Michael Katon: Q&A with an American blues rock McMofo
Michael Katon served his time in Detroit Rock City, hung out with Muddy Waters and BB King, jammed with Andy Fraser and washed up in the UK in 1988 as a magazine cover star. As he kicks off a UK and European tour we caught up with an original American McMofo.
Words: Steve Carr
Michael Katon is remembering the photo shoot he did for the cover of Kerrang! magazine 25 years ago. “I had been out all night in London – they sent Rick Dufay – the former Aerosmith guy with me and a girl from the record label. Rick took me out all around London getting shit-faced drunk ‘til four in the morning.
“Then Rick threw a wine bottle through the window at the Columbia Hotel and the police came along and hauled him away – it was some 100 year old window that was ten feet high in the Columbia! He had his girlfriend with him – ‘Take care of my girlfriend man!’ She was also shitfaced drunk, she’d been one of the dancers in that Robert Palmer video. So I had to get her back to Notting Hill Gate somehow! There was a band – Runrig – they were in the hotel and they helped carry her down a hundred yards to my hotel and then I called a cab – but no cabbies wanted to take her. I think Notting Hill Gate was a bit rough back then. Finally a cabby took her away and that’s the last I ever heard of them!
“The next day the phone rang in the hotel room at seven in the morning. ‘Michael, there’ll be a driver there to pick you up in 15 minutes.’ ‘Ah, fuck, man…’ I was still in my clothes from the night before, so the guy picks me up and drives me to that photo session. I walked in, really in bad shape, sick and everything. The guy said, ‘Heavy night?’ I said, ‘Oh yeah. You got anything to drink in here?’ He gives me a whole bottle of Jack Daniels.’ I swilled about a third of it and he started taking those photos that ended up on the cover of Kerrang! I then went across the street and did that whole interview. I was drunk out of my mind. I was used to it – that was just the way we rolled man…”
Michael Katon has quite a story to tell. He grew up surrounded by the blues and amongst Detroit Rock City: he set up BB King’s back line, hung around legendary Ann Arbour blues clubs, hung out with Muddy Waters and Albert King and jammed with Free bassist Andy Fraser in LA. And all the time he was playing some of the meanest and most rocking blues guitar you will ever hear. The great news is that he’s touring the UK. But if you haven’t come across Michael Katon before, let’s hear from the man himself.
What brings you to the UK and Europe?
I just need to play, man. It’s what I do. I’ve been playing gigs since I was 13 years old and doing my own thing for 29 rock’n’roll years in February, man – so I’ve been doing it a long time – close to 50 years in all. I have a couple of albums coming out, too. One on Mystic Records in the UK called Hard On! (The Boogie) that will come out officially at the end of February and another called Blue Tooth (Blues I Cut My Teeth On) that just came out on SunHair Records, a German label and which is a covers album.
How did you start out?
We had a band and we’d skip school and rehearse and stuff and just jam and take the bus to the next town and hang out at the music shop. We were skipping school for six weeks at a time – back then they didn’t keep very good track of you! They’d just send a report card home in the mail and I could always get there before my parents did and alter it. I got pretty good at altering grades – I’d turn a ‘D’ into a ‘B’. At the end of the year they said, ‘Hey man, you’re gonna fail’ and my dad bust my ass pretty good. I had a pair of Beatle boots – these pointy boots – we called them ‘hood shoes’ because all the hoods would wear them, all the greasers. My dad said I was getting bad grades for that reason: I looked like a hood and the teachers didn’t like me. One day he put my guitar away and locked it up – my dad was in the military and didn’t put up with any shit – and then he had me go in the back garden. We had these 50 gallon drums that you could burn garbage in – and he stood behind me while I threw the Beatle boots into the fire.
Meanwhile my brother had left home and had been playing in a local neighbourhood band. He was a drummer and was doing pretty good making money. He had his drums in the house and I wanted to be a drummer. I’m still a frustrated drummer – on all of my albums I play drums on a couple of songs. My mother and dad had had it with my brother on drums so I ended up playing guitar…
So what was the first record you ever bought?
