It all began with the bongos.
As a seven year-old in 1950s Michigan, Susan Kay Quatro would sit with her father’s jazz band, the Art Quatro Trio, playing percussion and getting an early education in stagecraft.
But her life changed when she saw Elvis and the Beatles on television.
Grabbing the Fender Precision Bass her father had loaned her, she started a band with her sisters Patti and Arlene.
The Pleasure Seekers’ early singles, especially Never Thought You’d Leave Me and What A Way To Die, are still sought after by garage rock collectors – and the band soon found themselves sharing the bill with fellow Detroit rock stars Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper.
When the band broke up in 1971, Quatro was headhunted by British pop impresario Mickie Most, and launched a hugely successful solo career, marrying the double-tracked drums of glam rock to the strolling bass lines of Motown.
One of the first female rock stars, she sold 55 million records, with number one singles including Can The Can and Devil Gate Drive; while setting hearts aflutter on TV sitcom Happy Days as The Fonz’s dream date, Leather Tuscadero.
One of rock’s true trailblazers, she’s about to set off on a UK tour. She told the BBC about shooting Alice Cooper, becoming a museum exhibit and what’s inside her “Ego Room”.
You were part of a Detroit scene that also included Iggy Pop, MC5 and Alice Cooper. What was that like?
It was an extremely exciting time. I’m very proud of the Detroit pedigree. Musicians from Detroit have an energy level, an edge that’s second to none. I don’t know why it is. It just is.
Who were your inspirations?
I’m a Motown fanatic. I cut my teeth on James Jamerson, who played bass in Motown’s house band, The Funk Brothers. He’s my absolute hero.
Did you ever meet him?
Once. I ran down into the pit [in front of the stage] and started playing bass next to him. He gave me the biggest compliment. He said: ‘Not bad for a white chick.’
I read that you once shot Alice Cooper with a rubber dart. Is that true?
How did it happen?
It was on the Welcome To My Nightmare tour, which was 80 shows. We got bored, so we decided to have a dart gun fight. Alice decided to hide behind a television and, you know, he’s got a little bit of a large nose. And I saw his nose sticking out, so I whacked him. I gave him a black eye!
He said his first thought was, ‘Ouch’ and his second thought was, ‘Good shot!’
Your first number one was Can The Can. How did you celebrate?
I was at a gig up North and we were staying at some lady’s bedsit. We were in the bedroom, all celebrating with a bottle of champagne when the lady knocked on the door and said, ‘Lights off! It’s 10 o’clock.’ So that was our celebration!
Why do you think you had more chart success over here than at home in the 70s?
I had more singles released over here, that’s all. I toured America successfully all the time and Happy Days made me into a household name over there.
There’s a famous scene where you kiss The Fonz [Henry Winkler]. Did you get any hate mail?
Not at all! In fact, I heard from the main secretary on Happy Days that, after Henry, I got the most fan mail, as Leather Tuscadero. So that’s a big compliment!
Happy Days isn’t your only acting role – what’s been your favourite?
Happy Days is hard to beat but recently I loved Midsomer Murders, where I got electrocuted.
Is it true that your leather catsuit is now in the Victoria & Albert museum?
I gave them one of my jumpsuits – a gold one. I have to keep reminding them it’s only on loan! But I have loads here in my house, in my Ego Room, and I still wear jumpsuits now.
Sorry, did you say Ego Room?
Yes! I have an Ego Room on the third floor. My entire life’s in there – videos, DVDs, suits, guitars, pictures all over the wall, scrapbooks, awards, everything. Even the red book from This Is Your Life on the table.
The sign on the door says, “Ego Room – Mind Your Head”.
On your last album, you covered Goldfrapp’s Strict Machine – which itself references Can The Can. What’s it like to know you’re still influencing new bands?
It’s fantastic. It’s a little bit of humbly-accepted applause.
I recently found out KT Tunstall is a fan. In fact, she stayed here last night and we did three songs together!
You were one of the first female rock stars – did people come to you for advice?
Oh God, yes. I was a bit of a benchmark for a lot of girls. I was able to be the leader of the gang, with the guys, and still keep my femininity – which is the difficult part.
And now you’ve got an honorary doctorate in music!
I have! I received it in Cambridge [from Anglia Ruskin University] dressed in a cap and a gown. It was such an honour.
Do you have to give lectures now?
Yes – I talk about how to survive in this industry, mainly.
What’s your big tip?
Learn one instrument properly. Learn to read and write [music]. And gig. Because you don’t know your craft until you can entertain the drunk at the bar who doesn’t want to see you.
It feels like a lot of artists don’t get that schooling these days.
They’re just famous for being famous. It’s just so stupid. I hate it.
I’ve been on the road for 53 years and I’m still learning. Don’t tell me these guys who’ve been working at McDonald’s and go on X Factor have any tools to deal with fame. That’s not how stars are discovered.
You’re about to hit the road with The Osmonds and Hot Chocolate. Do you like doing nostalgia tours?
I like it as long as I’m headlining!
After everything you’ve achieved, what’s left on your bucket list?
I just had my first novel released, called The Hurricane. I’d like a movie of that made, and I’d like a proper movie of my life.
Suzi Quatro is on tour from Friday, 13 October.
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