Singer, Jeff Award actress Sulanya ‘Sue’ Conway dies at 67
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From Big Mac jingles to soul-stirring gospel performances that earned foot-stomping, whistling, “brava”-shouting ovations in Europe, singer Sue Conway never had to hold down what performers call a “day job.”
She was always busy.
She sang at the Pump Room and did background vocals for Natalie Cole, Roberta Flack, Patti LaBelle, Stevie Wonder and Jerry “Iceman” Butler, the Cook County commissioner. Ms. Conway won a 1982 Jeff Award for best actress for her portrayal of Bessie Smith in Kuumba Theater’s “The Little Dreamer.” She received kudos for playing Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American actress to win an Academy Award, in the 1991 Body Politic show “Hi-Hat Hattie!” She also appeared in the 1999 movie “Hoodlum,” a gangster flick starring Laurence Fishburne, Andy Garcia, Tim Roth and Vanessa Williams. In 1976, she toured with a national production of “The Wiz.”
And, relatives said, Ms. Conway sang an early jingle for Chicago’s recycling program, “Chicago’s Got it in the Bag.”
She formed a gospel troupe, the Sue Conway Victory Singers, that toured Europe for more than 25 years, including Austria, France, Germany, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Italy, Slovenia, Spain and Switzerland. “I don’t think I ever went to a concert where they didn’t get a standing ovation,” said the group’s manager, Irene Hill.
The Sue Conway Victory Singers were the first gospel group to perform at Italy’s top opera house, La Scala in Milan, according to Hill.
Ms. Conway found the European audiences didn’t want newer numbers. They preferred songs of old-time religion introduced to them by gospel pioneers Mahalia Jackson and Alex Bradford like “Oh Happy Day,” “This Little Light of Mine” and “Wade in the Water.”
“‘Oh Happy Day.’ We had to sing that at every concert,” said her piano player, Chip Johnson, a Chicago school administrator. “They’d stand and stomp their feet and clap their hands until we came out for more.”
“She always wanted people to feel healed and to feel loved,” said her daughter, Joy, who accompanied her to Europe.
“It was good to see all the people sharing and clapping and crying, and knowing that was my mother,” said her son, Ronald.
She died Sept. 4 of complications from a stroke at age 67.
When she performed, “She’d stretch out her arms, and you know you could feel her hugging you,” said her friend, singer Tecora Rogers.
Her musical education began at Parker High School with respected choral director Robert Wooten. She sang with the Piperettes for Operation Breadbasket, a precursor to the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.
Ms. Conway raised her family in Englewood, and later, Chatham.
Show business can be highly competitive, but she was known for sharing musicians, job leads and advice, Rogers said. “I’d ask Sue questions about money when somebody called [for a gig], ‘How much should I ask for?’ ” Ms. Conway explained to her that performers should factor into their fees everything from sheet music to practice time.
Sometimes, Rogers said, Ms. Conway would just check in to say hi. “She would call you and say, ‘I was thinking about you this morning and I thought you might need to talk.’”
Some of her finest reviews came for her one-woman show as Hattie McDaniel. Sun-Times theater critic Hedy Weiss said Ms. Conway “bursts into life with the performance of a hilarious number that McDaniel sang opposite Paul Robeson in the film version of ‘Show Boat’ called ‘Ah Still Suits Me,’” and that her portrayal attained “genuine dignity and pathos.”
A few years after winning her Jeff Award for her Bessie Smith portrayal, Ms. Conway appeared as Smith in a Chicago musical tribute to the blues legend, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington, called “The Empress, the Lady and the Queen.”
Ms. Conway never tired of singing “Sweet Home Chicago” and “I Love Being Here with You.”
At her services, coloratura soprano Felicia Coleman-Evans performed “Great is Thy Faithfulness” and Theresa Davis of The Emotions sang “For Every Mountain.” Ms. Conway’s family plans to start a music scholarship in her name. Other survivors include her father, Herbert Wallace; a grandchild, Alexandria Marie; and her partner, Ronald James Huff.