A duo that serenades listeners with jazzy blues piano and soaring vocals reminiscent of Janis Joplin and Billie Holiday is taking Bowdoin by storm this weekend.
When Stormin' Norman & Suzy met in the 1970s through an ad in the Boston Phoenix, they immediately began to gain a notoriety that ranged from New England college campuses to The New York Times.
Three decades later, they are returning to their colleigate fan base during their performance at Kanbar Auditorium in Studzinski Recital Hall on Saturday.
A graduate of Yale, "Stormin'" Norman Zamcheck has been making music since he was a kid.
"I have been creating music since I was 10," he said. "I always experienced everything in terms of songs. I think I first picked up boogie woogie piano from my dad, who was a good pianist in his youth, and collected transcriptions of early '30s boogie woogie-style piano."
This influence is clear in Zamcheck's songs, as is a prominent folk vibe.
"Of course, I was heavily involved with the folk music thing, and then rock, which was the center of everything in the '60s and '70s," Zamcheck said. "I think those times encouraged you to think of songs and singing as something greater than entertainment, and closer to those African griots who sing history, or closer to epic even."
While Zamcheck relies heavily on his musical partner, Suzy Williams, for inspiration and her vocal prowess, the two cooperate on every level to produce their individual sound.
"We have lots of respect for each other, though rehearsals can get very emotional when one is more attached to an idea than the other," he said. "Basically, we sit down at the piano, she or I will sing an idea for a song, and then we fuss and fume about how the lyric should go, where the choruses should go, and whether or not it should say something totally different."
Williams, who is originally from the West Coast but hitchhiked to New England when she was 17, is a dedicated performer.
"Suzy is fantastically professional about her work and how and what she sings. We can rehearse for 15 hours without stopping," Zamcheck said. This dedication contributes to the duo's musical chemistry.
Despite 30 years in the music business, Zamcheck and Williams maintain a sense of humor about their work.
"If you listen to Stormin' Norman & Suzy, you may see that there is serious stuff involved, but cleverly masked," Zamcheck said
"Things are funny and whimsical, but also kind of dark and scary. We always try to balance both sides. In a sense, the show and songs are a little of a trick. They are something that seems giddy, vaudeville and light, but are actually the opposite," he added.
This whimsy has been recognized by performances in Carnegie Hall and ecstatic reviews by publications such as The New York Times and Rolling Stone.
Although he has been performing for most of his life, Zamcheck continues to find inspiration for new music everywhere.
"The hard part is realizing the potential of an idea. I have taken 20 years to write a song," Zamcheck said. "I am pretty compulsive about recording first ideas. I listen to them, re-work them. Sometimes you can overly formalize a song and lose the magic."
That magic sometimes appears in unexpected of places.
According to Zamcheck, two months spent in the Canary Islands were the source of some of his and Williams' greatest songs.
"We were billed as "'Suzy y su Power Band,'" Zamcheck said.
"Almost two months on Gran Canaria, in a vast disco, surrounded by wives of Scandinavian whalers, 30 miles off the coast of Morocco," he added.
Zamcheck's experiences have also taught him lessons about how to become a successful musician.
"Try to be both totally true to your dreams and talent, but totally realistic. If you have the dream, hone your skills, get better at your instrument, listen to everything," he said.
"And try to get yourself a circuit where folks are hearing you," he added.
"Stormin' Norman & Suzy" will perform on Saturday at 8 p.m. at Kanbar Auditorium in Studzinski Recital Hall. The show is free and open to the public. Visit www.zamcheck.com for more information about "Stormin' Norman & Suzy" tour dates and music.