Finding Modern Meaning In Musical History (Q&A with Steve Katz)

Steve Katz has one of those names you might recognize but not quite remember. He has a long and storied career as a guitarist and producer, best known as one of the founding members of Blood, Sweat & Tears and formerly a member of the Blues Project. Throughout his illustrious career, Katz mingled and collaborated with greats like Joplin and Hendrix while remaining ever a bit on the sidelines. The secret is, that might be the best place to be. He witnessed and took part in history and he remains a strong voice in preserving and strengthening some of America’s greatest musical legacies.

BTRtoday sat down with Katz to talk about the Monterey Pop Festival, hot dogs with Jimi Hendrix, and what the current state of the music industry means for blues and protest music.

BTRtoday: You were drawn to blues at a really young age and it’s definitely continued to be a part of your playing for decades. What part of the blues is it that inspires you?

Steve Katz: It’s the soulful aspect of it. I think I was about 15 years old when I first heard Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Mississippi John Hurt and those guys and they just blew me away. It was so meaningful, so soulful and I wanted to play that kind of music.

BTR: Fortunately, you were able to play with one of the greats; you actually learned guitar from Reverend Gary Davis. What was that like? What did you take away from playing with him?

SK: My main teacher was Dave Van Ronk. Dave didn’t use finger picks but Reverend Davis did. So I didn’t really learn that much. I drove Reverend Davis around for a while and road managed him. He was a very funny guy but he was also–his music was so–talk about soulful. He played guitar like a gospel organist and his singing was really raw and beautiful. He was just an amazing musician. One of the great musicians of the 20th century.

BTR: A lot of those “rediscovered” bluesmen from that era have passed away. Looking at where today’s musical climate is headed, do you see us losing or forgetting that kind of heritage? Or is it something that has become so ingrained that it can’t be left behind?

SK: I hope we don’t lose it. The good news is a lot of young people (and it was to be young people because people my age aren’t going to carry it on) are taking a huge interest in country blues and early American music. Which is wonderful because there were so many wonderful things recorded in the past hundred years that people haven’t even heard. People ask me if there’s anything new I’m listening to and I say “no, I’m still listening to old stuff.” Exploring, discovering new things.

BTR: Yeah, even after all these years the wealth of material seems endless.

SK: It is. So far, I’ve only listened to about half of what Louis Armstrong recorded.

BTR: Jumping forward a little bit: tell me about how you met Al Kooper and the formation of the Blues Project.

SK: Al was brought into our session. We did a demo session for Columbia Records and our producer was Tom Wilson, who produced “Like A Rolling Stone.” He brought Al into Dylan’s session to play organ on “Like A Rolling Stone.” Tom had mentioned that we were doing a demo and needed a keyboard part (we were eventually turned down by Columbia Records and ended up at an MGM subsidiary). Al played it and we got along really great and he wanted to be a part of the band.

BTR: The Monterey Pop Festival was the last hurrah for the Blues Project and obviously such a historic moment in music history has been well documented over the years but what was the energy like for you?

SK: I loved Monterey. I shook hands with Otis Redding, I had dinner with Jimi Hendrix. Of course, dinner was a couple of hot dogs and a bag of potato chips. You know, when promoting my book, people keep saying I jammed with Jimi Hendrix. I never jammed with him. But I did share a bag of potato chips with him.

BTR: What was your impression of Jimi?

SK: He was a great guy. Most of the people I knew then were really great people. Jimi, just before he died, asked me if it would be okay if he used our horn section on his next album which, of course, he never got to. I told him sure, that would be wonderful. He was a great guy.

BTR: At that time, especially at the Monterey Pop Festival, you had the debut of so many bands that ended up becoming prolific. Did you get the impression at the time that this was a moment that would make history?

SK: Oh yeah. Not only that but every record company executive was there because they knew it also. They were signing people like crazy. Janis’s performance of “Ball And Chain,” I was by the side of the stage when she did that. Ravi Shankar came out in the rain and as soon as he started playing, the sun came out.

I played at Woodstock also but Woodstock was very uncomfortable. I wore white pants to Woodstock, so. *laughs.*

Monterey was very beautiful and the performances were great. It was when this whole thing started happening.

BTR: Do you think it’s possible for there to be another event with that kind of lasting power? This was a precursor to today’s music festivals but obviously towers above them. Is it possible for us to have another event of this magnitude?

SK: I don’t think we know where everything is going, especially since the music and literature and art mirror the culture. It’s very difficult to tell at this point. We don’t know what kind of protests there will be, what kinds of wars will come up. Remember in those days, we were protesting Vietnam. There was so much going on that was against the administrations and that really helped inspire people. But I don’t know these days. It’s so money and corporate oriented that I don’t know if kids really want to get involved in music and art because there’s no money in it. You have to support yourself. I think there are kids out there who are geniuses but who are saying “well I could be a musician or I could get an MBA and support my family.” I mean what would you do? These are the Trump years coming up; you have to survive.

BTR: If we can hold on to the music and if musicians can step forward and use it as beacons of truth, do you think it can some of the change that we want?

SK: If people start listening to music through speakers again, that might help also. Music should be so much background, it should be listened to. I think we need another Beatles and a whole bunch of Hendrixes and country blues guys. That’s what country blues is all about. They mirrored the culture of the south, Chicago, etc. I just don’t know where things are going as far as that’s concerned. There were definite places I could pinpoint the culture of the 20th century and the direction America was going. I can’t do that now.

BTR: What were some of the most important lesson you learned from being a member of Blood, Sweat & Tears?

SK: Well the difference between that band and the Blues Project was that the Blues Project was a brotherhood in the sense that we all struggled. We never made any money. We put out three albums and never had any hit records. Blood, Sweat & Tears had all these hit records so of course, lawyers and managers swooped down and we became part of the business. The Blues Project was a love/hate relationship. Blood, Sweat & Tears it was more about “when’s the limo gonna pick you up?” “Oh I think I’m next after you.” It was more like that than about “how am I gonna pay rent next month?”

BTR: Now more than ever it seems like musicians who want to be successful need to push themselves to be as creative as possible about how they want to go about doing this because these conventional outlets that were once available, aren’t anymore. So what advice would you give to the aspiring musicians and producers out there, despite how discouraged they may feel about the nature of the industry and where things are headed?

SK: Play. Pay your dues and play. Play locally. Get radio airplay locally and build up a following. That’s so important. And we’re back to the beginning again. Radio used to be so wonderful then a firm called Burkhart-Abrams computerized all of radio across America. That made it very difficult for musicians to break through, locally. Now there’s that chance again thanks to the internet and college radio. I think the possibilities are there. I just hope that people do take the chance and are able to survive the coming storm.

(This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.)