The world of drummers is a tight circle, with independent session musicians having an even tighter one. Where do female drummers/percussionists fit in this close-knit circle? As close to the edge and as close to the middle as possible. Voted one of the top five percussionists by Modern Drummer Magazine, New York-based percussionist/songwriter/vocalist Sue Hadjopoulos has made her mark as one of the best in the business. The ever-busy musician recently took time out of her hectic schedule to discuss her career.
Examiner: What was your upbringing?
Sue Hadjopoulos: My father was Greek, my mom Puerto Rican. We were middle-class. I grew up in Massapequa Long Island, had two brothers and a dog. My dad’s day gig was being an engineer and my mom was a language professor who taught at Hofstra and Nassau. My father was my first music inspiration. He played trap set in the jazz/swing era, so when I was a kid we always had a drumset in the basement. It was a Gretsch, white mother-of-pearl kit. It was the style Gene Krupa used back then. Dad noticed my interest and started showing me the rudiments. He taught me how to play a double roll and basically taught me his jazz style. I do come from a musical family where my mother plays piano and my younger brother also plays drumset. I was a late starter playing through high school and college. I graduated from Barnard College, Columbia University with a degree in Anthropology. On weekends I was gigging and recording commercials and connected with some of the top giants in the industry, including Ginny Reddington and Tom Dawes.
Back in the day you weren’t very likely to see any books on Latin music or transcriptions of rhythms written out anywhere. There was only one school that taught Latin music, which used to be called Boys Harbor, but is now known as Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts on E.104th Street.
As a kid I loved Latin music, got that from Mom, so I gravitated from drums to Latin percussion and started playing in Latin bands, learning Afro-Cuban percussion from the top guys who were playing salsa. Most of my early training was “on the job” and I learned to play by watching and listening and then “doing.”
There I took lessons from some of the top performing percussionists in Latin music.
Examiner: What was your first official gig?
SH: My first paying gig was with my brother at a Hotel Club date, I was 16 or 17. He’d use me for rehearsals but not on the gig until one day they needed a 14 piece band and only had 12. My big break…I played the one conga I had!
My first professional gig was in Latin music with Latin Fever (14 piece all female Latin band) produced by Larry Harlow, “El Judio Maravilloso,” a well known Latin keyboard player and writer (he just performed his La Raza Latina: A Salsa Suite with full orchestra closing the Damrosch Park Lincoln Center out of doors concerts). We debuted at Roseland, toured South America and U.S. and played the Latin All Stars concerts at MSG. Latin Fever was the first crossover band that played Latin rhythms and sang not only in Spanish but in English.
My first professional touring/recording gig in Pop /Rock was with Joe Jackson, the “Night and Day” recording and subsequent tour. Joe was looking for a Latin percussionist for his record concept exploring the “Night & Day” sights and sounds of NYC. I auditioned and got the job. We recorded the record and went out on a world tour that lasted 13 months as the record climbed the Top 100 Billboard charts to No. 6. The single, “Stepping Out,” went to #4.
Examiner: Do you think living in New York makes you more privy to work?
SH: Well, more privy to work than living in Kansas. But depends on the type of music work you’re talking about and the economy, these days. I think more bands, tours, music for movie and TV is coming out of L.A. and in the last few years the big music performers have been playing the Las Vegas hotels for long term, 1-5 year contracts.
Examiner: What’s the best gig you’ve ever played?
SH: What do you mean by “best”? Most phenomenal performers, most enjoyable music to play, best chance to shine, easiest people to work with, best monetary compensation, largest venues, most fabulous locations, most fun group to hang out with? I think all my gigs have been the best at the time I’m doing them for all the above reasons. I’ve had amazing experiences and have done massive amounts of travelling all over the world. Having had the opportunity to do what I love to do, play music, make money doing it, and get to see the world in one lifetime. It’s all that I could have asked for.
New York used to be the place for recording but with the changeover to digital, everyone records on their own studio setups now. Most of the New York gigs are either musical theater, Broadway/off-Broadway, or the standard venues for signed acts at MSG, Radio City, Lincoln Center, Carnegie, Beacon…and then there’s the New York club scene for smaller indie acts.