The Kingsmen Louie Louie: the album with that on it [The Kingsmen In Person]. My brothers had records – my oldest brother left home when he was 16 and was good with electronics and didn’t go to college – he went to Detroit to this electronics school. He was living right down in Detroit, almost the ghetto, in the early sixties. But he liked music and he would bring home all these records – all the Motown stuff and all the Junior Walker and The All Stars.
So when did you first hear the blues?
Probably when I was 13 or 14 years old. My brother was playing in a blues band with a guy named Dan Erlewine who actually now writes guitar books. He had a big repair column in Guitar magazine for years and years. The band was The Prime Movers. He was from Ann Arbour, Michigan…
…Home of Iggy Pop…
Actually Iggy is from my town, Ypsilanti. He loved in a place called Pitsfield Village which is on the west side of Ypsilanti. That’s where I come from – where my folks lived when I was born. Then he gravitated to Ann Arbour I guess. Iggy was the drummer in The Prime Movers, which was the same band my brother was in. Iggy was the first drummer in the Prime Movers Blues Band. His name was James Osterberg. Then there was a guy named Jesse Crawford who ended up being a DJ or something [Note: Crawford became famous as the MC for the MC5, belting out the phrase "Kick out the jams, Motherfuckers…" that kicked off their shows] and then my brother replaced Jesse Crawford as drummer of the Prime Movers. Everybody knew each other.
So anyway, my brother was playing in the The Prime Movers in Ann Arbour. Let’s say if Otis Rush was coming through town he might stay with them. I know Van Morrison and Them stayed there because my brother would give me their guitar picks and I know Paul Butterfield Blues Band stayed there because my brother got me Mike Bloomfield’s guitar pick which I still have. So I was around all this blues and Dan was a hell of a bluesman before anybody heard of Stevie Ray Vaughan – he was kind of doing the same thing back in 1965. My brother would talk my folks into “Can Mike come spent the weekend with me?” I was 13-14 years old and they’d say “Yeah, sure”. Little did they know that my brother was taking me out on his gigs, and these blues gigs. I’m there at the Blind Pig club in Ann Arbour – this illegal after hours place [Note: when the Detroit Police finally raided the Blind Pig it touched off the 1967 Detroit riot].
They’d play from 1am to 6am. My brother would take me to that and all these guys would come in. There was also this joint called the 5th Dimension in Ann Arbour which is kind of a famous club, Hendrix played there, The Who played there, Jeff Beck, everybody played in this little club man, it was an old bowling alley made into a night club. But they’d have concerts on Saturday afternoon, and then at night they’d have this “Blind Pig” where you’d have to give the secret knock at the door and they’d let you in. The Prime Movers Blues Band was the house band and all these people would come. So my brother is taking me to this stuff when I’m just a teenager – 14 or 15 years old. I remember one night Danny got me on stage and I got to sit when Bob Seger was in that night and I got to jam next to him, which was a thrill.
My brother Marty would take me to these gigs and Dan Erlewine would say, “Clapton’s good but you should really be listening to the guys that Clapton is listening to like BB King, Otis Rush, Albert King, Freddie King, Elmore James”. Oh okay. He would also show me some guitar stuff. They were doing really authentic Chicago blues like the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
So you were right at the heart of things when just a teenager, getting an education in the blues…
You know that guitar that Albert King plays – the Flying V in dark mahogany? Dan Erlewine built that. I watched that being built, I would turn up once a week to his shop in Ypsilanti in an old farm house and he was building it. I’d watch that thing as he cut it out of the wood and I watched him do the inlay where it says ‘Albert King’. I’d see the progress week by week and I’d rub my fingers up and down where it says ‘Albert King’ on that neck just to get some mojo back. Danny turned me on to all these blues guys and was a hell of a blues guy himself – he’d get incredible tone.
