Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Exclusive: John Kay of Steppenwolf returns to protect wildlife and human rights

 
By Ray Shasho

John Kay Interview:

John Kay, the legendary frontman behind the dark shades for classic rock monsters Steppenwolf is definitely not your prototypic ‘Rock Star’ by any means. In fact, a major motion picture should be developed documenting his thrilling exploits before and after becoming a member of one of the greatest bands in rock music history.
John Kay (Joachim Fritz Krauledat) was born in East Prussia, Germany at the end of World War II. Kay was five years old and trapped behind the Iron Curtain; using information obtained from an underground network, a plan was devised, and he and his mother journeyed a heroine but horrifying nighttime escape into West Germany under machine gun fire. John Kay never knew his father who had been killed fighting the Russians, and he grew up as a child surrounded by the remnants of war.

A young John Kay (who spoke only German) first learned about rock ‘n’ roll while listening to Little Richard on U.S. Armed Forces radio. In 1958, John Kay and his mother settled down in Toronto, Canada and the radio became his only friend. While listening, Kay learned to speak English and explored other types of North American music …including Country. Kay learned to play Hank Williams songs on his first guitar. He also listened to church services broadcasting out of Buffalo, New York which impassioned his musical disposition to artists like Ray Charles, James Brown and Sam Cook.
John Kay’s revelation began inspired by Country Music lyric and Rhythm and Blues harmony, which set forth the basis for his rock ‘n’ roll career. John was prepared and disciplined when opportunity came knocking on his door.
Kay began a career as a musician performing as a folk and blues singer throughout North America. In 1965, he met up with his first band called The Sparrows, a mix of blues-rock toughness that immediately impacted their audiences. The group was entrenched into the Toronto Yorkville music scene but quickly infiltrated San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury and LA’s Sunset Strip.

In 1967, after The Sparrows disbanded, Steppenwolf was formed. The name was inspired by a Hermann Hesse novel. The group consisted of John Kay (lead vocals, rhythm guitars), Michael Monarch (lead guitars), Rushton Moreve (bass), Goldy McJohn (keyboards) and Jerry Edmonton (drums).
The bands first release in 1968 entitled Steppenwolf was a huge success and the group soon became a mainstay on both FM “underground rock” and AM Top 40 radio stations. The album spawned the bands biggest hit, “Born to Be Wild” (written by Mars Bonfire, drummer Jerry Edmonton’s brother) along with the Hoyt Axton penned, “The Pusher” and Don Covay composition, “Sookie Sookie.” “Born to Be Wild” was widely recognized throughout the years as the biker’s anthem. The lyric “heavy metal thunder” is also noted for being used in classifying the music genre “Heavy Metal.” “Born to Be Wild” reached #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart in (1968). The song sold over a million copies and was awarded a gold disc.

In 1969, Steppenwolf’s fame intensified with the release of the motion picture Easy Rider. Both “Born to Be Wild” and “The Pusher” were spotlighted in the counterculture release. The movie starred Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. It also featured a young Jack Nicholson.
The following album The Second (1968) produced the single, “Magic Carpet Ride” which became the bands second biggest hit (#3 on the Billboard charts). The hard rock-psychedelic composition was co-written by John Kay. To this day …“Born to Be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride” have been used in countless movies, television series and commercials.

Subsequent Steppenwolf releasesAt Your Birthday Party (1969, with new bassist Nick St. Nicholas) spawned, “Rock Me” (#10 Billboard Hit) selling over 1-million units. Monster (1969), Steppenwolf 7(1970), For Ladies Only (1971) revealed political and social messages by the band. Steppenwolf 7 spotlighted yet another Hoyt Axton penned composition called, “Snowblind Friend” and a modest hit co-penned by Kay entitled, “Who Needs Ya.” Band personnel changes were also made during the period.
Their single, “Hey Lawdy Mama” was a #35 Billboard Hot 100 Hit and featured on their 1970 Steppenwolf Live album. Steppenwolf Gold Their Greatest Hits was released in 1971; Rest in Peace 1967-1972 was released in ‘72.

The band remained a huge concert attraction worldwide.

In 1972, Steppenwolf disbanded, but reformed with its core lineup in ’74, releasing the album, Slow Flux. Their single, “Straight Shootin Woman” reached #29 on Billboard’s Hot 100. The band followed with Hour of the Wolf (1975) and Skullduggery (1976). The band disbanded a second time that same year.
After the first breakup of Steppenwolf, John Kay released his first solo effort entitled, Forgotten Songs and Unsung Heroes. The album featured covers by Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Robert Johnson and his own compositions. John Kay’s other solo projects include …Hereticks & Privateers, My Sportin’ Life, All In Good Time, Lone Steppenwolf, and John Kay & Company: The Lost Heritage Tapes.

