Pat Suzuki: The Seattle Years (1955-1958)

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 11/29/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20213

Pat Suzuki (b. 1930), a vibrant Japanese American singer, wowed the town like few other local stars had during her three-year mid-1950s run headlining The Colony, a downtown Seattle supper club. Her intense stage presence and preternatural vocal skills destined her to become a diva. Pretty as can be, the petite performer, blessed with an enviable hairdo -- hence her nickname "Little Miss Pony Tail" -- simply dazzled her audiences, which soon included stars such as Bing Crosby, who offered his influential approval to the media. National television appearances followed, then a major record deal, then a starring role on Broadway in Rodgers and Hammerstein's new musical Flower Drum Song. From there Suzuki simply skyrocketed to national fame, appearing on Time magazine's cover, sharing the stage with Frank Sinatra, receiving a Grammy Award nomination, and even hanging out with the Kennedy family during the "Camelot" days. But, as she once admitted early on: "I'm not joining the big-time rat race" (Quigg). And she didn't. Suzuki married, had a family, and scaled back her career, albeit one that continued at a lesser pace well into the 1990s.

A West Coast Nisei

Born on September 22, 1930, Pat Suzuki was raised on her father Chiyoksaku Suzuki's farm in Cressey in central California -- until the family's lives were disrupted when World War II broke out and they were incarcerated along with other Japanese Americans in the Grenada War Relocation Center in California for the duration of the war. Afterward she and her family worked hard to reestablish themselves. Attending high school, the diminutive Suzuki -- whose family nicknamed her "Chibi" ("short person" or "small child") -- studied singing, and she also sang in their Methodist church. She attended Mills College and then earned a degree in art and education at San Jose State College -- watercolor painting would remain a hobby well into her singing career -- while also working with college dance bands.

Her goal had not been to be a professional singer, but while visiting New York City she heard by chance that "Oriental types were being sought" (Marshall) for the cast of Teahouse of the August Moon, a play featuring Burgess Meredith. On a dare, she auditioned, and "They were so happy to see an honest-to-goodness Oriental face ... that they signed me immediately. When the call goes out for Oriental types, producers must interview hundreds of Puerto Ricans, Spaniards, East Indians and American Indians, all made up with slanting eyes to resemble an Oriental!" (Marshall). Case closed. Suzuki was hired.

"Suzuki"

Pat Suzuki arrived in Seattle in the late summer of 1955 as a chorus-girl member of the New York-based road company performing Teahouse of the August Moon at the Moore Theater. One night, post-show, the cast members opted to walk down the block and have a few late-night drinks at The Colony club located in the Claremont Hotel at 408 Virginia Street. "In a relaxed mood, the actors gave impromptu performances, during which Pat sang. The effect upon the audience was electric, and she was called back for encore after encore" (Marshall).

The owner of the venue, Norm Bobrow (1917-2008), was among those who were mightily impressed. And, as the town's foremost jazz impresario -- since the 1940s he had stayed active as a concert producer, promoter, KRSC (and then KING) radio DJ, and bandleader -- he knew a good thing when he saw it. A born raconteur and charmer nonpareil, Bobrow successfully persuaded the young performer to stay and headline his club. She was initially billed simply as "Suzuki," and her shows knocked the audiences out. Bobrow became her manager, presumably working his press-relations magic, because before long New York's big-time showbiz magazine Variety published a rave about her activity way over in Seattle. It did not hesitate to declare she was in the same league as Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Eartha Kitt, and Sarah Vaughan. Others critics thought they heard bits of Lena Horne, Gogi Grant, Eydie Gorme, and other stars in her sound. Meanwhile, the sleepy Seattle media -- in that era, still rather timid about supporting locally based talents (a habit it wouldn't fully shake until the grunge-rock explosion of the 1990s) -- was emboldened just a bit and began to cover her growing success.

"When the spotlight at The Colony reveals the tiny (4-foot 11-inch) singer dressed in a form-fitting gown," The Seattle Times would write, in the stereotyped and patronizing language of the era, "her straight black hair arranged in bangs and a ponytail, a hush falls over the audience. When it turns out the Oriental beauty can also sing, the enthusiasm of her listeners is amazing" (Marshall). Well, yeah. Given Suzuki's vocalizing style -- straight out of the Ethel Merman school of full-on belting -- it was impossible not to be bowled over by the slight woman. "Seattle's ardent devotees are convinced it is only a matter of time until she will be a singing star of national magnitude" (Marshall).

