Blood Sweat & Tears' Steve Katz, At Home In Kent, Recalls His Rock Years

Special to The Courant
Blood Sweat & Tears' Steve Katz memoir: Everyone has told me for years to write these stories down

If Steve Katz were, indeed, a cat, he'd be on about the sixth of his nine lives by now.

The former member of two seminal rock bands — The Blues Project and Blood Sweat & Tears — Katz knew and was friends with seemingly everyone in the rock 'n' roll universe between the years 1963 and 1980. Like a musical Zelig, he appeared on iconic stages at the Monterey Pop Festival, Newport Folk Festival, Woodstock, the Hollywood Bowl, Carnegie Hall and the Ed Sullivan Show. He dined with Brian Epstein, partied with Groucho Marx, jammed with Mose Allison and Jimi Hendrix, and was told to get a haircut by Mickey Spillane. He was a producer of hit albums (for Lou Reed), a record company executive (Mercury, Green Linnet) and songwriter ("Sometime in Winter," "Steve's Song").

Now, with his engaging new memoir, "Blood, Sweat, and My Rock 'n' Roll Years: Is Steve Katz a Rock Star?'' (Lyons Press, $26.95), he can check "author" off his bucket list. Published by the Guilford-based Lyons Press, Katz's book settles some scores, assuages some pain but mostly expresses gratitude for the interesting times he lived through.

The idea for the book hit Katz three years ago during a reunion gig with Blood Sweat & Tears while the band was performing at the Westbury Music Fair, a former showpiece venue on Long Island.

"I wrote a kind of epilogue for that place," said Katz, who lives with his wife, the ceramic artist Alison Palmer, in a book-, art-, dog-, bird- and guitar-filled home in the woods near Kent, Conn. "I described how the fair differed from when we first played there when it was new in the 1960s and Liza Minelli and Diana Ross were hovering around backstage, and how it now looked like it was falling apart. When I completed that, I wanted to write more. Everyone has told me for years to write these stories down, and that's what I wanted to do."

The reaction to his memoir from old friends and colleagues like Elliott Murphy, Terry Ellis and Judy Collins has been swift and positive, the latter calling it "a dizzying, delicious, head-spinning, heart-wrenching tale of the Sixites." An audiobook is in the works and Katz has booked performing and storytelling gigs throughout the winter.

"I'm enjoying a bit of a renaissance with the book out," said Katz, 70, with an appreciative smile.

In The Beginning

Katz started out as "a nice Jewish boy with beatnik tendencies" who gravitated to "cool jazz, sick humor and coffeehouses with real-life beatniks." Born in Brooklyn, raised in Queens, Schenectady and Long Island, Katz was the son of an itinerant salesman, and as a teenager could not resist the lure of other places himself — Manhattan in particular. He could not have picked a better time (1961-62) and place (Greenwich Village) to beam himself down on Macdougal Street. The once fledgling folk music/coffee house scene was now percolating with new talent, including Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Judy Collins, Maria D'Amato (later Muldaur), Tim Hardin, Tim Buckley, among others who never achieved wide recognition, such as Katz's friends Stefan Grossman and Patrick Sky.

"I just went into the city and followed my instincts. I was always a big book reader and there was a great bookstore on Sheridan Square where I always went," he said, adding that the Greenwich Village folk scene was a natural offshoot of his quest for kicks. He had a front-row seat, in fact, to what Dave Van Ronk would dub "the Great Folk Scare."

A good detector of quality, the 17-year-old Katz found himself taking guitar lessons from the irascible Van Ronk and, later, from the saintly Rev. Gary Davis, the blind Harlem street singer and preacher whose songs are now part of the modern folk-blues repertoire.

"At the time that I took lessons from him, Rev. Davis was singing in the streets and having his guitar stolen," said Katz. "But once he made the Prestige albums [1960-64], he was able to move with his wife, Annie, to Queens. Stefan [Grossman] was really close to him, so that's how I met him. He was as fluent on the guitar as Otis Spann was on the piano."

