- NLE: When did you first realize that you wanted to perform and when was the first time you sang in front of an audience? How did you eventually get involved in cabaret?
The first time I sang was at the Little Miss Hamilton Park contest in Waterbury, CT. I was 6 going on 7. My mom had taught me a song called “The Boy I Love,” but when it came time to sing, due to the influence of my babysitter, Miss Willowmea, who played Ella 24/7 at her house, I got up on the picnic table and belted out an Ella tune. Was it “A-Tisket, A-Tasket?” No, no, no, no. It was “Love for Sale.” My mom was horrified— while Miss Willowmea laughed so hard she was crying. I’ll never forget that moment because the audience laughed and clapped and it was, like—oh–this is cool. I was, however, a dancer at the time, so I just sang once in awhile and at church. The performance bug was there from that moment, though. I did community theatre and even choreographed a few shows, but, believe it or not, it wasn’t until I was 28 that I started to sing in New York, and that was down at the original Village Gate. This was a re-birth of Sue the singer. I sang with great singers like Trudi Mann and Stan Edwards with Gary Pace and Vanessa Vickers at the piano and I started to cut my jazz teeth down there. A few years later, I auditioned live — as we had to back in the stone age– for Sidney Myer at Don’t Tell Mama and got booked, and that started my cabaret career over 30 years ago. Man, I keep telling people it was 25 years ago, but as I do this interview (and the math) I am realizing this is my 30th year of performing. Evidently, I’m a very “seasoned” performer! LOL!
2. NLE: Who were some of your early musical influences?
Earliest influences were: Ella, for sure; Dakota Stanton; Rosemary Clooney; Peggy Lee; Eydie Gormé; Sarah Vaughan; Billie Holiday; Carmen McRae. And on the guy side, I was basically a Rat Packer: Frank; Tony; Mel; Sammy; Dean; and I loved Tom Jones.—who didn’t?! I never tried to “sing like” any of these folks, I just gleaned lessons from each of them: Ella’s fearlessness when trying anything live for her art; the vocal range of Sarah, exploring top and bottom and everything in between of the voice; the vocal quality of Rosemary and Eydie; the wild abandon of Dakota; the passion of Billie; and the use of time and space from Carmen. If you listen, the lessons are all there in their performances.
In cabaret, my cabaret “mamas,” mentors, supporters, and friends were/are: Trudi Mann, Cynthia Crane, Dana Lorge, KT Sullivan, my dearest, beloved Miss Julie Wilson, Jan Wallman (I played her club once and she was amazing to work with); and now, the incomparable Marilyn Maye. I’ve been very lucky in the gals who have rallied around me to help me grow and soar. Like I said, the lessons are all there to be learned if you just listen and study.
3. NLE: The buzz is that with this new series, Coming Home to Mama, you’ve really had a major leap in your overall vocals and performance. How do you feel about a comment like this?
Honestly, if you are not working hard, you’re not growing. It’s always a compliment when people notice growth. However, getting better does not mean that 30 years of work was for naught, nor should it negate all the work it took to get to today. Twenty years ago I got a “most improved” mention from a reviewer who called me to make sure that wouldn’t be insulting me with this mention, and I was, like, “Great, bring it!” I am smart enough, though, to know and realize when a so-called compliment is a passive-aggressive air kiss; so, to those folks, I take nothing they say to heart. If people think there has been a bump up in my performance– excellent. I think I’ve earned it. I decided years ago to never covet or compete with other singers and just compete with myself the last time I was on stage. I focus on raising my own personal bar up another rung. Perhaps this is what people are noticing and commenting on with this new series. We are pumping out the work, too. A new show fully realized and ready for stage every month is no easy take. Each show goes up and does not have the time to “get legs,” so we have to be really ready to boogie. That’s been our challenge as a band and I think, so far, we’re doing a swell job! The feedback has been wonderfully overwhelming!
4. NLE: Which is your favorite Ella Fitzgerald song and why?
There just are too many to mention. The first Ella & Me show opened as part of Lennie Watts’s Under the Covers series in 2002, so this show is 15 years old. It was my #1 best-selling show for almost five years after it debuted. It played out of town all over the place, so the original show had many, many versions because her body of work is so vast. I can tell you that my favorite album is her Ella in Berlin album because, as I discuss in my show, it was an all-request live show that was recorded and some of her most epic and lengthy scats happened. It’s a fantastic album and justifies Ella being called, now and forever, “The First Lady of Song.”
5. NLE: If you could get the chance to sit with Ella Fitzgerald for coffee, what is the first question you’d ask her?
I did a lot of research for my show, so a lot of what I would ask her I discovered along the way. She suffered from terrible stage fright, so I might ask her about that and how she overcame it or dealt with it. I found out that she lost her mom at a very young age, ended up in an orphanage in Yonkers, NY where she was horribly abused as a child, but when asked in an interview what her darkest moment was, she said it was in Houston, Texas on a bill that included Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie, and Illinois Jacquet — when they were all arrested by some good ol’ boy law enforcement dudes. Why? For playing a $1 game of craps in Ella’s dressing room. The real reason? This was going to be the first non-segregated concert in Texas. It was 1956! So, perhaps I’d ask her what it was like to be a star of her caliber who was not allowed to eat in the clubs she was selling out. Oh, it would be a lot of coffee and a great interview. I know her favorite singers were the Boswell Sisters, so maybe I’d ask her what her favorite song was!
6. NLE: How have cabaret audiences changed during your career as a NYC entertainer?
I’d love to say that my audiences have become composed more and more of people I didn’t know, but cabaret audiences are still devoted fans, family members, and the incredibly, supportive cabaret community. I love my fellow singers who consistently show their love and support for each other, but what I strive for are the strangers. I wish cabaret could find a place in the tourist rags and be presented as an alternative to theatre, but it’s tricky. That’s a whole other interview question, but suffice it to say: whenever I do a show, I usually invite someone from the bar to come into the room for free — to just pay the drink minimum– to show the person what a fun a cabaret show can be. If it’s someone from out of town, perhaps he or she would seek out a cabaret show the next time visit to town. I hate to say, “back in the day,” but back when, the clubs seemed to have more of an interest in filling their own rooms and making money by advertising and, again, back then, they’d do a postcard mailing to their mail list for you. No inter-web in the stone age! This meant there were more strangers in the room for the singers— all of whom would eventually become fans and regulars if you impressed them with your talent. Sadly, the audience is now the singer’s responsibility. Let me just say that I love my audience! I sing to those who show up. It’s my job. It’s all about them, not me. I often say in my show that I want to give them the best hour of their day, and then we strive to do just that. My houses are loud, fun, appreciative, savvy, attentive, smart, and loving. While I am never surprised at who shows up, I have to admit that, many times, I am surprised by who does not show up. I am always grateful to walk into a room ready to receive what I have to offer. It’s an honor.
Sue Matsuki’s next two shows at Don’t Tell Mama are April 25 (the 100th anniversary of Ella Fitzgerald’s birthdate) at 7 pm, with special guests, and a Fleet Week show May 26 at 8:15 pm with guest singer Laurie Krauz. See www.donttellmamanyc.com/shows for online reservations on the calendar pages . Address is 343 West 46th Street, Manhattan. Phone is 212.757.0788 after 4 pm. Cover charge is $20 ($5 discount for MAC members) plus a two-beverage minimum. The trio is: Gregory Toroian (piano/musical director); Jay Leonhart (bass); Ron Tierney (drums).