Suzi Quatro might've been playing with the Pleasure Seekers and, later, Cradle with her sisters in Detroit during the much-celebrated Grande Ballroom era, but it wasn't until later — after she was spotted by Mickie Most, the producer for Jeff Beck and Donovan, and shipped over to England during the T-Rex-led glitter era — that she started having such mega-selling hits as "Can the Can" and "Devil Gate Drive." She later starred as the popular Leather Tuscadero character in Happy Days, filling American boys with sexual tension, but she never quite managed to achieve the same level of popularity on this side of the Atlantic as she has in Europe, Japan and Australia.
However, she is justly being honored at this year's Detroit Music Awards. Sadly, she's unable to perform due to a bad fall from some airplane steps in Kiev that left her with a broken leg and wrist, but her sisters are partially re-forming the Pleasure Seekers. It should be a good night.
We spoke with Quatro before that fall about her eventful career. She's a feisty one too, still pushing and promoting herself like a newcomer.
Metro Times: Where in Detroit were you raised?
Suzi Quatro: We were raised in Grosse Pointe Woods until I was 15, then we moved to Grosse Pointe Farms on Seven Mile and Mack. My dad made sure that we grew up in a good area. When I was growing up, it was a good time. The cars were doing great. You had the Motown, and the white rock 'n' roll. It didn't change until the race riots in '67. Then, everything changed but up until that period, it was pretty damned good as far as I was concerned.
MT: Where did you summer?
Quatro: Most of the time, the people from the Midwest went down to Florida. We went there for Easter actually. Summer vacations were spent in Detroit, because the city has a fantastic summertime. It's really hot, and you're on the lakes. In Detroit, you have the extremes of each season, which is fantastic.
My dad worked in the daytime as an engineer at General Motors, and then in the evening he was a musician. Music was all I knew. We had five kids in the family, and we had access to every kind of instrument you wanted to learn. My dad had everything in the house. We had three pianos in the house — one on each floor. We had an organ, we had a bass guitar, a violin, an accordion, a harp, and basically whatever any of us expressed any kind of interest in learning, that was OK. We got the lessons. I actually play classical piano and percussion. I can read and write both instruments, and I'm self-taught on bass.
MT: You were in your teens during the Grande Ballroom-Motown period ...
Quatro: It was the best. Not only did I have Motown (which I was weaned on and actually that's a lot of my bass style because you don't get better than James Jamerson from Motown), we had the white rock happening. It was just a wonderful time. There was the Pleasure Seekers, Mitch Ryder, Ted Nugent, Iggy Pop just starting, Alice Cooper, Terry Knight & the Pack, the Rationals, the Frost, Doug Fieger from the Knack — what a brilliant time to be in Detroit. And we played at the Grande Ballroom and the Eastown Theater numerous times. Many times we played with Mountain. They always asked us to support them when they came into town. Looking back, and having been gone since '71, I would say that I was pretty privileged to be born and raised in Detroit.
MT: Tell me about the Pleasure Seekers ...
Quatro: I was only 14. I was a baby. I went straight into it. Everybody took an instrument, and nobody chose the bass so it was given to me. Luckily, my father had a bass guitar like he had everything else, and he gave me a '57 Fender Precision, to begin on. How lucky was I, that I had the Rolls Royce of basses, the hardest to play, and I didn't know it.
MT: Did you have trouble playing gigs so young?
Quatro: Well, we always lied. If I needed fake proof, I got fake proof, which is really kind of funny because I've always looked 10 years younger than what I am. It's just always been my way. So it's really stupid that somebody 14 they're gonna think is 24. Just a joke. But they let us play, and we played absolutely everywhere.
MT: What did your father think of his 14-year-old daughter playing to a room full of guys, with a name like the Pleasure Seekers?
Quatro: I know, we were asking for trouble. But I think there was safety in the situation because I had, at first, two of my sisters with me, and then one dropped out and another sister joined, and one of my sisters' husbands was managing us. I don't think he worried as much as maybe he should have done. None of us fought our family to be in rock 'n' roll, which is unusual. My father was all for it. He was happy to let us pursue our dream, which is what we did. I was never going to do anything else other than entertain and play rock 'n' roll. It was safety in numbers. That's not saying that nothing bad ever happened, but when you've got your sisters and your sister's husband, it's a little bit of protection.
MT: What do you remember about the Grande ...
Quatro: We played all those places. I used to first go there a lot. I went to see whoever was in town. I'd never be in the audience because I just can't stand to be there, it feels unnatural. First of all, I'm too little so I end up looking at people's backsides which I don't really like. I always go to the side of the stage. I used to go to every show that was on there. We were away playing at all the gigs. We didn't play so much all the gigs all the other bands played. We were gigging more than the other bands because we were all girls. When I went to see a show, I would more or less go to see it rather than be in it, until we changed from the Pleasure Seekers to Cradle. Then we started playing those gigs. Initially, we were more of a club show band, with the mini skirts and all that kind of shit that they wanted at the time.
MT: How long did the Pleasure Seekers last before morphing into Cradle?
Quatro: From '64 to '69, then '70 to'71 was Cradle. Then I was discovered by Mickie Most and taken to England to have a solo career.
MT: Why the change to Cradle?
Quatro: We had lost a couple of the original members. For me, we did a gig at the Detroit Pop Festival that my brother had promoted. He put the Pleasure Seekers on the bill. We had brought in my little sister to start singing some, because she was a good singer. Up till then, I was the only front person. We decided to let her have a little shot so she came up and did some stuff. Because we were a show band, I feel that we bombed at that show. It was a festival and we'd never done festivals. We decided after that we needed to change the format of the band. We started to get a little bit heavier and write our own stuff. I played mainly bass, a little bit of keyboard, and sang five or six songs. We changed it around. Cradle didn't last for very long. That was the band that Mickie Most saw me in, and I only did two songs on the evening but he said, "I want you," and that was that. I went to England.
MT: How did that meeting go?
Quatro: I was a fan because I was a huge Donovan fan. That's just one of the people Mickie produced, but I particularly liked the production of Donovan. He saw the show then called me over. I went to the back of the hall and sat down with him. He asked me how I'd like to make an album. I said that I'd have to have him meet the band. He didn't mean the band, he meant just me. I went along with him that night to Motown studios with Jeff Beck and Cozy Powell. Mickie didn't want to be the one to break up the family so he let it roll a little bit, didn't say too much but kept in contact. When the band was about to break up about three months later, which Mickie sensed anyway, one of my sisters said give him a call. He said good. He was glad, and he offered me a solo contract. It was within two weeks that there was a solo offer from Jack Holmstrom at Elektra for me, and the next week the offer from Mickie. That was my time. It was up to me to take the opportunity, and when the offer came, I went to England.
MT: And never came back ...
Quatro: I didn't plan it that way. I initially went there for three months to make an album. We recorded with people like Peter Frampton, Big Jim Sullivan and Alan White from Yes. It just wasn't gelling. Mickie Most (bless him, he's not with us anymore) really never knew how to produce me and he'd be the first to admit it, and it just went on and on. I was determined not to come back to the States until I had a hit. I found a band, we wrote "Can the Can," and then I had my first million-seller. It was from '71 to 73, then I had my first No. 1. Mickie Most absolutely believed in me. He thought I was going to be huge, and it didn't matter how long it took. He was determined to stick with me. We just kept going. All of a sudden, you're a year down the road, then 15 months down the road, and I guess I just put down roots here. Then I fell in love with my guitar player, and that kept me here too. Eventually we got married and had kids. So I put down roots here, but saying that, I've never really left Detroit in my heart. That is who I am.
MT: What did your family make of you moving across the pond?
Quatro: They hated it. My father was very supportive of my following my dreams. At the same time, he hated that I was gone. My mother couldn't stand it. But she would have never asked me to come home. That's the kind of parents I had. They hated it but they understood. Isn't that a good way to be? I can never be happier than when I'm doing what I do.
MT: You were considered part of the British glitter rock scene, with Slade, Sweet and Mud ...
Quatro: That was crazy. None of us could ever understand how I got confused with that, because I didn't wear all these crazy clothes with tons of makeup. That wasn't me. I was just rock 'n' roll. I think the confusion came because I started having my hits in that period. Then they tar you with that brush, but history bears me out that I am rock 'n' roll. My image is timeless. I still wear the black leather. It's simple garage rock. That is who and what I am.
MT: You sound like you have a chip on your shoulder about it?
Quatro: I was taken seriously. It's really only something I have to answer a lot now. It really doesn't bother me. Everything has a rhyme and a reason. That is the era I started having my hits, so whoever was having hits in that era would be called glam rock. Anybody having hits in the late '50s was called rock 'n' roll. It could have been anybody. Pat Boone, rock 'n' roll? Excuse me? I'm still here. Glam has been and gone, I haven't.
MT: Did it bother you that you weren't selling as many records at home as in the UK?
Quatro: I didn't have a lot of time to think about it. I was selling millions everywhere. I'm up to 50 million now. There were a couple of reasons for it. In hindsight, we were living here and concentrating here. That period of music, whether you want to call it, glam, didn't really catch on in the States. Also, Mickie Most, for everything good he did, he kept changing record labels on me in America. I think I had a different label for every single, which is not conducive to longevity. I did a lot of successful tours. Everybody knows me. I just didn't have a lot of hit singles there. I just took it that was the way it was. Then Happy Days came along and changed everything.
MT: Was that the thinking behind Happy Days — to gain success in the States?