Katz also hit the right venues, like the Gaslight, Allan Block's Sandal Shop, Café au Go Go, and Izzy Young's Folklore Center, which proved to be fertile ground, at least during daylight hours. The Village scene was, Katz said, "everything my high school wasn't."

Van Ronk and his wife, Teri, were practically surrogate parents to Katz and others. In fact, when he'd show up at their apartment, it was not unusual to find Dylan asleep on the couch. Because Katz had access to his parents' car, he was often called on to shuttle Dylan, Ochs and Van Ronk where they wanted to go. Still enrolled at Mineola High School, Katz was leading a double life.

"I had my feet in both camps," he said. "Beer and rock 'n' roll in the suburbs and purist folk and blues in the city."

Gregarious by nature, Katz was part of a group of kindred spirits, including John Sebastian, D'Amato and Grossman, that morphed from jam sessions in Washington Square Park into the Even Dozen Jug Band.

"The folk music thing was becoming so big that record labels were looking for wider audiences," he said. "The jug band was a new twist that might catch on. All you needed was a jug, guitar, washboard, simple stuff. I learned all I know about the harmonica from Sebastian."

Even Dozen Jug Band recorded one album for Elektra, produced by Paul Rothchild (who later produced the Doors). They performed on the "Tonight Show," with Johnny Carson on kazoo and Leo Durocher on comb. Once the jug band called it quits, Sebastian formed the Lovin' Spoonful while Katz got a job at Korvette's and enrolled in college.

By then, however, he'd "caught the bug" of performing. When Danny Kalb, another Van Ronk protégé, asked him to join his quartet, Katz put the books aside. That band, dubbed the Blues Project in 1965, signed a record deal and began filling clubs and theaters.

"We had an out-of-town gig, and I had to decide to go to the gig or stay home all weekend and write a college paper on Yeats' Byzantium poems," said Katz. "That was a no-brainer."

Bob Dylan's "electric" appearance at the Newport Folk Festival that summer changed the face of pop music.

"Al Kooper, our keyboard player, was in Dylan's band at that Newport gig," Katz said. "Like Danny Kalb, I came out of that acoustic folk scene and was resistant to going electric. Most of us were what you'd call purists. Thanks to Dylan overnight we lost our purity."

The Blues Project, often called "the Jewish Beatles," recorded two hit albums, toured relentlessly and, like a family, fought frequently. A peak experience for Katz was the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, at which Hendrix, Joplin and the Who literally blew up rock 'n' roll.

"I had gotten to be friendly with the guys in the Who that spring when we all played as part of a 'spectacular' at the old RKO 58th Street Theater put together by Murray the K," said Katz. "This thing ran for nine days, five shows a day, three songs per set. It was one of the most important gigs of that era but was under-reported by the hip press because of the whole Jann Wenner-West Coast bias. On this stage every day for nine days was the Who, Cream, Mitch Ryder, Blues Magoos, Wilson Pickett, Phil Ochs, Simon & Garfunkel, Young Rascals and The Blues Project."

Murray the K [Kaufman] was, in Katz's book, an unheralded culture hero. Not only was he instrumental in bringing the Beatles to America, he was responsible, as a DJ at WOR-FM in New York, for starting the trend of playing long album cuts that weren't hits.

"The whole counterculture thing was FM rock-oriented," said Katz. "Murray wasn't a hippie or a protester. All he did was change the face of radio."

During the latter days of the Blues Project, Katz met Mimi Farina, Joan Baez's younger sister and widow of novelist Richard Farina, with whom she'd performed as a folk duo. He describes their torrid relationship in the book. When it ended, Katz was bereft.

"She was my first love," he said. "In any first love, when there's a breakup like that you just don't forget it. I'm sure it didn't affect her nearly as deeply as it did me."

Enter Blood Sweat & Tears

When the Blues Project broke up soon thereafter, Katz found himself working with Al Kooper, the member of the old band with whom he had fought most often. The new band, called Blood Sweat & Tears, would go on to sell millions of albums, win several Grammys, including one for Best Album (beating out "Abbey Road") and tour the world, playing everything from festivals to Las Vegas.

