After majoring in political science at SDSU, Sue Palmer - often called the Queen of Boogie Woogie - played in an all-women rock band called Ms. B. Haven, before moving on to Pearl Tapioca.
For around a dozen years, Palmer played with Tobacco Road, which featured two other former members of Ms. B. Haven, April West (also of Euphoria Brass Band) and Sharon Shufelt. By 1987, Palmer was able to buy a keyboard and quit her day job, to make music full time. During her tenure with the group, Tobacco Road won seven San Diego Music Awards from 1986 through 1994.
She first earned widespread attention while backing up blues belter Candye Kane. They toured the world together, with Palmer also appearing on Kane’s CDs like Diva La Grande and Swango. The duo co-wrote the title track on Swango, which can also be heard in the 2000 NPR documentary The Girl Next Door, profiling porn star Stacy Valentine. Palmer left Kane's band in summer 1999, though they reunited for awhile after Palmer was diagnosed with breast cancer, and they continued to collaborate until Kane's own cancer-related death.
Palmer formed her own band, the Motel Swing Orchestra, with April West and Sharon Shufelt from Ms.B.Haven and Tobacco Road, a group that has also included Jonny Viau, Deejha Marie, Earl Thomas, Sharifah Muhammad, and Candye Kane guitarist Steve Wilcox (Kats Caravan). Her first album, Boogie Woogie and Motel Swing, was nominated for a 2000 SDMA as "Best Blues Album" and "Best Jazz Album." Her second album, Soundtrack to a B Movie, was nominated for a 2001 SDMA as "Best Blues Album," and her third album, Live at Dizzy’s - which aired live as it happened on KSDS 88.3 - won the "Best Blues Album" SDMA in 2003. Her Motel Swing Band was nominated "Best Blues Band" at the 2006 SDMAs, and their album Sophisticated Ladies was nominated for a 2007 SDMA as "Best Blues Album."
Sophisticated Ladies also won a 2008 award for "Best Self Produced Album" at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. March 25, 2008, was proclaimed by the San Diego City Council as Sue Palmer Day.
In September 2010, her After Hours record won a San Diego Music Award as "Best Blues Album." She also served as musical director for the world premiere of The Toughest Girl Alive, an autobiographical play Candye Kane wrote that opened in 2010 at the Moxie in San Diego before moving on to play NYC.
She has performed with many of the legends of the boogie genre, playing double piano with Marcia Ball, Hadda Brooks, Sonny Leyland, Steve Lucky, Jeannie Cheathem, Ricky Nye, Mr. Boogie Woogie (from the Netherlands), Mike Seeley, Caroline Dahl, Wendy Dewitt, Lisa Otey, and Dona Oxford. "One of my best gigs," she tells the Reader, "was a mid-'90s show with Candye Kane and band in LeMans, France, with 20,000 people, before the LeMans car races. This was the biggest gig I have ever done, and a wild performance, in the beehived bedecked days."
Recalling those hair-centric days, Palmer describes one very strange gig with Kane. “We were playing at the Zoo Bar in Lincoln, Nebraska. I wore a beehive with Candye in those days and got a lot of attention for it. She was a little envious, so she got herself a 'pastiche,' a little hairpiece to put on top of her hair. The Zoo Bar is very small and intimate and we had a lot of good friends there. Candye always went all out for them and so this night, while I was taking a solo, she decided to go under the piano and put her head between my legs. I took a long solo but after awhile I started wondering when she was going to come up. It turned out she got her pastiche stuck in my fishnets and couldn't move. We all laughed and still do! It was hysterical.”
After Kane passed away from cancer, Palmer told the Reader about the song she always wanted, but was never able, to record. "I always wanted to record 'Wheel of Fortune' with Candye. I know this isn't considered a blues song usually, but it can be done very bluesy. Lou Ann Barton recorded it with Jimmy Vaughn."
"When I played with Candye, we used to do it, and it was one of my favorite tunes to hear her sing. Recently I found a bootleg video of us doing it around 2003, with April West on trombone and Sharon Shufelt on bass, singing backups, Jimmy Woodard on guitar, and myself on piano. I'm working on getting the video cleaned up and putting it on Youtube, at least. Its quite touching, and Candye sounds great! She was very healthy, fat, and full of it at the time. It was at the old Calypso, in Leucadia, another wonderful French restaurant that featured music every night, in an intimate setting with a grand piano. Now the restaurant is in Rosario Beach."
A new Sue Palmer album was released in summer 2018, Gems: 1980-2018, Volume 1, featuring local guest players like Daniel Jackson, Gilbert Castellanos, Rob Thorsen, Preston Coleman, Molly Stone (Stones Throw), Adrian Demain, Jimmy Woodard, and David Mosby. With a cover painted by her longtime graphic artist Julie Warren, among the tracks is a newly recorded song written by Candye Kane, "Don't Cry for Me, New Jersey."