A good memorable gig was when Bill Graham was still alive and promoting the Rolling Stones. I was with Joe Jackson and we opened for the Rolling Stones in Leeds. There were over 100,000 people watching and the backstage area was bigger than most front of house venues…but it was the most well organized event. For sheer size of event that was amazing. The audience was fantastic!
The most memorable worst gig was when we opened for The Who (they had created a monster). Their crowds were obnoxious and The Who were having a hard time keeping opening acts. Their crowds would throw things at the stage. The techs used to take bets on how long the opening act would last. I was on tour with Joe Jackson and we got asked to open for The Who because the other opening act quit! I heard we lasted the longest, and we also got a great review in the papers…I’ll never forget, the title of the review read “Joe Jackson leaves in Hail of Debris.” It was a great review telling audiences to see us in concert at our own show on our own turf. We took pictures from the stage. Joe in his best sarcastic voice asked them to smile while we snapped. If you look closely at pics inside the Joe Jackson Live CD you can see The Who audience all giving us the finger and scowling. I’m laughing now but it wasn’t fun at the time.
Examiner: Who would you like to play with who you haven’t?
SH: Christina Aguilera, Annie Lennox, Lady Gaga and Alicia Keys, they are without a doubt on the top of my list. They are all amazing performers/ vocalists/musicians, love their music and their backing bands are always top notch.
Would also say Madonna and Cher. They are icons in entertainment. If they ever decide to go out on tour again, just one more time, I’d love to get the chance to do the gig!
Examiner: What are the pluses and minuses of being a female drummer?
SH: When I started playing there weren’t many women playing drums or percussion. As long as I can remember I just always wanted to play drums but girls weren’t encouraged to play drums. Even in school I got steered to playing the flute, which was considered a more acceptable instrument for girls. I was lucky because I had access to my Dad’s drum set.
But even though I was practicing on drums, it was still seen as my “hobby,” while my brother’s sax playing was seen more as a possible “career path.”
From my point of view, I was just doing what I liked to do. I didn’t think of myself as a female playing drums. But I realized that’s what people around me saw. I still cannot understand why seeing a woman playing drums should be so surprising. The bottom line is that women should be able to get jobs and make a decent living playing drums/percussion or in any other profession they choose to be in.
Why should I only get hired for a music job when someone is looking for a “female” percussionist? If you heard me play without seeing me would you know I am a female? No.
When women tell me I was a role model for them, that’s great to hear, but honestly I didn’t set out to be one.
Examiner: What advice would you give up and coming drummers?
SH: Get a real job! Just kidding. The truth is, if you are just in it as a whim, or for the fame and “big” money…forget it. It’s a crap shoot. I think it’s tougher than ever. The music industry in general has changed so dramatically in the last few years with all the digital downloading. It is a completely different animal. Competition is tough so get your training, too.
But, if you live and breathe music and drumming and there is nothing else you’d rather do, then you know you have no other choice. Just go out there and live your dream. Get out there and play as much as you can and HAVE FUN.
Examiner: What are you currently working on?
SH: I’ve been writing and producing my own music and have been working on a couple of projects concurrently.
This month my song “Regresando A La Diosa,” co-written, produced and performed with Rosa Soy, is featured on the upcoming AFM Local 802 Musician’s Emergency Relief Fund CD, “IN CONCERT…2010,” included in the Emergency Relief Fund Journal 2010.
I’m also currently in the initial stages of a renewed collaboration on a Latin based musical theater project. Without going into too much detail it is in a similar vein to In The Heights, although most of the music and book were written previously. Most of the music is already written and ranges from uptempo salsa, to pop ballads, and your typical theatrical show stoppers.
Finally, I’m also working on a CD, “Readings From Scripture,” which is a collection of selected excerpts and psalms from the Bible read by my Mother with original music underscore I’ve composed.
The dynamic “Puerto-Greekan” musician has worked with Joe Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, Simple Minds, and Enrique Iglesias, just to name a few, and has garnered several gold and platinum records from her work with these various Latin, pop and rock artists. Max Roach once said, “The American drummer is a one-man percussion orchestra.” Sue Hadjopoulos is without a doubt a one-woman percussion orchestra, fast as lightning and schooled in several styles. A true musician, this pop-salsa rhythm sensation’s dedication is fully matched by her passion for playing.