I was on my path very young, 5-and-a-half going on 6, watching The Ed Sullivan Show, essential Sunday viewing for all American families. He would always have “something for the youngsters” at the end, and on this episode, out came Elvis Presley doing “Don’t Be Cruel.” My eldest sister by 9 years started screaming. I stared at her and wondered, why? Then I turned and watched the performance. I was drawn in, totally. Then, the light-bulb moment: I am going to do that. That pivotal moment has stayed with me my entire life. Funny thing is, it never occurred to me that I was female, and he was male. Didn’t occur to me then and doesn’t occur to me now. I don’t do gender.
In a big family of five children, I was always the square peg in the round hole, always searching for my voice. Very early on I discovered my ability to entertain, to hold an audience. It was just something I could and wanted to do… so I did it. Once I found my voice, there was no stopping me.
We started the first “all-girl” band, The Pleasure Seekers, again after watching The Ed Sullivan Show—this time with the Beatles featured. Every girl picked an instrument. I was given the bass. Okay, that’s fine. Even though I already played percussion and piano, bass it was. My father gave me my first one, which I still have: a 1957 Fender Precision, sunburst finish, gold-scratch plate, and stripe down the back of the neck. The Rolls-Royce of basses and the most difficult to master. I did not know this; I just learned how to play it. Another pivotal moment: I remember putting it on, placing the strap around my shoulder. Yep, a perfect fit. And again, it did not occur to me that I was a girl playing a bass.
We all have a path to follow, and I have always been determined and uncompromising about mine. I am who I am. I am going where I am going.
Yes, it is a fact that I was the first rock-’n’-roll female singer/musician, and that I opened the door for women, but I can’t say I knew I was doing it. I was simply being natural and following my star. In hindsight, which is always a wonderful thing, I know now that somehow I gave women permission to follow their star. It was OK to pick up an instrument and play rock ’n’ roll. It was OK to be different. It was OK to be you.
I was 14 years old back in The Pleasure Seekers days, and remember being on stage, the dance floor was packed, and a guy danced close to the front, giving a very unmistakable, very rude gesture with his tongue. So my response was to play my bass like crazy, edge closer to the front, and whack him over the head with the headstock. He went down like a ton of bricks—and he didn’t bother us again. This is pretty much how I handled things. As I say in my documentary: my mouth became my weapon. It is amazing what bravado can do for you.
I remember one time, it must have been around ’76 or ’77, coming off the stage after the show. Somebody came up to me and said, “Wow. I really liked the drum solo.” Funny thing is, it is my bass solo, accompanied by the drummer. Really annoyed me. I was in front, playing my ass off, and he thought it was a drum solo. This is not the first time this has happened. Sometimes people wondered if somebody was behind the curtain playing for me. I mean, you must be joking. It is laughable.
OK, one more story: big, big show, celebrating Elvis Presley in Hyde Park. It was a huge line-up of stars, including Tom Jones. I was the only musician to actually “play” with The TCB Band, and of course I’ve been friends with James Burton for many years. Anyway, I went along to the rehearsal for the show, bass in hand, standing there ready to begin when Elvis’ bass player wanders over (can’t remember his name… maybe Jerry Schilling). He introduces himself to me, and then he says, “You know, I can cover for you on the bass if you like.” Excuse me? I said. And he repeated it. I said, Why would I need you to do that?
“We started to rehearse, and he went bright-red in the face. Not another word was said until the day of the show.”
We started to rehearse, and he went bright-red in the face. Not another word was said until the day of the show.
In all honesty, I kicked down the door because I didn’t see the door.
My mantra is: no matter what color, religion, gender or job you do in life, your task is to go inside, find your light, switch it on, and let nobody ever switch it off.
Rock till you drop.
Suzi Q is now available via DVD and video on demand.