Looking at a Rock ‘n’ Roll Life with Little Suzi from Detroit
By Jay S. Jacobs
Suzi Quatro kicked open the door for women in rock and roll. But do her a favor, though, don’t think of her as a woman rocker. She is just a rocker, full stop.
“I never thought of being female,” Quatro recently told me on a Zoom call from her British home. “I don’t see gender. I just don’t do it.”
She may not see gender, but much of her career it has been thrust upon her. In fact, in the new documentary on her life and career called Suzi Q, we are able to see the long hard road she has traveled to become a rock pioneer. While she doesn’t see gender, many artists like Cherie Currie (The Runaways), Debbie Harry (Blondie), Kathy Valentine (The Go-Go’s), Joan Jett (The Blackhearts and moreare more than happy to appear in the film and point out how Quatro blazed a trail for them.
Finally, Quatro gets it.
“In hindsight, now that I’ve done this documentary, watching it on the big screen, I can see what I did,” Quatro admitted. “I can’t say I did it on purpose. That would be lying and I’m not a liar. All I was doing was following my road. I knew it might not be easy, but I wouldn’t compromise. I won’t compromise now. I was going this way. This is what I’m doing.”
It just happened that the way that Quatro was going inspired so many young women who felt lost – who loved music but didn’t feel that they could be taken serious in the boy’s club of rock and roll – to see that there was a way in, as long as you are true to yourself and your art.
“Now, when I see Cherie crying, Kathy Valentine crying, Debbie what she said, Joan [Jett] what she said, I’m just going…,” Quatro put her hands up to her face, shyly. “I realized that without meaning to, I gave all these women who didn’t fit anywhere a place to fit. That’s quite a legacy. I gave them permission to be different.”
Quatro gave them permission to be different because she allowed herself to be. In fact, it is sort of hard to believe that the nice, good natured down-to-earth woman on the other side of the Zoom screen was the leather jump-suited rock star visage she shares on stage. Is it ever difficult for Quatro to juggle those different parts of her life?
“No. Both of them are me, 100%,” Quatro said. “They’re just different parts of me. The Suzi Quatro that goes on stage, that’s that part. That’s the performing side. It’s my whole life. But then there’s the other. If you see my autobiography, Unzipped, I wrote it in two people. That kind of explains me. I wrote it as Little Suzi from Detroit, and Suzi Quatro. They are both me and they both had equal say.”
She’s just showing two sides of the same coin.
“It’s not a difficult balancing act,” Quatro continued. “I don’t have to balance anything. It’s just I have a division where I leave my public life public, and I leave my private life private. I try not to mix them up, although most people that know me well, it is just like that.”
She joined fingers of her hands together, demonstrating the connection.
“It just depends which one you’re talking to,” Quatro laughed. “Which one would you like to talk to today?” She kept laughing. “No, I’m just normal me. This is normal. I try to keep my feet on the ground at all times, which means you have to have a division.”
Now on the Zoom call, we find a full-grown Little Suzi relaxing and enjoying discussing her music and the new film on her life – or lives. The normal one and the rocker one.
“If you wonder why I’ve got red cheeks, I’ve just been jogging,” Quatro said. She raised a wine glass. “I am having a glass of champagne, but I did just jog up the hill.”
As explained in the documentary, like so many people of her generation, Little Suzi in Detroit first really became interested in music by seeing two acts perform on The Ed Sullivan Show when she was a little girl – first Elvis Presley and then The Beatles. It occurred to her from that young age that music was something that she could do. Of course, music was not exactly foreign in her household.
“My father was a musician,” Quatro explained. “He worked for General Motors [during the] daytime [in] Detroit – and then in the evening he did gigs. All of us kids were pretty musical. We played various instruments. It wasn’t unusual in my family to play lots of instruments. I myself played classical piano and percussion. I’m trained. I can read and write and play those two instruments.”
Still, those TV performances stirred something in the young girl.
“My first lightbulb moment was when I saw Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show. I was five and a half – going on six. My elder sister by nine years [Arlene] was 14 going on 15, exactly the right age, so she was screaming. I was looking at her in my youth, going, ‘Why are you screaming at The Ed Sullivan Show?’ I turned to the TV and I zoomed into the screen. I remember doing it. The little lightbulb went on that I was going to do what he did. I went, ‘I’m going to do that.’ It’s unusual when I tell this story, because it seems unbelievable, but I really did have my lightbulb moment that young.”
