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She Doesn't Like the Limelight, but Her Rhythms Take Center Stage

SUE HADJOPOULOS ’75

She’s toured with Laurie Anderson, Cyndi Lauper, and Rickie Lee Jones, but percussionist Sue Hadjopoulos ’75 says that her career as a sought-after performer and recording artist wasn’t something she anticipated. “Musically, I never kind of planned it,” Hadjopoulos says from her apartment in Manhattan. She shares the space with a houseplant, “a palm that doesn’t need to be watered for a month or two,” a big plus when she’s on tour for weeks at a time in Japan or Europe.

She performed with British musician and singer-songwriter Joe Jackson last summer on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and soon after began a two-month tour with Jackson for his tribute album to Duke Ellington. They played more than 30 concerts in the United States, France, Italy, Germany, and Belgium. Hadjopoulos’s professional relationship with Jackson dates from 1982, when she spotted a Village Voice ad by a “major recording artist” seeking a player skilled in Latin percussion, including timbales, congas, bongos, and mallets. Hadjopoulos protested to a friend that she didn’t know how to play mallets, but her friend insisted that she answer the ad anyway.

When Hadjopoulos arrived for an audition, she wasn’t intimidated. She didn’t know who the Grammy-nominated artist was. She was hired and performed on Jackson’s breakthrough Night and Day album, known for hits “Steppin’ Out” and “Breaking Us in Two.” Her ease with genres including pop, rock, and Latin music served her well, and she’s been working with Jackson for 30 years.

Hadjopoulos grew up on Long Island, the daughter of a Greek dad who was an engineer and Big Band drummer and a Puerto Rican mom who was a linguistics professor. “It was such an open time,” she says. “There were so many possibilities for women. I came from a liberated family; my dad would cook and do laundry, and my mom would go to classes.”

When Hadjopoulos seated herself behind her father’s basement drum set, she daydreamed that she was performing at Madison Square Garden. “My dad showed me rudiments and double rolls and things like that,” she says. “My older brother played sax and started being in all these bands, and they’d have rehearsals at the house. When they didn’t have a drummer, they’d use me, but when they’d get a gig, my brother didn’t want his little sister playing.” She did, however, perform occasionally with his band and began picking up work.

At Barnard, she studied anthropology and reveled in hearing Jane Goodall lecture at Columbia. On the weekends, she played funk, pop, and rhythm and blues in “crazy bad places” all over New York City before crawling into bed at 3 a.m.

She developed a niche picking up and playing intricate Latin rhythms, a melding of African rhythms and island beats. “People hired me because they liked how I interpreted their music,” she says. “I can hear the thing all loaded up with the percussion on it. I’m good at layering what instrumentation would go on when.”

After graduation, Hadjopoulos played in a touring female salsa band, Latin Fever. That experience primed her to ace her audition with Jackson, whom she describes as “very versatile. You don’t know what he’s going to throw out to you: Is it going to be Latin? Jazz?”

In the past 25 years, Hadjopoulos has performed with artists as diverse as Simple Minds, Laura Nyro, Barry Manilow, and The B-52s. She toured twice with Cyndi Lauper, who asked her in the audition if she could sing back up. “I said yes because you must say yes to everything,” Hadjopoulos says, adding that after she got the job, she signed up for six months of voice lessons.

Hadjopoulos seamlessly blends musical skill with impressive stamina, says Andy Ezrin, a jazz pianist and keyboard player who has toured globally with her. “The main thing with her is her energy. And she’s very upbeat. She’s bubbly and fun to be around.” He’s impressed by her endurance, saying that Jackson also appreciated Hadjopoulos’s ability to keep the music flowing by keeping the beat going.

Though the artists Hadjopoulos accompanies cover a variety of genres and styles, all are dedicated to promoting their music. “Nobody gets to be in these places without a lot of hard, grimy work. They’re constantly thinking about what they’re going to do next,” Hadjopoulos says. “I don’t have that drive to be in the front. I like being in my little percussion house in the back.”

—by June D. Bell

—Photograph by Imy James