Smithsonian label adds musician from Roslyn

Paul Simon and Bobby Susser met on a schoolyard in Queens when each was 11 years old. They became fast friends and stay in close touch to this day, said Susser. 

Simon, of course, gained music immortality singing alongside Art Garfunkel in the 1960’s. Susser, an influential musician in his own right, waited for posterity’s embrace until a month ago, when Smithsonian Folkways published his entire catalogue under its imprimatur. 

A nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution, the national museum of the United States, Smithsonian Folkways collects and republishes music of educational and cultural value. 

“Once they put a record out, it’s available to people forever, no matter how popular it is,” said Susser of Smithsonian Folkways, which has acquired the music of other notable artists like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. “I never thought I’d be in a position to be with Smithsonian,” he added. “Now, they’ve got me.” 

Susser, a resident of Roslyn, began writing pop songs in high school. His big break came in the early 1960’s, when he helped produce singles for a group called Tico and the Triumphs, which featured his old friend Simon. For the following decade, Susser produced pop songs that enjoyed varying degrees of success. 

His career took a sudden turn in 1971, when Bob Schwartz, the president of Laurie Records, asked him to write and produce a novelty song. Since so many of his rock and roll peers glorified drugs, Susser thought an anti-drug song might appeal to listeners who felt differently about the substances. The idea led to “Once You Understand,” an anti-drug anthem directed at children, which sold 1.4 million records. 

“I was getting letters praising that song from rabbis, priests and teachers and I thought, ‘I can do this kid thing.’ I found a home for my music with the kids.”

Two years later, Susser started his own record company, Susser Educational Records, which would become New Hope Records in the 1990’s. In all, Susser has written and produced dozens of children’s albums

“My work is meant not just to entertain but to teach,” he said. “For that type of music, the older you get, the more knowledge you have. In pop, the older you get the more wrinkles you have.”

Susser was born in Manhattan, grew up in Queens, and eventually moved to Great Neck, where he lived for 30 years. He graduated from Queens College with a bachelor’s degree in communications, and later attended Teachers College, where he received a master’s in communications in early childhood education. He moved to Roslyn in 2012, where he lives with his wife, Jan. 

“People gently ask me if I’m going to retire. I love what I do and I loved it from the day I started it. If you love something, why would you quit it?” he said. 

“The next question many ask is: ‘When are you moving to Florida?’” he joked. 

Susser is working on a new album due out in 2017 and tentatively titled “A Song for Me and You.” “Work is like an addiction for me. Without the work, I’m not me,” he reflected. “It does something for me. It feeds me.”

“It took me this long to feel this young,” he said. Though he admits that his “head develops its thinking but the body doesn’t always go along with it.” Susser had  back surgery in June from which he’s still recovering. He said the press attention and additional obligations resulting from the Folkways Smithsonian agreement, while exciting, have made his life more hectic. 

“It take a lot of energy,” he said. 

Luckily, he can count on assistance from his friend Paul Simon. “Paul said, ‘If you need help with anything, let me know. And if you don’t, I’ll check up on you,’” recounted Susser. “He didn’t want my worries getting in the way of my success.” 


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The Island Now

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