Front Porch

Suzanne Shea: When an Irish Heart Is Singing

Suzanne Shea. Photo by Dennis Andersen.


Early promo shot


Suzanne & Joan Baez, 1989

Part Two
As Suzanne Shea reflects on that memorable chapter of her life—when she and Peter Varhola had successfully established themselves as a musical duo for the Reuben’s establishment—the singer realizes that her colleague’s influence extended well beyond the hundreds of hours and thousands of miles they had accumulated collectively in their odysseys throughout Southern California and Atlanta. Varhola was instrumental in convincing her to invest in the proper musical tool that would greatly benefit her, long-term, as a professional musician.

While Varhola employed a beautiful Italian upright bass and a top-of-the-line banjo, Shea would borrow his 1966 Martin D-35, if a specific number required two guitars during their set lists. The reason for this had to do with the fact that her own nylon-string guitar did not tonally pair well with the solid acoustics of Varhola’s “booming steel-string” Martin. After much consideration on his part and Shea’s willingness to take heed to his recommendation, he encouraged her to make the switch, so she purchased a Martin D-35 for herself.

“After I listened to Peter’s suggestion, I approached my parents about it, both of whom were supportive of the idea. They loaned me the funds I needed to purchase the Martin. Keep in mind that $391 was a lot of money for a guitar in 1969. But, once the order came through and it was in my hands, I knew that I had made the right decision,” said Shea.

The guitar-a 1969 Martin D-35—made with gorgeous Brazilian rosewood—has accompanied the singer over the course of more than three decades. Shea was quick to point out that “during the first 20 of those 30 years, that guitar got an incredible workout four to six hours a night, five to six nights a week.”

She added, “If that Martin could only talk, oh, the stories it would tell!”

To this day, the well-traveled Martin is still in her possession. As much as she cherishes her guitar, she is more than happy to lend it to her son, Michael Philip Reed, a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, when he’s in the recording studio or performing around town with her. (Of note, Reed has just released his first solo album, Medium Fidelity, to rave reviews) Shea has appointed Reed as beneficiary of her Martin, once she passes on.

Although Shea’s guitar has been a steadfast companion throughout the years, she is currently using a Taylor 410-LTD and a “unique, cutaway Big Baby” for most of her shows. Whether she’s performing at Bistro 60 in the San Diego State area, Wine A Bit in Coronado, or Wine Works in La Mesa, Shea has come to depend on the Taylor brand. A former employee of Taylor Guitars, where she worked in the PR/Marketing Department, Shea knows, firsthand, about the instrument’s durability and sterling reputation, given its preference by such internationally recognized artists as Jason Mraz, Taylor Swift, and Dave Matthews, all of whom own and use Taylor guitars in concert.

When asked what her job duties entailed while employed at Taylor, Shea replied, “I was hired as assistant to John D’Agostino, vice president of Taylor Guitars public relations. My position also included being an integral part of his creation, the “Taylor Guitars for Schools” program, which is also a benefactor for the San Diego Music Awards. This helps to get “Baby Taylor” guitars into the hands of students in the San Diego public school system. I also facilitated workshops for dealers that were held there, on and off campus. My personal, favorite “hat” was leading the factory tours at the location—taking groups of people who came from around the globe to visit the Taylor factory. Over the ten-year period, from 2001 to 2011, that I was employed with the company, I had purchased several of their great guitars. I have even taken my “Baby” Taylor guitar and GS Mini on several trips to Europe—whether it was done solo or with my son, Mike—to play house concerts over there, my trusty Taylors have gone with me.”

This writer could not overlook the fact that as talented and seasoned a veteran in music as Shea is, she is also beautiful, illuminated by an inherent, positive vibe that only seems to elevate her musical gifts. It is most certain that the synthesis of her winning personality and optimism fueled by her outlook on life, in general, have given destiny, or whatever one wishes to call it, no other option than to bestow her with a multitude of opportunities and blessings that have enriched Shea’s existence on this planet as well as those who spend time with her.

Shea recalled one monumental event that occurred more than 40 years ago, when, on a whim, she ended up at the studios of KSON, after learning about a contest the radio station was sponsoring, to find the next, big sensation in country music. She explained, “One evening, in January 1974, while I was listening to KSON, they had announced it was the last night for those who wanted to enter the station’s “Country Star” competition. They were holding auditions to find a “Top Female Vocalist,” “Top Male Vocalist,” and “Top Band” in San Diego. The finals would take place at the Civic Center. Even though I had a bad head cold during that time, I just could not pass up this wonderful opportunity. So, I grabbed my guitar, jumped in the car, and headed over to KSON, when the station was located in the College Grove area. I sang for them and, fortunately, passed that test, and then I went on to another preliminary round the following week and passed that test as well.”

The next inquiry prompted an anticipatory response but was met with very little surprise, given the notion that Shea possesses a deft Midas touch when it comes to music.

“I was chosen for the finals,” said Shea.

