Gary Link was 17 years old when he saw the rock band Steppenwolf in concert at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh. Row one, center stage. It was quite a night, one he shared with his older brother, Wayne, who had every Steppenwolf album.
So imagine Gary’s surprise when he, many years later, checked his answering machine at his home in L.A. and heard a message from John Kay, founding member and lead vocalist for Steppenwolf, asking him to audition as the band’s bass player.
“I got the call from John in 1982,” said Gary. “I still have the cassette. I called my brother Wayne and said, ‘Check this out!’ and played the tape.
“I went to John’s house in Nichols Canyon, in Hollywood. I had to learn three songs and play them,” Link recalled in a recent phone interview from his home in Franklin, Tennessee.
He played those songs, and then the band left the room.
“They left me sitting there with John,” Link said. The conversation went something like this:
John Kay: Do you know “Rock Me?”
Gary Link: Yeah, I love that.
JK: Do you know “Monster?”
GL: Yeah, I know that.
JK: Do you know “Movin’ On?”
GL: Yeah, I know that.
JK: How do you know all these songs?
GL: Well, I saw you when I was 17 and my brother had all your albums. I pretty much know everything you did.
“He started talking business and offered me the gig,” Link said. “At the time, it was really cool. John was rebuilding the [Steppenwolf] name and we were playing some real dives, doing 125 to 150 shows a year.”
Kay renamed the band John Kay & Steppenwolf. The original Steppenwolf had disbanded and when Kay learned there were other bands using the Steppenwolf name, basically trashing its reputation, he reclaimed it.
John Kay & Steppenwolf will take the grandstand stage at at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 15 at The Great Frederick Fair. Track seating is $45, grandstand seating is $40 and grandstand annex seating is $25. Tickets are available online at www.thegreatfrederickfair.com or by calling the box office at 301-695-3928. Tickets include admission to the fair.
The band is marking 50 years since it was founded in 1967. Last year, Link said, the band embarked on an anniversary tour. This year, the band has played about a dozen shows. After Frederick, there are two more shows this year, one in Minnesota, and the other is Oct. 14 in Kansas.
“That October show could be the last gig forever … for now,” said Link. “You never say never with John.”
Kay, at age 4 with his mother, made a midnight escape from East Germany and eventually made it to Canada. With a steady diet of Armed Forces Radio, listening to the likes of Little Richard and Chuck Berry, Kay decided at the age of 13 that rock ‘n’ roll was his life.
“Considering I was only 13, legally blind, spoke the wrong language and was on the wrong side of the ocean, maybe I was a little optimistic,” Kay, now 74, says in his bio. He is totally color blind, seeing only shades of black, white and gray. The disorder causes sensitivity to light, so he often wears sunglasses.
He learned English and after high school joined the Canadian band The Sparrows. When the band broke up in 1967, Kay formed Steppenwolf in L.A. Powered by his gritty vocals, the band’s blues-based rock burst on the scene in 1968 with timeless classics like “Born to Be Wild,” “Magic Carpet Ride,” “The Pusher” and “Rock Me.”
“John Kay is the only original member of the band and everyone except John Kay is replaceable,” Link said. “I love to hear John’s stories.”
Like the story of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda coming to Kay and Jimi Hendrix with a need for music for a movie the two were in — “Easy Rider.”
“They needed music, but didn’t have any money,” Link said. Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” and “The Pusher” were featured in the movie and the rest, as they say, is history.
“That was a boon to ‘Born to Be Wild’. It put Steppenwolf on the map,” Link said.
Last year, the iconic song was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Teen band to Wolf
Link, now 68, started playing guitar and keyboards in bands when he was 14. He didn’t switch to bass until he was 20.
He has recorded and played in numerous bands with various artists ever since. He joined the band Chopper shortly after moving to LA in 1978 and recorded an album with them, produced by Jeff Barry (“Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” “Then He Kissed Me,” “Chapel of Love”). A keyboardist who had left the band asked Link if he wanted to audition for the band Poco.
“This was late 1981. The bass player had left,” Link said.
He auditioned and the gig was his, but he turned it down.
“I was 31,” he said. “It just wasn’t my bag.”
A couple of weeks after that audition, Link got a call from Steve Palmer, drummer for John Kay & Steppenwolf, asking if Link knew of any available bass players. Palmer passed his number on to Kay. A week after the audition, he was on the road with John Kay & Steppenwolf.
“For the most part, it was a lot of fun,” Link said.
With about a dozen or so shows a year, Link worked for a Sony warehouse in the Nashville area and has a blues band, The Beaker Street Blues Band.
“We play some B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe Cocker, a little Cream,” he said. “We’re known as the ‘happiest blues band’ in town.”
Link and his family moved from L.A. to Nashville about 25 years ago.
“With [then] a 1-year-old and one on the way, L.A. was getting a little seedy and not a good place for kids,” he said.
They visited the former pastor of the church they attended in Nashville who had moved there to plant a church. They were so impressed by the friendliness of the community, they bought a house and moved there.
This reincarnation of Steppenwolf “represents the Wolf well,” Link said.
“This is the real deal. I listen to the original recordings. I know the music and what the musicians did. There are some signature licks,” he added. “I can say we sound like the original band. We keep it just loose enough to really rock.
“You’re going to see the best Steppenwolf other than the original!”