September 3, 2008
Not Just Spinning Their Wheels
By DAVID BRINN
If its first show back in the late 1960s had been successful, Blood, Sweat and Tears never would have gone on to become one of the top rock bands of the era.According to founding member Steve Katz, the impetus for the seminal elements of the groundbreaking band's debut, featuring fellow Blues Project alumnus Al Kooper and musical friends like Bobby Colomby and Jim Fielder, was to raise funds to enable Kooper to move to England.
"We put together a show to raise money for him to get to England, and we raised enough to get him a cab to the airport," recalls Katz 40 years later in typically self- deprecating humor.
"We had been throwing the idea around of putting a band together and incorporating a horn section, so we said to Al, 'Why don't you just stay here and let's try doing this?' So Blood, Sweat and Tears was born."
Those were rather unlikely beginnings for a group that went on to leave an indelible mark on the world pop scene, as the most successful band to fully integrate a horn section and incorporate elements of jazz into its string of Top Ten hits, including "You Made Me So Very Happy,""And When I Die" and "Spinning Wheel." But then again, guitarist-harmonica player Katz was never a conventional rock star.
Raised in Schenectady, New York, the Jewish youth was reared in folk, bluegrass and blues music, which acted for him as a magnet toward the '60s music mecca of Greenwich Village. After learning washboard in lieu of competing against the superior guitar players around, Katz joined jug bands featuring future stars like The Lovin' Spoonful's John Sebastian and "Midnight at the Oasis" singer Maria Muldaur.
But his career really gained focus when he dropped out of college, returned to the guitar, fell in with Kooper - who had already made a name for himself playing the organ on Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" - and formed the all- Jewish Blues Project in 1965. The band was seen as "a foray of young white middle-class musicians into the amplified world of Chicago blues." Its three albums - though commercial flops - are considered minor '60s classics, epitomizing the era's musical experimentation and synthesis of styles and foreshadowing the burgeoning popularity of counter-culture album-oriented radio.
Katz said that there was never a conscious attempt to make it a "Jewish only" band, but rather it reflected the strong Jewish element of the mid-'60s New York music scene.
"We never got together because we were all Jewish. I guess it happened because there were so many Jewish musicians in New York. I don't think there was anything Jewish about our music, but we had our share of Jewish in- jokes," the 63-year-old Katz told The Jerusalem Post from his home in Connecticut.
WHEN KOOPER and Katz formed BS&T, however, some gentiles finally broke the glass ceiling. Influenced by groups like the Electric Flag and The Buckinghams who toyed with sophisticated horn sections in rock settings, BS&T released its debut Child is Father to the Man to huge critical success, but received indifferent reactions in the record stores.
"We really did have a great sound, and there was no resistance from the very beginning from rock fans, who weren't used to horns and arrangements. Even though other bands were using horns within the context of rock and roll, we took it to a different level," said Katz.
But internal dissension over turning toward a more commercial, less free-form sound led band leader Kooper to bolt the nest after the album, throwing the band's future into limbo.
"We knew we needed a new lead singer who had more of a hit record kind of voice than Al did, who could interpret his songs. But we wanted Al to stay in the band," Katz added.
Katz and band member Bobby Colomby started looking for singers, considering luminaries like Stephen Stills and Laura Nyro before deciding upon David Clayton-Thomas, a Canadian singer born in Surrey, England. He possessed the powerful, gritty voice that the band was lacking. Its self- titled second album, released in 1969, was a monster, spawning three hits and winning an Album of the Year Grammy.
"To me it was a shock having a big hit single. When I dropped out of college, I thought I would be struggling for the rest of my life. Then all of a sudden, you have a hit record and everything is yours. Then when it's all over, you're back to struggling for the rest of your life," laughed Katz.
While BS&T never repeated the high-water mark of that album, the band continued to be one of the top rock draws for years afterward.
By mid-1973, Katz, who was growing increasingly uncomfortable with the group's leaning toward jazz fusion and tiring of touring, decided to leave the band and try his hand at record production.
"I had wanted to produce for a long time, and I didn't have much say in BS&T. At the same time, I was looking to get more into rock and roll," said Katz.
Having befriended another New York Jewish rocker, Lou Reed, Katz suggested that the Velvet Underground alumni release a live album which featured his powerhouse early '70s live band. It proved to be a smart suggestion.
"He had just come off the Berlin album which didn't sell well, but his live band sounded great. So we did Rock & Roll Animal, which became a live rock classic," said Katz, who also went on to produce Reed's next studio album, Sally Can't Dance.
FOLLOWING A brief stint in a supergroup country rock band - American Flyer - with Eric Kaz, Craig Fuller from Pure Prairie League and Doug Yule from The Velvet Underground, Katz moved behind the scenes full time. Joining Mercury Records as an artist developer and later company vice president, he became enamored with Irish music, producing three albums for the Irish band Horslips and spending considerable time in Ireland.
"My background was in country and bluegrass, so listening to Celtic music was something I had never done much of before," said Katz.
By 1987, Katz had become managing director of Green Linnet Records, the foremost record label of traditional Irish music in America, a position he held for five years. He also got married during this time to Alison Palmer, a ceramic artist, and began to take up photography. Between running Palmer's thriving business and taking photos, Katz was happily out of the music business. Until he received a phone call.
"Earlier this year I got a call from the BS&T management - they asked me if I wanted to sing a song with them for a show they were doing for the band's 40th anniversary. I was astounded at how great these guys sounded," Katz recalled.
While no original members were left in the band, and the group's alumni could fill an Egged bus, Katz said that it wasn't just a case of pick-up musicians out to cash in on the band's name.
"There's been something like 130 people in the band over the years, but it's not like an oldies band, it's more like a master class of musical education, like the Woody Herman band of the 1940s. A lot of great musicians have graduated from the ranks," he said.
After Katz performed with the band following a 35-year gap, he couldn't believe the feelings he had.
"They asked if I wanted to do more shows, and I jumped at it. This band is better than the original band was. I started coming out at shows and telling stories of how we got together, I sing 'Sometimes in Winter' [his best-known BS&T song] and play some harmonica," he said, adding that he hoped to add some guitar to the mix in upcoming shows.
"I think we're bringing new life to those songs; it's surprising how eternal they are. They still hold up after all this time. And the guys get to stretch out every show."
Katz still remembers the first time BS&T performed in Israel in the early '70s and looks forward to returning here when the band plays two shows - September 22 at the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv and the next night at the Shoni Amphitheater in Binyamina.
"It's very significant for me to come to Israel," said Katz, who defines himself as a cultural Jew. "It was very moving last time. I could really relate when I looked at some of the kids then who were my age - my grandparents and their grandparents just went to two different places," he said.
Regardless of time and geography, Katz has returned full circle to one of the high points of his life - playing with Blood, Sweat and Tears - and he's not planning on giving it up again any time soon.
"My God, I was one of the founding members 40 years ago - and people are still just loving it. The music is like an American institution."
Originally published by DAVID BRINN.
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