Some artists in gospel music simply possess the ability of making their audience fall in love with them before they even sing their first song. Sue Chenault Dodge possesses such an ability. Her singing career in the southern gospel mainstream lasted just short of a decade before her marriage to Amos Dodge in 1974, yet when she returned to the stage in the early 90s, it was plainly evident that her fans and friends had far from forgotten her. Her ability to belt out a high energy barn-burner such as “I Never Shall Forget the Day” is equaled by her heartfelt communication skills on classics like “His Hand in Mine”. Perhaps even greater than her ability with a song is her sense of humor and genuine heart for people. For this month’s column, we look back over the life and career of one of gospel music’s grandest sweethearts, Sue Dodge.
Sue Ellen Chenault was born and raised in Bauxite, Arkansas, later moving a few miles east to Bryant, now a suburb of Little Rock. Her parents, Floyd and Ethalene Chenault, nurtured her love for music at an early age. By age four, she was appearing on talent competitions, and through her teenage years, she was entering and winning beauty pageants, eventually named Miss Congeniality in the Miss Arkansas pageant of 1968. She began her professional singing career at age 14 performing with the T.O. Miller Trio.
Sue deeply relished a career in gospel music. She mentioned this while visiting with her friend Linda Robinson, soprano vocalist and pianist for the Speers, on Halloween night, 1968. Linda advised Sue to get in contact with a newlywed couple who were experienced gospel music artists, and were in the process of forming a singing group. The couple was Paul and Ann Downing, and in March 1969, Sue performed her first concert as original soprano for The Downings. Paul, Ann, Sue, Greg Gordon, and Dickie Matthews formed a magical chemistry together, and The Downings quickly elevated to the top of the gospel music world.
In October 1970, Sue fulfilled a lifelong dream, as she replaced her friend Linda Robinson as soprano vocalist and pianist for the Speer Family. Sue has shared the story multiple times of her audition for the Speers, as Ben Speer arranged for Sue to be picked up for the audition by his son Steve, who picked up and delivered Sue to her audition in, of all things, a white hearse. Sue not only impressed the Speers with her vocal abilities, but her piano technique as well. Sue is not as widely known in gospel music for her smooth, consistent technique at the piano as she is her singing, but not only did she play for The Speers, but she served as pianist for Capital Church in Washington, DC, from its beginning.
The Speer Family’s years with Sue were some of their finest, as they performed to new record crowds, recorded top-selling albums with Heart Warming Records, and placed numerous hits at the top of the charts including “The King is Coming”, “I Never Shall Forget the Day”, and “Touring That City”. During this time, Sue received four Dove Awards for Female Vocalist of the Year. Only Sandi Patty has more Female Vocalist Doves than Sue, who ties with Natalie Grant for second most wins.
Sue left the Speers in 1974 following her marriage to Amos Dodge, and began life as a pastor’s wife. Amos and Sue Dodge have been well-known and respected among their peers for their strong, deep, Biblical commitment to each other. In 1979, Amos and Sue founded Capital Church in McLean, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC. Sue has served as the church’s pianist, hosted Womens’ Retreats, led Bible studies, and even with her busy traveling schedule, has rarely missed a Sunday, even arriving for services after returning home in the wee hours of the morning. One of the greatest legacies of Capital Church and The Dodge Family has been their Easter Sunrise Service, which has hosted thousands each year at the Lincoln Memorial.
Sue’s sense of humor is widely known among her fans and friends. She could entertain for hours with her road stories, and she may never live down her “hula hoop” escapade at the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion. And this writer will never forget being soaked by a water balloon Sue threw at me from the stage a couple years ago!
Sue’s kindness and generosity towards people has already been noted in this writing, and just about anyone who has encountered Sue has their own “Sue story”. I am fortunate enough to have multiple stories. From the time I first met and visited with Sue around the beginning of my singing career, she has been a voice of reason in a couple times when I needed it, whether sharing stories or giving musical and/or family advice that she freely offers to anyone who asks. If this were not enough, Sue and Jeanne Johnson offered me one of the greatest honors of my career at the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion one year, and that was to sing not just one, but several songs with them during their portion of the program. I have always considered myself more of a fan than a performer. With that in mind, it is certainly an honor for my talents to be acknowledged by my contemporaries, but when icons such as these dear ladies take time for an inexperienced young brat like myself, I am moved to my very core. I cannot express enough gratitude for such gestures as these.
Several Speer ladies are due for induction into the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame, including Sue, and I believe that she will receive her honors in due time. She has never failed at maintaining her position as a lady of Godliness, class, wit, charm, and wisdom. Such qualities are hard to come by not just today, but at any time or place. Thank you, Sue, for sharing your talents with your many fans and friends.
Thank you, as always, for your kind comments in regards to this column. Feel free to email me anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org, and visit me at my website, www.alankendallmusic.com. Thanks and see you next time!