman of Chaillot -- and on television and radio. He passed away in Paris in 1991. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi