An interview with guitarist Steve Katz, a founding member of The Blues Project and Blood, Sweat & Tears was featured on the Dec. 12 edition of Greasy Tracks.
Katz discussed his recently published memoir, Blood, Sweat, and My Rock ‘n Roll Years: Is Steve Katz a Rock Star? (Lyons Press) and there was plenty of music tracing his career from The Blues Project and Blood, Sweat & Tears through his role as a producer.
As was the case with many of the young folk and blues players in the New York City area in the 1960s, Katz studied guitar with Dave Van Ronk and Rev. Gary Davis. Davis would have many students over the years — including some who went on to successful recording careers — but at one time ponied up $5 for what usually turned out to be all day lessons with the blind street preacher, including Stefan Grossman, David Bromberg, Ry Cooder, Rory Block, Roy Book Binder, Janis Ian and Bob Weir.
The core of The Blues Project was the Danny Kalb Quartet which formed in early 1965. Kalb, another guitarist who benefited from the tutelage of Van Ronk, was gaining a reputation as one of the up-and-coming players in the city, especially when it came to electric guitar. When the quartet’s rhythm guitarist Artie Traum went to Europe on vacation, Katz auditioned to fill in for Traum for two weeks.
This marked the first time Katz would play through an amplifier as he sat in with Kalb, bassist Andy Kulberg and drummer Roy Blumenfeld. When Traum failed to return to the band, Katz became a full-time member and by October that year, the group, with Tommy Flanders added on lead vocals, started playing as The Blues Project.
The following month, a keyboardist/vocalist named Alan Peter Kuperschmidt (Al Kooper) was added and it was during a 12-night run of shows at Café Au Go Go, with comedian Richard Pryor opening, he made some of his first appearances with the band.
Although Katz would play two of the most famous rock festivals — The Monterey International Pop Festival with The Blues Project and Woodstock with Blood, Sweat & Tears — he says his most unforgettable experience was being on the bill at Murray The K’s RKO 58th Street Theatre shows in New York City.
In the early 60s, Murray Kauffman was the most popular radio host in New York City at WINS — before the all news format took over — and regularly hosted live concerts at a number of local theaters. His final run of shows was
“Murray The K Presents Music In The 5th Dimension” at the RKO 58th Street Theater in Manhattan where from March 25-April 2, 1967, with five shows a day beginning at 10 a.m., 13 bands, including the debut U.S. appearances by The Who and Cream took place with The Blues Project on right ahead of the Brit bands. Wilson Pickett and Mitch Ryder were the co-headliners.
At this time, The Blues Project, which ended up sharing a dressing room with Cream, was promoting their single “No Time Like The Right Time” which turned out to be their only track to ever make the charts, debuting at No. 100 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and ultimately peaking at No. 96 during its brief, two-week run. The B-side was a Katz composition, “Steve’s Song” which wasn’t even the title intended for it.
For all intents and purposes, The Blues Project couldn’t have chosen a better place to play their one of their final gigs, the Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967 where they took the stage following Ravi Shankar’s performance, introduced by Paul Simon — who was introduced by Tommy Smothers. Big Brother and the Holding Company, Buffalo Springfield, The Who, The Grateful Dead, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and The Mamas & The Papas were also on the bill that day.
Kooper, who had left the band that spring, was at the fest as an assistant stage manager, although he would play a handful of songs with Paul Butterfield Blues Band guitarist Elvin Bishop and drummer Billy Davenport along with Electric Flag bassist Harvey Brooks backing him up.
By mid-July, Katz was finished with The Blues Project and with drummer Bobby Colomby was working on forming a new band in New York City with none other than Kooper, who despite having a frayed relationship with Katz, became the de facto bandleader as they added ex-Mothers of Invention bassist Jim Fielder and briefly played as a quartet. Soon, Randy Brecker (trumpet), Dick Halligan (trombone) and Jerry Weiss (trumpet) were added and Blood, Sweat & Tears was born and signed to Columbia Records.
Child Is Father To The Man, their debut album — widely regarded as their best, albeit not their most popular — was recorded in a few weeks and released in February 1968. Boasting a handful of Kooper compositions, one Katz track and some interesting covers by Tim Buckley, Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman and the team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, the album was widely acclaimed, went to No. 47 on Billboard’s album chart and gained a Grammy nomination.