From 1977 through 1980, various Steppenwolf incarnations featuring past members toured the U.S. including a variation spotlighting a look-alike version of John Kay sporting his trademark dark sunglasses.
John Kay was born with a vision deficiency that leads to increased sensitivity to light. Although the singer appeared hip and cool behind his dark shades, he also had ulterior motives for wearing them.
After the overwhelming success of Steppenwolf in the 60 and 70s … it was the billing of John Kay and Steppenwolf that enshrined their legacy and enlightened generations of music enthusiasts for decades. The bands incredible lineup of virtuoso musicians have been performing together since the early 1980’s … John Kay (Vocals and guitars), Michael Wilk (Keyboards), Ron Hurst (drummer), Danny Johnson (guitars- joined in 1996) and Gary Link (bass guitar).

On October 6th, 2007 John Kay and Steppenwolf performed a farewell concert at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, Maryland. Kay says, “It was basically not so much a farewell concert as it was a farewell tour.” Bringing up another exciting chapter of John Kay’s amazing life, his efforts to protect Wildlife, the Natural Environment and Human Rights.
In 2004, John Kay and his wife Jutta Maue Kay formed The Maue Kay Foundation, a nonprofit charitable foundation. Kay has been fully committed in helping to provide financial assistance for various projects around the world. Jutta Maue Kay serves as director of the foundation. Although John’s vision is impaired, it has not stopped him from his most important role as videographer for the foundation. John has captured important areas of concern across the globe …particularly in Cambodia, Thailand, Tanzania and Kenya.
Visit these important websites to find out more information about the foundation … www.mauekay.org www.achromatopsia.info/the-maue-kay-foundation

John Kay and Steppenwolf will be performing on Sunday, February 10th at Busch Gardens in Tampa as part of their “Bands, Brews & BBQ” concert series. The show begins at 5:00 p.m. For tickets or further information visit http://seaworldparks.com/en/buschgardens-tampa/Events/Bands-Brew-and-BBQ or call 1-888-800-5447.

