Suzi Quatro: I'm not a sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll type of girl
Ahead of playing Belfast next year, the singer lets fly about the modern music industry and the Jimmy Savile scandal
At 64 years of age Suzi Quatro is still svelte enough to squeeze into those trademark leather jumpsuits that helped make her a sex symbol of Seventies glam rock.
With her mullet hairstyle, curve-hugging leathers and raw talent on bass guitar, her sexiness was understated and less in-your-face than most of today’s current crop of female pop-stars.
She wore little make-up while gigging, preferring to rely on her music instead. Ironically, the leather jumpsuits that teased the imagination and made her the subject of many a schoolboy’s fantasy were chosen solely for their gender-crossing appeal. It was a look she borrowed from her childhood idol, Elvis Presley, and which she’s still rocking after 50 years in the industry.
The sight of pop stars using sex to sell records disappoints her and she fears the music business is peddling soft porn to an extent. The fact that many of the artists are talented enough to be hugely successful without falling back on their looks or sexuality, is a source of sadness to her.
“There is always a place for everyone in the industry,” she says. “With me, you’re talking about a female rock and roll musician, that’s a whole different animal from being a singer or pop star.
“Personally I think it’s all gone a bit too soft pornish. I spoke out with that opinion long before it became popular to speak out. Now every woman that doesn’t dress like this is commenting on it. But I’ve always been before my time.
“I don’t like this trend because it’s too dangerous. Where do we go next? Are we going to see them actually in bed, because that’s the only place left to go? I think it’s kind of a dead end street. I prefer to have a jumpsuit on that shows nothing, but is sexy nevertheless." The first woman of rock, who influenced the likes of Chrissie Hynde and Joan Jett, says she can't understand why young pop stars feel the need to strip off.
"Some of these artists are really talented and that makes it worse," she says. "I mean, look at Miley Cyrus. She is a beautiful, talented girl. She sings good, she moves good. I like Rihanna and Beyoncé as well. They're all very talented."
In her early solo career, Quatro never gave much thought to her status as the first female bass player to become a huge rock star. She didn't do it for applause or adulation but because making music was the only life she knew and she loved it. It was only much later on, when she'd bagged herself a few Top 10 hits in the charts, that she began to realise the impact of her success.
"You don't really think about your legacy when you're doing these things," she says. "I didn't do it for that reason. I did it because I had to be me and being me was a rocker. That's who I am.
"And now, at 64 years of age, my hypothesis is that it fell on me to be the first female to break through because I don't do gender. I just go out there and be who I am. If I was the girl going out there to try and prove something, that would be different."
This year sees Quatro celebrate 50 years in the music business, marked by the release of a four CD box set featuring 82 tracks spanning her entire career. The tracks include three songs by The Pleasure Seekers, the all-girl rock band which Suzi formed along with her sister Patti, her chart hits from the Seventies, including Can The Can and Devil Gate Drive, and a wealth of material from the Seventies onwards, through to songs from her critically acclaimed 2011 album In The Spotlight.
The Girl From Detroit City comes complete with up-to-date liner notes, tracking Quatro's career and a wealth of album and poster artwork. Also in celebration of this 50 year major milestone, the BBC will be broadcasting a special performance of Quatro's one-woman show Unzipped on BBC Radio 2 on December 30, which was recorded in London in September. And 2015 will not see her take her foot of the gas. She's gearing up to embark on another huge tour, bringing her to Belfast next May, and will finally publish her poetry book, Through My Eyes.
Quatro was born in June 1950, in Detroit, Michigan, the home of Motown. The fourth of five children, she was raised in a musical family. She and her siblings all played various instruments. When she set up The Pleasure Seekers with Patti, she began to play bass guitar. She became lead singer, the band toured for seven years and released a few singles before changing their name to Cradle.
Quatro says she always knew she'd end up working in the music business.
"I had no doubts about it at all," she says. "I knew my path from very young. I knew I didn't get into this business for a day, it was for a lifetime. It was my calling."
Her high energy levels and love for her "calling" have kept her going for half a century.
"I'm just this side of hyper," she laughs. "I'm not hyper, but I'm close to it. I always tell a story that I remember from childhood. There were five kids in our family and my mum was religious about things like doctor's and dentist's appointments. I was brought along to the doctor's for a regular check-up when I was about seven or eight and I overheard him saying to my mum that she was never, ever to give me vitamins.
"And I love my job, you know. That's what keeps me going. I like to entertain people; it makes me happy. I'm always stretching my wings a bit. I do my Radio 2 stuff, I'm the author of a poetry book which is coming out in January. There are lots of things I've been involved in but rock and roll is my main thing."
Quatro moved to the UK in 1971 after being spotted by record producer Mickie Most. He was on the lookout for a female rock singer who could fill the void left by the death of Janis Joplin, and introduced Quatro to the songwriting team of Nikki Chinn and Mike Chapman. In the autumn of 1972, the up-and-coming Quatro went on tour as support act for Irish band Thin Lizzy and headliners Slade. But there were no tales to tell of drug-fuelled late nights and drunken debauchery. Quatro's presence, it seems, had a calming effect on Phil Lynott and co.
