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Rock pioneer Suzi Quatro on Happy Days and giving Alice Cooper a black eye

Suzy Quatro (Left and right photos: Sicily Publicity, center: Richard Ecclestone/Getty Images)
Suzy Quatro (Left and right photos: Sicily Publicity, center: Richard Ecclestone/Getty Images)
Graphic: Libby McGuire
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In the early 1970s, young Suzi Quatro made a huge splash in rock music, reaching the top of the charts in countries like England, Denmark, and Australia with glam-rock hits like “Can The Can” and “Devil Gate Drive.” The diminutive, leather-clad Quatro easily won over European audiences with her appealing stage presence as she expertly played a bass guitar almost as big as she was, commandeering her all-male backing band. Curiously, the Detroit native went relatively unnoticed in the U.S.; most Americans remember her now for her stint as Leather Tuscadero on the popular ’70s sitcom Happy Days and her mellow hit duet with Chris Norman, “Stumblin’ In.” Mainstream America may not have been playing close attention to the effervescent Quatro, but future rockers like Joan Jett, Cherie Currie (The Runaways), Debbie Harry (Blondie), and Kathy Valentine (The Go-Go’s) were.

Decades later, it seems Quatro is finally about to get her due in the rock annals as the first woman to front a successful rock band while playing an instrument. New documentary Suzi Q traces Quatro’s explosive career, starting out in an all-girl band with her sisters when she was just 14, then getting discovered and shipped to England only a few years later. Suzi Q offers a riveting, largely undiscovered chapter in rock music, exploring an artist who has sold 55 million records over the course of her long and successful career (which now also includes a number of stage musicals, programs on BBC Radio 2, and a series of books). A few days before the documentary’s premiere, Quatro talked to The A.V. Club from her home in Hamburg, Germany, about being a rock groundbreaker, the secret to her infectious stage presence, and what life was like on the road with Alice Cooper. The now-70-year-old shows no signs of slowing down, still possessing the strong-willed self-confidence that helped her reach those musical heights in the first place.

The A.V. Club: The documentary must have been a cathartic experience for you.

Suzi Quatro: When you see your life up there on the big screen, it’s quite something. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. And also wanted to make it very real, warts and all. And that’s what I’ve accomplished. I wanted to put the record straight, but I wanted to put it straight with everything, good and bad. And that’s what it’s done. That’s what it’s managed to do. It’s told the story, but it’s told it with honesty.

AVC: Was there anything from your past that surprised you? The way you reacted to it when you uncovered it? 

SQ: You know, you don’t know what people are going to say. I was surprised at the depth of the feeling from the people who were agreeing to appear on it, and what they said, and how they spoke really honestly from the bottom of their feet. To their hearts. It wasn’t just lip service. Every person on this thing that spoke nice of me meant every word they said, and that really humbled me. There were, you know, some awkward moments. I mean obviously the family stuff was difficult. But it’s my life. You know what your life is, but then when you do actually get it all to film, but then you watch it with an audience, it takes on a whole different perspective.

AVC: Why do you think you had an easier time finding success in Europe than America?

SQ: I think it was what they said in the video was probably correct. I was a little bit early for over there. In Europe, they just seemed to take it easier, take it quicker. I don’t know why. Just the timing, you know. But from ’74, I toured there in America. And I went back all the time with my English band with the hits under my belt.

AVC: It’s not too surprising that “Stumblin’ In” was your biggest U.S. hit because that’s where U.S. radio was at the time. It was FM easy-listening kind of stuff.

SQ: It was. It was very Eagles, you know? So you hadn’t really caught up to the rest of the world at that stage that I started having my first success. And I was so not what everybody expected. I was just different. And so you just weren’t quite ready.

Everybody knew me. I had fans all over America, but the single success didn’t follow me over. That’s the difference. Then Happy Days came along, and of course I played Leather Tuscadero, and then it was nationwide television. Number one show—I’m on there doing some of my hits, playing the bass guitar, being me. So I kicked down the door as Suzi Quatro, then I kicked it down again as Leather Tuscadero, who is Suzi Quatro. So however it happened, it happened. It doesn’t make any difference to me. I mean, I sold 55 million records, so I’m not kickin’.

AVC: What was it like being on the set of Happy Days? It was reportedly a really close set with those guys, with Ron Howard and Henry Winkler.

SQ: Well, that was something I always knew I was going to do. I was always going to move ahead and spread my wings. That’s the kind of artist I am. As I say in the film, I won’t be boxed in. I got the call… I went over there and got the part. It’s going to be for three seasons. It never felt unusual for me. I just kind of slid into the job, you know? Slid into it, felt real, real natural.