As Quatro said above, she grew up playing piano and percussion. Yet as a professional musician, she is known mostly for playing the bass. So how did she make the jump to a different instrument?
“Again, The Ed Sullivan Show,” Quatro explained. “We were watching The Beatles this time. I was 14. We decided to form a band. We all got on the phone with friends of ours. Two sisters [Nancy Ball and Mary Lou Ball], another girl whose father was in my dad’s band, which was so crazy. I know, it’s nuts. And somebody said, ‘all-girl band.’ Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!”
It turned out the Little Suzi’s shyness helped to decide her musical fate.
“Everybody picked an instrument very quickly,” Quatro said. “I didn’t speak up. So, although I played drums and piano, I was given the bass guitar. I said to my dad after the phone call, ‘Dad, we’re starting a band. Do you have a bass guitar?’ He said sure. He went down… and this part makes musicians green… he went down to where he keeps all his instruments, and he gave me a 1957 Fender Precision.”
Wow. Talk about starting out on top.
“Gold scratch plate, sunburst finish, stripe down the back of the neck,” she lovingly described it. “I didn’t know that it was a big bass. I just thought, okay, here’s what I have to learn. Everybody always says to me, ‘Why don’t you play a smaller bass?’ I didn’t know there was a smaller bass. I just thought this is what I have to learn, so I learned it. I had like the Rolls Royce of bass guitars given to me for my first time to learn it. That’s what I learned on. There was no accident that I was going to become a good bass player, because I learned on the best, and the hardest.”
The band that the Quatro sisters and Ball sisters formed was The Pleasure Seekers. Eventually all three of Suzi’s sisters were in the band, and in the mid-1960s they became one of the hottest groups in the nascent Detroit music scene. The band opened for local heroes like Alice Cooper, Bob Seger and Ted Nugent’s Amboy Dukes. They released two singles – one on Hideaway Records and one after being signed to Mercury Records.
“God, that was my whole early life,” Quatro recalled. “It was invaluable. It was great training. Great for stamina. You did five shows a night. In the Pleasure Seekers, I was the upfront 100% person. I did 99% of the songs, mainly playing bass and singing, but sometimes I’d go to the drums and play on them. Or sometimes I’d go to the keyboard. Sometimes I would be without one [instrument] and just singing. Most of the time, bass player and lead singer. It was fantastic training. We used to do five shows a night. That was normal back then. You’re 45 minutes on and 50 minutes off. If you don’t learn your craft on that kind of training, you ain’t never going to learn it.”
Of course, as the Suzi Q documentary points out, three sisters in a single band – plus two other sisters from a different family – could cause a certain amount of consternation. Especially when one of them was the center of attention. By 1969, the buzz was stalling around The Pleasure Seekers, and the band was transformed into a different unit with the basic same lineup – but different responsibilities. This new group was called Cradle.
“Cradle was not my favorite band,” Quatro admitted. “I was kind of put in the back, after being the front person for like seven years. It was decided to change shape. My little sister was brought in. I was told I was going to be just a bass player. I went, okay, whatever.”
Of course, maybe being relegated to the back was not such a bad thing, because quickly the record labels came sniffing around – and they were looking at Suzi Quatro only.
“I was given two offers in one week to go solo,” Quatro recalled. “Both of the record companies – Elektra’s Jac Holzman and Mickey Most from England – they both saw the band within one week of each other. They both didn’t like the band and they both offered me a solo contract.”
It was a big decision, but one she felt she had to make.
“Following the dotted line, this is obviously my time to go,” Quatro recalled. “Emotionally, absolutely very, very hard. Sure. I’m leaving my family, my home, everything I’m familiar with. But professionally, I had been planning on that day for as long as I could remember, when I would get my shot. I got my shot. I took it, and I went.”
However, her shot caused a rift in the family that the documentary shows has still not completely healed all these years later. Quatro’s sisters all speak of the time in the band and while they obviously love her and respect all she has accomplished, it is quite obvious that there are still hard feelings festering about how it all went down, and the fact that Quatro left them behind and blazed her own trail.
