In an upmarket suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, former juvenile delinquent and lead singer of hit 50s all-girl rock’n’roll band The Suedes, Leather Tuscadero – younger sister of Pinkie, one of the few of Fonzie’s girlfriends ever to have a name or any semblance of longevity – is not in any mood for growing old gracefully. After her initial rush to stardom was derailed in the early 60s by the British Invasion and spending some time in the musical wilderness, her career was revived with a long-running musical theatre in Branson, Missouri, before being discovered by a new generation of music lovers via MTV Unplugged. One of the first inductees (and the first woman) into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame and a series of chart-topping albums produced by Rick Rubin, Leather Tuscadero’s current smash is an album of duets with Tony Bennett.
In a parallel universe, someone who still looks a lot like the Leather Tuscadero of long ago is rocking out on stage at the Enmore Theatre in inner-city Sydney. Suzi Quatro tells the cheering capacity audience that she has just turned 60 and it’s obvious she has quite the same disregard for entering what many others would consider life’s twilight years.
Tight-fitting leather molded to a petite frame and wielding a low-slung bass guitar, Suzi has whipped the crowd into a fervor that recalls a full-throated old-time tent revival meeting. Britain, Europe and Australia provided her greatest successes over the years and there’s an even bigger roar when she mentions this is most likely her 25th tour of the country. Her fans have never had to wait too long to worship at the altar of Suzie Quatro but their enthusiasm make it clear they never tire of her presence.
I must admit that, initially, I wasn’t one of the converted. I was a teenager when she had her first hits – Can The Can, 48 Crash and Daytona Demon in 1973 and Devil Gate Drive in 1974 – and well aware, as anyone of my generation would be, of her music. But it was a friend who talked me into attending the concert, on this early spring evening, with the added lure of meeting her afterwards.
From the moment she burst on stage, it was obvious that this was going to be much more than just another dip in the warm waters of nostalgia. Susan Kay Quatro was born in 1950 in Detroit, Michigan. Her father was a jazz musician who not only openly nurtured the emerging talents of Suzi and her siblings but taught them enduring lessons in professionalism.
She was discovered by legendary UK music identity Mickie Most and relocated to England where she formed a partnership with songwriters and producers Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn (responsible amongst so many other things for such touchstones of our generation as The Sweet’s Ballroom Blitz, Smokie’s Living Next Door To Alice, Racey’s Some Girls, Toni Basil’s Mickey and Exile’s I Want To Kiss You All Over).
Can The Can, 48 Crash, Daytona Demon, Devil Gate Drive, and, in 1979, Stumblin’ In, were the results of that collaboration. Although American success eluded her (with the exception of Stumblin’ In), Suzi appeared on the hit television show Happy Days as Leather Tuscadero in 1977-79 after producer Garry Marshall noticed a Suzi Quatro poster on his daughter’s wall. She continued her acting roles in such shows as Minder, Absolutely Fabulous and Midsomer Murders.
Fifty million records later, Suzi is in Australia for a 21-date tour that takes in the usual capital cities plus such regional spots as Toowoomba, Deniliquin and Narrabri. In the crowded auditorium, the vast majority of the audience match her age and, in some cases, possibly even exceed it. But, for two hours, they’re catapulted back to their youth, clapping wildly, cheering, waving their hands above their hands like kids at a Countdown taping. The long years, with their successes and failures, the optimism and inevitable appointments, the loves and lost loves, trials and disappointments, have evaporated and their hearts soar into one unified whole.
Backstage, it’s obvious that her two-hour performance has been punishing, yet she’s kind and gracious to a total stranger, taking the time to chat and discuss her career before slipping away for a well-earned rest. Upstairs, the Enmore Theatre is empty. The roadies are dismantling equipment in preparation for the move to the next venue. Her satisfied fans, smiles planted firmly in place, have filtered out into the slightly chilly night. They may not consider what the private Suzi Quatro is like; there are far too many stories of musicians as self-appointed gods and conscienceless monsters. For many of the fans, the music is more than enough.
One newly transformed fan, however, can allay such apprehensions. Like them, Can The Can, 48 Crash and Devil Gate Drive helped to colour the soundtrack of his teenage self with a vibrant permanence that does not fade with time. It’s gratifying to report that Suzi is just as warm and friendly as she appears on stage.
During the concert, she’d reported that her father continued gigging until the age of 89; retirement, she intimates, is far from her mind. As evidence, she played songs from her latest album, In The Spotlight, marking a return to working with Mike Chapman; time will probably judge the song, Spotlight, to be one of her best. She’ll continue touring with the same passion and commitment as long as her fans demand it and, most likely, I’ll be one of them. Her father would be proud and, even for a sweet little rock’n’roller entering her sixth decade, that’s probably pretty important.
Words © David Latta
Photos courtesy of the Glenn A. Baker Archives