On This Day In Music History: Suzanne Vega

Every year I make it a point to try to watch the Grammy Awards show on TV. As a music teacher, I feel the need to stay somewhat up to date on the popular music scene and at least be able to say: “Oh yes, I’ve heard of that band/singer/musician” when a student mentions one. Besides being educational, the show has proved to be entertaining, revealing and fun.

One of the most memorable performances I’ve seen was in March of 1988 on the 30th Annual Grammy Awards show, broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall in New York City. This was the year of U2’s Joshua Tree album and Paul Simon’s Graceland. Whitney Houston and Jodi Watley were high on the charts.

Suzanne Vega was having a pretty good year as well. She had released her second album, Solitude Standing, and had a major international hit with the song “Luka.” The song had garnered her Grammy nominations in the categories of Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance – Female. She was scheduled to perform on the show.

Now, I owned her new album as well as her first album, 1985’s Suzanne Vega, and had seen her in concert with her band at the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom on July 3, 1987. I knew she was a fine fingerstyle guitarist as well as an excellent singer and songwriter. But “Luka” was a band song: keyboards, electric guitar, bass and drums. As they used to say: “It had a good beat and you could dance to it.” And, once upon a time, I’d been to Radio City Music Hall so I had some idea how huge of a room it was.

So, when I saw her stride out on that stage all by herself, no band in sight, I was amazed. She performed the song with just her acoustic guitar for accompaniment, giving it an entirely different and very effective sound and feel. She was simply dazzling. I was again reminded of what one person with a voice, a guitar and a song can do. She didn’t win a Grammy that night, but she made a strong and lasting impression on a very large audience.

Suzanne’s success that year opened the door for a string of  “female urban folksingers” that included Tracy Chapman, Michelle Shocked and Shawn Colvin. She, and her colleagues, rejuvinated widespread interest among young women in playing acoustic guitar and writing songs. As Suzanne proclaimed in the tour book to her World Tour ’87: “You could not only write a song any way you felt like, but you could also write about anything you felt like.”

Suzanne Nadine Vega was born on July 11, 1959 in Santa Monica, California.

Happy Birthday, Suzanne.

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