Steppenwolf is a Canadian-American rock group that was prominent in the late 1960s. The group was formed in 1967 in Los Angeles by vocalist John Kay, guitarist Michael Monarch, bassist Rushton Moreve, keyboardist Goldy McJohn and drummer Jerry Edmonton after the dissolution of Toronto group The Sparrows. The name-change from The Sparrows to Steppenwolf was suggested to Kay by Gabriel Mekler, being inspired by Hermann Hesse's novel of the same name.
Steppenwolf's first two singles were 1967’s “A Girl I Knew” and 1968’s “Sookie Sookie.” The band finally rocketed to worldwide fame after their third single “Born to Be Wild” was released in 1968, as well as their version of Hoyt Axton's “The Pusher” and were prominently used in the 1969 cult film “Easy Rider.” Both titles originally had been released on the band's debut self-titled 1968 album. “Born to Be Wild” introduced to rock lyrics the signature term “heavy metal” though not about a kind of music, but about a motorcycle: "I like smoke and lightning, heavy metal thunder, racin' with the wind..." Written by Dennis Edmonton, who had begun using the pen name Mars Bonfire, the song reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart in August 1968 selling over one million copies and certifying gold.
The following albums had several more hit singles, including #3 “Magic Carpet Ride” from “Steppenwolf The Second” and #10 “Rock Me Baby” from “At Your Birthday Party.”
1969’s “Monster,” which questioned the U.S. policy of the Nixon era, and 1970’s “Steppenwolf 7” were the band's most political albums, exemplified in the track “Snowblind Friend,” another Axton-penned song, about the era and attitudes of drugs and its problems. Other hits included “Hey Lawdy Mama” and “Hootchie Kootchie Man.”
There were several changes in the group's personnel after the first few years. Moreve was fired from the group in 1968 for missing gigs after he became afraid to return to Los Angeles, convinced that it was going to be leveled by an earthquake and fall into the sea. Rob Black filled in for Moreve until former fellow-Sparrow Nick St. Nicholas came aboard. Monarch quit after disagreements with Kay the next year and was replaced by Larry Byrom, who'd been in TIME with St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas' tenure with the group proved to be brief and he was let go in 1970 after incurring Kay's wrath by showing up onstage in a bunny suit, and playing his bass loudly and out of tune. George Biondo was then recruited and guitarist Kent Henry replaced Byrom in 1971.
The band broke up in 1972 following the release of another political concept album, “For Ladies Only,” and Kay went on to an inconsistent solo career, scoring a minor solo hit in 1972 with “I'm Movin' On” from his album “Forgotten Songs and Unsung Heroes.”
Kay toured Europe as The John Kay Band in 1972 with Steppenwolf also on the bill, Kay fronting both groups.
Steppenwolf reformed in 1974 with its core lineup of Kay, Edmonton and McJohn, along with longtime bassist Biondo and newcomer Bobby Cochran. Their first reunion album was “Slow Flux” which included their last Top 40 hit, “Straight Shootin' Woman.”
In February 1975 McJohn was dismissed for what Kay described as a decline in the quality of his performances. McJohn was replaced by Andy Chapin on “Hour of the Wolf” in 1975, though McJohn appeared in artwork for the single to “Caroline (Are You Ready)” and claims that his keyboard work can be heard on many of the album's tracks. After the album peaked at #155, the band attempted to break up, but the label, now having been absorbed by Epic Records, insisted Steppenwolf record one more album to satisfy their contractual obligations. The ensuing album, 1976’s “Skullduggery,” featuring Wayne Cook on keyboards, was released without a tour to support it and Steppenwolf disbanded a second time.
From 1977 until 1980 there were a variety of Steppenwolfs put out on the road by concert promoter Steve Green. Another promoter, David Pesnell, reportedly acted as manager for an incarnation featuring former members Nick St. Nicholas, Goldy McJohn and Kent Henry, and new lead singer, Tom Pagan. Plans for a new album circulated. A new studio album, produced by Phil Spector, was attempted in 1978 but abandoned due to Pesnell and Spector's hateful relationship. The relationship ended with a well documented fist fight between the two at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go in which Pesnell sent Spector to the hospital where he stayed for three nights. Assault charges were dropped against Pesnell after it was determined by the Los Angeles Police Department that Spector had instigated the fight.