I had the rare and wonderful opportunity to chat with John Kay recently about his amazing life.
Here’s my interview with Iron Curtain survivor/ Steppenwolf’s legendary leader and frontman/Singer/Songwriter/Musician/Humanitarian/And an incredibly nice guy …JOHN KAY.
Ray Shasho: Happy 2013 John, how are you doing?
John Kay: “Any day above ground is a good one. Things are going fine on this end and how are you doing?”
Ray Shasho: Are you calling from Nashville today?
John Kay: “No, I’m actually in Santa Barbara, California, we have a place here. At this time of year it’s a good place to be.”
Ray Shasho: Well, Florida is not a bad place either and you’ll be performing here in the Tampa Bay area pretty soon.
John Kay: “Because it is in Florida, I’m willing to leave this very comfortable place in the middle of winter. (All laughing) Having spent my high school years in Canada, I’ve seen enough winters to last a long time, so since you guys in Tampa are so nice & toasty, we’ll be visiting soon.”
Ray Shasho: The Bands, Brew & BBQ concert series at Busch Gardens is always a great event …huge crowds! We’re certainly excited that John Kay & Steppenwolf will be performing on Sunday.
John Kay: “It won’t be our first time in Florida and certainly not our first time in the Tampa area. We’ve always had great support there and looking forward to seeing our longtime supporters and some of their offspring when we play on Sunday.”
Ray Shasho: John, you and I met sometime around 2000-2001 in Springfield, Virginia at a venue called Jaxx. I met you at the door of your tour bus holding my 1974 Fender Telecaster to get signed by you. While you were signing it my marker exploded all over the guitar and you got a bit nervous when it happened, but were nice enough to clean it up for me and the signature turned out just great.
John Kay: “I vaguely recall an incident …was it a silver pen?”
Ray Shasho: Yes it was!
John Kay: “I thought so; those metallic inks usually come out a little more than you want them too, that does ring a bell and I’m glad it turned out alright.”
Ray Shasho: On October 6th, 2007, John Kay & Steppenwolf performed a farewell concert at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, Maryland …were you planning on retiring?
John Kay: “It was basically not so much a farewell concert as it was a farewell tour. After that, I sold my tour bus and was done with the long touring that we were accustomed to in preceding years. I completely took off 2008. But then I thought, I said we wouldn’t tour, but didn’t say we wouldn’t play, and the guys are still keen to playing whenever I have the desire to.”
“So since our family foundation continues to spend money every year on projects we consider worthwhile, for entities around the world, trying to protect what’s left of our global wildlife and things of that nature, I felt we could play maybe a maximum of a dozen dates a year. Then my share of the proceeds, I can stuff into the foundation, and if in time, can continue to foster orphan baby elephants in Kenya or whatever we want to do. And it’s not a bad way to have a goodtime with your bandmates a few times a year either. So that’s what we decided to do in 2009 and we’ve been doing it ever since. For now …never say never. We’re definitely going to do it this year and there’s a chance we may as well next … so that’s the deal on that.”
Ray Shasho: John, talk about The Maue Kay Foundation.
John Kay: “My wife’s maiden name is Maue and of course mine is Kay… it sounds vaguely like an extinct Hawaiian volcano, in fact there is one called Mauna Kea. We have a You Tube channel on which I posted about eight or nine video clips of various things we’ve seen with our own eyes and that we support. We just came back from Indonesia where we support Orangutan Foundation International headed by Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas, people who are familiar with Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey. Dr. Biruté is the third so-called ape angel that was mentored by Louis Leakey. Dr. Biruté has been studying the Orangutan’s for over forty years, however they too …the Orangutan’s, are in grave danger because there’s continuing deforestation and most of it illegal. So she has over 340 orphaned Orangutan’s that are being raised to be reintroduced into the wild.”
“So those are the kinds of things that we are interested in, because we happen to believe that our fellow creatures have a right to exist as well. And those are the things that I get worked up over, motivated by, and a good way to play some rock ‘n’ roll and see to it that some of the creatures can hang in there a little longer.”
Ray Shasho: I’ve chatted with many “rock legends” that are extremely sensitive to the humanity of animals ... Greg Lake, Tom Rush and Ian Anderson immediately come to mind.
John Kay: “I’m glad …the more I sort of rub shoulders with others, the more I find like-minded people that do care about something beyond themselves, particularly in the area of preserving our living treasure sort of speak. Anyone who has been to Africa and seen the majestic herds of elephants, leopards or whatever it is … or in Southeast Asia, we were up in Assam, India visiting Kaziranga National Park where the One-Horned Asian Rhino is barely hanging on. So, we are a strange bunch…on the one hand humanity produces some amazing people to be used as a role model and we kind of try and stumble awkwardly in their footsteps behind them, since they lead by example. And at the same time we have people who are incredibly cruel and self-centered and destructive in their habits. It’s a daily kind of balancing act between screaming outrage and being humbled by the efforts of those trying to do the right thing.”
Ray Shasho: Tom Rush’s wife, Author Renée Askins (Shadow Mountain), was instrumental in reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone National Park. What I’ve heard is that they’re already starting to be killed off again.
John Kay: “Oh yes… absolutely… Montana, Wyoming… there’s old mindset there you know, of cows more precious than wildlife kind of thing …it’s everywhere you turn. One of my oldest living friends is Michael Blake, who wrote Dances with Wolves, and he was born and raised in Arizona, he’s deeply rooted in the Southwest and a big supporter of the Wild Mustangs, the BLM rounds them up regularly. If you get into the animal protection end of things, the list of projects is endless.”
Ray Shasho: John, I could talk about wildlife all day, but I guess we should switch the conversation over to music. Is the band that we’ll see in Tampa … Michael Wilk, Ron Hurst, Danny Johnson, Gary Link and of course yourself?
John Kay: “Yes indeed. We’ve been together now, with the exception of Gary who was with us in the early 80s and then we became a foursome for awhile while we were rebuilding, but as of 2009 we asked Gary to join us again, which he did, and we’re all very glad because there’s an extra level of energy onstage with the five of us. We’re having a great time because we get to leave the day in, day out, whatever we may be doing at home … ten to twelve times a year. We’re going to have a great time and it’s good to see the guys again. Having just coming back from Indonesia it’s a little bit of a culture shock, I was in the Rainforest for about two weeks. But we feel very privilege to be in this position at this point in our lives.”
Ray Shasho: How was your classic hit, “Born to Be Wild” conceived?
John Kay: “It was just five of us playing in the garage below this little crackerjack apartment that my newly wedded wife and I occupied in Hollywood, and we were kicking around some songs that I had written or co-written with band members. Our drummer one day showed up with a cassette tape that his brother had given him, and on it was “Born to Be Wild.” Mars Bonfire recorded it in the evening …he lived in a place that he couldn’t make any noise, and I think it was recorded with just a Telecaster guitar and it was very low-keyed … very low-energy. Our drummer Jerry Edmonton, Mars brother said, “Why don’t we just kick it around?” So we did, and actually it came to life relatively quickly once we picked a key. But it was just one of eleven songs that we recorded on our first album.”
“Nobody picked it as the undeniable hit or whatever; it was in fact the third single on the album released. The album was already in the top five nationally in 1968 before “Born to Be Wild” was released. But once “Born to Be Wild” came out in the summer of ’68, obviously when it became so successful it was all over the country on AM-Hit radio, so we kind of had that double barrel of success, meaning the album was being played almost in its entirety on the so-called “underground” newly formed FM radio stations, while “Born to Be Wild” was played on Top 40 stations. So it kind of built our fan base as a result of those two exposures.”
