In the winter of 1976, a popular band by the name of Stormin’ Norman & Suzy played Carnegie Hall. That evening, singer Suzy Williams, pianist Norman Zamcheck, and their four fellow musicians were the opening act for Manhattan Transfer.
Rolling Stone, Andy Warhol’s Interview, the New York Times, and many other publications turned in rave reviews that summer, comparing Suzy to Bessie Smith, Sophie Tucker, and Janis Joplin. But all who’ve heard her know she’s really like no one else—she’s her own distinctive self with her own big, beautiful sound and presence. Every summer since 1987, she has sung her heart out at the Sweet Chariot Music Festival on Swans Island, Maine.
Here, from her home in Venice, California, Suzy looks back on that special concert in New York City, 45 years ago.
OK, here are some things I remember: Aaron Russo, who was the manager of Bette Midler and Manhattan Transfer, was courting us, and he tossed us the gig at Carnegie Hall as a kind of sweetener to get us to sign with him. (What a character he was! Very bossy. A great big imposing guy with a nice head of dark hair. He bought me my first sushi. “What’s that?” I asked. “Baby octopus. EAT it!”)
Norman, the band, and I did not take this gig lightly, though we were booked up the wazoo at the time. Many friends and relatives from all over made their way to the hallowed Hall that evening. My dad and sister Annie came down from Halifax. I spent just about all the money I had flying my mom out from Gridley, California, and putting her up at the Plaza Hotel.
The concert hall was becoming packed, and the excitement was becoming palpable. Backstage, with high, high ceilings, there was a labyrinth of dressing rooms. I passed Janis Siegel, one of the stars of Manhattan Transfer, who was so sweet to me. “Make way for the lady!” she said to people in the hallway, smiling and gesturing toward me with a flourish. I got my own room, which was filled with flowers from well-wishers. A huge bouquet towered over the rest, hidden by tissue paper and cellophane, tied with a big yellow bow, given to me by Daddee, my charming father.
But I had a problem. I had lost my voice. Flat out lost it! We had been playing five nights a week, two sets, plus matinees on the weekends at Tramps, and I had worn out my vocal cords. It was to the point where I could only make a small raspy sound when I tried to talk. For some reason, I wasn’t terrified, I just was . . . puzzled. Or maybe my heart was indeed pounding, appropriately. I’m not sure. But I did realize the situation was impossible.
“Thirty minutes, Miss Williams.”
“Fifteen minutes, Miss Williams.”
I sat there, all dressed, except for my hat, looking in the mirror. It was about 10 minutes before showtime. Another knock came at my door. I opened it, and it was my friend Ward Williamson. “Ward!” I croaked. “You’re here, oh my!” He heard my efforts to speak and said, ” Ah! now I understand why I flew down here from Boston with such an urgent feeling and fought to get here backstage to see you. Suzy, I am here to heal your voice!”
I had no idea that Ward possessed healing powers. Honestly, I didn’t know him all that well, though I had always liked him. He worked in bookstores and for a publishing company. He asked me to just sit down, and he put his warm hand on my throat, not saying a word. He kept it there for a good five minutes. I felt calm. I trusted him. Then he said, “OK, Suzy, now go get ’em!”
Honeys, I tell you, I sang like a nightingale! Absolutely at the peak of any time of my life. The set went by dizzyingly fast. Norman and everybody in the band were super-on, and the audience seemed to love us. (The New York Times reviewer, Robert Palmer, was there and reported so. In August, he had come to Tramps and given us a great half-page write-up on the front page of the Arts and Leisure section.)
We didn’t get a chance to see Manhattan Transfer. We had to quickly pack up after our set and taxicab downtown to Tramps and do two more sets there. I remember passing my dad, who was tipping the coat-check girl a hundred dollars. “I’m feelin’ good tonight,” I heard him say.
My voice lasted all through the first set at Tramps, and I lost it again by the end of the second. But we were all so buoyed up by the thrill of the night, nobody cared about the croaking, least of all me. That night, I thanked the universe for Ward Williamson. And, looking at the ceiling in my bed, I smiled and thought, “I never did get to see those flowers Daddee bought.”
Today, Suzy is composing, singing, and performing more than ever—and since COVID, she’s posting her music and videos to her YouTube channel (https://youtu.be/cH4UmJ2G9vU). She often performs with pianist Brad Kay. Her albums are:
Enjoy the Ride, by Suzy Williams;
Music in the First Degree, by Suzy and Her Solid Senders; and
Bravo, by Suzy Williams and Michael Jost.
Suzy’s albums are available at suzywilliams.bandcamp.com