Suzi Quatro has played in Yorkshire numerous times over the decades, but given that her career’s taken her all over the world it’s perhaps not surprising that her memories of gigs in the Broad Acres are a little hazy.
She does, though, have a fascinating (and I suspect little known) Yorkshire connection involving a renowned pantomime stalwart at York’s Theatre Royal. “Berwick Kaler was the best man at my second marriage,” Quatro tells me. “We did a show together in the West End and we developed a big friendship and he’s become my best friend.”
It’s perhaps an unlikely meeting of minds – a pantomime dame and a rock ‘n’ roll star – but then there’s nothing formulaic about Suzi Quatro’s life.
She burst onto the music scene in the early 1970s – this was the era of Marc Bolan and David Bowie when Glam Rock ruled the roost – and her black leather catsuit, snakeskin knee-high boots and silver chained tiger’s claws ensured she stood out from the crowd. She also had the tunes to back up the look – producing a string of hits including Devil Gate Drive, 48 Crash and, most famously of all, Can the Can, which propelled her into the big time.
Quatro has gone on to sell 55 million records in a career spanning more than half a century and is far more than just a relic from a bygone music era synonymous with big hair and outrageous outfits. She’s written for musicals, performed in the West End and produced a poetry collection, Through My Eyes, as well as a novel, The Hurricane, which came out last year. All of which she will no doubt be discussing when she appears ‘in conversation’ at the Bradford Literature Festival next week.
“I’ve written poetry since I was a child and I still write it now,” says Quatro, speaking from her home in the Essex countryside where she’s lived since 1980. “I’m very much a word person and I thought I’d give a novel a try because I just love writing. One of my friends, Jackie Collins, who’s now passed on, read my autobiography and said ‘you really write well’. I told her I wanted to do a novel and she said ‘stick to what you know to begin with’, so that’s what I did and then flew from there.”
In fact she flew from an early age. Born and raised in Detroit, Quatro clearly remembers the moment that changed her life. “When I was six I saw Elvis Presley on television and I had an epiphany and said ‘that’s what I’m going to do’. I’ve always had a strong sense of self. I don’t know why that is, I’m a very instinctive person and I just knew that this was my path.”
She picked up a bass guitar and, when she was 14, she and an older sister formed all-girl band, The Pleasure Seekers. “I didn’t have to argue with my parents about being in a rock ‘n’ roll band, my dad was very much in favour and he bought us equipment to help us get started.”
Her life changed in 1971 when two record companies battled to sign her as a solo artist, one of whom was legendary British record producer, Mickie Most. “The Elektra guy said he wanted to take me to New York and make me the next Janis Joplin and Mickey Most said he wanted to take me to England and make me the first Suzi Quatro, and I thought Mickey saw me and who I was.”
It meant leaving her family behind. “I didn’t even take a coat with me when I left.”
What she did have was a burning desire to succeed. “I had a nine-year apprentice period to learn my craft which is great. You can’t buy that kind of thing, we were playing five sets a night sometimes.”
There had been a handful of other female rock stars before her, including Grace Slick, lead singer with psychedelic rockers Jefferson Airplane, and the ill-fated Janis Joplin, but Quatro is a pioneering figure in the story of rock music, albeit a reluctant one. “I don’t think of myself as a girl musician I just think of myself as a musician. I don’t really do gender very much.”
Nevertheless, she was trying to make her name in a notoriously male-dominated environment. You sense there’s a bullishness in Quatro that has stood her in good stead down the years. “Perhaps I had some kind of ‘don’t mess with me attitude,’” she says, with a knowing chuckle. “I just know that I was serious and I was taken that way.”
At the time she didn’t see herself as a female role model smashing the glass ceiling so that others could follow. “I didn’t become aware of it until I started having my hits in 73 and then all these questions started coming at me. But it was never about women’s lib for me it’s always been about ‘me lib’. I’m a believer in being who you are.”
And when fame was thrust upon her she didn’t let it go to her head. “I didn’t change with the fame, people around me changed and I found that a little bit difficult to put up with and still do.
“I was sure of who I was and sure I had something to give and when it [success] came along my attitude was, ‘good, I’ve worked hard for this.’ And I’m still the same now. I don’t take it for granted, every single gig is like my first gig all over again. I have to win the audience every single time.”
She’s been in the music business 54 years now and questions the way it’s changed. “I think the reality TV shows have a lot to answer for. That’s not how stars are found. You have some guy flipping hamburgers and the next day he’s on TV with a production that even an established artist doesn’t get. They’re unreality shows. Maybe I just sound old but it used to be more organic in my day.”
At 68, Quatro still gets a buzz from performing live and has no qualms about playing her old hits,. “I don’t understand any artist who can say they mind going out on stage to play one of their hits. Are you nuts? It doesn’t matter if you’ve played it eight zillion times, it’s what the audience wants.”
In August she’s heading back into the studio to record with KT Tunstall. “I still have something to say. My deepest love is to go out and perform. My job is to make people feel good when they leave… and that’s what I try to do.”
Suzi Quatro is appearing in conversation with The Yorkshire Post’s Yvette Huddleston at The Studio, Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, on July 3.
For ticket details go to www.bradfordlitfest.co.uk or call 01274 238525.