“It’s a shame,” Quatro said. “After all these years – it’s been like 50-odd years – why they haven’t come to terms with it. But as you rightly said, when you watch it, you can see it. You can’t find another word to say it. Yeah, it’s a shame. I can’t do anything about it anymore. I’ve tried my best and when I see it on the big screen, it is kind of unavoidable.
“I’m doing the best I can,” Quatro continued. “It will always bother me a little bit, but I’m a big girl now. I can’t change it. I can’t change how they feel. I wouldn’t do anything different if I had it to do again. I took my chance, worked my balls off, was over there with no money, no friends, a tiny little room. I followed my road. I followed my road, which I would do again.”
It wasn’t easy. Quatro had a hard time when she first got to London. Mickey Most wasn’t sure what to do with her musically. She was making little money and living in a squat. But no matter how bad things got, she never felt like chucking it all and just going home.
“I was determined,” Quatro said. “I’m a determined girl. I had taken my chance. I had taken my gamble. I went over there with my bass guitar and my one little suitcase, and I was going to stay there, come hell or high water, until I was successful. That’s my attitude.”
So she pulled herself up by the bootstraps and started playing anywhere she could.
“I finally got an English band together, the one that made all the first albums. Great band. I married the guitar player. He was my first husband. We had honed the band on tour. I was supporting Thin Lizzy and headliners Slade. I hadn’t had any success yet. We were doing all my own songs, all original material. We obviously during that worked out our style, got our act together. Mickey saw that. It was just how it all happened.”
Things changed with Quatro recorded Mike Chapman’s “Can the Can,” which became a huge hit in England and Europe and even crossed over to be a minor hit in the States. And Quatro knew that song was going to break her from the first time she heard it.
“[Mickey Most] just signed [Nicky] Chinn and Chapman,” Quatro recalled of the soon to be famous British songwriters and producers who would go on to write hits for the likes of The Sweet, Huey Lewis and the News, Exile, Toni Basil, The Knack and Tina Turner. “[Most] said, ‘Why don’t we see if they come and see the show and see if they can craft that three-minute commercial [song].’ They did very much write a single based on what they saw on the stage. It was something that they were particularly good at.”
That started a long and productive collaboration with the writing/producing team Chinn and Chapman. (Chinn was more of the business half of the partnership, Chapman did most of the writing and production.)
“They never gave me a song that wasn’t written for me,” Quatro said. “We had a nice arrangement. I did most of the albums, all the b-sides. I had that pressure of the a-side taken off me [as a songwriter], but saying that, everybody loves my b-sides. Everybody. In fact, we took the decision very early on when we started to record to not put crap on the b-sides. There was often when Mike would say, ‘Oh, this is really good. I better put an extra three bars here, so they don’t flip it and make this the a-side.’ That’s a fact. But the system worked for a long time. I mainly write my own stuff. I love writing songs. I’m a very prolific songwriter.”
Still, Quatro’s first three singles, all written by Chapman and Chinn – the next two were “48 Crash” and “Devil Gate Drive” – were huge in Europe. The whole time she was having hits in Europe, she was thinking of returning home to the States. By 1974, she went back.
“I came back in ’74, armed with hits from the rest of the world. Some of the stuff got into the lower ends of the charts. ‘All Shook Up’ was like number 40-something.”
Actually, that Elvis cover peaked at #85 on the Billboard Hot 100, but “Can the Can” reached 56. She was playing lots of shows back home when she got the offer to accompany fellow Detroit rocker Alice Cooper in his legendary Welcome to My Nightmare tour.
“I finally went there in ’74 with my English band and toured, so it wasn’t like I was unknown [in the US],” Quatro continued. “Everybody knew me. I got a lot of radio play and I sold quite a bit of albums. Then the offer came from Alice. Would we like to be a special guest star? I’d known Alice forever. I opened for Uriah Heep, too…”
Still, despite the buzz she had collected, she was relatively lesser known in her home country. This made the trip even more exciting.
“We didn’t have the big influx of hit singles that we had everywhere else, so we said yes to that tour. That was great fun. Everybody I knew from Detroit was on the tour. It was a good opportunity. A lot of Detroit people. A lot of shows. We had done 30 shows by ourselves in Canada before the tour started. Then we went on to do another 80 with Alice. it was a long tour. It was welcome to my nightmare in a way,” Quatro laughed.