But that was all in the future. Their debut album, "Child is Father to the Man," was recorded in late 1967 with the mercurial Kooper, and it's still considered by some to be the band's finest hour. Yet Kooper departed soon thereafter, and his place was filled by the big-voiced, barrel-chested David Clayton-Thomas, who became, for Katz, "the Canadian albatross" and made Kooper seem like Gandhi by comparison.

The band's second album, called "Blood, Sweat & Tears," with Clayton-Thomas singing "Spinning Wheel," "And When I Die" and "You've Made Me So Very Happy," soared to the top of the singles and album charts and stayed there for months. In an irony that only rock music can produce, when Katz was at his most successful commercially, he was most miserable personally. The band was for him now more a business consideration than a musical entity.

"Part of my problem was that the band did not have the family vibe that Blues Project had," said Katz. "Mainly, I didn't like the direction the band was going in, which was deeper and deeper into jazz. Plus, David was beginning to sound like Sammy Davis Jr. But once we had the hit singles, we had no choice. You have to deal with lawyers and accountants and you have to trust them but, unfortunately, there was nobody you could trust in those fields back in those days."

Nonetheless, the band did have some exciting times, such as playing a muddy, late-night set at Woodstock that was not included in the movie. They had happier experiences at the Atlanta and Toronto pop festivals, and toured Eastern Europe at the behest of the State Department. Katz hung on through four albums and even outlasted Clayton-Thomas, but eventually left in 1973.

"I wanted to get back into rock 'n' roll, which explains why I jumped at the chance to work with Lou Reed as a producer," said Katz. "I met Lou when he was off of heroin and very shy. It wasn't long after that that he started doing speed. But I liked Lou personally. We always got along."

Katz's stroke of genius was to put together a top-notch band and allow the notoriously unpredictable Reed to come out and sing his best-known songs in front of a live audience. The result was "Rock 'n' Roll Animal," which became a surprise hit album and revived Reed's career.

"He didn't appreciate it at the time," said Katz, who stuck around to produce Reed's follow-up, the studio album "Sally Can't Dance," which probably should have been titled "Lou Can't Function." Exhibiting the patience of Job, Katz rounded up musicians to augment what little Reed put forth in the studio; despite the dysfunctional origins, "Sally Can't Dance" was an even bigger hit for Reed than "Rock 'n' Roll Animal."

Katz took a sabbatical, of sorts, to produce three albums by the traditional Irish band Horslips and one by the underrated Elliott Murphy. In the midst of all the studio work, he was asked to produce an album for American Flyer, an assemblage that included Craig Fuller (of Pure Prairie League), Eric Kaz (Blues Magoos) and Doug Yule (Velvet Underground). Instead, he asked to join the band and then asked that George Martin, who produced all but one of the Beatles' albums, to oversee the sessions.

"The first American Flyer record was really great, and George was all over it, playing piano," said Katz. "The last track is all George, complete with his 'I Am the Walrus' cello parts."

The less said about Katz's time as a record company executive in the 1980s, the better. Although he signed NRBQ and The Cryers, he passed up the opportunity to sign U2.

"It's funny but tragic, in a way," he says now with a smile.

Still Reflecting

Katz picks and chooses his gigs now, and enjoys periodically reuniting with Kalb and Grossman to give one-off performances. He has used his wife's ceramics studio, next door to their Kent home, to stage solo concerts and guitar workshops, but most of his energy is expended in helping run their business, The Alison Palmer Studio (alisonpalmerstudio.com).

From this neck of the woods, Katz now has time to reflect on all of his past lives in the music business.

"At the time, I loved what I was doing but never had the sense that this was going to be the future and I was going to be a star," he said. "I never thought of music that way. I just thought of it as something very special and I was very happy and lucky to be a part of it."

See video footage of Steve Katz playing guitar and talking his career at courant.com/stevekatz. Katz performs at the Trumbull Library on Sunday, Sept. 20, at 1:30 p.m. More information at stevekatzmusic.wordpress.com.

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