I was talking to Ronnie [Howard] not that long ago on the phone. And I was curious, and I was picking his brain. And I said, “Listen, I have a question. Did it ever seem to you that I was a green actress, and I was brand new to the show?” And he said, “No. That’s the strangest thing, Suzi. It felt like you had acted your whole life, and that you’d been in the show since the beginning.”

So it’s obviously a natural thing for me. You know, it’s—not that you don’t have to work at it. Of course you do. But I am an artiste. [Laughs.] That’s my only excuse. I am an artiste, and whatever I do within this field, including poetry, writing songs, musicals, DJ, whatever, it’s quite a natural thing for me, and I go from the same instinct with all of it. And it’s to entertain and communicate.

AVC: In the documentary, you talk about your strong family structure and your parents being strict with you, how that helped you. But to have that fortitude, to be able to walk onto a stage as a teenager and command the crowd, where do you think that comes from? 

SQ: I think you’re born with it, to tell you the truth. Nobody ever, ever instructed me what to do on the stage. I had the ability to hold an audience from a very young child, and I knew it. I can’t explain it. It’s instinctive. When I go on a stage, I just know what to do.

I wish I could explain it, but I guess I’m glad I can’t, because then everybody would do it. So this is kind of like a gift that you’re born with. And a lot of people have said this. They’ve been at big shows—maybe there’s like 14,000 people, and I can touch at the back of the hall. You can feel like you’re standing on the stage with me. And I don’t know what that is. I can’t explain it, other than I have that natural entertainment gene in me.

AVC: You’ve said that Elvis is your idol, right? That’s probably something that you recognized that you both had. 

SQ: Yes, I did. And in fact, I said one time not that long ago during an interview that you never, ever rest on your laurels. Just because you killed them the night before does not mean you’re going to kill them the next night, and you always go out there ready to tame the audience, and every audience is a different animal. And I thought that I was being unique. And I happened to catch a documentary of Elvis just the other day, and he said the same thing. I just went, “What?!” That’s so funny when that happens. So yeah, I guess whatever I felt from him when I was 5-and-a-half, it was that I had that in me.

And James Burton, his guitar player, we did quite a few things together through the years. We were doing “Singing With Angels,” my tribute to Elvis. And he was on the track with The Jordanaires. And I was playing him some of my new songs from my new album. This is quite a few years ago. And we were standing outside, and he came up to me after listening for a while. And then he came back over to me, and he said, “Suzi? You know, you have what Elvis had.” I nearly went right through the floor. I got goosebumps just now saying it. I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “The only way I can explain it is whatever you do, it’s you.” Wow. But even to say that. I mean, I’ll take that to my grave. What a compliment.

We did a song, a tribute that I wrote to Elvis, called “Singing With Angels.” It’s become quite a cult hit. We did it in Nashville. It’s being played at funerals a lot. I wrote it for Elvis as a tribute, and it was recorded in Nashville with James Burton and the Jordanaires. So this was my ending page in my Elvis story.

AVC: You mention in the documentary that part of the tough attitude that you developed was to ward off problematic people. In the ’70s as a young girl, we can only imagine what that must have been like for you. Can you give some examples of how that helped you?  

SQ: I have this little quirk in my nature that I think I’m 6'2". And I don’t suffer fools gladly. You’ll see me square up to a guy twice my size. I don’t know what it is. I’m just not frightened. When you get the hecklers and the touchers and the this and the that, I have a very, very quick mouth. It’s lethal. My mouth is lethal, and that has done me well my entire life.

But there was one time where I had to hit a guy over the head with my bass guitar. I did do that. Because he came up to the stage—I was like 15 or something—came up to the stage and made that rude gesture with your tongue. And I just went, “What?” So I danced close to the front of the stage as if I’m putting on a show, and the head of the bass went down on his head. Boomf. So that’s how I get through it. [Laughs.] Don’t mess with me.

AVC: Around that same period, the way that Alice Cooper talks about you in the documentary, he’s obviously so fond of you. You opened for him on a really long tour back then. What was that like?

SQ: It was a long, long tour. It was like 80 shows, and we had done 30 in Canada by myself before that tour started. So it was forever. Although once we had a dart gun fight. This is all in my book Unzipped. That was fun. We had a dart gun fight in one of the hotels, with the rubber darts, you know? Because we were all bored after so many gigs just getting crazy. And it sort of spilled out from one of the rooms into the hallway. And we were behind mattresses and—unbelievable, this—you know how it goes on the road, you get crazy. And I’m a very good shot. And Alice was hiding behind a television. And he stuck his face out, and he’s got rather a large nose. Not too big, but you know, he’s got a nose. And I went whack! And gave him a black eye. And he went out onstage that night with my T-shirt on out of respect. He always says, “The first thing you thought was ‘ouch.’ And then the second thing was, ‘Good shot.’” [Laughs.]

