Suzanne Lena Prentice was born on 19 September 1958 in Invercargill to Rose and Bob Prentice. Bob played the Hawaiian guitar and could whistle; Rose sang in an English dance band during the war.
Prentice received her first guitar for a birthday and, years later, told NZ Women’s Weekly reporter Virginia Smith that she found “learning to play the instrument meant learning to sing as well. Before then I was really more interested in riding my bike than singing or listening to music.”
At Rosedale Intermediate, Prentice made her talent quest debut, coming second. The next year she won first prize at the 1970 Southland A&P Show then joined the Southland Country Music Association. At 13, she passed a radio audition at Invercargill’s 4ZA.
A press bio from the 1980s describes an early performance: “It was 1971, Invercargill, New Zealand, before an auditorium packed with country music fans; the act that almost brought the roof down was a demure 12-year-old. She strummed her guitar, nearly as big as herself, and then with almost unbelievable poise and complete vocal control, broke into ‘I’m Little But I’m Loud’. The crowd was ecstatic and demanded encore after encore.”
Invitations started arriving, asking Prentice to perform at various community functions; by 1973 her profile was high in the district. She performed on touring shows with overseas acts such as Hank Snow, Kenny Rogers, Buck Owens, Slim Dusty, and Roy Orbison. She appeared in a TV talent show, Studio One - New Faces, winning many fans with her version of ‘Funny Face’. This led to a recording contract with Music World, and ‘Dust on Mother’s Bible’ – her first single, on the Master label – became a hit in New Zealand and Australia. Her first album Country Girl (Music World, 1973) was recorded in Christchurch at Robbins Recording Studio, with arrangements and backing by Murray Charteris and The Last Exit. Alongside traditional country songs were current crossover hits such as Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Help Me Make it Through the Night’, and Susan Raye’s ‘LA International Airport’.
Bookings kept flowing in and Prentice soon had her own fan club. At just 15, she appeared on the Miss Southland Show alongside Steve Allen and Max Cryer. Two years later she decided to leave her job in a chemist store for a career in show business.
At 17 Prentice decided to leave her job in a chemist store for a career in show business.
In 1974 she attended the second Australasian Country Music Awards in Tamworth, New South Wales, and won the award for best female vocalist; three years later she became the first person to win the award twice, then won it again in 1978. (Eventually, after Prentice and Patsy Riggir won the award six times between them, the Country Music Association of Australia changed the rules so that only entrants from the Australian industry were eligible.)
Two months after her 19th birthday, in November 1977, Prentice married Southland policeman Stephen Dalton. “We’ve discussed our careers,” she told the Women’s Weekly, “and talked about any problems which could crop up; any possible conflicts. The only difference, after we’re married, will be that I won’t make any of the longer tours.” The couple have two children, Andrea and Blair.
Invercargill would remain her home base for the time being, she said. The city provided her with enough work to keep her fully occupied between outside shows and tours; she was perhaps the only fulltime professional singer in the region. “While that keeps on, why should I even think of moving? I can commute from here to anywhere in the world if I need to.”
The confidence shown by this 1977 interview was already playing out. In 1976 she won TV talent show The Entertainers; the prize was a flight to London with her mother, and she arranged club work and television appearances there. Back home she worked on Touch Of Country and in the early 1980s appeared frequently on That’s Country.
More acknowledgement of her success came in 1978 with the placing of her handprints among the Hands of Fame in Tamworth, NSW. But this was soon eclipsed when an invitation arrived for Prentice – still just 20 – to appear at the legendary Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.
When the news broke, she told the Women’s Weekly she didn’t want to be pigeon-holed. “I am not a country and western singer. It’s a label which immediately smacks of cowboys and yodelling and that’s not my kind of music. I’m a country singer, even a country cross-over; in a similar style to American artists like Crystal Gayle and Dolly Parton.”
This was the case during her stint on Music World, but her approach to recording became more professional – and firmly aimed at the mainstream audience – after shifting to the local branches of major labels such as CBS, EMI and RCA. Her big, passionate voice suited a repertoire that delved into countrypolitan, pop, and gospel. This diversity is exemplified by the live album In Concert (EMI, 1985), with tracks including ‘Why Baby Why’, ‘Love Me Tender’, ‘Delta Dawn’, ‘How Great Thou Art’, and an Anne Murray medley.
In 1979 Prentice performed in Fiji, Canada, and the US. Besides the Grand Ole Opry appearance, the US tour included television work and cabaret appearances in locations such as Reno, Lake Tahoe and San Francisco. She said she never suffered from nerves. “I just get up on stage, sing, and enjoy myself. Country music doesn’t have the competitiveness and intensity of the rock business. Singers stick together, instead of constantly vying for top billing and star status.
“I don’t really have any little gimmicks or slick between-song patter. On stage I’m the same person I am off.”
Prentice’s appearances on the hugely successful TVNZ show That’s Country led some other regular members of the cast to complain that they were having to play “second fiddle” to her. Trevor Spitz, the talent coordinator for the series, also managed Prentice. Spitz’s conduct led to a Royal Commission of Inquiry, the report of which stated that “Some artists on the programme, with or without justification, saw themselves as missing out on opportunities because of alleged unfair concentration on the career of Miss Prentice.”
