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Original members included Jerry Edmonton (born October 24, 1946; died November 28, 1993), drums; John Kay (born Joachim Krauledat, April 12, 1944, in Tilsit, East Prussia, Germany), guitar, vocals; Goldy McJohn (May 2, 1945), organ; Michael Monarch (June 5, 1946), guitar; Rushton Moreve (1948~1981), bass. Later members included John Russell Morgan, bass; Larry Byrom, guitar; Kent Henry, guitar; Nick St. Nicholas, bass; George Biondo, bass; Bobby Cochran, guitar; Wayne Cook, organ; Ron Hurst, vocals, drums; Danny Johnson, guitar.
Storming onto the rock scene with a hard-driving sound that captured the rebellious spirit of the late 1960s, Steppenwolf produced several hits that became rock anthems and have stood the test of time. The group is best known for its classic "Born to Be Wild," the song that labeled them a "biker band" and whose lyric of "heavy metal thunder" was later used to describe a whole genre of rock music.
The prime force of Steppenwolf has been John Kay, who was born Joachim Krauledat in East Germany in the mid 1940s. Kay developed his taste for rock music while listening to Armed Forces Radio during his boyhood, and was a big fan of artists such as Little Richard and Chuck Berry. He and his family fled then Communist East Germany when Kay was four, in a dangerous midnight escape. Ten years later the family emigrated to Canada, where Kay learned English from disk jockeys and music from the rock performers of the era. He acquired the name John from a gym teacher who couldn't pronounced "Joachim," and later gave himself the Kay surname.
By his mid teens Kay was already performing on amateur radio. He and his family moved to Buffalo, New York, in 1963, then to Santa Monica, California. On the West coast Kay became enamored with the folk-rock music blossoming there, and before long he was criss- crossing the country playing acoustic blues and singing folk music in coffee houses and bars. According to the Steppenwolf website, Kay first appeared on a recording playing harmonica on a song called "The Frog."
In New York City, Kay met drummer Jerry Edmonton of the popular Canadian group The Sparrows. Kay and organist Goldy McJohn came on board with the Sparrows while playing at Toronto's Yorkville Village in 1965. At this time the group also featured Michael Monarch on guitar and Rushton Moreve on bass. Under Kay's influence, the group began evolving its sound into a raw, blues- style rock and roll similar to popular English bands of the time. Before long the group moved their base of operation from Toronto to New York, in search of greater opportunities. Later they ended up in San Francisco, and the group toured and recorded frequently without much success. Repeated attempts to get a recording contract with Columbia Records proved fruitless, and the resulting frustration led to the group's breakup in 1967.
One person who did believe in the group was Gabriel Mekler, a producer for the ABC-Dunhill label. He convinced Kay to get his group back together in Los Angles, and even suggested that they change their name to Steppenwolf, after the title of a Herman Hesse novel. With Mekler offering the group studio time to record demos, the group was on its way, now with John Russell Morgan replacing Moreve on bass. Coming up with an album was no problem for the group, since they had built up an extensive repertoire of original material during their many years of touring and songwriting.
Although their first single, "The Ostrich," had little impact, the group hit gold with a song written by Edmonton's brother Dennis that he had composed for his own solo album. The song was "Born to Be Wild," and it's timing couldn't have been more perfect. It was released just as demands for freedom in Czechoslovakia were about to spark a Russian invasion, making the song seem like a political manifesto for freedom everywhere. Suddenly the group was in the spotlight, as indicated by their appearance in the famed Newport Pop Festival in 1968 along with groups such as Sonny and Cher, the Grateful Dead, the Byrds, and others. A year later, they were featured on the soundtrack for the counter-culture hit movie Easy Rider, which debuted on the big screen in 1969. The film's soundtrack also included Steppenwolf's recording of the anti-drug song "The Pusher," which had been recorded by Hoyt Axton.
"Born to Be Wild" topped out at number two on the American pop charts and helped the album make it to number six. The group's next album, Steppenwolf the Second, yielded a touch of psychedelia in its big hit "Magic Carpet Ride," which rode all the way to number three on the hit parade. All of them making the Top 40, the group's next three albums were At Your Birthday Party, Early Steppenwolf, and Monster. Early Steppenwolf was a collection of songs from the Sparrow days of 1967 that included a 21-minute version of "The Pusher." According to The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, Monster "represented the band at its most political as well as its most cohesive musically."
