This article was originally published in the December 2017 Trenton Downtowner.
Ms. Sue is a mystery. She’s a very private person, a bit “underground,” as she might say. And while you might have been listening to her voice for decades, you probably have not seen her face, and that’s OK.
“I am a low key person who has become quietly famous,” says the Trenton resident.
Better known as “Ms. Sue Ms. Sue” (so nice, you say it twice, as she prefers), she’s been heard in the Trenton area since 1976 on the airwaves at WTSR 91.3 FM, broadcasting from the College of New Jersey in Ewing.
Her Saturday night show, “The Continuing Adventures of Ms. Sue Ms. Sue,” lifts off around 9 p.m. and runs through midnight, and has done so almost without fail for 41 years.
All those hours on the air have been 100 percent volunteer for Ms. Sue, too.
“Ms. Sue has been one of WTSR’s biggest supporters for as long as I can remember,” says Nick Wodeshick, the station’s current manager. “Her show has been one of the best parts of our programming for years now, and it’s been a genuine pleasure to work with her.”
So tune in and “open your mind with music for your earholes,” as Ms. Sue “represents the best in underground sound from around the world, past, present and future,” as her bio on WTSR’s website says.
Get ready to move and be moved in a few different ways, when Ms. Sue spins an upbeat mix of house music, dance music, R&B, and some things that defy musical classification. It isn’t anything you’d hear on mainstream radio.
‘They allow me to do my thing at WTSR. There’s no playlist, although I might say, ‘let’s start with this,’ and then I work my way around, just improvise.’
It’s like being on the dance floor at a really great club, or at an outstanding party thrown by someone with excellent taste in music. Ms. Sue has a finely tuned ear for music, a natural sense of what tempos, time, and key signatures blend together. You don’t always know the title of what you’ve just heard her play, but that’s OK, because analyzing Ms. Sue’s playlist would distract from the groove.
“They allow me to do my thing at WTSR,” she says. “There’s no playlist, although I might say, ‘let’s start with this,’ and then I work my way around, just improvise. And all the music is from my personal collection — I take it in with me, and I bring it home.”
She embraces the Trenton community in more ways than one. Ms. Sue likes to go around town to various public spaces, picking up flyers and promotional material, which she reads on the air during her show.
“I try to talk about positive things that make people think,” she says. “I grab flyers and cards from Artworks, Homefront, places like that, and announce lots of different things on the air.”
Ms. Sue appreciates that her listeners feel like they’re at a party, because that’s her intention: bringing smiles to faces, movement to feet, and shaking to hips.
Way before she even got on the air, she loved playing music at gatherings for her friends.
“I started DJ’ing parties with just a speaker and a reel-to-reel,” she says. “Then, when I was able to get on WTSR, once I got in that door, I loved it — I loved, loved, loved it.”
Although her age is another enigma, she will say that she grew up loving classic Motown in the 1960s, Philly soul, R&B and some disco in the 1970s, and the best of house music in the 1980s, ‘90s and beyond, and she’s always on the hunt for new sounds.
Her research for the show is informal but focused at the same time, since Ms. Sue wants to keep her program fresh, maybe even surprising. “Different friends and other DJs turn me onto (new music), or I hear something and I try to find it,” Ms. Sue says. “Sometimes when I’m feeling bad, I find something new, and it’s better than seeing a psychiatrist.”
Some of her favorite newer artists include producer/DJ Tony Humphries, Chicago house music pioneer Frankie Knuckles, and Luis “Little Louis” Vega.
She names a few old school favorites, like MFSB, the famed ensemble of musicians from Philly’s Sigma Sound studio, one of whom was the late guitarist and central Jersey native T.J. Tindall. First Choice, the Philly-based trio of ladies known for soul hits like “Armed and Extremely Dangerous,” is another.
Ms. Sue also enjoys a number of jazz artists such as Lonnie Liston Smith, Freddie Hubbard, and Herbie Hancock. It’s a little hard for her to narrow down her preferences though, as she has such a wide range of musical interests.
One thing the Lady DJ has noticed is how much music has changed in the four decades she’s been on WTSR. “Most music of the past was made with real instruments, (but) most of the music made today is made with samplers and special effects equipment,” she says, adding, “I do a lot of research looking for good music for my show.”
She is not originally from Trenton, but the Berkley Square/Parkside-area resident is a Jersey Girl, the kind who always had her transistor radio tuned in, turned on, and plugged into her ear. From a young age she wondered how a person got to be on the air, and friends used to tell her she was a natural for radio, judging from her DJing skills.
The Lady DJ moved to Trenton in the mid-1970s, and gravitated to a couple of the city’s record stores, including the Sound of Trenton and the former Record Gallery.
“(Owner) Joe Adams became kind of a musical mentor and turned me onto imports done by American artists,” she says. “I also used to go to Vinyl Mania in New York to buy records.”
She connected with people in the college radio scene, hanging out in the tiny studio of WTSR, asking questions about how to run the sound board, what this button and that switch did, etc.
With her outgoing personality, Ms. Sue approached the late Greg Caiola, WTSR’s station manager at the time, saying she wanted to learn radio.
