Steppenwolf's John Kay on the band's Toronto origins, hall of fame bid

TORONTO — Before he got his motor running as the husky voiced singer of Steppenwolf, John Kay found musical inspiration as a teen in Toronto, where he crossed paths with Neil Young and regularly watched Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks at the Concord Tavern.

"That's where we saw what a really great band sounds like, with Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson and all the other members of what later became the Band," Kay said in a phone interview this week, after learning that Steppenwolf is in the running for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction next year.

"That was quite inspirational."

Best known for the classic-rock staples "Born to be Wild" and "Magic Carpet Ride," Steppenwolf has included a number of musicians over the years. The rock hall's bio of the group includes Kay as well as Canadians Goldy McJohn, Jerry Edmonton and Nick St. Nicholas among the core members.

A native of Soviet-controlled East Prussia, Kay said his biological dad was killed during the Red Army invasion a month before he was born. In 1958, when he was a teen, he and his mother and stepfather immigrated to Toronto.

Kay attended Humberside Collegiate Institute and, being legally blind, also took classes at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.

After soaking in the city's folk music scene in the early '60s, Kay moved to Buffalo, N.Y. for a year, where he studied music by checking out albums at the downtown library. He then visited Los Angeles and hitchhiked back to Toronto, where he joined the band the Sparrows, fell in love with his now-wife Jutta Maue-Kay and immediately moved in with her.

It was while gathering his belongings from his former Toronto apartment that he ran into a certain folk-rock legend.

"There was a guy already in that apartment with a guitar playing. I go, 'Who are you?' He says, 'Well, my name is Neil Young and I'm from Winnipeg and I just joined a local band here called the Mynah Birds,'" Kay recalled. 

"I said, 'Wow, I just joined a band called the Sparrows.' Now, the thing that is a head-scratcher to this day for a lot of people is that when Neil joined the Mynah Birds, its lead singer was Rick James and a lot of people can't wrap their head around the idea.

"'You're kidding — Neil Young and Rick James?' Yes, really. Same band, same time. So those were interesting days, to say the least."

After migrating to the San Francisco Bay area and then Los Angeles, the Sparrows broke up and reformed as Steppenwolf, which released its self-titled debut album in 1968.

The album included "Born to be Wild," written by Mars Bonfire, who was the Canadian guitarist for the Sparrows and the brother of Edmonton. The song, as well as the group's hit "The Pusher," were on the soundtrack for the cult classic 1969 film "Easy Rider."

The group rode the charts until 1972, when they "had kind of burned out," said Kay.

Since then, there have been various incarnations of the group, including John Kay & Steppenwolf.

The 72-year-old Kay, who lives in Santa Barbara, Calif., said they still play these days. But he has a bigger passion now — wildlife and environmental conservation, especially in Africa, which he's visited many times.

"Quite frankly, being nominated (for the hall of fame) hasn't really been on my radar screen for quite a few years," he said. "I've been busy with other things, so it came as quite a pleasant surprise."

Kay and his wife sold off their music industry-related assets several years ago and now use their share of the proceeds from Steppenwolf performances for their non-profit Maue Kay Foundation, which supports various NGOs.

"Playing with the guys, there's a lot of grinning onstage because I keep saying to them, 'I don't know how much longer I'm going to do this, so make sure that every time you get onto that stage, you be in the moment, as they say,'" said Kay.

"Because this is a very privileged thing that not many get a chance to experience and so don't take it for granted. The end will come at some juncture, so keep building wonderful memories."

A total of 19 acts are nominated for the rock hall of fame. Voting results will be announced in December and an induction ceremony is slated for next year.

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