In 1978, Quatro finally had her big breakthrough hit in the United States. Chapman wrote a song called “Stumblin’ In” for Quatro to perform with Chris Norman, the lead singer of a popular band called Smokie which Chapman was working with. (Their biggest hit was the ballad, “Living Next Door to Alice.”) “Stumblin’ In” rocketed Quatro into the top 10 singles charts in the US for the first time (and, it turns out, the last time…). And while it is a terrific song, it’s not exactly representative of Quatro’s sound.
“It’s been explored in the documentary correctly,” Quatro said. “I was a little bit early when I first started coming up. My hits… [radio wasn’t] quite ready for me. You were stuck in Eagle-land. Great MOR, that’s what you had going on. When I heard the radio, it was all that. So, they weren’t quite ready for me. As the timeline went… they were ready, everybody knew me, but they weren’t ready to let me have the hit records.”
Oddly, enough, it was a TV sitcom that finally got Quatro over the hump. The most popular sitcom on TV at the time. As a lark, Quatro took on a recurring role on Happy Days as rock chick Leather Tuscadero, discovery of Henry Winkler’s fan favorite character, The Fonz.
“I did Happy Days in ’77,” Quatro said. “That showed America this bass-playing leather-clad girl. I was playing a part, but it was still me. Then ‘Stumblin’ In’ happened. Huge. Million seller in America. Even though it wasn’t my normal stuff, it’s one of the favorite songs, even amongst my hardcore fans. Who knows why that one did it and the other ones [didn’t]? You need a magic wand to figure it out. Whatever the case may be, I had my hit record. I had a million seller. It was a gold record which hangs on my wall.”
A gold record and a recurring role on a popular sitcom. Life was taking some interesting turns for Quatro. The Happy Days connection sort of came out of the blue, while Quatro was touring in Japan.
“I was asked if I wanted to come and audition for the show,” Quatro recalled. “My publicist at the time said, ‘You should come. It’s a really good show. Come.’ So, I flew over to LA, auditioned, and I got the part. After I’d met Garry Marshall and after I’d met the director and after I’d met Henry [Winkler]… they wanted to see the chemistry – and they called me up at the hotel and said, ‘We don’t just want you for the two-parter, we want you for three seasons.’”
So began her ride on one of the most popular shows of the 1970s.
“It was a great experience,” Quatro said. “I’m still good friends with Ronnie [Howard]. I’m still good friends with Henry. I’m very proud to be part of that show. What a great show.”
She stuck around for the three years, and while the series wanted to bring her back for more, Quatro and her management felt that it was best to concentrate on the music, while the iron was hot.
“They wanted to spin off and I said no, because I’ll forever be Leather Tuscadero.”
Of course, she underestimated the popularity of her part.
“I didn’t know until I went back to say hello to everybody, in I think like 1980 or something, that I got the second most fan mail, after Henry,” Quatro recalled. “I nearly died. So, that character I played was popular. No wonder that it opened it up afterwards. Leather Tuscadero opened it up for everybody. Suzi Quatro opened it for Leather, and Leather opened it for the rest. All of the girls have thanked me, as you see in the documentary. They always tell me, so yeah, it’s all good.”
Like Suzi, the character of Leather also often appeared – as you may guess from the character name – in leather outfits. In fact, to this day, it is still sort of Quatro’s rock and roll uniform. Which brings up a question: The leather jumpsuit is a great look, but doesn’t it get really, really hot to perform in?
“It was my decision to wear leather,” Quatro admitted. “It was Mickey’s suggestion it become a jumpsuit, which I thought was sensible. I still do it now when I’m going on gigs. I’ll say to the guys, ‘Look at me. Look at this idiot here. I picked the heaviest instrument and the hottest outfit. How stupid am I?’”
She laughed at the thought, and then got serious again.
“I don’t know. I do know that when I zip it up, I feel like me. When I put on the bass, I feel like me. Yes, it’s hot, but I can do a two-hour show and still not be out of breath, I have to tell you.”
Of course, sometimes it is fun not to feel like her as well. The Happy Days experience was great, but it was not the first time Quatro had the acting bug, nor the last. In recent years she has done a good amount of musical theater and other roles when not performing her music. It runs in the family, Quatro’s niece – Sherilynn Fenn – also took up acting as a profession.
