Suzi Quatro Talks Leather and Legacy Ahead of Documentary

Photo: Courtesy of Utopia Distribution

The bass-playing singer and songwriter, Suzi Quatro, is an icon. Maybe not so much in the U.S. where she is best known for her Happy Days role as Leather Tuscadero, backed up by The Suedes and playing sock hops in middle America. But to the rest of the world, Quatro was the first female face of the rock generation. 

Directed by Australian filmmakers Liam Firmager and Tait Brady, the documentary Suzi Q shows Quatro as a true pioneer. She redefined the role of women in rock ‘n roll. There were female singers and musicians before Suzi, but she was the first to break through as lead vocalist who was also just part of the band. Female musicians took note and took notes, if not patterns. In the new documentary, Tina Weymouth of the Talking Heads says Quatro was the reason she chose the bass.

Quatro was a British sensation when her single 1973 “Can the Can,” produced by Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn, hit No. 1. The American music scene tried to market her as a sex symbol. She launched a thousand leather fantasies, but the truth is she was just wearing the same outfit as Elvis or even the Beatles when they played Hamburg’s Kaiserkeller and Top Ten Club, and The Cavern. 

Quatro, who played percussion in her father’s jazz band the Art Quatro Trio, and her older sister Patti formed an all-girl garage band after seeing the Beatles on TV in 1964. The group was called the Pleasure Seekers and Quatro called herself Suzi Soul, sister to Patti Pleasure. Patti would go on to play in the band Fanny. Suzi moved to England in 1971 after being spotted by record producer Mickie Most, who’d worked with Lulu and Donovan, and bands like the Animals and the Jeff Beck Group. Her first single, “Rolling Stone,” which had Peter Frampton on guitar, hit the top of the charts in Portugal.

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With Len Tuckey on guitar, Alastair McKenzie on keyboards and Keith Hodge playing drums, Quatro’s quartet was complete. They pushed their music the old-fashioned way by touring, initially as opening acts for Slade and Thin Lizzy. Suzi Quatro opened for fellow Detroit native Alice Cooper in her first tour of the U.S., but didn’t hit the American top 10 until her 1978 duet with Chris Norman, “Stumblin’ In.” Quatro changed up her genre style and onstage persona when she starred as Annie Oakley in the 1986 London revival of Irving Berlin’s musical Annie Get Your Gun.

Suzi Quatro, “The Wild One” herself, spoke with Den of Geek about barriers and bass lines.

I learned a lot from the documentary but probably most from the closing song, “Girl from Detroit City.” The bassline is very Motown.

Suzi Quatro: When people ask me who I’m influenced by, my first and foremost was [Motown studio bassist James] Jamerson. Obviously I was weaned on it. And that comes across when I play. I’m very much a walking bassline with those little triplets and all that. I’m very much like him as a player, I would say. A cross between him and a little bit more boogie.

You were raised as a multi-instrumentalist. Why did you stick with the bass after the first band?

I am a multi-instrumentalist but bass, for me, onstage, is the perfect fit. It was like that from the first time I put it on and started to play. When you see me onstage with it, people have said it looks like it’s part of my body. Drums I love, but I don’t want to sit behind the band. And I don’t want to sit at the piano. I’ve got to be up front and center. I do play a number onstage on piano and I do play drums onstage too, but basically, on that stage, I’m a bass player.

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Do you think you would have been a different artist if you’d plugged into a guitar onstage?

I was never going to be a guitar player. Look at the instruments I play. Piano is a percussive instrument. It’s listed under percussion. I play drums, which is percussion. I never started on guitar. I never played guitar and went to bass. Really, I play enough on guitar to write but I’m really a crappy guitar player. It’s just too tiny for me. I like the big bass.

You were the first bandleader musician woman in rock and roll. Why was there that seven-year gap between you and, say, Debbie Harry? 

It took a while. I made a big splash. But I think, especially in America, maybe it was a little bit too early for them.This is not an easy job. It’s especially not an easy job for the female gender, which I hate doing, because I don’t do gender. But it is a hard-working job. You’ve got to give up basically everything. I didn’t date. I didn’t go to the dances. I practiced and played the dances. I’m not a housewife. I’m crappy at doing housework, but I can play you a song.

It’s not the normal life that girls like, not just females, how many people do you know are happy to do that? But I did it and I dedicated myself to it. 

You never jumped on a bandwagon. Nina Hagen called herself the Godmother of Punk. Did you ever look at the Ramones and say, “Hey, they’re four Suzi Quatros?”