They weren't alone. While touring through Seattle with his popular orchestra, Lawrence Welk happened by The Colony and was also taken by the pixie powerhouse's formidable talents. His longtime Los Angeles-based Lawrence Welk Show had gone nationwide on the ABC-TV network in 1955, and he soon made arrangements to have her come down to make her national television debut. That exposure led to a few scattered gigs in Southern California, and then around the Midwest and back over to Portland, Oregon. But the fact is that Suzuki was still happiest working in Seattle, telling the Times, "This is the first time I have really felt identified with a city. ... In addition to appearing at various social functions, I have been asked to sing for charity organizations, which I particularly enjoy" (Marshall).

"A Great Artist"

One night, no less than Bing Crosby -- the singing superstar from Spokane, then perhaps the most famous entertainer on the planet -- returned to town for a visit, dropped in, heard her sing, and really dug it. With the local press clamoring for a statement, his typically understated quip -- "A great artist" -- was eagerly taken as a significantly sincere endorsement. Reported by the local media, that attention brought ever-larger crowds down to The Colony as everyone became curious to witness this phenom. Among them was Seattle's noted Japanese American photographer Elmer Ogawa, whose work had often appeared in various Asian American-oriented publications, including the Northwest Times, Pacific Citizen, and SCENE magazine. And Ogawa's photographic images of her do actually convey some sense of Suzuki's daring command of the audience, even in a small nightclub setting.

By mid 1957 Suzuki had been consistently enchanting crowds at The Colony for a full couple of years, and Bobrow also fell under her spell. They became a couple. By this point Bobrow felt it was time to guide her into a recording career. He booked some time at Custom Recorders -- then Seattle's best recording facility, which Joe Boles (1904-1962) operated from his home basement studio at 3550 SW Admiral Way in West Seattle. A demonstration tape was made with the backing of a few musicians from The Colony's house band, followed by overtures to various big-time record companies. By summer, Suzuki had scored a deal with an RCA Victor subsidiary label, VIK Records. Grateful for his efforts, Suzuki would later return to visit Boles, writing this message of gratitude in his studio log: "With all my love, and thank you always -- Your own Patti" (Boles).

Go Husky!

By March 1958 Suzuki was back in New York City to perform on the highly rated Jack Paar Show, and the local critics there took notice. One, Doc Quigg, seemed to be tickled by her very presence, invoking such terms as "vivacious" and "perky" to describe her. He also accurately noted that "Miss Suzuki is a tiny lady with a lower-the-boom voice, a brassy, husky, resounding instrument that can range from pop tunes to light opera" (Quigg). Interestingly, Suzuki confessed to him that she actually preferred to sing classical music over pop: "Because when I sing pop, I throw in more of the, you know, hardware" (Quigg).

New York was certainly a thrill -- and Jack Paar had encouraged her to stay there -- but Suzuki was ready to head back west. She enthused to Quigg that "I'm going home to Seattle! H'ray! ... Seattle is my home base. ... We have our club, The Colony, where I sing. My heart is there. I may break away from time to time. But I'm not joining the big-time rat race ..." -- or at least, "I don't want to join the rat race yet" (Quigg). The reporter noted, "Pat seems content with Seattle. She admits, though, that eventually she'd like to do Broadway musicals. Rodgers and Hammerstein already have made her an offer" (Quigg).

Before long, Suzuki's debut album, Miss Pony Tail, which was recorded at New York's Webster Hall on April 28 and May 1, 1958, was released, and sure enough, good ol' Bing Crosby was quoted in the liner notes, once again promoting her promising future: "Great bet for the big time. I really mean that" (Quigg). That same year Bobrow struck a deal with VIK allowing Suzuki to cut a special single: Her jazzy version of the University of Washington Huskies official football fight song "Bow Down to Washington" (written by Seattle's Lester J. Wilson back in 1915) was captured by Seattle's fabled audio engineer, Kearney Barton (1931-2012), at the Northwest Recorders studio at 622 Union Street in downtown Seattle.

The Big Time

Then the bright lights of New York City's Broadway truly beckoned. Suzuki and Bobrow moved to New York together and before long she was headlining in Rodgers and Hammerstein's brand-new musical Flower Drum Song, as directed by Gene Kelly. It was a sensation, and the original Broadway cast recording of the show would be a decided retail hit. By December, the faces of Suzuki and co-star Miyoshi Umeki were emblazoned on the cover of Time magazine, and that same year famed New York Times caricaturist Al Hirschfeld penned their likenesses.