In 1983 Prentice was first New Zealander invited to perform at the three-day Silk Cut International Music Festival at London’s Wembley Stadium in London. Also on the bill were George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Boxcar Willie and the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Prentice was invited back for the 1984 event. Among the other international acts she has performed with are Dolly Parton, Julio Iglesias, Johnny Cash, and the Beach Boys; in 1979 she appeared before the Queen and Prince Philip at a Royal Command Performance concert in Auckland.
Her most prominent fan in the early 1980s was the prime minister, Robert Muldoon.
Her most prominent fan in the early 1980s was the prime minister, Robert Muldoon. “I like his sense of humour and quick wit,” she told the NZ Herald in 1985, a year after Muldoon left office. The song he especially enjoyed, ‘I Wish I Was Waltzing With You’, was one Prentice had wanted to record for a couple of years. “Nobody else was interested. I couldn’t work out why everybody else was so dumb, because I thought it had great potential. Then I sang it on Telethon and all the crew were humming it. My record company had people ringing up and asking for it.
“Eventually they let me record it … the sort of attitude, ‘Well, let the little girl have her own way.’ I told them they would all love the song by the end of the session, and I was right.”
A month-long tour of Canada in 1985 showed how hard Prentice worked towards an overseas breakthrough. She had three days off in the month and was up at 5.30am each day to catch a plane to the next venue. On the night she returned to New Zealand she gave a concert in Wellington. At the time she was contemplating moving to Canada. “I feel I have done as much as I can here and in Australia,” she told the NZ Herald. “Canada isn’t like here, where you are limited to being a country singer. In Canada the divisions between country and pop and rock or whatever are much more flexible. I will be able to expand – if you don’t change you can’t grow.” The laidback, conservative natured of Canada appealed more than the US. “I will be able to go back and forth, but I won’t have to live with as much razzmatazz. The job has enough razzmatazz as it is – when I go home I want to get away from all that. I am a bit of a recluse and do not go outside the house much.”
Prentice has been a prolific recording artist, releasing about a dozen albums in the 1970s with Music World, and another dozen in the 1980s (with CBS, EMI and RCA from 1983). Her gospel album One Day at a Time (Golden Edition/TVNZ, 1981) sold platinum (15,000 copies) in only two weeks, eventually going triple platinum and winning her the Golden Guitar award as Australasia’s top-selling album of the year. According to her mid-1980s press bio, One Day at a Time “earned her the biggest single royalty cheque in this history of recording in New Zealand”. Her first CBS album, When I Dream, sold platinum just 10 days after release in 1982.
In 1987 Prentice showed a Christchurch Town Hall audience how her music had evolved during her overseas tours. Backed by a band led by Rodger Fox, and featuring the Yandall Sisters, she sang favourites such as ‘Funny Face’ and ‘One Day at a Time’ as well as pop standards including ‘Crazy’, ‘You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling’ and ‘The Power of Love’. Her rendition of ‘Memory’ was “spellbinding”, wrote the Christchurch Star reviewer Alison Gregory. “Miss Prentice might not be invited back to the Golden Guitar Awards, and probably not to television’s country music shows either. But she showed last night that she has reached a maturity both in her singing and in her career. She’s doing just as she pleases and she’s proud of it.”
In the 1995 Queen’s Birthday Honours, Prentice was awarded an OBE for services to music. During the 90s her recording career took a back seat to charity work. She has been a committed supporter of World Vision for many years, fundraising for their projects and performing at hundreds of Kids for Kids shows singing with massed school choirs. In 2000 she toured Malawi with Dame Malvina Major, visiting orphanages and villages ravaged by the Aids epidemic.
Prentice’s 2002 book One Day at a Time was a mix of biography and exercise workout manual; in interviews at the time she shared her ideas about healthy eating, which she backed up with a body-building routine. A sequel appeared in 2004: Keeping It Off.
In 1993 her achievements were cemented at the New Zealand Hands of Fame at Gore.
The awards have kept coming: in 1993 her achievements were cemented at the New Zealand Hands of Fame at Gore. She received the Variety Artists Club’s top female vocalist award in 2009, and in 2016 the VAC’s prestigious Benny award.
After expressing a desire to get involved in local politics for many years, in 2010 she made an unsuccessful run for Mayor of Invercargill against the incumbent, Tim Shadbolt.
Throughout her career Prentice has lived in Invercargill; she has also remained passionate about supporting local artists. In 2002 she told the Herald’s Richard Pamatatau that she was a fan of contemporary acts such as Strawpeople, Annie Crummer and Bic Runga, but she also spoke out about the dearth of light-entertainment shows on television in the 2000s. “There are few environments for outstanding New Zealand talent and if people are to stay and not be a part of a talent exodus then the environment must showcase and support them.”
Prentice returned to recording in 2012, with the release of her first CD in over 15 years: I’ll Do It All Over Again.