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A lot of people have said I was pre-punk or the first punk, but I don’t see myself that way. Punk was anger, I thought, which had to happen. Everything has its time and place. I definitely put myself in the school of rock and roll. I picked up the page where Elvis left off. That’s how I see myself, anyway.

You never ever followed fads, even when you were the reason they existed. Were you ever tempted to go disco or synth-pop? I mean, even Bill Wyman did octave jumps.

I think the reason why I was successful is my unswerving attitude to compromise. I just won’t compromise myself, my music, my look. I will follow my road and nobody else’s. It’s my mantra. When you come from a family of five and you look for your voice, and you find it, that’s it for the rest of your days. Nobody’s going to dissuade me. Nobody’s going to prevent me from where I’m going, ever.

What’s it like working with your son, Richard?

I had had a lot of experience with family working together since the time I was a kid, so I was used to that. Also, my ex-husband was my guitar player. So, it didn’t freak me out but Richard found it strange. He had to adjust because when I’m working, I am not his mother, whatsoever, just like I wasn’t Lenny’s wife. I wasn’t my sister’s sister. When I’m working, I am working. I go into a different space and you just have to accept that. Relationships don’t count when you’re working. I go into Suzi Quatro, and that’s it. I go into creative mode.

So, you never had to say, “Clean up that riff?”

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Yes. Sure. Absolutely. He doesn’t like me to tell this story, but it’s quite funny. We were putting down “Don’t Do Me Wrong,” which was the first track we tried writing together. It came out really good. We did two demos and then another track I had to do. He’s sitting across from me in the studio. He’s got his guitar. I’ve got my bass. I’ve got a microphone up to do a scratch vocal. We’re playing away and all of a sudden he stops, right in the middle of the take. I said, “What’s the matter?” And he said, “Oh, my God. All of a sudden, I’m sitting across from Suzi Quatro in the studio.”

So, that was his moment. It was like either come up to bat or go away. And he got it and then he just worked. But that was a strange one for him, I think.

What songs have been written for you that you’ve found to be the most autobiographical?

That would be probably the Chinn and Chapman stuff. Ooh, “The Wild One,” definitely. The words on that are me. “If You Can’t Give Me Love,” that’s how I am romantically. Mike never offered me a song he wrote for somebody else. All the single choices were pretty much who I am. He pegged me.

There was one time I was in the studio, in particular, and I was putting down the vocal to “Mama’s Boy,” which became a single. I stopped in the middle of the take and I said, “Mike, for Christ’s sake, can you do me a favor? When you write me a song, can you leave me a space to breathe?” And he said, “Suzi, you wrote this one.” It shows you how connected we are.

You had Bill Harry as a press agent and he was a Beatle booster. Did he ever say what kind of similarities you had with that particular band?

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No, not The Beatles. All he used to say to me all the time was that I was a one-off. He said it to me all the time. He said, “When you walk in a room, you have the X factor.” He told me that all the time. And he said I was very, very quotable, which is nice. Yeah, he’s good. We had a good working relationship, Bill and I. Lovely man.

Suzi Quatro on the bass

What did leather mean in the pre-Ramones 70s?

I’m a well-documented, huge Elvis fan since the age of six. I was four years down the road in my band with The Pleasure Seekers. I watched the comeback special. I went, “Ooh, not only am I going to be him,” which I thought at six-years-old, “I’m going to wear leather.” I loved that look that he had on. I went out and got a leather jacket. I tell you, I wore that to London. When I moved over here I had my black leather jacket with me.

When “Can the Can” was recorded and it was going to be our big hit, Mickie said, “We need to discuss your image,” because now we’re getting serious. I said I wanted to wear leather. Mickie was actually very much against it. He kept saying no, I kept saying yes, and finally I got my way. He suggested a jumpsuit. I thought that it was a logical, sensible suggestion because my way of performing onstage is all over the place. I kind of go crazy and jump around a lot. Nothing would get misplaced. Everything would stay tucked in. It was a jumpsuit. Honestly, in my naiveté, I didn’t know at all that it was going to be sexy until I got the pictures back. And then I went, “Oh. Oh, dear.” It’s actually very funny. How naïve can you be?

Your first band, The Pleasure Seekers, was two sets of sisters from the neighborhood. Just like the Shangri-Las from Queens. Was it easier to find a niche as wild women of Motor City than the poppier side of music?

I don’t think we really thought about it too much. The main thrust, in my sister’s mind, anyway, was to have an all-girl band. I honestly, just for the record, didn’t give a shit. I’ve never thought of myself as a female musician, so I didn’t care as long as I was in a band. Didn’t matter to me. It could have been monkeys. I don’t care. In fact, there was The Monkees.