Ray Shasho: Being a Top 40 Deejay back in the late 70s, I believe the period between … 1966-1969 was probably the greatest era for music on the radio.
John Kay: “There was a lot of good stuff on the air at that time and a lot of it withstood the test of time. Those were the days of Hendrix, Creedence, Cream, The Airplane and others… and much of that stuff still sounds pretty good even now. I think our generation’s music perhaps sunk deeper roots into the listener, in many ways it was not just a tune …I remember dancing to this at the prom, that kind of thing, and those artists of that music of that period were talking often about the times and the situations of the ‘here and now,’ whether they were college students demonstrating on campuses against the war in Viet Nam or in Viet Nam fighting it. A lot of songs were the soundtrack to some really intense periods of their lives. As a result, the connection lasts to this day.”
Ray Shasho: I’ve always been a big Hoyt Axton fan, what was the trigger in recording “The Pusher”?
John Kay: “Prior to ever joining The Sparrows, which broke up in LA, and out of the ashes more or less Steppenwolf was formed, and prior to that I was just another semi-professional folk musician primarily playing blues. While spending a year on the west coast, particularly in Los Angeles, I hung out a lot at the Troubadour. I was put in most of these smaller coffee houses but I was really hanging out at the Troubadour to learn from those who had already made it into the pro ranks and one of them was Hoyt Axton. I had liked Hoyts playing, singing and his writing. And of course one of his songs that never failed to get a very strong reaction from his audience was “The Pusher.” It was a song that I sort of took with me when I played places like Buffalo, Toronto and even the Village in New York City and not too many people had heard of Hoyt Axton, he was more of a west coast phenomenon. Anyway, I would start playing “The Pusher” and got pretty good reaction to it.”
“When I finally joined the Canadian band The Sparrows in 1965 in Toronto, they were an electric band and becoming more and more of a blues rock band. So I just played my Gibson acoustic guitar, put a pickup in the sound hole, plugged into a Fender Bassman Amp and played the same stuff I always played …except it was louder, but in a band context. And that’s when “The Pusher” got a whole new level of intensity to it. When The Sparrows busted up after migrating from Toronto through New York to LA and San Francisco and back to LA where they busted up there … one of the songs we kept and recorded on the first Steppenwolf album was “The Pusher” except the Steppenwolf sound was a whole lot more aggressive. And so in many ways, I thought “The Pusher” really got its rightful treatment when ‘The Wolf’ recorded it.”
Ray Shasho: The psychedelic riff on “The Pusher” is second to none, the only thing musically that compares is the riff on Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man.”
John Kay: “It was psychedelic sometimes in the listeners head and psychedelic in the people playing it … they were the times when you never knew the source and the cause of the music and whether there was any chemical assistance in the writing or just a perception of the listener. But certainly those were the days.”
Ray Shasho: Of course you co-wrote “Magic Carpet Ride,” so that tune had to be extremely lucrative for you, royalties-wise.
John Kay: “It did, it certainly was the gift that keeps on giving. But I actually … I guess it’s been about two years now …cashed out. I sold every last right and master recordings, everything that I was on administrative and income level that was associated with the music industry. I saw the writing on the wall sort of speak; the industry began to shrink in size and so while someone was interested in paying me a rather substantial sum, I took my chips off the table and cashed in. Because my interests were not really on managing and administrating all the various sources of music industry related revenue, my interests were in utilizing what time I have left in pursuing those things that I’m more and more interested in. Namely at this point …I’ve been to over fifty different countries and inspired by the work of numerous people and entities I wish to support, so the more time I needed for that, the less time I wanted to become a desk jockey …and so that’s what I did. But yes, you’re right; “Magic Carpet Ride” certainly was like a cash cow.”
Ray Shasho: Was Steppenwolf asked to perform at Woodstock?
John Kay: “Yes we were. Prior to the offer coming in, we said no more festivals. Because with the exception of two that I can think of that we did play …one of them was the Miami Pop Festival and the other one was the Newport ‘69 Pop Festival with Hendrix, and that one was more or less in my own back yard. They were handled and organized well. All the other ones were just chaotic and we were saying, wait a minute, at this juncture we’re headlining arenas and playing to twenty thousand people as headliners and in control, things run on time and are right, and when we go into these massive festivals it turns into mismanaged chaos. So why are we putting ourselves through this? Why are we sitting backstage twiddling our thumbs three hours after we were supposed to go on and some of the equipment that they were to provide isn’t there?”
“Within weeks of that Woodstock offer coming in, we agreed let’s not battle with that. We nevertheless still made the right decision, meaning that Woodstock was a mismanaged chaotic situation. However the film, without question, captured some amazing performances. On the one hand we spared ourselves having to go through that Meat Grinder; on the other hand, one can say we missed an opportunity to be part of that film, assuming for the moment that our performance would have been good enough and deemed worthy of inclusion in the film. But I have no regrets about the matter. We as a band have had our ups and downs over forty plus years and I’m still here, I’m healthy, in good spirits and consider myself extraordinarily fortunate. Instead of looking over your shoulder and saying this or that could have been different … the future has always been far more interesting to me because it’s unknown … I know where I’ve been.”
Ray Shasho: John, I ask everyone that I interview this same question … If you had a ‘Field of Dreams’ wish …like the movie, to sing or collaborate with anyone from the past or present …who would that be?
John Kay: “That’s a really good question because ‘Field of Dreams’ reference is a good one in that regard because obviously completely disregards anything to do with reality and we’re now strictly entering the realm of fantasy. There are two people amongst dozens, but two in particular that really affected me with their music. One of them … and I know I’m one of many that are part of this club … Robert Johnson legendary Delta Blues singer and writer. I’d be standing in the background and playing a few chords behind him on the guitar because he did not need anybody, he was a one-man orchestra. But just to be in the same room while he was performing would certainly be something if a time machine could provide that.”
“The other one is Hank Williams. I love several of his country classics. There’s a side to him that most people don’t know about. He did two albums under the pseudonym ‘Luke the Drifter’ and some of these songs were part of predominately spoken word songs. Songs like, “Be Careful Of Stones That You Throw” and numerous others. And that’s Hank Williams the philosopher and kindhearted country preacher kind of guy. When I heard that kind of music when I was still in Toronto, Canada in my teens, it preceded becoming familiar with Woody Guthrie and other people who wrote songs that really meant something to me and showed me that music can be more than just a hummable melody. That part of Hank Williams … I would like to have a sit- down talk and singing kind of thing. That would be very instructive and enlightening, because for his time, some of those songs had a kindhearted view of humanity and our shortcomings and that really affected me and stayed with me as a touchstone.”
Ray Shasho: John, thank you so much for being on the call today, but more importantly for the great music you and the rest of Steppenwolf have given to us over the years.
John Kay: “Well thank you; it’s obviously a two-way street, we put it out there but without it coming back to us in the form of support and folks coming out to see what we have to offer, we’d long ago be doing something else for a living. So we are quite appreciative. We put it out there and it came back to us with a lot of affection and are quite grateful for that.”
Ray Shasho: John, we’ll see you in Tampa.

