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July 2024
Vol. 23, No. 10

Featured Stories

What’s Up with Sue Palmer These Days? A Lot!

by Wayne RikerFebruary 2024

Sue Palmer

It’s been a while since I’ve written about pianist extraordinaire and band leader, Sue Palmer. As a matter of fact, it was back in the March 2013 issue of this publication. So now it’s time to see what’s up with her these days amid the ebb and flow of the music biz.

“Staying relevant is always a priority, but at my age it is more of a challenge,” Palmer stated. “After the pandemic, I thought my career was over, but apparently not!” She is now pickier about the gigs she looks for, as she wants respect, artistically and physically. “If it’s too much of a struggle finding parking, good sound, an appropriate audience, etc., I’m not interested and, luckily, I can afford to be picky these days,” she said. Now that many musicians are back to work post pandemic, keeping gigs is more of a challenge as Palmer points out. “Everyone is back to work and there is competition for the same audiences. We all have to keep replenishing and renewing who that audience will be, so it is a challenge…I think we have a good scene here in San Diego County. It’s more of a small-town feel than L.A. and much more real…at least in my mind.”

Palmer’s new EP.

Palmer made a decision to release her current EP (two tunes) on vinyl. “I’ve been going back to recording vinyl because people stopped buying my CDs, so I figured I might as well record what I want. I have a wonderful personal vinyl collection that I’ve kept from the late ’60s and ’70s, so during the pandemic I bought a new record player and started doing podcasts. I love the very warm sounds that vinyl gets…it brings back wonderful memories of that time for me.” The two tunes on the EP, which I was able to play successfully on my turntable at 45 RPM, are “Looking for a Parking Place” on Side A and a swinging jump blues cut, “Ode to Josephine,” on Side B, a haunting minor blues track, both featuring Liz Ajuzie on the lead vocal. 

This revelation led Palmer to doing spinning gigs as a deejay, tapping into her radio experience when she hosted an all-locals hour on KSDS-FM a few years back. “I enjoy spinning this music as younger people are discovering old rhythm & blues and earlier jazz, and older people enjoy reliving their memories with me.” Palmer has been playing big band records from the ’40s at the newly refurbished Lafayette Hotel as well as an upcoming gig this month at the Til Two Club where she’s looking forward to breaking out her rock ‘n’ roll 45s.

Also, Tio Leos has been a hotspot for Palmer and her Motel Swing Orchestra in recent years. “I love playing at Tio Leo’s because the owner, Frank Sciuto, pretty much lets me do whatever I want, musically speaking,” she exclaimed. “He himself is also a wonderful piano player and we’ve enjoyed doing boogie-woogie duets together for special occasions. Our band has played there every first Tuesday of the month for years.” Additionally, Palmer is spinning records there as well on their Monday Cabaret nights alternating with a piano duet with vocalist Ajuzie out front. “It’s very enjoyable for me and I hope for the audience too,” Palmer exuded.

Sue Palmer & her Motel Swing Orchestra’s long-time band members.

Speaking of her Motel Swing Orchestra, Palmer has had the same instrumentalists in her band for over 20 years, featuring April West on trombone, Jonny Viau on sax, Steve Wilcox on guitar, Pete Harrison on bass, and Sharon Shufelt on drums along with the most recent member, the aforementioned lead vocalist Liz Ajuzie. “She has a wonderful voice and has been a joy and major inspiration to our band,” Palmer noted. “We’ve been playing together for almost three years and sometimes I forget how young she is. She was born about the same time I started playing with singer Candye Kane in the early ’90s. She is very creative and eager to learn styles she has never heard before and we are all learning from each other, including music from her Nigerian background. We met at Tio Leo’s through guitarist Laura Chavez. She thought Liz and I would like each other musically and she was right…it was a happy match instantly.”

Ajuzie’s feelings are mutual. “Working with Sue has been such a joy! She helped open a new style of music to me and continues to nurture my growth. Her friendship has been pivotal in my life. With her breadth of knowledge and talent, I’m constantly learning and always on my toes!”

Palmer will be at Gator by the Bay this year with her all-female band.

Each May Palmer’s Motel Swing Orchestra has been a crowd pleaser to listeners and dancers alike at the annual Gator by the Bay Festival along the San Diego Bay. “I’m very excited about the Gator by the Bay Festival each year,” she said. “We are very fortunate to have a festival this big here in San Diego. This year I’ll be doing an all-woman band, a project I have been wanting to do for a long time. I did this before back in 2014 and it was the biggest buzz at the festival that year. Now, a decade later, it will feature a brand new cast,” she concluded.

Other venues that are working very well for Palmer currently are the Golden Island Dim Sum Restaurant and the Books and Records restaurant. In addition, Palmer pays homage to a particular group of devotees that love her music. “The swing dancers of San Diego have kept me in business for years and I am very grateful for that,” she emphasized. Up ahead, her Motel Swing Orchestra is looking forward to playing a new venue this month and beyond at Queen Bee’s in North Park. “I’m optimistic that it will be a wonderful new venue for my Motel Swing Orchestra.” Palmer beamed. “It has a great dance floor with Mercedes Moore teaching swing dance beforehand. Mercedes and I have been friends and musicians together for years. She is very talented and one of the funniest women on the planet. Additionally, I look forward to working with the head queen, owner Alma!! It’s important to me to thoroughly enjoy the people I work with, business wise and musically speaking.”

Palmer & Candye Kane back in the day.

Palmer is particularly proud of her written and recorded song, titled “Soundtrack to a B Movie,” which she wrote after years of being on the road with singer Candye Kane. “She was a character with a capital C,” Palmer vividly recalled. “Life was quite a show for those years—hours in the car with Candye and the band, sharing life experiences. We started going to Europe constantly, learning about Paris, Norway, and Amsterdam to name a few. During this time I also came up with the name Motel Swing, with help from my longtime drummer, Sharon Shufelt. My entire band is all musically in the B Movie mode,” she exclaimed.

DJ Sue spins records at the Lafayette Hotel.

Palmer’s swing blues style on piano fits neatly along with the B Movie concept. “It’s a niche,” she stated, “kind of like bands of the late ’40s, aka Johnny Otis, Roy Milton and his Solid Senders (with Camille Howard on piano), Buddy and Ella Johnson, and even Count Basie, bridging the gap between that big band era and the jump blues of the late ’40s-early ’50s.

Palmer, the eternal optimist, summed up her overall future vision amid her busy performing schedule. “Since the pandemic I’m enjoying a wonderful explosion of creativity now, which I am really happy to be a part of…and I must say that’s pretty good for a 76 year old!”

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