Another Steppenwolf band was launched in the summer of 1978 that featured lead vocalist Bob Simpson, and original members Goldy McJohn and Rushton Moreve, with Kent Henry. This version recorded new tracks for a proposed album which was never released. A splinter Steppenwolf band (which featured no members from any Steppenwolf band fronted by John Kay) appeared around the same time with lead vocalist Don Coenen. That line-up included keyboardist Geoff Emery and guitarist Tony Flynn.
Another album, “The Night Of The Wolf,” was said to have been recorded and produced by Pesnell in 1979 with lead vocalist Bob Simpson featuring such songs as “Night of the Wolf,” "I Don't Want To Lose You” and “Randy's Rodeo.” The St. Nicholas/McJohn grouping eventually disbanded due to exhaustion and heavy drug use by St. Nicholas, Goldy McJohn and drummer Frankie Banali.
St. Nicholas formed yet another version and went back out on the road. This grouping included lead singer Tommy Holland, lead guitarist Ruben DeFuentes, Emery, and future Keel/W.A.S.P./L.A. Guns drummer Steve Riley. The retooled band returned to the studio to revamp tracks for the new album, but it was never released. McJohn also eventually headed back out himself with another lineup that first featured Peter Graw on lead vocals, then another line-up that featured lead vocalist Nick Graham and sometimes included Kent Henry, who had just departed a touring Steppenwolf band that featured Tim West on vocals. The Graham/McJohn/Henry version packaged an entire new album that was blocked from release.
After hearing of these other Steppenwolf incarnations, John Kay was furious since an original agreement among the band members in the early 1970s stated that anyone leaving forfeited any rights on the group's name, while the last original members standing when the group disbanded (Kay and Edmonton) would have exclusive claims on the name hereafter.
At their lawyers' advice, Kay and Edmonton agreed to license the name to the others. This licensing agreement stated that McJohn and St. Nicholas would have to give up their Steppenwolf royalties forever in order to go forward. They both agreed. Eventually, this agreement was terminated after promised fees were not paid to Kay and Edmonton. Kay then took to the road in 1980 with a new lineup as John Kay & Steppenwolf.
The reformed John Kay & Steppenwolf lineup featured John Kay, Mike Palmer (guitars, backing vocals), Steve Palmer (drums, backing vocals), Danny Ironstone (keyboards, backing vocals) and Kurtis Teel on bass. Teel was replaced by Chad Peery and Ironstone by Brett Tuggle by 1981 and the new grouping put out “Live in London” overseas.
Tuggle was then displaced by Michael Wilk and a new studio album, “Wolf Tracks,” was released in 1982 on the small “Attic” record label. Bassist Welton Gite, who appeared on this album, left shortly after its completion and was replaced by Gary Link. Another album, “Paradox,” followed in 1984. Chad Peery returned to the group in 1984 to tour in place of Link.
In December 1984 the Palmer brothers and Peery departed Steppenwolf and Kay & Wilk decided to continue on in early 1985 with a pared down quartet that comprised Kay, Wilk, Ron Hurst (drums, backing vocals) and Rocket Ritchotte (guitars, backing vocals). Wilk would also handle bass duties from his keyboards from here on. This lineup released “Rock N' Roll Rebels” in 1987 and “Rise & Shine” in 1990. Ritchotte had departed temporarily in 1989 to be replaced by Les Dudek and then Steve Fister but then returned in 1990 for three more years. Fister came back in late 1993 but turned guitar duties over to Danny Johnson in 1996.
The band performed its farewell concert on October 6, 2007 at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, Maryland featuring Kay, longtime keyboardist Michael Wilk, drummer Ron Hurst, and guitarist Danny Johnson.
Since the group's official retirement they have continued to play a limited number of shows each year with the 2007 grouping. In 2010 bassist Gary Link rejoined them to add the first real bass playing to their stage lineup since 1984.
In 2010 John Kay granted Goldy McJohn and Glen Bui a license to perform as The Magic Carpet Ride and the band toured in 2010. It was a gift from John to ensure Goldy could continue to perform.