I call myself a bluesman but really it’s a joke. I mean I have really met most of those guys. Somewhere there’s a picture of me and Howlin’ Wolf, man. We set up his gear one time when I was a kid – Howlin’ Wolf was playing in town at the college and they needed a back line, so my brother let me go with him and we set up the back line for BB King and Howlin’ Wolf. The same night I met BB King: I set up BB King’s amp for him – got to look at his guitar up close and everything – a real nice cat. Howlin’ Wolf, man, he was kinda scary. He was real quiet, but he talked to me – he was polite and everything. And then I met Hubert Sumlin, he was in the band and I set up his stuff.
Then Muddy Waters was playing a gig round here and I somehow got backstage and was sat right next to him on the couch. He said, “Hey man, you want something to drink?” And I said ìsureî so he said, “Go over yonder and fetch that bottle,” and there was a bottle of Piper Heidsieck champagne in an ice bucket. He popped out the cork and I said, “Man, can I have the cork?” I put it in my pocket and years later I gave it to Bob Harris the first time I went on his show. I took this cork from Muddy Waters’ bottle and every time I talk to Bob he says he still has it in his music room up on the shelf.
One time I called up Robert Junior Lockwood – he learned from Robert Johnson how to play. This was 1975. I knew he lived in Cleveland and called the operator. She gave me a number I called it up and it was him! I was asking him about Robert Johnson and he told me he used to thumb pick and I asked him ìwhat did he use for a slide, man?î And he said something metal – a metal pipe on his little finger – so I got it right from the horse’s mouth.
After you left school you left Michigan and went to LA to work as a musician…
My brother went to California when I was 15 and got with this band Strawberry Alarm Clock. He’d go on these big tours in concert halls. He’d send me postcards saying, “We just played in Dallas tonight in front of 10,000 peopleî or he’d play in some exotic sounding location like Miami and that would make me want to be a musician. He was just living in California and I went out and visited him during Christmas break when I was seventeen and his wife took me up and down Sunset Strip.
That must have been pretty exciting for a 17 year old?
Yeah – especially coming from a small factory town: it was like landing on Mars. That was right at the height of everything – December 1970. I remember going in Tower Records on Sunset Strip and I bought the Derek and The Dominoes Layla album. I also made a recording. The whole time we were playing in bars and getting better. I probably made more money back then than I do now! When I was 15 we’d play three gigs a weekend and make $100-150 a week each.
It took a while for you to get a record out though?
It was pretty slim back then. I answered an advert in the mid 70s. These English guys called looking for a guitar player. This English guy said, “Be down in West Hollywood at this address – we’re auditioning guitar players”. So I went to a big empty old mansion with drums and amps set up. I go in and set up my amp and they say, “Let’s just do some blues”, so we jam some blues and Chuck Berry and the bass player goes, “Wow man, I like the way you play – you kind of remind me of Mick Taylor.” Back then I kinda played a little more like that – Clapton style. I said “Thanks man, he’s one of my favourites – do you know him?” He said, “Well yeah – I played with him man” “Oh really? With who?” And he goes “Ah, with John Mayall and The Blues Breakers. I really like your vibrato, man”. It was Andy Fraser and he was putting together The Andy Fraser Band after the Free. I was a little bit star struck. But they were nice guys and the drummer they had was Tony Hicks who played with (jazz trio) Back Door. He was a hell of a drummer. He was real cool and I was rehearsing with them but it just petered out and I never saw them again.
So that was a near miss?
Yeah but that’s alright. I learned how to put my own band together and ended up playing blues clubs.
So how did the front cover of Kerrang! come about?