Katz’s contribution, the slightly trippy “Meagan’s Gypsy Eyes” was written, he states, during an “angry period” following his breakup with Mimi Farina.
Kooper’s time with BS&T was to be short-lived as he was fired or asked or quit depending on who tells the tale, but Katz and Colomby were looking for a stronger vocalist and had envisioned Kooper’s role being primarily focused on song writing and playing organ.
A number of new vocalists had been bandied about by Katz and Colomby — including Dick Wagner, Stephen Stills and Laura Nyro — but Canadian David Clayton-Thomas was deemed the one who had the voice to take the band to what would be unimagined success within a year.
Enlisting James William Guerico — who gained success working with The Buckinghams, a Chicago band that greatly influenced BS&T – to take on production duties, the band spent two weeks at CBS’s state-of-the-art studios in New York where they used the brand new 16-track equipment to record their self-titled second album which would be one of the first done on 16-track as the standard for studio work at the time was four- and eight-track equipment.
Guerico was also working with the Chicago Transit Authority on its debut release at the same time.
The band hit pay dirt as the album, which came out Dec. 11, 1968, would ultimately be certified quadruple platinum, have three singles that went to the
Top 5, including “Spinning Wheel” which went to No. 1 and “And When I Die” and “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” which each went to No. 2. In 1970, the album won a Grammy, finishing ahead of the Beatles’ Abbey Road.
Just how big a seller was the album? To put it in perspective, it was the best-selling popular music recording since the soundtrack for The Sound Of Music which nestled in the Billboard Top 10 for nearly three years and was regularly in the No. 1 spot between its release in 1965 through early 1968. The soundtrack remains the No. 2 album all-time on the Billboard 200 chart.
The band again selected some curious covers, including some instrumentals based on the work of French pianist Eric Satie; Traffic’s “Smiling Phases,” Billie Holliday’s “God Bless The Child” and Nyro’s “And When I Die.” Katz again had a single track, the lovely “Sometimes In Winter.”
Thanks to their second album, success continued for the band as Blood, Sweat & Tears 3, which came out in June 1970, went gold on release and garnered a No. 14 place on the charts for the Goffin-King “Hi-De-Ho” and No. 29 for “Lacretia MacEvil,” but the band was again doing more covers than originals as only three of 10 tracks were band penned, including the harpsichord-heavy “The Battle” co-written by Katz and Halligan. The covers, as before, were an interesting lot: Traffic’s “40,000 Headmen” the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” and James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” among them.
Blood, Sweat & Tears 4, released in June 1971 was the last Top 10 album the band would have. All but one of the tracks were originals, including “Go Down Gamblin’” which was the highest-charting track at No. 32.
Katz would be out of the band by mid-1973 after a tour to support the New Blood album the following October, turning his attention to producing what would become Lou Reed’s first gold album, the live offering, Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal which went to No. 45 on the charts.
Katz considers one of his greatest contributions to rock music was how he deftly added an audience track from a live John Denver concert into the Reed album after the audience track was lost. Its success helped take Reed’s next studio work, Sally Can’t Dance to the Top 10.
Throughout the 1970s, he would go on to do production work, do sessions and even cross paths with Kooper again as Katz played harmonica on the debut album by Lynyrd Skynyrd which was produced by Kooper.
In 1977, he took on the role as east coast director of A&R for Mercury Records and was later named a vice president of the label. During this period of time, he began working with the Dublin-based Celtic rock band, Horslips for whom he produced three albums.
It was through Horslips that Katz met Paul McGuiness who was managing a young Irish group called U2 who were huge fans of Horslips. When given the opportunity to sign U2, Katz passed.
Katz recounts the occasion: “These kids were too young and the music was too raw,” he wrote. “I passed. Now, please pause for a second or two and think about what I just said – I, Steve Katz, representing Mercury Records, passed on U2. And to think, they could have been huge.”
Now in its 21st year, Greasy Tracks is the longest-running soul and blues radio program in Connecticut, usually airing on Saturday, 3:30-5:30 p.m.