Suzi Quatro: Born Ready

Many Americans’ first glimpse of Suzi Quatro came in the late ’70s when she portrayed Leather Tuscadero, the wise-cracking, street-smart rocker (and sister of Fonzie’s girlfriend, Pinky Tuscadero) on the hit show Happy Days.
By Joe Bosso | Photograph By Tina K ,

Many Americans’ first glimpse of Suzi Quatro came in the late ’70s when she portrayed Leather Tuscadero, the wise-cracking, street-smart rocker (and sister of Fonzie’s girlfriend, Pinky Tuscadero) on the hit show Happy Days. But before she traded quips with the Fonz, Quatro already enjoyed an enviable career as a real-life and groundbreaking rock star in England. Wielding a bass guitar and leading an all-male backing band, the Detroit native stormed the U.K. charts with a string of stomping, glammy, proto-punk smash singles such as “48 Crash,” “Can the Can,” and “Devil Gate Drive.”

Quatro’s early-’70s records didn’t make much of a dent in the States, but some people took notice: Tina Weymouth, who would later play bass in Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club, learned to play by listening to Quatro’s records. Joan Jett fell under her spell, as did Kathy Valentine, who went on to play bass in the Go-Go’s. And another Midwest girl with dreams of rock stardom, Chrissie Hynde, saw Quatro’s career path as one she, too, could follow.

“Chrissie was one of my biggest fans,” Quatro recalls. “She came to England and worked as a journalist. She sat on my floor and said, ‘I’m going to do what you’re doing.’ And I went, ‘Yeah, right.’” But then she played me a tape of her stuff, and I said, ‘Hey, cool. Go for it.’ A bit later, she had a #1 hit with ‘Brass in Pocket.’ I sent her a telegram: ‘I thought you were a dreamer. Now you’re a winner. Congratulations and much love.’ When they did a This Is Your Life show for me, Chrissie came on and thanked me for that.”

Before Quatro set foot in England, however, she was already a seasoned performer. By age eight, she played drums and piano in her father’s jazz group. At 14, inspired by seeing the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show, she announced to her dad her intention of starting a band with her sisters Patti and Arlene, and she asked him to get her a bass. With the gift of a 1957 Fender Precision and a Fender Bassman amp, Quatro, her sisters, and a couple of friends donned miniskirts and hit the Detroit clubs as the Pleasure Seekers.

Throughout the mid-to-late ’60s, the poppy, garage-y girl group released several non-charting singles before morphing into another outfit, Cradle, which featured another Quatro sister, Nancy, who replaced Arlene. Although she professed to be a team player, Suzi’s skills as a musician and her undeniable star appeal made her something of a focal point in the band, and she soon caught the attention of two record impresarios, Elektra’s Jac Holzman and Mickie Most from the British label RAK Records, looking to sign her as a solo act. “Jac came to see us, and he offered me a contract. The next week, Mickie flew in and offered me a solo deal, as well. There was one big difference between them, though: Jac said, ‘I’ll take you to New York and make you the next Janis Joplin.’ Mickie said, ‘I want to take you to England and turn you into the first Suzi Quatro.’ That was a no-brainer for me. I went with Mickie.”

So many people cite you as a pioneering female bass player. When did you realize you were doing something a little different?

That’s a hard question to answer. I’ve always been very self-aware, from day one, and especially when I was 14 and I started the first band. When I picked up the bass, I knew I was different. I didn’t know why, but I knew it. What I wanted to do—play bass and sing in a band—didn’t exist for girls. But I was just being me. I didn’t think I was opening doors for anyone.

Your father got you your first bass.

He sure did—a 1957 Fender Precision with a gold scratch plate, stripe up the back of the neck, and a sunburst finish. I went, “Okay, I have to master this.” I’ve still got it. It’s my favorite. John Entwistle once tried to buy it, when I was in the Pleasure Seekers. He came to Detroit with the Who, and he saw an 8x10 of my band in a local music shop. One day I got a call from him. He offered me $1,000, which was a lot of money back then. I don’t know why I said no, because I really could have used the money. I just liked that bass.

How did you go about learning how to play? You played with your thumb at first, right?

I played with my thumb because I didn’t know any better. I was never a pick girl—I still can’t play with one. Playing with my thumb felt natural to me, but eventually I got a huge blister and it started bleeding. Then a guy from another band came over to the house and saw what I was doing. “No, no, no,” he said. “This is how you do it.” And he showed me how to hook my finger on the pickguard and play with my fingers. After that, I was home free.

I understand James Jamerson was an influence.

Jamerson was my first guy. I took a lot from him. That’s how I grew up—I heard Motown on every corner. I still love that stuff; the bass and drums on those records have never been equaled. He left these big, open spaces. It always felt like the right approach with vocals.

Did you play songs from the radio in the Pleasure Seekers?