“He said, ‘pick a time slot, and go ahead,’ and so I did,” she says. “I remember my first weekend there it snowed, and I actually got stuck on the air until somebody came and picked me up.”
“The first board I worked on was ‘cave man’ ancient, and all we had were turntables,” Ms. Sue says. “In 41 years so many things have changed, and I’ve learned all the different, new equipment.”
Physically, it’s not too bad now, when the Lady DJ can carry a bunch of CDs in a tote bag, but it was quite an effort when she was playing vinyl records.
“I used to walk across campus carrying about 50 records,” says Ms. Sue, adding that she had to catch two buses to get to TCNJ, then once there, the radio station was an additional hike on foot. “I don’t mind,” she says. “I am so into it.”
Ms. Sue’s own photography is mostly color street photography, unusual images she has captured in her travels around Trenton.
The “I Am Trenton” Foundation is aware of Ms. Sue’s many years on the air and DJing in the community, and recently honored her, writing, “Not only will she have you dancing, but she’ll also get you laughing. With her quick wit and contagious smile, you are guaranteed a great time. If you listen to her show, you can tell how much she cares about the town by all of the plugs she does for community events to support Trenton.”
However, the Lady DJ turned down the opportunity to have her image displayed on a billboard, as the other honorees have. There’s that mystery again.
For the past couple of years, Ms. Sue has become resident DJ at Trenton’s Greenwood Avenue Farmers Market, and she can be found setting her turntables up at other community events in the city as well. Back on Memorial Day weekend, Ms. Sue DJ’ed at Scott Miller’s Original Pork Roll Festival in Mill Hill Park, a gig she has had for a couple of years. “I opened the festival, then DJ’ed between bands,” she says.
Although the farmers market closed in October, with the holidays coming, she hopes a handful of private parties will keep her busy spinning tunes.
When asked about her background, Ms. Sue evades questions about her actual name (it’s nothing unusual but she likes to keep it a secret — even though you can get it through Google), her occupation (she says she’s retired from the state or “something like that”), and where she lived before (a town just south of Edgewater Park).
And despite the fact that she did not want a photograph of her face to be shown, one subject Ms. Sue really does likes to talk about is her interest in photography, mostly color street photography, unusual images she has captured in her travels around Trenton.
She will have some 20 photos on exhibit inside the Ewing Library on Scotch Road, starting Friday, December 1, and running throughout the month. According to senior library assistant Cheryl Urbano, Ms. Sue has shown her photography at the library for several years now, and it has been very well received. The show will be called “Things I C.”
“That’s another one of my hobbies: I’m always taking pictures, I always have a camera with me, and I’ve caught some unique things,” Ms. Sue says. “For example, last year I met a man who was walking with his goat from Seattle to Times Square in New York City.”
“He was walking across the Calhoun Street bridge, we were driving along, saw him and were like, ‘what is that?’” she says. “We stopped and I said, ‘yo, can I get your picture?’”
The man said yes, he and his goat took a break, and Ms. Sue snapped away with her 35mm SLR while she chatted with him. She learned that the traveling man was walking across the United States to raise money for an orphanage, and had been on the road for almost two years.
Like the late famed street photographer Garry Winogrand, sometimes Ms. Sue just holds up her camera, starts snapping, and sees what images appear later. “My philosophy is, ‘just keep looking’ because you never know what you’re going to see,” she says.
WTSR celebrated 50 years on the air in 2015, and at one of the station’s anniversary events, Ms. Sue greeted several generations of her listeners and fellow DJs. “So many people came up to me, so many students who have come and gone from the station — I don’t remember them, but they remember me,” she says. “I also get calls from people who moved out of the Trenton area, but have come back and heard me on the radio. They call and say, ‘Ms. Sue, I knew that was you. You’re still there!’”
“I love to hear people say that they heard the show,” she says. “My friend taught me something. She said, ‘sometimes you don’t get any calls, but you better believe someone’s listening.’”
Someone who listens every week is a fellow Ms. Sue has dubbed “Parkway Tony.” He’s been calling Ms. Sue on the air, regularly, for about two years, and often comments on WTSR’s slogan, “Open Your Mind,” saying, “Ms. Sue, I got my mind opened.”
“I gave him the name, and he seems like a pleasant person,” Ms. Sue says, noting that she has only ever heard his voice and has never met him in person — and vice versa. “To see him, I wouldn’t know him from Adam.”
That’s the way it is in radio — your voice and the music you play is your identity, and that’s how Ms. Sue likes it.
“That’s the mystique of being on the radio,” she says. “You hear me, but you don’t know what I look like, and that’s who I am. My presentation is just the music, and the music speaks for itself.”
The Continuing Music Adventures of DJ Ms. Sue Ms. Sue can be heard Saturday nights, 9 p.m. to midnight, on WTSR 91.3 FM or wtsr.org. Request line: 609-771-2554.
Things I C, exhibit of Ms. Sue photography, at the Ewing Township Library, 61 Scotch Road, Ewing. Friday, December 1 through Sunday, December 31. 609-882-3130.