The singer and bassist Suzi Quatro is undoubtedly a musical pioneer, even if she’s not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Having established herself as a star during the 1970s glam rock era, Quatro had a remarkable run of British hits from that decade – among them “Can the Can,” “Devil Gate Drive,” “48 Crash,” “The Wild One” and “If You Can’t Give Me Love.” At a time when there were few female musicians in the hard rock genre, Quatro broke the mold. But while she was hugely popular in the U.K., Australia and other territories, the Detroit-born Quatro was never able to duplicate that success in the United States outside of her appearance as Leather Tuscadero on the hit TV sitcom Happy Days.
“Maybe I was a little bit too early for America,” Quatro, who is based in the U.K., explains today. “Who knows? I went here [in the U.K,] early, had all my success, went over [to America] in ’74. They weren’t quite ready for what I was. Maybe I was a bit out of my time.”
If there was ever an occasion for American music fans to rediscover Suzi Quatro, a new documentary titled Suzi Q provides a perfect opportunity. Directed by Liam Firmager, Suzi Q (which will be available on video-on-demand and DVD Friday) traces Quatro’s professional triumphs and personal obstacles. A testament to her legacy is the number of musicians interviewed for the documentary, including former Runaways’ Cherie Currie, Joan Jett and Lita Ford; L7’s Donita Sparks; Blondie’s Deborah Harry and Clem Burke; Alice Cooper; Go-Go’s bassist Kathy Valentine; and former Talking Heads’ Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz.
Quatro says the film project had been on her bucket list for a while. She wanted it to be a no-holds-barred look at her life. “I want the truth out there,” she says. “I don’t care if it’s uncomfortable as long as it’s the truth. I wanted warts and all. And that’s what I got. Even if it’s a cringe moment, if it’s real, it stays. The main thing was to set the record straight, and I think that this is what it’s done.”
Quatro’s musical career began in the 1960s when she was a member of the all-female Detroit rock group the Pleasure Seekers, which later became Cradle – it included her sisters Patti, Arlene and Nancy. A turning point for Quatro was when British producer Mickie Most (best known for his work with Donovan, Herman’s Hermits and the Animals) saw her perform with the band and offered a solo contract.
“That was really hard. It brought it all back,” Quatro recalls of the family friction stemming from her decision to go solo, as depicted in Suzi Q. “I could not in all good conscience make this film without putting that in there, because it nearly destroyed me. You’re on your own, you have no money. Who knows if you’re going to make it? Thank God I got past it. I was going to do what I was going to do no matter what, because I’m a determined person.”
Quatro’s solo career was guided by Most and the songwriting team of Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn, both of whom penned many of her hits. “Mickie was like my father figure,” she says. “He believed in me. He supported me from the first time he saw me. Once I formed my band in the U.K., Mickie signed these two writers [in Chapman and Chinn]. We played our set to Mike. Mike got the feel of the band, and their expertise was to write the three-minute single. They wrote for the style, they wrote for my personality—it worked out great.”
Backed by a band that included her future husband, guitarist Len Tuckey, Quatro broke through with the catchy rocker “Can the Can” in 1973. It kicked off a wave of hits for her in the U.K. “When that song was written and recorded, I knew we had a number one,” Quatro says of “Can the Can.” “That was the turning point…and doing the first photo session and deciding on my image, which I wanted leather. I was insistent on that. All of a sudden, all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle—my days in the Pleasure Seekers and Cradle, my struggle in London—it all made a picture. It all made sense. All of a sudden I was Suzi Quatro, whoever that is.” (laughs)
At the height of her popularity during the mid to late 1970s, Quatro didn’t realize at the time of the impact she was making on generations of female rock musicians. She was able to do things her way without the machinations of a male Svengali figure. “I can’t say without any honesty that I went out there and said, ‘I’m gonna make a difference for girls.’ What I was doing was making a difference for me. I didn’t think of myself as a female musician. I was just being natural in the way I stood and played and acted with no ulterior motive. They always say, ‘You broke down the door.’ The truth is I broke down the door because I didn’t see the door. That’s how it happened.”
Amid the busy and frenetic activity during this period, Quatro did achieve recognition in America when she was cast as Leather Tuscadero on Happy Days for a number of episodes. The character was popular enough to prompt talk of a spin-off series, but Quatro turned it down out of fear of being typecast. “That was my first acting role,” she says. “It was a huge show and it made such an impact. I got the second-most fan mail after the Fonz. If I had done more, that would’ve been all I can do. I would have been Leather Tuscadero for the rest of my life. I think I made the right decision. I did enough, it’s in people’s hearts.”
Quatro finally scored her first and only American Top 10 hit in 1978 with an uncharacteristic ballad called “Stumblin’ In” with singer Chris Norman. It was an effort to change up her hard rock sound at the time. “I was doing Happy Days and we wanted to get something a little different,” she says. “The thing with Chris just happened by accident. We were at an after-hours VIP party, [and] there was a band. Nobody would go and jam with me and I got really pissed off. So I grabbed Chris, dragged him on the stage. We were singing some rock and roll. [“Stumblin’ In”] was a one-off single, and I’m a really good ballad singer.”
Beginning in the 1980s, Quatro reinvented herself. In addition to her music, she starred in the British musical production of Annie Get Your Gun and co-wrote and acted in a theatrical work about the actress Tallulah Bankhead. She also appeared on the British television programs Absolutely Fabulous and Dempsey and Makepeace and became a radio host and author.
“It all seemed natural and logical,” she says of her divergent career interests in the last 40 years. “I am an artiste though and through. I am a creative person. If I don’t create, I die. It’s just the way I’m wired. I always wanted to act. I knew I could and I did. I always wanted to write a musical. Everything this profession allows me to do, I will do and love it.”
Quatro is still actively performing and recording; during the pandemic lockdown, she has written a number of songs with her son that will appear on her next record, the follow-up to 2019’s No Control. “What keeps me motivated is the same thing that always keeps me motivated: I am an entertainer and I am a communicator,” she explains. “As long as I can entertain and communicate, I’m a happy bunny.”
With over 50 years of music behind her and more ahead, Quatro was asked about what she thought of the finished film. “It has a lot of reactions. I kept crying, but not out of sadness. I kept going, ‘I did that!’ It was very humbling on one level. When you’re blown up on the screen, you can’t hide. It was quite something.”