Blueswoman Suzanne Thomas talks about Jimmy Smith, Mama Laura, & her philosophy about the blues

"Blues to me means I have an everlasting gift from my Father, a cup that will never empty."

Suzanne Thomas: The continuing legacy & the next blues generation

At the tender age of five an American family adopted her into the United States. Suzanne began studying organ at the age of six and as fate would have it she was given her first music lessons and introduction to the organ by the great Jimmy Smith. Although her adoptive parents bought countless Jimmy Smith records to encourage her, she had great interest in the "other" Jimi which was constantly blasting by her older brothers.

The church Suzanne attended as a child held Sunday services in a large auditorium with an organist, a piano player and the Minister playing his candy apple red Stratocaster. Nothing would ever be the same again. With trouble and turmoil accompanying her teen years, Suzanne ran away from home at the age of 14 keeping close in her heart the things that had influenced her most in her early years; the guitar, organ, songwriting and her great grandmother’s wise sayings. After living as a street urchin from pillar to post in abandoned store fronts and at various friends’ houses when she could, Suzanne took up an Aunt’s offer to live with her in Columbus, Ohio where she graduated from Marion Franklin High and briefly attended Ohio State.

After abandoning Dental school at Ohio State and her family’s dreams of her becoming a dentist she enrolled in music school in Los Angeles, CA. It wasn't long before she sold her organ for her first electric guitar and began to lead her own groups. Suzanne has hired out as a guitarist to several funk and R&B bands, doubling on guitar and bass in the Grammy winning band A Taste of Honey.

Growing bored with the direction she felt music was heading Suzanne returned to the blues with a life giving passion and never looked back. Suzanne's blues were nurtured by Mama Laura owner of the club Babe & Rickey's, with words of wisdom that she will never forget. Through Mama Laura it was there that she got to meet one of her guitar hero’s who was soon to become her mentor, his name was Ray Bailey.

 

Interview by Michael Limnios

 

Suzanne, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues & from whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?

Although my Aunt Pee Dee & Aunt Nodie always played blues music in their house, early on I thought blues music was for the “old” folks. It wasn’t until I went to hear Zac Harmon play that the blues bug bit me and I never recovered.

                                              Photo by Mike Lee / Tall and Small Photography

What “advice” Jimmy Smith has given to you, which memory from him and your first steps in organ makes you smile?

I was trying to play as fast as “Mr. Jimmy” as my parents insisted I called him.  His hands and feet were a whirlwind to watch. At this time I was only 6 yrs old and my feet wouldn’t even reach the pedals, but I was getting really frustrated because I couldn’t go as fast on the keys. 

Mr. Jimmy stopped me one day and said “be yourself” there’s only one of you, the world already has a Jimmy Smith. Parts of my lesson were also to sit and “listen and watch” which he said was the most important thing a musician could do.

The thing that makes me smile the most was the fact that I always wanted to play guitar and not organ; because my older brothers were always playing Jimi Hendrix and I wondered why my parents kept buying me all these Jimmy Smith Albums. I used to think “they’ve got the wrong “Jimi”. It actually wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized “who” my first music teacher, aka Jimmy Smith really was. That still makes me laugh to this day!

 

Do you think that your music comes from the heart, the brain or the soul?

All 3.  My music is filtered from my soul, by calling of my heart. Sometimes I dream about melody and words while sleeping remembering feelings I’ve sometimes suppressed. My brain sometimes tells me “don’t write that down for the whole world to see” But I’m getting past that now.

 

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and how has the blues changed your life?

I’ve learned that the blues has been a major therapist for me, allowing me to “talk” about things I wouldn’t usually talk to someone about. I can express my emotions through the feeling of blues music and not necessarily through words. 

The Blues changed my life because I feel I’m truly home now, its as if I was on a big search spiritually and now its over. What I was searching for was right here inside me all along. This is where I belong.

 

How do you describe your philosophy about the music and life?

My philosophy about the music and my life is much like going on a long journey. Enjoy the Ride!!! I’ve learned that the ride sometimes is wayyy better than the destination arrival. I also just recently realized that when I just let life do its thing, and guide me instead of me trying to guide it. I am awarded with some truly great gifts such as meeting new people and going places and trying new things that I would have never done before. 

 

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician, songwriter and people?

True life experiences, listening and watching other people’s lives and how they live and handle the good with the bad. Playing with musicians who I aspire to be like, always reaching. Seeing how what I think is a bad thing in my life like a show that didn’t quite go as I expected then watching or hearing someone else’s real life challenges like their missing children or impoverished countries.

 

How do you get inspiration for your songs & what do you think is the main characteristic of you personality that made you a songwriter?

My main inspiration can be a feeling, an observation of someone else’s life, a dream or just plain ole imagination. Also things that happen around me and to me. I have always, always had a great imagination.

 

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

Wow! The best moment of my career was opening for Al Green and seeing Michael Jackson and Melissa Etheridge in the front row while I received a standing ovation for a guitar solo. But the icing on the cake was meeting and talking with Teeny Mabon Hodges who was Al Greens guitar player who helped pen many of the great Al Green hits.