One of Suzuki's feature numbers in the play, "I Enjoy Being a Girl," became her signature song -- one that over time developed into a favorite of the gay community. A contributor to an online Broadway-theater-focused discussion board reflected, in 2012, on the night back in the 1960s when Suzuki suddenly popped into a smalltime gay-oriented piano bar in Dayton, Ohio, and essentially took the place over: "She ... sang, and sang, and sang. She lay across the piano, she stood on top of it, she wrapped herself around the guys at the bar. It lasted an hour or more, then she disappeared into the night. ... During her 'performance' ... she milked the hell out of 'Enjoy Being a Girl,' but the lyrics mostly changed. My favorite was wrapping herself around a big strapping gay guy and singing 'You enjoy being the girl?' -- question mark emphasized! Brought the roof down!" ("Anyone Have Any Good Pat Suzuki Stories?").

Long before that memorable night, only a few short months after leaving Seattle, Suzuki was suddenly a full-blown star. She was named in DownBeat magazine's annual DJ Poll as America's "Best New Female Singer" and she made appearances on many television shows, including The Steve Allen Show, The Dinah Shore Show, The Frank Sinatra Show, The Dick Clark Show, and even What's My Line? By any measure, Suzuki's star was ascendant. She recorded more albums in 1959 -- The Many Sides of Pat Suzuki and Pat Suzuki's Broadway '59 -- and, in time, was even photographed (in a pink bikini) by Life magazine photographer Mark Shaw, while out yachting in the sun with the Kennedy clan. It was at about this time -- perhaps not coincidently -- that her romance with Norm Bobrow wound down.

Seattle Squares?

Suzuki eventually married Mark Shaw and their son was born in 1960 -- the same year that her final RCA album, Looking at You, was issued and that her Broadway '59 album was nominated for a Grammy Award in the "Best Female Pop Vocal Performance" category. Over the following years she traveled the country, appearing in all the top theaters in various shows, including Year of the Dragon, which also featured actor George Takei (b. 1937).

But on her long-awaited return to Seattle in September 1963 Suzuki reportedly experienced some social discomfort. She was booked for a sold-out, two-shows-a-night, six-night stand, backed by the local Wyatt Howard's Orchestra, at the private 5,000-member Town and Country Club at 1421 Eighth Avenue, a popular dinner and dance venue that had been hosting shows by the likes of the Mills Brothers, Rudy Vallee, Sammy Davis Jr., and Nelson Eddy since opening back in the 1940s. She'd been away for nearly five years, and her hometown fans were jazzed that she was returning for an extended gig -- indeed, the club's management even organized a little pre-gig surprise party for her on Friday the 13th. But things didn't go exactly as planned, according to their in-house publicist some years after the fact: "She walked out of a club party that was in her honor. I chased after her. She told me she didn't want to waste her time with squares" ("T. and C. Had Lively Run").

Yet that telling doesn't seem quite fair considering that way back in 1957 the same newspaper had already reported that Suzuki was actually a "shy" person off-stage: "Pat admits that she would prefer to sing to a roomful of people than converse with several strangers at a party. She hopes that her varied engagements in Seattle and the opportunity of meeting many persons will help her improve in this regard" (Marshall). Shy? Snooty? Whatever. Pat Suzuki was born to be a star, and her Seattle beginnings launched her on that amazing trajectory. She is still loved in the city, and in recent years her record albums have been displayed at Seattle's Museum of Popular Culture (as the former Experience Music Project was renamed in late 2016).


Sources:

Peter Blecha interview with Norm Bobrow, 1994; Joe Boles, studio log, copy in possession of Peter Blecha, Seattle, Washington; Margaret Marshall, "Pat Suzuki, Seattle's Rising Vocal Star," The Seattle Times, September 1, 1957, Sunday magazine, p. 8; Doc Quigg, "'Big Time' Can Wait, Says Perky Pat Suzuki," Ibid., March 20, 1958, p. 18; Ed Baker, "Pat Suzuki Returns Here in September," Ibid., July 17, 1963, p. 31; "Singer Returns," Ibid., September 6, 1963, p. 25; Ed Baker, "Little Pat Suzuki Retains Big Talent," Ibid., September 10, 1963, p. 23; Ed Baker, "T. and C. Had Lively Run," Ibid., July 19, 1970, p. H-1;"Anyone Have Any Good Pat Suzuki Stories?" (posts 11 and 13, by "Patash"), BroadwayWorld.com website accessed November 12, 2016 (http://www.broadwayworld.com/board/readmessage.php?thread=1044572#); Paul de Barros, "Norm Bobrow, Seattle Jazz Champion," The Seattle Times, April 17, 2008 (http://www.seattletimes.com); Chris Komai, "Don't Forget Pat Suzuki," Discover Nikkei website accessed November 14, 2016 (http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2014/9/11/dont-forget-pat-suzuki/).


Related Topics:   Asian & Pacific Islander Americans | Biographies | Music & Musicians | Theater & Dance

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You