GROOVES & CUTS – When Steppenwolf’s Lead Singer John Kay Went Americana/Blues
December 2021 – By John Apice
This music may have slipped by over the decades but would be interesting to rediscover. Especially baby boomers & younger listeners who discovered great rock of the 60s.
For those unfamiliar [I have to remember that an entire generation or more didn’t live through the 60s. They may sport tie-dyed t-shirts, thick belt buckles, hip-huggers, & peace signs but they could’ve overlooked the German-Canadian musician John Kay who once was the voice of 7 gold & 1 platinum album, 13 hit singles (7 were top 40 & 3 top 10)], his band Steppenwolf enjoyed worldwide success (1968-72) & reunited many times after. A long stretch between 1980-2018 made them one of the longest surviving bands in rock. Despite that success & longevity this band & vocalist is still not in the R&R Hall of Fame.
They’re in good company – neither is Jethro Tull, Procol Harum, Joe Cocker, Carole King, Warren Zevon, King Crimson, not to mention some that stand a slim chance despite qualifying by both sheer longevity & record sales: Bobby Rydell, Jan & Dean, & Chubby Checker.
But Kay’s voice is also unmistakable.
Perhaps their hits will jog your memory: “Born To Be Wild,” “Magic Carpet Ride,” “Rock Me,” “Monster,” “For Ladies Only,” “It’s Never Too Late,” & “The Pusher.”
But my focus is Kay’s solo work. His Steppenwolf record company (ABC-Dunhill/Probe) had faith in his solo efforts since they backed the first 2: “Forgotten Songs & Unsung Heroes” (1972) & “My Sportin’ Life” (1973). The 2 were designated blues-rock but a tinge of Americana/country was evident. The music business being what it is didn’t embrace Kay’s change of genres. Sales were sluggish. Though one managed to chart, Hank Snow’s classic (“I’m Movin’ On”).
The same rocky solo path was taken by Sam Samudio (Sam the Sham) on “Hard & Heavy” that featured Duane Allman on guitar. Chubby Checker (“The Change Has Come” with a Springsteen-style), Chuck Negron (Three Dog Night) released “Am I Still In Your Heart” & Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam), with LPs “Ukulele Songs,” “Into the Wild,” & “Earthling.”
Even pop singer Bobby Vee went folk for a while with “Robert Thomas Velline” & later the final & excellent “Adobe Sessions”. Yes, Bobby Vee who in the early 60s employed Bob Dylan on piano.
“Forgotten Songs & Unsung Heroes” originally had 9 cuts. “Many a Mile,” (a Patrick Sky song), a Hank Williams tune, “You Win Again.” “Bold Marauder,” (by Richard Farina (who sang with Mimi Farina – Joan Baez’s sister), the classic Robert Johnson “Walkin’ Blues,” & Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On.” A minor chart hit with wonderful drums, a tight country groove spiced with flecks of funk. The rest were originals in the same tradition.
“My Sportin’ Life” is sparer in instrumentation but has poignancy. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=egqRd8JXlgs “Drift Away,” is on this LP & because of the record label dragging its feet, it became a hit instead for Dobie Gray. “Heros & Devils,” is more country with chiming guitars & harmonica.
A great blues-rocker “Sing With the Children,” had big production value & slide guitar. “Giles of the River,” was written by an early ABC-Dunhill songwriting team: Donald Fagan & Walter Becker who later became Steely Dan. On this 2nd LP (9 cuts) Kay plays electric/acoustic guitars, 12-string acoustic, slide guitar, Dobro, & harmonica. Producer Richard Podolor (guitar, mandolin & electric mandolin). Studio musicians fill out the performance.
A completed LP (1976) was shelved & finally released in (1997). It featured spots by name musicians: Lowell George & Bob Payne (Little Feat), Nicky Hopkins (pianist on many Rolling Stones songs), & the Tower of Power horns. There were 10 Kay originals: “Down in New Orleans,” & “Sound of the Crowd.” Kay had a third major-label solo LP released on Mercury (1978). “All In Good Time” — a 10-cut LP with lots of blues.
In 2001 the 12-cut “Heretics & Privateers” (Cannonball Records/re-issued 2X by Crosscut/Rainman) was released. The title cut opens acoustically with vivid acoustic guitars, dramatic lyrics with slide guitar cruising gently under the melody. Kay’s lead vocal was authoritative. “Don’t Waste My Time,” is driven by a slide guitar & bluesy wailing’ harmonica. Quite a departure from Steppenwolf.
But “Ain’t That a Shame,” returns to the driving Steppenwolf signature sound with a juke joint flavor. “Dodging Bullets,” sounds like it was a Robert Johnson song. Kay certainly studied the inflections & phrasing of blues greats. The most fully realized Americana is “For the Women In My Life.” Impressive. The LP features Kay (vocals/guitars), Kent Henry (lead guitar), Mars Bonfire (who played lead guitar on “I’m Movin’ On”), Hugh O’Sullivan (keys), George Biondo (bass), Pentti Glan (drums), Richard Podolor (guitar/organ/mandolin/percussion) with backup singers: Alexandra Sliwin, Joan Sliwin & Marsha Temmer.
“Forgotten Songs & Unsung Heroes” & “Heretics & Privateers” are now available together. At 77 John Kay still plays live. All his music is available at eBay, Amazon & Discogs. Color photo courtesy of Jutta Maue Kay. https://www.steppenwolf.com/
Angel Olsen color image by Jose Pedro Cortes/The Observer.
Coming Jan. 13th is an excellent cover of Karen Dalton’s great iconic song “Something On Your Mind.” Recorded with expertise by North Carolina singer-songwriter Angel Olsen whose angelic airy voice adds a new twist & allows the song to come full-circle atmospherically. It’s coming as part of Grammy Nominated LITA’s (Light In The Attic) ongoing 7” vinyl & digital singles Cover Series.
