Sunday, September 30, 2012

John Kay - Forgotten Songs & Unsung Heroes& My Sportin' Life

Steppenwolf leader/founder John Kay is perhaps the most overlooked early contributor to the musical style that would become heavy metal and hard rock. Kay was the first rocker to use the phrase heavy metal in a song, in one of metal's first great anthems: Steppenwolf's 1968 classic "Born to Be Wild." Born Joachim Fritz Krauledat on April 12, 1944, in the section of Germany that was once known as East Prussia, it was the American rock & roll that he heard on U.S. Armed Forces radio after his family moved to East Germany that fueled his interest in music. After relocating to Toronto, Canada, in 1958, Kay became even more transfixed by rock & roll -- leading to Kay picking up the guitar, writing songs, and playing in local bands.
In the '60s, Kay founded the Sparrow, a rock outfit who played both Canada and the U.S., but received little attention. The group had fallen apart by 1967, but with a new, harder-edged style of rock beginning to conquer the charts and airwaves (Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and the Yardbirds), Kay decided to pursue this direction with his next band, Steppenwolf (titled after Hermann Hesse's novel of the same name). After moving to Los Angeles, the fledgling band was signed to Dunhill and recorded their self-titled debut, issued in 1968. The album became a sizeable hit, as "Born to Be Wild" was unleashed on an unsuspecting record-buying public, becoming one of rock's most instantly identifiable and enduring hits of all time. After the track was used in the 1969 cult classic movie Easy Rider, it subsequently appeared in countless other movies and TV commercials over the years and was covered by numerous other bands (Blue Oyster Cult, Slade, Crowded House, and the Cult).

Steppenwolf continued to crank out hit albums (1968's The Second, 1969's At Your Birthday Party, and 1969's Monster), singles ("Magic Carpet Ride," "Rock Me"), and tours on a regular basis, with Kay being the only constant member among a revolving door of other musicians. By 1972, Kay decided to end the group, issuing his first solo albums around the same time: Forgotten Songs & Unsung Heroes and My Sportin' Life. Steppenwolf's retirement didn't last for long, however, as Kay alternated between the band and his solo career throughout the '70s, '80s, and '90s. He even took a few former members of the band to court when they, too, began touring behind the name Steppenwolf. In 1994, Kay penned an autobiography, Magic Carpet Ride, and four years later, Steppenwolf and Kay were the subject of an interesting Behind the Music episode for VH1.

John Kay - Forgotten Songs & Unsung Heroes& My Sportin' Life (72-73)

2008 digitally remastered two-fer containing the first two solo albums from the Steppenwolf frontman. Forgotten Songs & Unsung Heroes was originally released in 1972 followed by My Sportin' Life, released one year later. BGO.

John Kay's distinctive voice cut through radio with hits like "Magic Carpet Ride" and "Born to Be Wild." But on this LP there is none of the menacing growl found on his version of "The Pusher." What you will find here is Hank Williams' classic "You Win Again" with Kent Henry on simulated steel guitar, Hugh O'Sullivan on electric piano, George Biondo on bass, and the drummer from Lou Reed's Rock & Roll Animal band, Pentti "Whitey" Glan. The album was produced by the great Richard Podolor, who brought listeners Hoyt Axton and Three Dog Night's "Joy to the World." There is no Hoyt Axton here, but there are tunes by Richard Farina, Robert Johnson, Hank Snow, Patrick Sky, and the aforementioned Hank Williams, along with four Kay originals. To hear Kay droning "Christ will be our darling, and fear will be our name" on Farina's "Bold Marauder" is pretty chilling. Henry's acoustic guitar takes a back seat to Kay's dulcimer, and producer Podolor is on jaw bone and tambourine. This is a serious attempt by Kay to break away from the hard rock persona he established with Steppenwolf. That he pulls it off is impressive. Two years prior to this, John Phillips had a Top 40 hit with "Mississippi" on this same label, Dunhill, so it's not like the elements weren't in place for the lead vocalist from a superstar act to branch out. It's just that a six-minute composition like Kay's "Two of a Kind" was not going to get substantial AM radio airplay. Having Podolor perform on mandolin and organ with Kay providing vocals and guitar suggests that they were having fun more than looking for a hit single. If country radio had a tough time accepting Olivia Newton John, well, Steppenwolf's lead vocalist was not about to cross over as quickly as Brenda Lee. With just Biondo on bass and himself on harp and bottleneck guitar, Kay delivers a great version of Robert Johnson's "Walkin' Blues." This album is not what you'd expect, and that's part of what's so special about it. When Grace Slick does her own version of the Starship's No Protection on her Software album (and should be commended for such a bold move) and when Neil Young gives the world Trans, they shake things up. John Kay was not a star on the same level as Slick and Young, which makes his leap all the more admirable. The best track on this excellent album just may be Kay's own composition "Somebody," featuring the full band and gospel-style vocals from Marsha Jo Temmer, Joan Sliwin, and Alexandra Sliwin. Hank "Singing Ranger" Snow's "I'm Movin' On" comes as close to Steppenwolf as this album gets. Kay says that his version is closer to Ray Charles than Snow, but this track gives the artist and his fans that trademark snarl and a nice dark production. At three minutes and ten seconds, and with the nick of Three Dog Night's song "Liar" at the beginning, it's too bad radio didn't pick up on this fine work.

"John Kay the lead singer of Steppenwolf...or should I say the leader of the pack...Mr. Steppenwolf... This album is another great Steppenwolf album... I saw John Kay and Steppenwolf play at a chopper show/convention in Maryland during the summer of 2010 and they put on a great concert...they didn't need fancy lights or F/X to give you a magical carpet ride...!..."~ By Westy

"As one reviewer already noted, this is a nice variety of music with some good musicians also. 'Sing with the Children' is the harder rocking song. I tend to like the free wildness of 'Bold Marauder',a fair amount does lean toward country-rock-regardless, there is alot here to enjoy; I must state that another review claims that this ISN'T the John Kay of Speppenwolf-even if you check out his new DVD/CD you'll hear various songs off of these,(and on an old 'Midnight Special' he played 'Movin'On' and 'Moonshine' (Tennessee Wine), in a word-this IS definitely HIM, there is no other John Kay man-Get Real! That is ill-informed and ridiculous. After having these on LP 35 years ago it's GREAT to see this again. To the Wolf!...~ By truthreader

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