Press-Republican

April 25, 2013

Brooklyn singer heavy on tradition

By ROBIN CAUDELL
Press-Republican

---- — PLATTSBURGH — The late Julia Porterfield Rice was a strong woman.

Her maiden name is the P. in her granddaughter’s band, the Alexis P. Suter Band.

The bodacious bass/baritone performs with her bandmates — Ray Grappone (drums), Jimmy Bennett (guitar), Benny Harrison (keys), Peter Bennett (bass) and Vickie Bell (background vocals) — Friday at the Upper Jay Arts Center (Recovery Lounge) and Saturday at the Chateaugay Town Hall with special guests Russ Bailey and Franz Pope.

“Back then, when people of color had employment, they were the help,” Alexis P. Suter, a Brooklynite, said of her grandmother’s days.

“She worked for the man who invented the television. She was his help. We used to go by his house all the time. After my grandmother retired, the family would give her different things and go over there to her house. They were very nice to my grandmother.”

Not a singer, Rice was a holy woman.

“She was very involved in the church,” Suter said. “She was a missionary. She traveled. To me, in my eyes, she was like Mother Teresa. She wanted to help anybody. She was the greatest cook. None of my aunts, not my mother, could touch my grandmother’s cooking … pot roast and homemade bread, oh my God.” 

Suter’s mother, Carrie Rice Suter, 91, was born in Columbia, S.C. Carrie’s hardworking father, Sam Rice, relocated his family to New York.

“My grandfather had different jobs and was very involved with the church,” Suter said. “When he passed away, my father (Alfred Suter) took on his responsibilities at the church. My father (a Manhattan postal employee) was also a deacon in the church.” 

The Brooklyn church was Pentecostal, where the Holy Spirit moved people to run up and down the aisles, get happy and speak in tongues, Suter said.

Carrie studied at Julliard and was an educator. A soprano, she sang with icons such as Harry Belafonte, Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

“My mother sang with many people,” Suter said. “She’s done many recordings. She sang with the Clinton Utterbach Ensemble. She sang all over the world.” 

Suter donned her traveling shoes with her touring mother, who had her late in life.

“I saw a lot of beautiful things and sort of gravitated to (singing),” she said.

At age 4, Suter soloed at Christmas and Easter recitals.

“My mother would teach me songs, and I would go in front of the church. She would play for me, and I would sing,” she said.

Suter attended Public School 20 in New York City. As early as first grade, she was in band.  Director James R. Drayton started her on snare drums.

“He wanted me to be disciplined. Then, he put me on the big-round bass drum. Then, he put me on timpani in third grade. Then, he graduated me to the e-flat tuba. I went from that to the sousaphone. He was brilliant. He saw this in me. He saw that I was bigger than I knew I was,” Suter said.

She joined chorus under the direction of Isaiah Ruffin. 

“Under his tutelage, I started to learn how to really hone in on my voice,” Suter said. “Then, I went on and sang with different choirs. I sang in the All City High School Chorus under John Motely. Then, I sang in the Emmanuel Baptist Church Choir under Brenda Brown.”

Suter sang in a number of choirs and theater groups before jumping into house music.

“In the ‘90s, I was the first African-American woman signed to Sony-Epic Japan. I was on Sony for about a year,” she said.

Because of bad management, Suter stepped away from music in the mid-’90s. She joined a musical-theatrical group and studied acting with Miche Braden.

“She (Braden) also had a group called the Performance Art Chorale. We did a lot of off-Broadway stuff,” Suter said.

Next, she sang with Illumination, a choir directed by professor Greg Payne.

Suter’s latest Hipbone Records release, “Two Sides,” is a 14-track crystallization of her blues, soul, gospel and other musical roots. Her vocals possess Jackson’s majesty, Tharpe’s righteousness and Ruth Brown’s fire.

Hipbone is the label of husband-wife/bandmates Bell and Grappone, whom she’s known for 17 years. They did great house music but intuited they could do much more. 

“Because our message is something you really need to hear without jumping all over the place, having drinks and whatever else they do,” Suter said. “My first love is gospel. I related to soul music and house music. I will always be a house head. No matter what I sing or do.”

The house track, “You Don’t Know,” starts out a cappella with a blues rift. That was the band’s aha moment nine years ago.

The band has since gigged at venues such as BB King’s in New York City, Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble Session in Woodstock and blues festivals across North America.

The soprano gene bypassed Suter, but her 21-year-old daughter, Carrie Altermese Porterfield Suter, inherited it.

“My daughter is getting ready to graduate from college. She’s a music major. She sings opera in four different languages,” Suter said.

This summer, Carrie II, will tour with her mother.

“She needs a little break. I’m going to let her sing with me occasionally on the road and fill up background vocals with Vicki.”

Carrie II accompanied her mother to her Pocono Blues Festival debut.

As they walked around, fans whispered, “That’s Alexis P. Suter.”

“She was very impressed,” Suter said. “To my daughter, it was, ‘What’s going on?’ I told her she’ll get used to it. They’re just showing your mother love.”

Email Robin Caudell:rcaudell@pressrepublican.com

IF YOU GO WHO: Alexis P. Suter Band FRIDAY SHOW: 8 p.m. Upper Jay Arts Center (Recovery Lounge), 12198 Route 9, Upper Jay. $10 at the door. Call 946-8315. SATURDAY SHOW: 7 p.m. Chateaugay Town Hall, 191 East Main St., Chateaugay. With special guests Russ Bailey and Franz Pope. $12 advance, $17 at the door. Advance tickets are available at Dick's Country Store in Churubusco, International Border Company in Malone, Alex's True Value Hardware in Plattsburgh, My Cup of Tea in Plattsburgh or online at www.themusicoasis.com. Call 492-6962.