After continuing to chart singles with "Rock Me" (number ten), "Move Over" (number 31), the title track from Monster (number 17), and "Hey Lawdy Mama" (number 35) in 1969 and 1970, the group went into somewhat of an eclipse hit-wise. However, they continued to be a big draw in concert, both in the United States and abroad. Just when the group was at its tightest musically, various personnel changes threatened the cohesion. Monarch was replaced on guitar by Larry Byrom, who was then replaced by Kent Henry. The bass guitar was passed from the hands of Morgan to Nick St. Nicholas, then to George Biondo. Eventually, the lack of group solidarity took its toll and the group disbanded in early 1972. "We were locked into an image and style of music and there was nothing for us to look forward to," said Kay in the press conference announcing the breakup at the Hollywood Holiday Inn in California, according to Rock Movers & Shakers.
McJohn formed a new group called Manbeat that had little success, while Kay managed to have a minor hit single called "I'm Movin On" in 1972 with his newly form John Kay Band. When his solo career failed to catch fire, Kay reformed Steppenwolf in 1974. This time the group included McJohn, Edmonton, Biondo, and guitarist Bobby Cochran, who was the nephew of rocker Eddie Cochran and had worked with the Flying Burrito Brothers and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead. The new Steppenwolf wasted little time breaking into Top 40, landing at number 29 with "Straight Shootin' Woman" in 1974. Still, stability proved fragile, and McJohn was replaced by Andy Chapin on organ. The band broke up again in 1976 after their Hour of the Wolf release in 1975 became their first album not to make it into the Top 100.
Spurring reformation of the group in 1980 was Kay's discovery that other bands were performing under the Steppenwolf name. The new Steppenwolf still found a solid core of fans and toured regularly throughout North America, Europe, and the Far East during the 1980s. They also recorded a number of albums. During that decade the group benefited from the input of Kay's co-producer and writing partner Michael Wilk, who also sang and played keyboards and bass, as well as vocalist and drummer Ron Hurst. In the 1990s Steppenwolf added the services of lead guitarist and vocalist Danny Johnson. A high point of the decade for the group was when Kay returned with them to play concerts in the former East Germany, the country from which he and his family had fled some 46 years earlier.
Nearly three decades after the release of their first album, Steppenwolf came out with Feed the Fire in 1996. "This album is about and for all the rock and roll rebels, be they fourteen or fifty-four, who refuse to throw in the towel and who struggle to keep their dreams alive in the face of ever diminishing freedom," said Kay about Feed the Fire on Steppenwolf's website on the Internet. As of the mid 1990s, most of the original group members were still in the music business: McJohn was performing around Seattle; Nicholas was involved with Christian rock bands; Monarch was part of a country songwriting duo called Stevens and Monarch; and Byrom was doing studio work for country singers.
Having sold more than 20 million records worldwide, and with their songs having been licensed for use in 37 films and 36 television programs, Steppenwolf has become firmly entrenched in rock memory. The group's "underlying sound still has a powerful hold as seen by many successful greatest hits and compilation releases," according to the Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock.
by Ed Decker
Kay and McJohn joined Edmonton in The Sparrows, Toronto, Canada, 1965; group disbanded and reformed under the name Steppenwolf, 1967; released first single, "The Ostrich"; released first album, Steppenwolf, 1968; had first Top 10 hit ("Born to Be Wild"), 1968; broke up, 1972; Kay reformed band with McJohn, Edmonton, Biondo, and Cochran, 1974; broke up again, 1976; Kay reformed group, 1980; recorded regularly and toured North America, Europe, and the Far East, 1980s; appeared at Farm Aid II and III concerts; released Feed the Fire, 1996.
- Selective Works
- Singles "Born to Be Wild," 1968.
- "Magic Carpet Ride," 1968.
- "Rock Me," 1969.
- Albums Steppenwolf, Dunhill/Stateside, 1968.
- Steppenwolf the Second, Dunhill/Stateside, 1968.
- Monster, MCA, 1969.
- Slow Flux, Epic, 1974.
- Hour of the Wolf, Epic, 1975.
- Magic Carpet Ride, MCA, 1985.
- Rise & Shine, IRS, 1990.
- Feed the Fire, Winter Harvest, 1996.
- Clarke, Donald, editor, The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Viking, 1989, p. 1117.
- Clifford, Mike, consultant, The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, Sixth Edition, Harmony Books, 1988, pp. 164~165.
- Kay, John, and John Einarson, Magic Carpet Ride: The Autobiography of John Kay and Steppenwolf, Quarry Press, 1994.
- Nite, Norm N., Rock On: The Years of Change 1964~1978, Updated Edition, Harper & Row, 1984, pp. 602~604.
- Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, editors, Rock Movers & Shakers, ABC-CLIO, 1991, pp. 501~502.
- Romanowski, Patricia, and Holly George-Warren, editors, The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, 1995, pp. 951~952.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from the Steppenwolf, All-Music Guide, and CD Universe websites on the Internet.
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