I first encountered Suzi Quatro headlining a Fresher’s Ball at Southampton University in the autumn of 1973. She had the assembled, mostly male, teenage audience in the palm of her hand from the moment she made her entrance, flanked by three burly musicians. And when she opened her mouth and that trademark Detroit drawl came oozing out, it was clear this was that rare thing – a rock’n’roll original.
In 1973, it was almost unheard-of to see a woman in rock play an instrument, let alone lead a band from the front with an electric bass almost her height strapped to the waist. The leather jumpsuit was also, shall we say, something you didn’t see every day.
1973, of course, was the year it all started happening for Suzi Quatro. And unlike many of her glam-era contemporaries – Stardust, Essex et al – it was her real name! Everything else about her was real, too. The accent, the attitude, the musical ability, all this and more came as part and parcel of the pint-size package. Okay, she had her songwriting and production team of Chinn and Chapman to thank for ‘Can The Can’, ‘48 Crash’ and ‘Daytona Demon’, but her albums contained their share of self-penned tunes.
Wind forward through the four decades of rock history since then and you’ll catch many a glimpse of the impact Suzi has made. Girls with guitars? Well there’s Chrissie Hynde and Joan Jett, two Americans with axes and attitude to burn. I’d like to give punkette Gaye Advert an honourable mention, too, as she was a bass player from our side of the water.
And let’s not forget Tina Weymouth. The same size as Suzi, she became bassist of Talking Heads in 1975 after drummer and partner Chris Frantz encouraged her to learn to play by listening to Quatro albums. So able did she become, indeed, that she also featured alongside Frantz in dance-music side project Tom Tom Club.
Suzi is well aware of her inspirational qualities: ‘Anyone who’s anyone has come up to me at some point and said, “Boy oh boy, you’re the reason I started!” It’s been said since day one. Joan Jett was my biggest fan, and then she started the Runaways. Chrissie Hynde interviewed me before she did the Pretenders, Melissa Etheridge was a big fan, the White Stripes are fans, Pink…”
And that influence endures. As recently as 2008, Scots singer/guitarist KT Tunstall revealed that the cover photo of her 2007 album ‘Drastic Fantastic’ was based on Suzi’s image. In return, Quatro nominated the feisty Tunstall to play her in a mooted West End ‘jukebox musical’ of her life. But that is for the future…
In 2013, Suzi received a lifetime achievement award at her hometown Detroit Music Awards (the DMAs). Later that year came the Woman of Valour Award from Musicians for Equal Opportunities for Women (MEOW). Former Go-Go Kathy Valentine, who presented it at a dinner in Austin, Texas, recalled visiting relatives in England forty years earlier and turning on Top Of The Pops to see a woman clad in black leather playing bass guitar and singing. That’s our Suzi!
Yet it would be a mistake to assume rocking out is her one and only attribute. Suzi Quatro is a poet, an author, actress, artist, radio DJ, TV presenter and (whisper it quietly) a grandmother – and, what’s more, thanks to a very early start in the music business, is currently celebrating half a century in the showbiz spotlight. It hardly seems possible, but it’s true.
She’s also written her autobiography, Unzipped – what a title! – which added best-selling author to her proud record of having sold upwards of 55 million singles and albums. (It’s now also a one-woman show.) She may come from the vinyl generation, but she doesn’t let the grass grow under her feet.
Sweet she may appear, but Suzi has an iron will. It was this that enabled her to come through the end of her first marriage to Len Tuckey, not only her husband but also her guitarist and co-songwriter, in 1991. But even before that it had enabled her to leave the security of her family and her band when Mickie Most, the most successful independent music producer of his era, saw her play in Detroit in 1971. ‘He wanted me, not the band’ was her recollection – and the scene was set for stardom. Sister Patti, the lead guitarist who joined Fanny in the Seventies, forgave her in time…
Suzi’s Transatlantic crossing was a decade after – and in the opposite direction to – the British Invasion of the Sixties that inspired her to follow a musical career. She had a father who was a professional musician, but it took the Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on 9 February 1964 to confirm her decision.
A record 73 million people tuned in that Sunday night, and history suggests a remarkable number appear to have been would-be musicians. At the tender age of 14, Suzi could have had no idea where rock’n’roll was going to take her.
‘I don’t think I did anything consciously,’ Quatro explains. ‘All I know is that I knew I wasn’t like other women, that’s what kept me going. I would see other girls and think “Hmmmm, so where do I fit in?” That’s usually what creates something new, the need to find a niche. In my case, since I didn’t have any female role models, I had to create my niche – which many women filed through afterwards.’
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