Available now to pre-order. Karen Dalton’s 1971 LP “In My Own Time,” is set for its 50th Anniversary March 25 release. There will be a full review of that masterpiece. A Super Deluxe Edition (19 songs) & a regular set (10 cuts).
Bob Dylan stated in his Chronicles Volume 1 book of the late Oklahoma-raised Ms. Dalton: “My favorite singer in the place (a Greenwich Village club) was Karen Dalton, Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday & played the guitar like Jimmy Reed…I sang with her a couple of times.”
Karen would be pleased by all this attention.
Coming just under the Christmas wire (Available Dec 17-Southside Records) & worth seeking is a single from the exemplary LA band Nine Mile Station. A Christmas cover of John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s classic “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).”
The original’s a hard act to follow but it’s a Christmas classic that Will Hawkins (Vocals/Acoustic Guitar/Producer), his band & Scarlet Rivera (violin) created. It’s a respectable cover with all the emotional trimmings of the original. Another impressive release. Also, wonderful festive musical contributions by Fernando Perdomo (Producer/Electric Guitar/Piano & Backing Vocals), Brendan Vasquez (Bass), & Nick Moran (Drums) with superb chorus vocals by Barbara Lang, Adrian Bourgeois & Micheala B. Jordan. Available @ Bandcamp.
Look for Cleveland, Ohio’s Brian Straw’s “Baby Stars/Dead Languages” on Jan. 21, 2022. An emotionally charged collection that cruises through with musical experiments but never sacrifices the fine singing & instrumentation of some highly inspired lyrics. Alcoholism stalled Brain’s career & he had some choices to make. Fortunately, sometimes great work, creative work, meaningful work, come from experiences such as this. Brian went through a lot to sculpt this inviting collection of songs.
Straw comes across vocally as a Marc Cohn (“Walking In Memphis” “Silver Thunderbird”) & has the lift of the late Philly/Americana artist Robert Hazard. Quite enjoyable despite Straw’s unique compositional style with tight lyrics woven into the music.
On the title cut which deals with struggles the thump of the drums — perfectly suited to the mood & atmosphere of the performance. The LP itself deals with what happens after sobriety, the difficult time Straw spent at rock bottom & celebrating his way back up. Photo courtesy: Pete Larson. https://www.brianstraw.org/
Raine Hamilton (vocals/violin) approaches from another direction. She adds haunting tints of chamber music to tracks such as “Love Has Come For Me,” which is delightful. Her 3rd LP Brave Land drops on Jan. 21. There’s darkness here too — but lots of tiny rays of light cut through the holes in her musical wall.
Her melodies have lilting curves between violin, double-bass & cello. Her punk appearance is deceiving yet surprisingly charming. Her music & personality work well in this melodic environment. Raine’s voice is perfectly suited to this showcase. In 1969 Frank Sinatra had a hit with Rod McKuen’s “Love’s Been Good To Me,” & for some reason, Raine reminds me of this style, this musical beauty, this very special gentle instrumental & lyrical interaction. Let’s hope she stays on track.
11-cuts with crystal clear tonality the Winnipeg, Manitoba native focused on the tendrils of senses that emanated from each tune. As a lyricist/poet Mr. McKuen would’ve been delighted to work with Raine. This is creative, different, poignant, compelling & quite attractive.
String arrangements were provided by Quintin Bart (double bass), Natanielle Felicitas (cello) & Raine. They add just the right amount of loveliness to each composition. “Believer,” has Ms. Hamilton sounding as sweet as Alison Krauss. Her enthusiasm & emotional tone comes through her voice as Ms. Krauss does. This music has luster, distinguished by a vintage sound that always captivates. Color photo of Raine: Megan Steen. Available @ https://www.rainehamilton.com/
Anna Sun is an exciting trio with a new self-titled 6-track EP (Drops on Jan 14) that exudes energy & lots of styles. Lead singer Samantha Aneson is blessed with a voice that isn’t derivative of today’s female whiney singers. No valium-driven sounds here. No dreamy, Nyquil-induced singing. Sam leans into that Aimee Mann world & does it seductively. She shines with her smooth rock rich vocals. On “What a Shame,” she’s exceptional. The driving typically tight melodic garage rock is actually about her losing her mother to dementia. I too, have to give this band credit for brave diary-like songwriting (as their PR states). But it’s the performance between the singer & the band that enlivens it all.
The Brooklyn-based trio succeeds in the originality column. Photo courtesy of Dylan Thomas. Available @ https://annasunband.com/home
The debut of North Carolina’s Heather Sarona was a surprise. I almost passed because I thought it would be a snooze. It wasn’t. “Head Above Water” (Drops Jan 28) comes with sparkling folk & bluegrass-oriented songs such as “Better Than What I Got.” This was good, good, good. Sarona projects an upbeat warm voice excellently on each well-recorded cut.
It’s Heather’s first work with other musicians. The chemistry apparently agrees. There are 9-riveting tracks & Heather has moments where she sounds also like Alison Krauss. Other times she has a strong country-driven tone that is quite of her own design.
Heather picks acoustic guitar with metal picks, banjo, & ukulele. Plays with feeling through haunting little passages that enrich the melodies. “For Me,” is one such song. Her Alison Krauss flavor is evident with the excellent “Don’t Want To Let It Go.” The production captures every note with expertise.
If you want to feel good after too much partying – a Heather Sarona song is the cure for all ills. Photo courtesy of her Facebook. CD available @ https://heathersarona.com/
Lots of good music coming in 2022 so stay safe. Keep an eye on Americana Highways & cheer up. All music is available as noted or on the artists’ website.