Interview and story by Don Wilcock
Steve Katz has been on my wish list to interview for almost half a century. This former Schenectadian returns to Nippertown to play Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs on Friday night (May 9), on his 69th birthday. In a recent phone interview I told him his name had cropped up in conversation for decades. Another now deceased Steve Katz was our jam master for years with the Northeast Blues Society, and I felt a little weird talking to him.
“You feel weird talking to me now,” he answered. “Maybe you’re coming down with something.” I knew right then that I was in for a Coney Island roller coaster ride of an interview. And, boy, was I right. Katz has a razor quick wit and an incredibly varied background turning him into Forrest Gump with a Jon Stewart attitude.
As a singer/songwriter he’s been associated with everyone from the Greenwich Village movers and shakers Rev. Gary Davis and Dave Van Ronk to the Blues Project. He wrote hit songs for Blood, Sweat & Tears and produced two of Lou Reed’s career defining albums, Rock and Roll Animal and Sally Can’t Dance. With his band American Flyer he worked with Beatles producer George Martin and helped mold Mercury Records’ catalog during the New Wave-era as one of their vice presidents.
Katz is as sardonic as Al Kooper, his former bandmate in both the Blues Project and Blood, Sweat & Tears. And he’s as flippant as Lou Reed. He told me I was “the first person in 50 years that I put the phone back on the hook for.” When I confused him with another Steve Katz, who had engineered several Dion songs, he shot back, “Oh, yeah, Steve Katz, the engineer who worked with Joni Mitchell on a couple of her records. Better, I slept with her!” When I reminded him that his wife was in the next room, he responded, “I’m just kidding. Next question?”
I asked him what he had been looking for in Blood, Sweat & Tears in the late ’60s that he didn’t find in the Blues Project. He said simply, “Hit records.” New York’s Blues Project in live concert circa 1965 was the Big Apple’s answer to San Francisco’s Grateful Dead, London’s Rolling Stones and Chicago’s Paul Butterfield Blues Band in terms of closing the gap between folk and rock with a hard blues edge. But they dropped out of sight without ever gaining a mass audience.
Blues Project founder Danny Kalb has been making a slow comeback after spending nearly four decades in seclusion. Other founding members Steve Katz and Al Kooper – who brings his 70th birthday tour to The Egg in Albany next week on Saturday, May 17 – have continued their varied careers. So what happened? Why did The Blues Project fail?
The biggest reason, says Katz, was that the band members shared nothing in common other than that they were all Jewish. “Oh, God, we all took shit from each other. That was part of the Blues Project. We were like a dysfunctional family – unlike Blood, Sweat & Tears, which is like a corporation – but the Blues Project? It was like personalities. We even went into group therapy together. We got so pissed off at the psychologist that we turned on him by the end of the session. We told him everything was his fault.”
Katz describes the Blues Project’s recording session as a series of disasters. “We were with a terrible record company (MGM), and then we just broke up. There were too many egos in the band, I guess – one major ego actually, Al Kooper.”
Kooper, like Katz, displays a cuttingly sardonic wit as evidenced in his 1998 memoir, “Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards.” He and Katz were constantly at each other’s throats. “Al and I once had a fist fight in Montreal backstage. We did this horrible concert in a boxing ring, and we got off stage, and Al accused me of eating his ham sandwich. It was like really funny, two Jews fighting over a ham sandwich.”
Al Kooper had already left the Blues Project when they played the high profile Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. “The set was actually pretty good. The problem was the sound system wasn’t working. You couldn’t hear the keyboards. The vocals you couldn’t hear. The vocal mike wasn’t working, but I think we played OK.
“Lou Adler and John Phillips (of the Mamas and Papas) had tried to rescind the invitation when they saw Kooper had left the band. We said, “No, no way. We’re still the Blues Project,” even though I was sort of on the way out. So we went out there. I knew it was sort of ending with Kooper leaving, and I was getting friendly with (drummer) Bobby Colomby, and I wanted to start doing my own ting a little more. So, basically my head wasn’t into it anymore. I think Danny knew everybody was sort of leaving the ship.”
Colomby went on to found Blood, Sweat & Tears with Katz and Kooper. When I asked Katz how he went about things differently from the Blues Project, he didn’t pause for a second. “We fired Al and hired a singer (David Clayton Thomas) that could get hit records.”
BS&T sold millions of records, but Katz wasn’t any happier. “I was in a band with David Clayton Thomas, and if we didn’t go over well on the first song, he would say to the audience, ‘Well, maybe the next one will wake you up.’ Then we had to spend the next hour and a half trying to get the audience back. I mean, it’s like, how did I end up working with all these people? And then I produced Lou Reed for Christ’s sake.
“I was still in Blood, Sweat & Tears, and we were rehearsing at Dobb’s Ferry and so was Lou with his little band of kids. My brother was managing him and after Berlin we were just like sitting around talking I guess and they asked me, ‘What do you think we should do? ‘(Berlin had sold poorly.) I said, ‘Well, what I think you should do is take the Velvet Underground songs, get a really great band together and do a live album like right away to get whole Berlin thing out of people’s minds.’ And you know, that’s what we did. So we did Rock and Roll Animal. And they said, ‘Well, why don’t you produce it?’ And I said, ‘Great! I’d love to leave Blood, Sweat & Tears.”
Katz ended up becoming a vice president at Mercury Records, the label that had recorded the Hudson Dusters, a rock album in the mid-’60s for Dave Van Ronk, Katz’s first guitar teacher. In retrospect, Mercury seems like an odd choice.
“(I did it) because I was going through a divorce. I needed to do something, and somebody had mentioned there was an opening. And I said, ‘Sure! Why not?’ So I went to Chicago for the interview with (CEOs) Irwin Steinberg and Charlie Fash.
“‘Well, there’s a position open at Phonogram.’
“I said, ‘What’s Phonogram?’
“They explained it was Mercury Records.
“I said, ‘You’re kidding!’ The same label as Patty Page? I love those records.’
“They thought I was being very glib and witty, you know. They said to me, ‘What do you think of New Wave?’ And I said, ‘I don’t think anything of it.’ And I said that because I hadn’t heard of New Wave. I was too busy with my head up my ass at that time. So they thought that was a really hip answer. They looked at each other and said, ‘Gee, this is our guy!’”
In 1976, Katz worked with Beatles producer George Martin on American Flyer’s first eponymously titled album. “Oh, God. I learned so much from George: how to do background vocals, the way he recorded certain things. I just ran after him like a little puppy, just saying, ‘How’d ya do that? How’d ya do this?’ I would ask him these Beatles questions, and George would just finally turn around and say, ‘Katz, would you get off my back. Leave me alone for Christ’s sake.’
““No, he was a joy to work with. On one of my songs there was a bridge part, and George made the four of us go in, and he says, ‘I want you to just go in and do like say in D or G, ‘Nim, nim, nim,’ just like that.’ And we thought he was crazy, but we did it, and it worked in the track. It was just like perfect. There were a couple of songs that sounded just like ‘Yellow Submarine’ and ‘I Am the Walrus.’”
Today, Steve Katz spends three months a year in Mexico and works with his wife in her ceramics business. He also did the photography on one of Danny Kalb’s albums and is finishing up his memoirs. He promises to tell anecdotes at Lena’s and draw from his early Greenwich Village folk repertoire.