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We concentrated on chart music, what was popular, to get the gigs. Because it was the English Invasion just then, we did a lot of Stones, Beatles. Then we did Beach Boys. We did chart stuff because we were just starting off. We were a known live act but we never had chart success. 

On the song “What a Way to Die” you sang, “You may not live past 21,” and when you were 21, you moved to London and never came back.

Yeah, it was prophetic, wasn’t it?

So, what was that 21-year-old’s legacy, The Pleasure Seekers’ bass singer?

I was called Suzi Soul, way way back when I was 14. A lot of people remember me in that band. I was the front person. My eldest sister’s first husband was managing the Pleasure Seekers. I remember we were setting up the equipment, because we didn’t have a roadie back then, and I remember him turning to the rest of the band and saying, “Listen, we need to put most of the lights on Suzi because she’s the focal point.” I kind of went, “Uh oh.” I didn’t say it. He said it. So, if you say “what was my legacy?” I would say being the bass playing front person of a female rock and roll group, which was unusual at the time.

You brought up Suzi Soul. You toured with Alice Cooper. He had a stage name and you were born with an iconic sounding name. Do you think that makes a difference in how people saw Suzi Quatro?

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I think they always see me as real. It helps that my name is real. I am not manufactured. I remember having a discussion with Mickie when I first came to London. I said, “So, what am I going to call myself?” He said, “Are you kidding me, Suzi Quatro’s one of the best names I ever heard in my life.” I went, “Oh, that’s easy then. Isn’t that great that I have a name?” My husband of 27 years, the first thing he said to me when we found ourselves flirting a little bit on the bus, was “So, what’s your real name?” A lot of people asked me that. It does sound like a stage name, doesn’t it?

When you sang your 1991 version of “Susie Q,”were you singing to your alter-ego or  was that your alter-ego singing to you?

Because I’m little Suzi from Detroit, I think it was me singing to the alter-ego.

I’m sure you loved some of the artists who sing your praises in the documentary. What’s it like hearing them say how they were influenced by you?

I was absolutely humbled by it, I’ve got to say. When I went to the first premiere and I saw it for the first time on the big screen, with an audience, I snuck in. I was coming up for the Q&A afterwards. Nobody knew it and I was sitting on the edge. I was crying my eyes out, because it touched me. I was looking at it thinking, “Oh, my God. That’s my life!” Even now I get a tear in my eye. How beautiful it was. You think, “Oh, my God. I did all that? Oh, wow.”

Were you surprised by any of the people that stepped up to say that they played music because of you?

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I have heard from many people through the years. What surprised me was the depth of their feeling. You could feel it. It was from the feet up. Everybody that spoke in that film wanted to speak in that film and they meant it. And that sincerity is what makes me humble.

The documentary makes the case that the world wasn’t quite ready for you, but would you have changed when you came up?

I wouldn’t change a goddamn thing. And in a way, it’s kind of beautiful that I had to come over here, like Jimi Hendrix did. He came over here and made it here first, and in America they weren’t ready for him. So my path is my path. Like they say in the documentary, there was something that wasn’t quite getting through in that era. It doesn’t matter. I did what I did. I stand proud on that. I’ll go to my grave being the first one to do it and I’m happy with that.

Can I ask you about the [biopic] movie or is it still under wraps?

We are writing the script at the moment. The money is in place. People have been discussed [about] who’s going to play me. I’d rather not say. It’s going ahead and it’s all to do with the attention that the documentary caused. It’s been on my bucket list for a long time.

Are you writing new songs for it?

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Yes, I would like to. There’s a really good track I wrote with KT Tunstall, which I’d like to use in there. I will write some stuff, obviously, and then they’ll use whatever is important. This stuff I wrote at different stages of my life which should go in there. It’s exciting to be working on it.

You were thrust into the glam scene with Marc Bolan and David Bowie but did you see yourself as anti-glam?

Oh, totally. I’ve always said it. I’m not glam, whatsoever. I’m based in rock and roll. I had no makeup on. I had a plain black leather suit on and one platform in the height of the platform era. I didn’t even sound glam. I was a rock and roller.

You’re probably the only person we associate with leather that we don’t associate with S&M, but you were accused of being a tool of male chauvinism.

It makes me laugh. It came and went, and I didn’t even notice it. I just didn’t even see it. A few people made a few comments. So what? It just doesn’t matter. Here I am. All these years later, 55 years in the business. If you’re manufactured, you don’t last five minutes.

But there is a scene where someone asks you to turn around and smacks you on the ass. They wouldn’t have done that to Jim Morrison.