Quatro: No, I can't pretend it was. I touring every year in America — '74 to '76. We did two or three tours with bands like Uriah Heep and Grand Funk Railroad. We did the Alice Cooper Welcome to My Nightmare tour, which was 80 shows. We played with everybody. Big gigs. I played Madison Square Garden with Grand Funk twice. I was in Japan, which is one of my biggest markets, and I got a call from my publicist in America. He said that they wanted me to come and audition for a TV show that I'd never heard of. He advised me that I really should do it. I flew over, because I'd always wanted to explore acting because I knew I could do it. I got the part, and it turned into 15 episodes over three years. I didn't have a game plan in mind, it was just something I wanted to do.
MT: Is it true that you turned down a spin-off?
Quatro: I had a lot of talks with Henry Winkler about how he got stuck in Fonzie, and could never move away from it. Leather was a really popular character. I was told by the lady at Paramount who handles the fan mail that I got the second amount of fan mail after Henry, which is unbelievable. I never would have guessed that, but I did. When the spin-off series offer came, I thought, 'Is this really what I want to spend the rest of my life doing?' I'd given enough time for Leather, people still remember me fondly as that. I didn't want to be lost somewhere in TV sitcom land, and that was the one trick that I could do. I was right, I went on to be in lots of other stuff like Dempsey & Makepeace, Midsummer Murders, Absolutely Fabulous, Minder, I've been on the theater stage in Annie Get Your Gun. I've written a show too. I've done different things rather than sticking to one thing. I've proved I could act, but I didn't want that to be all I could do.
MT: Did you ever consider moving back, maybe after the chart success dried up?
Quatro: We were having hits everywhere at that point, and I was travelling everywhere. Touring all the time. I think more now about coming. Probably within two or three years, I will end up back in the States.
MT: What do your children think of Detroit?
Quatro: They love Detroit. I took them there for my 60th. They just thought it was the most amazing, magical city they'd ever been to. Even my granddaughter thought it was fun. She said she wanted to move there. There's a spirit of Detroit that doesn't leave. It's very special.
MT: Your Back to the Drive from 2006 album is fantastic — more people should have heard it ...
Quatro: None of that really bothers me. I believe everything does what it does, and it does it for a reason. I know that that particular album has a lot of legs and a lot of people talk about it. Who knows, maybe my day of big hit singles is over. It doesn't matter. A lot of people love that album. As long as I touch people, I'm not chasing the charts. I'm 61. I'm happy that I'm working all over the world still, that I'm recording, that I'm getting rave reviews for my work, so I shouldn't complain at all.
MT: You still have a strong core following. ...
Quatro: I've always had a loyal following because I've never stopped working. I do get kids at my shows, from six or seven in the front rows. I get families, and I think that's just magic.
MT: There's a train of thought that there'd be no Joan Jett without you?
Quatro: That's not a train of thought, it's a cold, hard fact. Let's not mince words. She didn't even have a band when she was my fan, so how could you see it any other way. She was a huge fan of mine. She would come to all the gigs in L.A., sit in my hotel room and wait for me to come back from the show. Eventually, I heard from my publicist that she'd formed a band called the Runaways. That was excellent because she now has an outlet. I'm very proud of what she's done. I feel quite a part of that.
MT: What do you think you achieved for female rockers in general. ...
Quatro: Before I did what I did, we didn't have a place in rock 'n' roll. Not really. You had your Grace Slicks and all that, but that's not what I did. I was the first to be taken seriously as a female rock 'n' roll musician and singer. That hadn't been done before. I played the boys at their own game. For everybody that came afterward, it was a little bit easier, which is good. I'm proud of that. If I have a legacy, that's what it is. It's nothing I take lightly. It was gonna happen sooner or later. In 2014, I will have done my job 50 years. It was gonna be done by somebody, and I think it fell to me to do because I don't look at gender. I never have. It doesn't occur to me if a 6-foot-tall guy has pissed me off not to square up to him. That's just the way I am. If I wanted to play a bass solo, it never occurred to me that I couldn't. When I saw Elvis for the first time when I was 5, I decided I wanted to be him, and it didn't occur to me that he was a guy. That's why it had to fall to somebody like me.
MT: What's next?
Quatro: I'm still promoting my new album, In the Spotlight, which is getting unbelievable reviews. I'm riding in the compliments. It's out on Cherry Red, and the fans are saying that it's the album they've been waiting on for years. Back to the Drive was autobiographical, then I wrote Unzipped, which was an autobiography. At that point, Mike Chapman said, "Let me do the next album." I let him take over. If Suzi Quatro was starting today, this is the album she would make.
Suzi Quatro's In the Spotlight album is out now via Cherry Red. The Pleasure Seekers and Cradle, minus Suzi, perform at the Detroit Music Awards at the Fillmore; 2115 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-961-5451.
Brett Callwood writes for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]