AVC: Do you think you two had a kind of Detroit camaraderie? 

SQ: Oh god, yeah. There’s something in the water there, I swear to god. You know, all of us bands, we get along great. We know each other forever. And there’s a real kinsmanship in Detroit. Even the love of Motown, you know? It’s just in us. You can hear it in my bass lines. If you listen to [2019’s] No Control, you’ll hear a lot of Motown beats on that, because I was weaned on it. And I’ve got that kind of [James] Jamerson, maybe slightly more rock edge, but I’ve got that boogie feel that he has, you know, and that walking bass things and all that. I took a lot from there. And I have the Detroit energy and the Detroit edge, which you cannot manufacture.

AVC: Everybody points out in the film numerous times about how you were the first woman to lead her own band while playing an instrument.

SQ: And have success. That’s the main thing. Have success doing it.

AVC: And it had never been done before. But it seemed to never cross your mind that that wasn’t something that you could do. 

SQ: No, it’s another quirk of nature. [Laughs.] I just don’t do gender. I never have. If you know me, you know I just—I say it this way, okay? It doesn’t occur to me that I can’t do whatever I want to do. I don’t think of myself as a female musician. I think of myself as a musician.

The only time I use my female card—and I do keep it in my back pocket—you know, when the referee is on the football field and he puts up the foul card, you know? I keep it in my pocket. And when somebody steps out of line in any way, maybe saying a certain word I don’t like, or just being out of order and stepping on my sensibilities, I will then pull the female card. But that’s when I use it. When I have to.

And I often instruct younger women in the business, you don’t have to be butch at all. And I’m not butch. I’m quite cute and sexy in my own way, or I was. And you don’t have to be a guy to play with the guys, if you see what I mean. So keep your femininity. There is a thin line, and you shouldn’t lose it. But I don’t lead with it, if that makes sense. I’m talking about being me. That’s what I promote. Be who you are. Find your light and let it shine. I’ve always said it my whole life.

AVC: What’s it like for you to see those other bands that followed that were influenced by you, like The Runaways, Joan Jett, and The Go-Go’s? 

SQ: Oh, that’s great. I was so happy. When I was having my first No. 1, in ’73, I’m quoted in one of the music papers saying, “You watch. In about three or four years, there will be a lot more girls coming through.” And I was right. 

Because what I didn’t realize until I finished this documentary, saw what people said, and indeed have become good friends with Cherie and Kathy Valentine. I’m already good friends with Debbie [Harry]. I’ll illustrate it. I got an award in January, and Cherie, I asked Cherie to give me the award. She went out and gave the speech, and she started to cry. And I just went, wow. Then I’m on an interview with Cherie and Kathy for the virtual release of the DVD. We did a hosting session. And Kathy starts to cry. She also gave me an award in Texas like two years ago.

And this has happened to me many times. Women cry. And I’ve come to the realization—and I didn’t know this before the documentary—that what I did was I gave all these women, who had no place that they belonged, some place where they could live. And I will take that to my grave. What an honor.

AVC: Somebody had to be first. And it was you. 

SQ: Yes, and I think it fell to me. This is just hindsight, and it’s just my humble opinion. You needed somebody like me who wasn’t doing it as a woman showing you, “Well, I could do it.” Because that was never my attitude. Wasn’t playing the female card, wasn’t playing the sex card. Was just being natural to themselves. This is what it took to break the mold. This is what had to happen, so it fell on my shoulders.

AVC: When you look back, what are you proudest of?

SQ: I mean, I’m proud of everything. I’m proud of my whole life when I look at it, you know? Some sad, some great. I’m really proud that I’ve been in this industry for 56 years as a professional now, and I have my feet on the ground, and I am pretty normal. That’s what I’m proud of. And I’m also proud that my fans love me, and I love them. I love the whole relationship, and I’m proud that I’ve been able to make people happy for so many years. How wonderful. Can’t believe I get paid for it.

AVC: What’s next for you?

SQ: During the lockdown, I’ve written for the next album. I’ve been writing with my son, because neither one of us has been on the road, obviously. So we’ve done about 15, 16 songs and demoed them. Then, which comes out July 27, a new book. Like the poetry book, it’s an illustrated lyric book called Through My Words. And I did that from scratch. And I have proofed it, and it’s at the printers now. Great. And my movie of my life, that’s happening, and the script will be finished with that July 17, and then we start to move forward on that.

AVC: A biopic about your life? Like The Runaways had?

SQ: Yeah, there will be a movie. A proper movie, yep. It’s because of everything that this has caused, this documentary. It’s just gone ballistic around the world. Everybody is loving it, and that’s what got me interested.