I had been putting out my records on my own. I had been trying to get record deals but this was 1980. People would say, ‘You’re too raw, but if you want to dress up and wear spandex and do what we tell you…’ I could have been on Atlantic Records if I had signed a compromise deal but I just couldn’t do it. I said fuck it, man. I just formed my own record label, studied music law and stuff and bought some tape recording equipment and started making my own cassettes and whatnot. A buddy of mine, Cub Koda who I had done some gigs with – he wrote Smokin’ In The Boys Room by Brownsville Station – he was on his own by then and playing locally. My band would open up for him. Me and my brother on drums – Marty had moved back by then. So I put this cassette out on my own and Cub wrote about it in Goldmine Magazine and I put my address in there saying it was for sale, mail order, and I would get these orders from everywhere in the world
It got to Jon Hotten in Kerrang! magazine when it came out on a Swedish label called Garageland. Then he put me in touch with a guy who is now Status Quo’s manager, Simon Porter. Back then he was a PR guy. I get a call one day and he asks, “Where are you playing on Friday?” I say I’m down in a bowling green in Ohio. He asks where the nearest airport is. So he hangs up and I don’t think much about it. So I’m playing that night – the locals are a bunch of bikers, it’s a great place but a shithole and hasn’t been cleaned in 40 years. All of a sudden I notice these people who weren’t from around there. It was Simon Porter and his wife, plus a guy snapping photos. They’d flown in and they offered me a record deal that night. Next thing I know they’ve got a tour booked in the UK and they brought me over ten days early. They put me in the Averard Hotel right across from Hyde Park and a block down the street from the Columbia – the old rock’n’roll hotel. I was just hanging out at the Columbia every night because all the rock stars were coming in drinking and they kept the bar open until the last man dropped.
My first ten days out of my small town – I mean I had been in LA but it was nothing like London – they were just running me around the country’s radio stations doing interviews. The next thing I know they’re taking pictures of me in some studio and I was drunk.
What are you going to be playing when you come over on tour?
I got Johnny “Bee” Badanjek on drums. He played on all the Mitch Rider and Detroit Wheels hits way back in the sixties. Johnny is the cat playing on Devil With The Blue Dress On. He is a hard rockin’ drummer who’s played on Edgar Winter songs, on Alice Cooper’s Welcome To My Nightmare – he’s probably one of the top ten drummers in rock’n’roll, man. When the Stones come to town he hangs out with the Stones. When the Stones first came to America Mitch Rider was recording in New York City and they wanted to meet Mitch Rider so Johnny Bee became friends with Keith Richards and Charlie Watts. He has toured with Edgar Winter, Bob Seger Nils Lofgren, Ronnie Montrose, you name it. He’s baddass. He’s kind of a hard rocking drummer so my setlist this time will be a little harder than it might have been with another drummer. When Johnny Bee is with me we’re always a bit more Detroit rockin’ y’know?
What’s next for you?
One thing I have – I was going to get it ready for this tour and I haven’t told anybody this publicly but I’ve got a whole Rory Gallagher tribute album recorded. All I have to do is mix it. It sounds really good. Part of it was recorded in the Netherlands and part here. When I first played the UK people would always compare me to Rory Gallagher. So the funny thing is I am almost all Irish in my background – my mother’s father came from Cork. Rory Gallagher wasn’t born there but he lived there and grew up there. There’s a lot of similarities you know so I thought, “Well, maybe I’m the guy who should do a Rory Gallagher tribute album, y’know?” I think I did it pretty good. I’m thinking of mixing it in the Spring – it usually takes a couple of weeks for my ears to settle down so I can hear again you know? I’m doing an acoustic record too…
Michael Katon and the Hell Town Blues Band are playing shows around the UK:
24.01.2014 Newcastle Blues Club Forest Hall
25.01.2014 Kinross Green Hotel Backstage – Scotland
26.01.2014 Skegness Rock & Blues Festival
27.01.2014 Oxford Jericho Tavern – Famous Monday Blues
28.01.2014 London 100 Club
29.01.2014 Wolverhampton Robin 2
30.01.2014 Chislehurst Beaverwood – London
31.01.2014 Sutton Boom Boom Club – London
01.02.2014 Darwen Library Theatre – Darwen (Lancashire)
04.02.2014 The Talking Heads – Southampton
06.02.2014 The Buck Hotel Reeth – Yorkshire
07.02.2014 Caerphilly Patriot Inn – Wales
08.02.2014 Colwyn Bay Park Hotel – Wales
For European dates throughout February see http://www.katon.com/ Hard On!( The Boogie) is released at the end of February. Blue Tooth (Blues I Cut My Teeth On) is out on SunHair Records in Germany.
Read Steve Carr’s personal story about writing to Michael Katon as a fan – and his response – here.