Sure—people wanted to hear what they knew. We were an all-girl band playing instruments, right on the cutting edge of it all. We did a little of everything: a Motown set, a Sgt. Pepper set, a Top 40 set. As a bass player, that gave me a lot to work with. I really got my skills together in that band.

Mickie Most assigned you the songwriting/producing team of Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn. Did they ever give you instructions on your bass parts?

Oh, my God, no. They wouldn’t be alive today had they done that [laughs]. I’ve never needed any kind of instruction. Mickie signed me as a singer–musician–songwriter, so he knew I could play. And Mike Chapman let me be who I was. He wrote three-minute singles tailored to my sound.

Did you and drummer Dave Neal click quickly as a rhythm section?

We clicked instantly. I’ve had a couple drummers since then, both great players, but Dave and I really connected. You can hear it on the records. The bass and drums sat together—we were the engine for those songs.

“Can the Can” was built around a tribal rhythm of the bass and drums. That seemed to be a thing in Britain at the time, with acts like Slade and Gary Glitter.

I guess so. I put an unusual little bass spin in there, kind of like in [the Who’s] “My Generation”: Mike brought in a rough demo of the song, and we all started to rehearse it. Dave started doing the beat, and Mike said, “We need something here,” so I came up with the bass riff and did my scream thing.

You start playing a Gibson EB-2. Why?

I went through a few different basses. I came to England with a Les Paul Professional Recording Bass, which weighed a ton. I can’t believe I carried that thing around London by myself. I went from that to a Gibson EB-O and an EB-2. The EB-2 had a great authentic bass sound in the studio, but it wasn’t so good live; semi-acoustic basses are hard to amplify onstage. After that, I tried a Gibson Ripper, and I played that for quite some time. I got the best out of that, and then I changed to a Gibson Grabber for a while. And then I tried a Status bass for about five years. I liked the graphite neck, but I didn’t like that it had no headstock. I always liked basses with big, heavy headstocks.

In the late ’70s I started playing B.C. Riches. I had a Suzi Quatro model that I designed. And then I went back to Fender, which is what I’m using now. I like my Fender Jazz for my solos—the neck is a bit slimmer, so I can get fancy. But in the studio, I stick with the Precision. You can’t beat that bass.

What amps were you using in the ’70s?

I went with Acoustic for a while. Those amps were good because they had reflex [folded horn] speakers—you could actually get the bass out into the audience. Then I went to Orange, Ampeg, and Boogie, and now I’m back to Orange. The amps I have now are fantastic. But I’m not that particular about my bass sound; I’m not a gadgety person. I like a volume and a tone control. Two pickups, plain and simple. Let me feel the bass up my backside, and let it be clear enough to hear the notes in the audience.

When did you start putting a bass solo into your shows?

Right back in the late ’60s, and I did it throughout my hit period. Dave Neal and I worked it up. He kind of marked time, and I improvised it a bit. Then he left and I started working with another drummer; he asked me what I was doing with it, and I said, “I don’t know—it changes every night.” So that’s when we worked it up more, developed it into sections and orchestrated it a little. It’s become a different animal now.

During your Happy Days years, you finally had a hit in the States with “Stumblin’ In.”

I was having a great time doing my first acting job, and it was nice to have a big hit in America. I should have done a little more, but I had “If You Can’t Give Me Love,” which hit in England and was huge all over the world. I had my feet in two different camps with the acting and playing rock & roll; I did a lot more acting, but after a bit, I had to get back out there and rock again.

You hinted at retirement a few years ago.

I actually just announced my final Australian tour, and people thought I was retiring. I’ve learned never to use the word “final.”

You recently reissued four of your ’70s albums, along with a compilation album, Legend.

It’s all remastered, and it sounds fantastic. For the compilation album, I put on the big hits and my favorite tracks from the albums. Anybody who wants to get an idea of what I did back then, here it is.

And you’ve got two new bands.

I’m really excited about these. I formed a new band with KT Tunstall, who’s always been a big fan. We got together and bang, bang, bang—we got along like a house on fire. We’re writing songs together, and it’s so cool. I knew I would love her. This whole thing was written in the stars.

The other band is QSP—Quatro, Scott & Powell. That’s me, Andy Scott—he’s the original guitarist from the Sweet—and Don Powell, the original drummer from Slade. We made an album that was only released in Australia and Asia at first, but it did really well, so now it’s going to be released everywhere. So, no, I’m not retiring. Far from it. There’s still a lot left for me to do.

INFO

LISTEN

The Best of Suzi Quatro: Legend [Chrysalis], Quatro, Scott & Powell [Rhino]

EQUIP

Basses 2012 Fender Jazz (blue), 2016 Fender Jazz (sunburst), 1957 Fender Precision
Rig Two Orange AD200B MK3 200-watt heads, four Orange OBC410 4x10 cabinets
Effects Electro-Harmonix Switchblade+ (to give a clean signal to each head)
Strings Rotosound Swing Bass (.040, .060, .080, .100)