For the worst I can remember playing a pretty big show and the person I was backing was not truly prepared and was half way music-syncing through the show. Well needless to say I just wanted to run from the stage and it’s always great to have friends say…….yeah I wanted to pull my car up and hold the door so you could run from the stage. But it was still a great learning experience to know what not to do!

 

Are there any memories from Mama Laura, which you’d like to share with us?

Mama always told me to trust her and keep playing and don’t let anybody run me off. Mama would also scold me when I stayed away too long.  She said, you can’t get better if you don’t come and play. Mama’s number 1 rule was keeping it the Blues, you had to play blues cause it was a blues club and you couldn’t play too loud either.

 

What is the “feel” you miss most nowadays from Mama Laura and Babe & Ricky's?

Every Monday at Mama’s was like going to your high school reunion, you got to see people you hadn’t seen in a while, your friends, the cool kids, but most importantly you get to see how much people had grown musically. I miss Mama calling me her daughter.

 

Are there any memories from Keb Mo', Hubert Sumlin, Zac Harmon, A Taste of Honey and Deacon Jones?

Yes with Keb Mo it was great that he gave me an opportunity for me being an unknown upcoming blues artist to playing his show at Harvelle’s in Santa Monica with him 2 nights in a row. 

Hubert Sumlin gave me some great one on one time showing me some really great riffs that were so easy they were hard, I still can’t get them. Mr. Sumlin was also one of the nicest blues artist I’ve ever met, and he reminded me by the way he was living not to take yourself too seriously.  He was on his way to Disneyland in a couple of days.  When he was getting ready to play his show one of the security ladies said I would have to leave and he spoke up and said “not her, she stays she plays the blues”.

A Taste of Honey…..hmmm where do I start? I cut my teeth on being a professional musician and a musician altogether with A Taste of Honey.  I learned some of the most valuable lessons from Janice Marie without being scolded. She just let me grow up musically and find my way and tell me point blank how to handle situations.  Janice gave me my first pro gig and helped develop me both as an artist and a musician.  And also to always handle the business first.

Zac Harmon was the reason I ventured into the blues. Zac knew I used to play Rock and Roll but I was wanting to do something more soulful.  He invited me to a few of his shows and his music was so moving I decided right there I was gonna play the blues and nothing but the blues.  That Blues bug bit me hard.

I was very surprised by the way Deacon Jones readily came to play on my blues CD and was genuinely nice although he had previously been John Lee Hookers music director not to mention having played with so many great blues artists. I first met Deacon at Mama’s and he always treated me the same.

 

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is? What does BLUES mean to you?

I feel blues music ties together all generations of a people because it is a part of the American fabric.

Blues to me means I have an everlasting gift from my Father, a cup that will never empty.

 

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

Always, always do it for the love of it and don’t forget to have fun and take time to do other things. Don’t forget to live. Its in enjoying the other things in life that ultimately brings us back to the music even stronger.

 

From the musical point of view is there any difference and similarities between: bluesman & blueswoman?

I believe both genders try and cover up their true emotions at times and that’s the similarity, I’ve seen men afraid to be gentle and woman who are afraid to be strong. I don’t think there’s any musical difference between the two musically.

 

What is your “secret” DREAM? What turns you on? Happiness is……

Owning several acres of land with a large lake where I can build a blues music camp for children and where inner city youth and who ever wanted to could come and take part in love, music, cooking, tending to a garden, running, laughing and fishing for free. 

Kindness and giving back turns me on. 

Happiness is…being silly, still knowing I’m a kid inside.

 

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

The period I lived in Korea before and during my stay in the orphanage. I cannot remember these times. No one has any record of it so it’s a big empty canvas I can draw anything on. I see that canvas as a great opportunity for me to imagine that I belonged to a great family of traveling musicians that I got separated from during a gigantic world tour.

 

When did you last laughing and why? What would you say to Next Generation of the Blues?

I last laughed last weekend when after watching chicken little and 3 Kung-Fu movies about Bruce Lee’s teacher (IP Man) in a row with my 3 year old granddaughter, she kicked me in the eye when we were on the couch and then in that little cute voice said….Sorry Ganny

To the next generation of Blues musicians I would say to borrow from the past but do your own thing and write about the present things going on around you. Don’t let anyone place his or her restrictions on you. Nobody can tell you what your blues is about or how it should sound, follow your heart, believe me everybody has had the blues.

 

Do you know why the blues is connected to the Afro American culture & what characterize the philosophy of blues?

Yes, for me the blues are connected to the Afro American culture through our great African Ancestors who were cast into the American fields after being brought from Africa and worked as slaves. These slaves communicated not only plans of escape, and their plight but also news and messages through the form known as “Call & Response” without the Slave Master knowing that they were communicating.  At one time it was against the law for African Americans to communicate with one another and their ability to communicate with one another was restricted.

Knowing the type of human suffering and emotional release that was experienced by African Americans during the slavery time is indeed the philosophy of the blues.

 

From the feeling point of view is there any difference and similarities between the Blues, Gospel, Jazz & Soul?

I don’t believe there are any differences between any of these genres since I believe that everything came out of the Gospel and Jazz and Soul being baptized through the blues. Each interconnected like a family of children with Gospel and Blues being the parents. Each one is a highly respected relative.

 

Suzanne & The Blues Church's home

 

 

 

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