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Unlike many female performers who present a striking physical appearance on stage, singer-guitarist Susan Martin is not content to coast on her undeniable charms. "Many female entertainers let the fact that they're female get in the way of what they do," she says. "They only learn enough guitar to keep them on key. My guitar is as important as my voice - if not more so." Susan is an accomplished finger-picker, and her ballad accompaniments are often total orchestrations in themselves.
Born and bred in New York City, she began playing guitar at age 14, and soon was performing regularly in Greenwich Village coffeehouses such as the Four Winds, the Basement and Folk City. She played in and around the Village for about eight years, as well as performing at the Forum Coffeehouse in Hartford, CT. and appearing in concerts in Connecticut, New Jersey and Massachusetts.
For about seven years she taught guitar; first at a music school, then with private students - at the same time co-owning a small coffeehouse. Following that, she entertained at and managed another club for a spell, and later became a regular at the Gaslight, the famed Village coffeehouse where Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary gained their first wide-spread notice. Eventually she was offered a management position, and was in charge of the club for a year and a half - showcasing acts like Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Bonnie Raitt, Spider John Koerner, Link Wray, Charlie Mingus, Reverend Gary Davis and Mississippi Fred McDowell.
Her influences are many people she's seen and include musicians as diverse as Judy Henske ("for her testicularity"), Mississippi John Hurt, Rev. Gary Davis, Bessie Smith, Blind Blake and Buffy Ste. Marie. Her repertoire reflects these blues, ragtime and ballad sources, but she brings her own special touch to their numbers, making them a personal statement.
In 1972, "after being mugged and robbed once too often, I decided it was time to leave New York," she says, and she moved to Minneapolis where she completed degrees in Sociology and Social Work. While there she performed in local clubs and played the Midwest college coffeehouse circuit. She also appeared with poet/singer Patti Smith at the Walker Art Center, and as a part of a "Honey-dripper Review" with Dave Ray, Tony Glover and Willie and the Bumblebees. Tired of cold weather and shoveling snow, she moved to New Orleans to complete her doctorate at Tulane University. She soon began playing regularly at Papa Joe's in the French Quarter and uptown at the Fais Do Do. Her academic interests next took her to Florida to work for the Seminole Indian Tribe, then back to New Orleans to teach and direct a criminal justice program.
An irresistible job offer from the University of Houston pulled her from the grip of Big Easy, and in 1980 Susan made Houston her new home. She quickly became a regular at the classical/folk club Munchies and an original member of the Sean Walters Songwriters' Showcase. She has performed both as a solo and with her band, the Slow Burn Blues Band, at many Houston clubs including Anderson Fair, Fitzgerald's, Millbend Coffeehouse, Bohemeos and the now defunct Vintage Bar, Red Lion, Rising Star, Local Charm, Cafe L.A. and Blythe Spirits, as well as appearing in numerous benefits and in interviews for KPFT radio. When her busy schedule allows, she performs in clubs and around the US and has also returned to her native New York from time to time to play at popular Village clubs.
Susan is featured with Bill Ward on Allen Damron's album Damron and Fowler, Campfires of C.A.L.M. On Family of Friends she blends her talents with those of Allen Damron, Jim Daniel, Vicki Fowler and Bill Ward on a tape that dishes up a host of catchy original tunes. Family of Friends celebrated the release of this debut album on the main stage at the 1991 Kerrville Folk Festival and the Texas Folk Life Festival. "Survivor," co-written with Jim Daniel, was selected by the British publication Kerrville Kronikle as one of the top 50 songs of the year. More recently she collaborated with the nationally acclaimed folk group Hull House Revival and several other social work educators on a 1995 release, Concerned in Concert, a CD of socially relevant tunes that she co-produced. Her version of Rod MacDonald's "American Jerusalem" (with Rod singing backing vocals) has received national airplay.
Susan presents a varied program with a strong emphasis on her blues influence, but is able to perform ballads with the same strong emotional content. "I don't do anything I can't feel," she says - and her ability to communicate that feeling is proved by the satisfied audiences who have seen her. A tough lady, and a tender woman - it's there in her music, as real as you want it to be.