“I always wanted to do it,” Quatro said. “From [being] tiny, I could have gone into acting easily. I always knew I could act. I always knew I could do musical theater. I always knew what my talent was, and it was entertaining people. It is communicating and entertaining, be it a speaking line in a play or a musical. It doesn’t matter. Writing poetry. I always wanted to do whatever I could do. Happy Days gave me the opportunity. Loved it, like I knew I would.”
She was not the only person who loved it. Like with her sisters, Quatro always had a bit of a chilly relationship with her father. In fact, in the documentary she tells the story that when she was performing in the musical Annie Got Your Gun, it was the first time that her father ever complimented her on a performance.
“He did. He finally said that. I said it in the documentary, that’s the strange thing, as often happens in life, when you’re waiting for something, you’re giving it power. Then when you don’t want it anymore, there it comes. I didn’t care. The first words out of his mouth when he walked in the dressing room were, ‘Oh, I’m so proud of you.’”
She recalls that when it happened, she just looked surprised and shrugged.
“Maybe when my sisters actually do that it won’t matter either,” Quatro laughed. “I don’t know. It was letting it go. It’s not needing it. That’s the key phrase.”
It has never been about the approval. It was all about the arts for Quatro. She had many interests and many skills.
“I did a lot of other [roles]. I love acting. Acting is great. My main thing I stand on is my rock and roll, but I don’t hold myself back and I won’t be boxed in. If I want to do a musical, I’ll do one. If I want to write one, I’ll write one.”
Actually, she did just that, co-writing and starring in a musical about actress Tallulah Bankhead called Tallulah Who? As she mentioned earlier, she also wrote her autobiography and has just finished work on a new book.
“I just took delivery on my lyric book,” Quatro said. “Big poetry book. It just came in today. I’m so excited. I’m an artiste. That’s the only way I can explain it. I am a multi-talented kind of thing. Obviously, you have your main loves, but I am very artistic.”
However, the music still comes first. In recent years Quatro has been recording with her son Richard Tuckey.
“This just happened,” Quatro said. “We didn’t plan on it. He just really wanted to write with me, for quite a few years now. Finally, the time felt correct. He was really insistent, so I thought okay. We wrote two or three songs together. We were making demos, having fun. And it just got serious. Third demo in, we’re in the studio and I said, ‘We’re making an album.’ He said, ‘We are.’ Great. It’s great. He pushed my Suzi Quatro buttons, he did. We had a few artistic things which we argued about, which is fine. You should always have that. You’re going to have that with everybody that you work with. You’re not always going to see eye to eye. But we got a great product. It’s probably the best reviews for an album I’ve ever had. We’ve written fourteen songs for the next album during the lockdown.”
Well, along those lines, how has Quatro been dealing with the whole shelter-in-place world?
“I’m a poker player, Quatro said philosophically. “You sit down at the table, which is the table of life, you get dealt your cards, and this is what you have to deal with. It’s what you’ve got to play with. I’m a realist that way. So, I tried not to get depressed about it. Sure, the gigs are being cancelled or postponed left right and center. I was set to have a huge gigging year this year. Now, maybe some are coming in September. I don’t know.”
No one knows with the current state of the world. However, Quatro wasn’t going to just sit back and take all that life throws at her. Instead, she decided to do what she has always done. She threw herself into her art.
“I said to my son, who should have been on the road with the band – he’s a guitar tech and a guitar player – I said, ‘Listen, I should have been on the road. You should have been on the road.’ I built a studio during the summer on my grounds here. I said, ‘Let’s write the next album that they’ve taken the option for.’ He said okay.”
So, they did. And now, as her new home country of England is starting to slowly come out of pandemic lockdown, Suzi Quatro is ready to rock, yet again.
“In this lockdown we did that,” Quatro continued. “I also assembled my lyric book from scratch. It now comes out. I’ve been working on the movie of my life, which is following the documentary now. The script will be done by July 17th. My gigs start again in September. I have not been silent. I have used my time. Used it.”
That pretty much sums up the life of Suzi Quatro. She used her time and she got things done. And without meaning to, she played an unheralded part in changing rock and roll history. Not bad for Little Suzi from Detroit.
Copyright ©2020 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: July 2, 2020.
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