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San Diego Musician Sue Clay Celebrates 50 Years of Singing A Cappella Harmony

October 4, 2021 - While in her twenties, Sue Clay suffered a broken ankle in a skiing accident. After a long recovery, she decided that singing might be considerably less dangerous. This is how Sue discovered a cappella singing at 26 years old. She is self-taught and doesn’t read music or play an instrument. “When I was growing up I was told I couldn’t sing, ” Sue says. “I wasn’t allowed to sing at church or school … but I always wanted to. I guess I showed them!” She laughs at the memory. In 2021, the San Diego resident celebrated 50 years of membership with Sweet Adelines International (SAI). SAI performs competitive 4-part a cappella harmony in the barbershop style. Sue has fond memories of traveling with the chorus. Over the course of her musical career, she has sung with two Sweet Adeline choruses: Torrey Pines (1971-79) and the San Diego Chorus (1979 – present). Although Sue began her singing career as a lead vocalist and later sang baritone, her longest tenure has been as a bass. Kathleen Hansen serves as Master Director of the San Diego Chorus. “Sue has been an invaluable member of the San Diego Chorus for decades and can usually be found singing near the center of the chorus,” Hansen says. “Her lovely bass voice has natural resonance that matches everyone that she sings with, earning her the moniker of the Universal Bass.” In 2000, Sue was diagnosed with a brain tumor that later required surgery. It was a difficult season, she remembers, but could have been much worse. Sue sang throughout her recovery, which included the 2001 Sweet Adelines International Competition in Portland, Oregon. That year the San Diego Chorus was named International Champions, the second championship title for the chorus since they were established in 1951. The Portland show was a memorable one for many reasons, including a minor misstep that resulted in Sue slipping off the back of the risers. “I was absolutely fine,” Clay says with a grin. “The show went on … but I’ll never forget it.” What she remembers most about that particular performance is the feeling of excitement when stepping onto the International stage. “There were these long, sheer curtains on either side of the chorus. As we walked on stage, we flung them aside and stepped in time. There was a distinct cadence … like a stomp,” she says. “It was such an entrance! You could feel the excitement building before we even sang our first note.” Kim Vaughn is a three-time International Quartet Champion, Queen of Harmony and directed the San Diego chorus from 1985-2015. “Sue draws other voices in, helping them find their place and shine. “ says Vaughn. “She is a naturally responsive singer with an intuitive ear. You can always rely on Sue to have it right, and she works hard at that.” Sue is known by her singing family for being kind and direct – a person who says what she means and means what she says. An avid seamstress, Sue worked on chorus costumes for many years. She currently serves on the riser team, helping to set up and break down equipment for weekly rehearsals and performances. Sue estimates that over the years she has easily sung with more than 25 quartets, some of whom have sung competitively. “It’s fun singing with a smaller group and being solely responsible for your own part,” Sue says. “We had some wonderful times traveling and performing.” In addition to traveling across the U.S., Clay fondly recalls a trip to Hawaii when her quartet was invited to teach barbershop singing at a college, as well as a trip to Ireland. In her early years of traveling she was determined to not miss a single moment of each competition. “Every class, workshop and performance, I was there. After the performance, I stayed for the afterglow - I didn’t want to miss a thing,” Clay says. “Suddenly it was 3 a.m., and I needed to get back to my hotel room, which was on the 34th floor. There was a small problem, though – I hate elevators. That year’s outgoing International Quartet Champions, the Bronze Tones, made sure I made it safely to my room. They rode that elevator all the way to the top with me, and we sang the whole way!” Barbershop singers are just ‘good people,’ Sue says.

Not surprisingly, the pandemic brought chorus performances and competitions worldwide to a temporary halt over the last two years. As a result, Sweet Adelines International was unable to acknowledge Clay’s 50 year milestone from the International Stage, a celebrated and time-honored tradition. Sue’s San Diego Chorus family made sure her anniversary didn’t pass without celebration. A cherished group of close friends orchestrated a small surprise luncheon, presenting Sue with her 50 year pin from Sweet Adelines International. She also received a golden glass sculpture of a treble clef from the San Diego Chorus. Of course there was singing on that day, too. Sue is grateful for the countless friendships that have come from singing barbershop music for 50 years. On both good days and bad, Sue cannot remember a time when she didn’t choose to sing. “When things are hard in life, singing is where I go. This is what makes me happy,” Sue said. “I do it for the joy factor and never intend to stop.”

In the southwestern United States, Region 21 Golden West serves as a cornerstone to Sweet Adelines International, a worldwide organization that exists to advance the musical art form of barbershop harmony through education and performance. With 16 active choruses and several new choruses in the formation process, Region 21 is known for vibrant, competitive choruses that boast the highest levels of musical excellence and dynamic, award-winning quartets. Region 21 represents choruses in New Mexico, Arizona, southern California and Hawaii. The region hosts annual events for choruses and quartets that include regional competition, musical education, workshops, coaching and much more. Learn more at


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