John Kay and Steppenwolf will be performing on Sunday, February 10th at Busch Gardens in Tampa as part of their “Bands, Brews & BBQ” concert series. The show begins at 5:00 p.m. For tickets or further information visit http://seaworldparks.com/en/buschgardens-tampa/Events/Bands-Brew-and-BBQ or call 1-888-800-5447.

John Kay & Steppenwolf official website http://steppenwolf.com/
Visit The Maue Kay Foundation at www.mauekay.org
Purchase John Kay’s autobiography “Magic Carpet Ride” at amazon.com
Special thanks to Charlie Wolf for arranging this interview.

Contact classic rock music journalist Ray Shasho at rockraymond.shasho@gmail.com
Purchase Ray’s very special memoir called ‘Check the Gs’ -The True Story of an Eclectic American Family and Their Wacky Family Business … You’ll LIVE IT! Also available for download on NOOK or KINDLE edition for JUST .99 CENTS at amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com -Please support Ray so he can continue to bring you quality classic rock music reporting. 
~~Pacific Book Review says Ray Shasho is a product of the second half of the 20th century, made in the USA from parts around the world, and within him is every trend in music, television, politics and culture contributing to his philosophical and comically analytical reflections collected in his fine book of memories. I found Check the Gs to be pure entertainment, fantastic fun and a catalyst to igniting so many memories of my own life, as I too am within a few years of Ray. So to all, I say if you have a bit of grey hair (or no hair), buy this book! It’s a great gift for your “over-the-hill” friends, or for their kids, if they are the history buffs of younger generations trying to figure out why we are the way we are.

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