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A lady might have. I think he took his chance. He didn’t do it backstage. He did it on camera, knowing that I am the ultimate professional and that I wouldn’t fuck up a live TV show. And that went through my head. “Oh, my God. What do I do?” as I turned back around. By the time I turned back around and sat down, I went, “No, let it go.” If he had done that backstage, he would be on the floor.

A lot of young men or boys looked at you the same way that girls would have looked at David Cassidy.

I have had this discussion with a lot of my colleagues. You do shows together, you sit around the bar afterwards, and we’ve had this discussion. I said, “When I first came on the scene, did it look like I was a girl trying to show you that, ‘Hey, I can be like you guys?’” They all said, “No.” I said, “Okay, what did it look like?” They said, “Just that you were just up there doing what you do.” I said, “Fine. Did it look like I was trying to be sexy?” They all said, “No.” I don’t play the sexual card, even with the jumpsuit. I never went out there looking to be sexy.

You’ve played with both Peter Frampton and Jeff Beck. Tell me about jamming with great musicians.

I jammed with Jeff Beck and Cozy Powell in a Motown studio. That was, wow. Peter Frampton actually played on “All the Lonely People.” Mickie brought him in to play on a session with me. Good looking boy. Mickie thought about maybe having him join my band. This was before he was famous as a solo artist. Funny enough, Mickie said to me, “I changed my mind about Peter. I only want one star in your group,” which was very astute.

I can’t find any music from Tallulah Who?, but you wrote 17 songs for it. What’s different about writing that kind of music than rock?

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Oh, totally different. I have to call on my background in classical piano and my upbringing with my father as a musician. It was great to do. You’re writing for theater. It’s not rock and roll, but everything I do in this business has got the same thrust. I do it from my toes up and with everything I have in me. I wanted to write about her. I wanted to play her. And I did both. She’s an interesting character, a very interesting character. 

It’s a different musical vocabulary, even chord progressions, than rock and roll.

Yeah, totally different, but luckily, I was raised in music so I had access to classical piano. I had access to all the songs from my dad’s songbook. I had access to my older sisters’ and brother’s music when they were growing up. Then I had access to my own. My range is wide. I found it no problem, whatsoever, to write a musical for the theater.

When you were doing Annie Get Your Gun, did that give you an idea that maybe you should try different ideas with your songwriting?

No. That was just a big part of my upbringing. I love musicals. I was raised on it. I wanted to write a musical for a long time. I thought that would be interesting to use all my training. And then I found Tallulah. I thought, “Ooh, here’s my subject matter. I can play her and I can write about her.” Maybe having done the one musical gave me insight on how it works, but I knew it sublimely anyway, because I was a big musical fan. Love it.

It’s only shown for a second in the documentary, but I’m a huge Absolutely Fabulous fan. Do you remember how you were approached to do the show?

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Jennifer Saunders called me and said, “I would like you to be in it.” When I got there, the script was quite sketchy. I said, “Can I have fun with this?” She said, “You can do whatever you like.” So, I did the dialogue. She was great. Isn’t she great? And I love Joanna Lumley. She’s such a lovely lady. A class act.

Do you now feel validated by the ones you want it from the most?

Still not, no. And I don’t think it’ll happen. I have had praise for No Control, the album, big praise from both Nancy and Patti. They just thought it was fabulous. But I think the search of needing compliments from the family will probably last me until the end of my life because once it’s in there, in your DNA, and you don’t get it for that many years, and I never have had it, that’s how it is.

My oldest sister, Arlene, who wasn’t in the documentary, she’s always given me that. She never had a problem with it, and my brother too. I’m actually okay with it. Everybody in the documentary had the chance to speak their mind. I didn’t curtail anybody’s words. The director asked what he wanted to ask, and they gave the answers. So everybody had their platform and I’m happy to give them their platform.

There were some cringe moments in the documentary, but I said to the director, “As long as it’s honest, then it stays in. It doesn’t matter if it’s embarrassing or hurtful.” So, I gave everybody the chance to speak how they felt.

You’ve been playing with your sisters in the past decade. Is there anything they couldn’t have done as a backing band in The Suzi Quatro Band?

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No, that wouldn’t have worked. I was always waiting to be discovered and that’s the honest truth of it. I always felt that I was going to be picked out. I hate the word “famous,” but any other person like me who has been picked out, they would say the same thing: That it’s a feeling inside of you and you’re waiting for your moment.

I knew that I had to go away, find my voice, be by myself, and be who I am without anybody else. That was my path and I knew it, deep down. I never regretted my decision. Emotionally, it was hard, sure. But professionally, when that chance came, I took it. And I think anybody would. 

Suzi Q will be available on VOD and DVD on July 3. Utopia Distribution will hold a virtual event on July 1.