The late Joan Beckow composed songs for stars, but they were never recorded—until now

Carol Burnett and Joan Beckow. (Provided by The Joan Beckow Legacy Project)

Leonard Bernstein. Stephen Sondheim. Joan Beckow? 

Few have heard of the third composer, but according to Toronto-based musician Jessica Stuart, Beckow’s name deserves to be celebrated. That’s why she started The Joan Beckow Legacy Project, which will release a double-disc album of Beckow’s original compositions—recorded for the first time. 

“We’re talking about a female Jewish-Canadian composer. We don’t see that many older Jewish women when you think of composers,” said Stuart. “This is the time of getting underrepresented voices heard. Maybe we couldn’t do it during her lifetime. But we can certainly do it now.”

Beckow was born in Chicago in 1933 and immigrated to Vancouver in 1964. It was there that she met Jessica’s mother, Wendy Bross Stuart, and began a collaborative partnership that would span four decades. 

Joan Beckow, Wendy Bross Stuart and Jessica Stuart. Provided by The Joan Beckow Legacy Project

Beckow had a prolific career. She’d been Michael Bublé’s vocal coach and Carol Burnett’s music director. Stuart—who is also Jewish—grew up “steeped” in Beckow’s music. She always assumed Beckow was well-known, until she used one of Beckow’s pieces for an audition in 2015. 

She said that the interviewers were much more interested in the identity of the composer than her audition.

“They said, ‘Who is Joan Beckow? Does she have other work? Why haven’t I heard of her before?'” said Stuart. “I told them she was quite famous, they could look her up online.”

But when Stuart got home that night and called her mother, she was shocked to find out recordings didn’t exist.

“I couldn’t believe that this incredible work, this genius work of this incredible person was not known by anyone. And it just felt like such an injustice… That’s when I realized that I wanted to make the recording.”

Due to Stuart’s busy schedule, the project didn’t get underway until the pandemic hit. She toured around the world with her bands, the Jessica Stuart Few and JESSA, and was also the subject of CBC’s most-viewed short doc on YouTube, in which she searches for a long-lost friend from her time living in Japan as a child. But Beckow’s death in January 2021 “lit a fire” under her. She began recording in December of that year.

The 22-song track list was selected by Stuart and her mother. Beckow’s pieces were written for vocals and piano, but the pair wanted to “amplify the orchestral feeling already present in Joan’s music,” so they wrote accompanying arrangements to complement the songs, enlisting almost 30 musicians to play various percussion, string and wind instruments. 

The first disc was recorded in Toronto and contains sacred classical works by Beckow, some of which were inspired by or contain Jewish liturgical texts. Stuart describes them as “choral, and kind of haunting.”

The second disc was recorded in Vancouver, and focuses on Beckow’s musical theatre work—including a track called “Pretending”, which was written for one of Carol Burnett’s shows. Burnett was a close friend and roommate of Beckow’s when they attended UCLA. They even moved to New York together after graduation to pursue their careers.

Joan Beckow and Carol Burnett, March 1958. (The Joan Beckow Legacy Project)

Beckow wrote “Pretending” while working with Burnett in an off-Broadway show there. 

“They wanted the song ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’. They wrote many, many months in advance of the opening of the show. And they received the response the day before opening—and the answer was no,” said Stuart. 

“So Joan wrote this song, ‘Pretending’, to capture that vibe of wonderment provided by ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’. Joan wrote it that night, Carol learned it the next day, and then it was a part of their production.”

Years later, Wendy Bross Stuart was on an adjudication panel at a music festival with Michael Bublé—whom Beckow had mentored years before—and she mentioned their shared connection through Beckow. 

“Michael immediately burst into ‘Pretending’,” said Stuart. “He knew all the words, and she started singing along, and they had a moment about it.”

Stuart was unable to contact either Bublé or Burnett regarding the project—she’s also unsure if they know Beckow passed away. She says if she does get in touch with Bublé, there’s a great Beckow Christmas song for him to record.

In addition to the double-disc album, The Joan Beckow Legacy Project includes a booklet with more stories about Joan, videos of live recordings and a 25-minute documentary by Ron Stuart, Jessica’s father. Stuart said that if you’re going to do a legacy project, you should go all the way.

“This is all about preserving the legacy of an incredible woman and composer and musician who was otherwise unheard of,” she said. 

“This will mean that this work will actually live on, it will survive. It would have definitely been over and done with if we had not done this.” 

The full release is planned for October. You can follow its progress on Instagram and Facebook.