Born in Tilsit in what is now Germany in 1944, Joachim Fritz Krauledat and his mother spent what was the remainder of the Second World War fleeing one occupied part of Europe to another. Armed Forces Radio fuelled Kay’s musical fire, where he was first exposed to artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and the top blues artists of the time.
They emigrated to Canada when he was 14, where he was diagnosed with several vision related problems including colour blindness and sensitivity to light. He attended an elementary school run by the CNIB while living in Humberside, Ontario. By the time he graduated from high school in Toronto in 1963, he’d already appeared on several radio stations covering his favourite musical influences. Although his family moved to Buffalo, NY shortly thereafter, he made regular return trips to Toronto to absorb the musical vibes that were eminating from Yorkville.
Now going by the name of John Kay, he spent a brief period in the coffee shops and other hippie joints in and around Los Angeles absorbing the musical vibes, but returned to Ontario by the summer of ’65, making ends meet as a regular at some of Yorkville’s most popular clubs. There he met members of what was at the time Jack London & The Sparrows, a popular group on the circuit who’d moved from Oshawa the year before. Copying the British hits of the day, they already had a string of fairly successful singles to their name, but made the move to Toronto without their leader, Jack London.
Kay officially joined the group in the fall of ’65, and still under contract to Columbia Records, released a single in the spring of ’67 under the guise of John Kay & The Sparrows to little fanfare. Shortly thereafter, the band went to New York without Kay, who returned to LA. Within months, The Sparrow had run its course and Kay was looking for a new band. Before the year was up, he’d recurited two ex-Sparrows, keyboardist Goldy McJohn and drummer Jerry Edmonton (real name Jerry McCrohan) along with 17-year old guitarist Michael Monarch and Rushton Moreve on bass.
As Steppenwolf, they tore up the charts for the next five years, releasing six studio albums and two live records. Of those, EARLY STEPPENWOLF in 1969 was actually a San Fransisco show from nearly two years earlier by The Sparrow. During their run at the top, hits like “Magic Carpet Ride,” “Born To Be Wild,” “The Pusher,” “Sookie Sookie” and “Monster” raised political eyebrows and through countless sold out concert and festival appearances throughout the world, appearing on the “Easy Rider” movie soundtrack and performing on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” inspiring a generation of artists while leaving their indelible mark on rock music.
But one by one all the original members were replaced or left voluntarily until only Kay was left standing. On Valentine’s Day 1972, the same day as Steppenwolf Day was being celebrated in Los Angeles, Kay announced the band’s break up.
He wasn’t gone for long however, resurfacing before the end of the year on Dunhill Records with FORGOTTEN SONGS AND UNSUNG HEROES. Largely self-written, the album took the listener back to Kay’s simple rhythm & blues roots, and also featured covers of Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On,” Robert Johnson’s blues standard “Walking Blues” and Hank Williams’ “You Win Again.”
Again predominantly self-written with a few covers, MY SPORTIN’ LIFE followed a year later. Shifting from blues and country to soft and heavy rock, and backed by the lead off “Moonshine,” other noteable tracks included “Drift Away” (actually released prior to Dobie Gray’s original version), “Heroes & Devils,” the title track, “Dance To My Song” and “Sing With The Children.”
But by the spring of ’74, the legal red tape of who exactly owned the name of ‘Steppenwolf‘ was settled, and various incarnations of former members’ bands operating under that name stopped. Kay resurrected the name with a new backing band, and in between the resumed tour schedule, albeit scaled back, they would go on to release three more studio albums, as well as a string of compilation and live records under the Steppenwolf moniker.
Now on Mercury Records, he released his third solo album in ’78, ALL IN GOOD TIME. Ten original tracks and produced by Clayton Ivey and Terry Woodford in Alabama, it continued on the road paved by its solo predecessors, full of tight blues hooks stripped down and with minimal excessive production, which was handled by Clayton Ivey and Terry Woodford in Alabama. Although the record didn’t set the world on fire, the simplicity and strength in their own right of songs like “Give Me Some News I Can Use,” “Down In New Orleans” and the somewhat self-prophetic “Hey I’m Alright” made the record a critic’s fave.
Kay continued to tour on and off again under the ‘Steppenwolf’ name for the next few years while still recording between for the next few years while recording under until he released LONE STEPPENWOLF in ’87. The greatest hits compilation featured selections from his first two solo albums and highlighted a cross-section of his musical influences.
More sporadic Steppenwolf tours followed in between more Steppenwolf albums, most of which were compilations, when Kay released his autobiography, “Magic Carpet Ride” in 1994. Kay was on stage to accept the award in ’96 when Steppenwolf was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the same year some of the lesser known Steppenwolf albums were being repackaged with bonus tracks and re-released on various labels.
1997 saw his fourth studio album, THE LOST HERITAGE TAPES released on Macola Records, which was actually a project he’d worked on in ’76 but had to be shelved due to changes in record label affiliation. Produced by morgan Cavett and guest appearances by Lowell George and Bill Payne of Little Feat fame, Jim Gordon, former Steppenwolf drummer Jerry Edmonton, and Nicky Hopkins and the Tower of Power Horns made it one of the most eclectic and diverse recordings in Kay’s illustrious career. featuring all original recordings such as “Captain of Your Destiny,” “Sweet Memories,” and “Hurricane Maryann.” Three tracks – “Down In New Orleans,” “Hey I’m Alright,” and “Business is Business” were re-recorded with different musicians and arrangements for the 1978’s ALL IN GOOD TIME album.
His part time recording and touring schedule continued until 2001, when he released HERETICS AND PRIVATEERS, a collection of 12 original tracks with the occasional co-writing credits to others. The title tracks, “Don’t Waste My Time,” “She’s Got The Goods,” “To Be Alive and “Sleep With One Eye Open” showcased gritty lyrics and the strength in blues roots that were the foundation to his musical influences. In the meantime, and since then, he’s continued to tour under the Steppenwolf banner, albeit more and more sporadically.