The finals for KSON’s search for the best of the best were held at the Civic Center in downtown San Diego. Shea performed two songs with the house band before a crowd of more than 3,000. When it was all said and done, she was declared the winner of the “Best Female Vocalist” award. The victory of crushing her competition garnered her the golden ticket to do a demo recording session in Los Angeles at Capitol Records with producer Steve Stone. To celebrate the moment, she invited two stellar San Diego musicians—Peter Varhola, an old friend and musical partner, who played upright bass, and Rick Gordon, on lead guitar—to be a part of that remarkable experience. When Shea reminisces on that chapter of her storied history, it still elicits a feeling of joy for her, as she knows that life is all about taking risks and, sometimes, acting on an impulse to truly move forward.

“All because I ran down to KSON on the last night of the audition!” beamed Shea.

Shea’s musical launch, as a solo artist, took flight as she headed for the bright lights of Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe. She played a total of four weeks at the Le Bistro Lounge in the Riviera Hotel, then headed on to her next gig, which consisted of a magical, ten-month residency at the Kings Castle Hotel in Tahoe, where she resided in a beautiful, luxury hotel room during the time she lived there.

“They were all part of the great road I loved being on. Las Vegas was so crazy and full of stories and adventures. Being in Lake Tahoe was so beautiful and full of fantastic stories, too,” said Shea.

Shea had grown exponentially as an entertainer, and, subsequently, after performing in Tahoe for nearly a year, she continued her gig life and moved to Monterey, California. She played shows at Monterey’s Cannery Row and in Carmel, where she entertained the likes of actor Clint Eastwood and various Hollywood friends, who sat in at her shows. She was also on the road quite a bit, travelling and fulfilling her musical obligations with the Reuben’s establishment in San Diego, Walnut Creek and San Jose.

The year was 1980, and Shea found herself moving to San Jose, where she was cordially invited to join some of the most acclaimed country western bands in the region, as the lead female vocalist. She certainly was up for the excursion and so, with mic in hand and her beloved Martin stored away for a short season, she experienced what it was really like to work in a structured environment of band life for ten fantastic years. It was also during this time that the commercial appeal and success of the John Travolta blockbuster movie Urban Cowboy witnessed a surge of country music venues throughout California and beyond. Shea found herself smack dab in the middle of it all and took advantage of the opportunity to avail herself, as a contestant, in several country music contests. It was during one of her entries at Wrangler’s Roost that she ended up scoring in the finals of a round of competitions and won the $400 Grand Prize award.

Shea’s foray into the country music scene, while living in Northern California, led her to perform at many of the area’s top venues with the Saddle Rack Band. The largest music arena measured more than 20,000 square feet and was equipped with six full bars, two large stages, and dance floors, and for a time it hosted the wildly popular activity: “live” bull riding.

“Those amazing years were my baptism in classic country music,” mused Shea.

In 1989, Shea was working with a band—a husband-and-wife team—that performed regularly at one of the smaller country music bars in Santa Clara, just outside San Jose. One evening, when she and the group were scheduled to play there, they had entered the venue to set up their gear and casually conversed with one of the locals, who made the comment that singer Joan Baez was there. For Shea, to be present in the same room with a living legend, and one of the greatest inspirations of her life as a musician, this was tantamount to having hit the California Lottery.

She explained, “Joan just happened to be in the bar that same night with a few of her friends. They were there taking free country dance lessons the club offered their patrons before the show got underway. I could not believe it! She was there, dancing around the floor, in that bar. Once the dance lessons ended and our band was finishing setting up, she and her friends sat down at their table to finish their drinks,” said Shea.

Shea could not let a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity elude her, so she marched right over to where Baez and company were sitting and promptly introduced herself. She also wanted to let the singer know just how much her music had truly meant to her. It was a moment of revelation and complete elation for Shea, as she had finally made direct contact with the one who had impacted her all those years ago. In addition, Baez and her companions decided to stay and listen to Shea and her band perform their songs in the bar on that fateful evening.

What happened next that night was so extraordinary and unexpected.

“Four songs into our set, Joan comes up to the edge of the stage and asks, ‘May I sing with you?’” Shea replied, her response being one of astonishment and joyous incredulity.

Without hesitation, Shea invited Baez to join her and the band onstage. She chose the gem, “The Rose,” for its meritorious function as a perfect duet song.

“Joan and I fell into this natural arrangement, trading off verses and harmonies. I was in a state of immense happiness and wanting to cry at the same time! It was such a moment for me-remembering myself at age 13 and 14, getting her records and memorizing her songs and figuring out the guitar chords. And, here she was right next to me, singing, “The Rose,” said Shea.

If this event alone was not enough to make Shea one happy woman, the following night most definitely warrants mentioning, as Baez returned to the bar once more. She let Shea know that she had such a good time, she wanted to return, perhaps, for another round of song and to share again in the magic; however, this time around, the songbirds waxed harmonies on a Patsy Cline number.

After a series of major transitions and turns in her life, Shea made the decision to move on and leave San Jose and the band for good, where she returned home to San Diego. The Martin that she stashed away a few years earlier was, once again, reunited with her. After working steadily for Taylor Guitars full-time, she found herself getting back into the swing of the music scene. Gigs came her way, as well as her involvement with a house concert series, which she conducted out of her home for one year. She also regularly attended songwriting camps.

“Life has come full circle for me. Just as I had started out in music in 1967, I am now enjoying my life and every minute as a musician, singing to live audiences again. One voice, one guitar,” said Shea.

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