"What was it like?" she muses. "Well, I'm not a party girl as such, never have been. And when I was around, things tended to stay pretty tame. I just wouldn't have been there if things had got carried away. That's not who I am. I'm not a sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll type of girl, more just rock 'n' roll."
From 1973 onwards, Quatro scored a string of hit singles - Stumblin' In, She's In Love With You, If You Can't Give Me Love and her Devil Gate Drive, the latter which sold over one million copies. While she enjoyed huge success in the UK and Europe, the US proved harder to break. But following a recurring role as a female bass player in the American sitcom Happy Days, her duet Stumblin' In with Chris Norman reached number four in her homeland in 1979.
"The thing is, I always toured in the US since '74," she says. "I sold a lot of albums and my singles were in the charts, but not as high as they went in the UK. But yeah, Happy Days did make me a household name there."
During the 1970s, at the height of the glam rock era, Quatro was a regular fixture on Top of the Pops. In recent years, of course, key players from the entertainment world at this time - singer Gary Glitter and TOTP presenter Jimmy Savile among them - have been at the centre of child sex abuse scandals. Was Quatro ever aware of the rumours surrounding these men?
It's not a subject she feel comfortable commenting on, she tells me, pointing out she's a performer first and foremost. But she believes Savile's predilections were common knowledge at the time.
"My opinion is that everybody knew but nobody did anything about it," she says. "It was kind of a case of people not wanting to know. He was a vile man and let's hope that by bringing it out in the open, more people will feel able to come forward and speak.
"As for Gary Glitter, I didn't know him that well and I didn't hear anything about him. I don't get involved, it's not my forte. I'm an entertainer."
While she continued to write songs and make music in the 1980s, she never replicated her success of the previous decade. Around this time, she also tried her hand at more acting, appearing in a number of television shows, such as Minder and Dempsey & Makepeace. More recently, she has presented weekly music shows on BBC Radio 2, Rockin' with Suzi Q and Wake Up Little Suzi.
At the height of her fame she wed her long-time guitarist Len Tuckey, with whom she had two children, Laura and Richard. But the guilt she felt over an abortion she had when she was 18 years old still haunts her to this day. In her 2010 book Unzipped, Quatro, who was brought up a Catholic, wrote: "When I get to those golden gates, that lost child is the sin I will pay for."
After her marriage to Tuckey broke down, she married German concert promoter Rainer Haas in 1993.
But she still remains on friendly terms with her first husband. For the last 30 years she has lived in a manor house in Essex and it's there that she's still based today. Now in her seventh decade, Quatro shows no signs of slowing down. At the start of 2015, she will undertake her 30th and final tour of Australia, before returning to the UK and Ireland for more shows.
On May 29 she will play the Waterfront Hall in Belfast and promises to give the audience "exactly what they want".
Although she won't be touring Australia again after 2015, she says she's not calling it a day just yet. Her father, a musician, performed his last gig at the age of 84 years of age and Quatro can see herself following suit.
"I'll still be rocking when I'm in my rocking chair," she laughs. "What else would I do? I can't see myself stopping."
As the first lady of rock, whose music transcended gender, I ask her what she would like her legacy to be. She thinks before answering. "I not only kicked down that door, I didn't even see it," she replies.
Suzi Quatro plays the Waterfront Hall in Belfast on May 29. For details, visit www.waterfront.co.uk
Others who showed the boys how it’s done ...
When it comes to in-your-face female rock icons, Suzi Quatro was certainly in good company in her heyday ...
Pat Benatar — the four-time Grammy Award winner was one of the first women associated with hard rock. Success began with her first album In The Heat of the Night in 1979, while her second album, Crimes of Passion, saw her become one of the first and most frequently played artists on MTV when it launched in 1981. Top 10 hits include Love is a Battlefield, Hit Me With Your Best Shot and Heartbreaker. She is also an author
Chrissie Hynde — after spending most of the 1970s trying to join a band, Chrissie Hynde finally got her demo tape to a record label owner who helped her put together The Pretenders. On the strength of their self-titled debut album in 1979, the band were hugely successful during the 1980s New Wave movement. Hit singles include Back on the Chain Gang, Brass in Pocket and I’ll Stand By You
Joan Jett — after success in the mid-Seventies with one of the first all-female rock bands, The Runaways, Joan Jett went on to even greater success with her own band, The Blackhearts. Their debut album I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll in 1981 was a massive hit. In addition to her talent as a vocalist, Jett has distinguished herself as a guitarist, songwriter and producer. Both Jett and Hynde were heavily influenced by Quatro
Patti Smith — nicknamed the ‘Godmother of Punk’, Patti Smith has influenced dozens of artists from Sonic Youth to Shirley Manson. Her classic debut album, Horses, which was released in 1975, is included on Greatest Hits album lists in magazines such as Rolling Stone, Time and NME. In addition to performing, she is also a prolific author and social activist. Her best known song is Because The Night