When Suzi Quatro burst onto the rock scene in the early 1970s she was a leather-clad trailblazer for guitar-wielding girls everywhere. More than 35 years on, this pioneering rock chick is still belting out the classics to her adoring fans. On the eve of her recent New Zealand tour, Suzi told Jo Bailey about her new book Unzipped, and just how hot it really gets inside her trademark leather jumpsuit.
When she was about five or six ‘Little Susie’ Quatro from Detroit, USA saw a young singer named Elvis Presley on television. It was in that moment that Suzi Quatro, superstar, was born.
In her new autobiography Unzipped, Suzi says that she was so taken by Elvis’s performance that she was determined to be just like him in all his hip-swivelling glory. Never mind the fact that he was a man and she was still a small girl. How ironic then, that some twenty years later, when Elvis invited her to Graceland after loving her version of ‘All Shook Up’, she was too overwhelmed to accept.
This story is one of many in Suzi’s straight talking account of her career as one of the biggest artists of the glam rock era, with early hits like ‘Can the Can’ and ‘Devil Gate Drive’ and later ‘Stumblin’ in’ and ‘If You Can’t Give Me Love’. It details her life from her childhood in Detroit where she sang in an all girl band with her sisters, to her discovery by producer Mickie Most, who whisked her off to the UK and fashioned her image as the world’s first bona fide rock chick. As Suzi herself said, she didn’t just open the door for other female guitarists and singers to enter rock’s male domain – she “kicked it down”.
The book is full of great stories of Suzi rocking and partying with other legendary figures such as Alice Cooper, Noddy Holder and Iggy Pop, as well as her stint acting the part of ‘Leather Tuscadero’ on the hit US sitcom, ‘Happy Days’. Her marriage to lead guitarist Len Tuckey, endless touring, stints on television and stage, motherhood, marriage breakdown and remarriage are all covered with her trademark honesty. “I’m candid. I can’t be anything else, I’m just that kind of person. I’m honest, but I’m not cruel,” says Suzi on the phone from Brisbane.
She has returned to tour down-under following her hugely successfully Australian tour in September last year. “At the time the book had just been launched and was number two in the charts, and all the shows totally sold out which was fantastic. This tour is like the overflow of those gigs, and we decided to do New Zealand this time as well. I haven’t been there for years, and I’m really looking forward to it.” Suzi has always had a big following in Australia. On her first tour there in 1974 a huge convoy of bikers famously escorted her from the airport to her hotel.
A diminutive 5ft tall and as svelte as ever, 57 year old Suzi squeezes into her trademark leather jumpsuit for part of her current show. “It really is a show of two halves. I play my recent material first then I put on the jumpsuit and play my older stuff. Everybody gets everything they want from the show, plus more.”
So just how hot is it inside that jumpsuit? “It’s hot, it keeps me fit. It’s my own private sweat machine,” she chuckles.
Suzi says the book and her most recent album ‘Back to the Drive’ are “doing great everywhere”, something she is very pleased about. While writing a book had been in her thoughts for several years, she decided to wait until she knew instinctively that the time was right. “My album was autobiographical as it represented 15 years of my life. When that was well received I knew it was time to do the book.” As a songwriter and poet, she says writing has always come naturally to her. “It wasn’t difficult to do the book at all. I just write as I speak. People have said to me that it makes them both laugh and cry, so I guess that’s the sign of a good book.
Suzi was born Susan Kay Quatro in 1950 in Detroit, Michigan, USA, the fourth of five children to an Italian father and Hungarian mother. By the age of seven she was playing bongos in her father’s semi-professional band, and at 14 formed her first band, the Pleasure Seekers, with her sister Patti. The band was later renamed Cradle and also featured Suzi’s other two sisters. Seven years and two albums later, Suzi’s talents were spotted by British record producer Mickie Most, who invited her to go to the UK to make an album – as a solo artist. She jumped at the opportunity despite the strain that decision put on her relationship with her family. It took two lonely years of songwriting and recording before she would finally put her first UK band together and had her first number one hit single with ‘Can the Can’.
Suzi Quatro had well and truly arrived, in all her high energy, raunchy glory, furiously playing her bass guitar and singing in front of her band of leather clad he-men. She says she never intentionally set out to have an all male band. “I put out the audition call and no women showed up. I didn’t care, as there weren’t that many great girl musicians around – at least up to what I expected. A lot of girls tended to use their instrument as a prop.”
Suzi was unfazed by being the first woman to break into rock music. “I was brought up in a musical family, so I had a different attitude straight away. My father brought us up to believe that we could be whatever we wanted, and that our gender didn’t make any difference. I had been trained in classical piano and percussion, and had always considered that music was my career. I took it seriously and believed in myself. That was the main thing.”
With no female role model to follow, Suzi forged the new territory herself. “I didn’t think about it, it didn’t bother me. I was happy to create the niche and stick to being me. I followed my instinct into rock and roll, moved one leg one way and the other the other way, strapped on my bass, and that was me.”
Other female rockers like Joan Jett and Chrissie Hynde would later follow Suzi’s lead. “Joan Jett took a lot of inspiration from me. She was at every one of my shows before she started her own band. When we toured Japan years later she used to go from her show to my show to watch me every night. While it was a compliment, she didn’t just take a little bit of what I did. When I first saw her play I thought ‘oh my god, she has taken ninety percent of the very early Suzi’. But I will always be the original, and I’m proud of that.”
There are few female rockers of the same ilk around today, Suzi believes. “There are plenty of women playing acoustic type guitar, like KT Tunstall, but I don’t know any others like me. But then it’s not an easy job.”
On the personal front, Suzi married her lead guitarist, Len Tuckey, in 1976. They had a daughter Laura in 1982 and a son Richard in 1984. In 1992 their marriage ended, and in 1993 she married her German concert promoter, Rainer Haas. The couple are still happily married, and continue to live in separate countries – Suzi is based in Essex, while Rainer lives in Hamburg. Suzi’s daughter Laura had her first grandchild, Amy, in 2001.
Along with her hectic touring schedule, Suzi has a number of other creative projects on the go. Last year she appeared on stage in the role of death row survivor Sunny Jacobs in the moving play the ‘Exonerated’. “I had always had my own idea about capital punishment, but that play changed everything.” A documentary of her life and career called ‘Naked Under Leather’ is at the post-editing stage, and should be released in the next few months. “I’d still love to act in a movie – and it would be great to see a feature film made about my life.”
After nine years with her own radio show ‘Rockin’ with Suzi Q’ on BBC Radio 2, Suzi has just started recording her new weekly show ‘Wake Up Little Suzi’. “I’m looking forward to the challenge of the new show. I’ll be playing great songs from the 1950s to the 1980s, and will have guests in for interviews. The BBC has said I can do whatever I like with the show, so it may be a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’.”
Suzi is showing no signs of slowing down and still has plenty of fire in her belly. When I asked her whether she would like to read this story before it went to print she said that wouldn’t be necessary. “I’ve answered your questions honestly. Just promise me you won’t write any bullshit.” There’ll be no bullshit, I promise. She laughed. “You can quote me on that.”
By Jo Bailey