By Larry Widen Special to OnMilwaukee Published Aug 10, 2022 at 4:07 PM Photography: Larry Marano

“Until I was five years old, my mother and I were trapped in East Prussia, Germany, which was behind the Iron Curtain. I never met my father. He was killed a few months before I was born.

"In 1949, my mother and I fled the county in the middle of the night, avoiding searchlights, dogs and barbed wire fences to keep from being shot. Ultimately, we made it to West Germany and freedom." – Joachim Fritz Krauledat, aka John Kay

John Kay, the leather-clad vocalist for Steppenwolf, has led a life filled with uncertainty and challenges that he overcame long before forming of one of the greatest rock and roll bands in history. 

“The journey out of East Prussia was dangerous enough,” he said, “but it was compounded because I had a congenital eye condition called achromatopsia. I’m legally blind as well as being totally color blind.”

Kay said his eyes were always extremely sensitive to light, and he wore dark prescription glasses at a very early age. The intimidating shades that became an integral part of his stage persona protected his eyes from the many bright spotlights used in Steppenwolf’s shows.

"My ability to make eye contact with the audiences was very limited,” Kay said. “I learned to look below the spotlights and concentrate on the people in the first few rows.”

While living in Hannover, West Germany, Kay was exposed to American rock and roll for the first time via nightly broadcasts from the Armed Forces Radio Network.

“I loved Little Richard, Elvis, Chuck Berry, lot of others. I had my ear glued to that radio constantly,” he said. “I didn’t speak English, so I didn’t understand the words, but it was the intensity of the music and the rhythm that I loved. Little Richard gave me chicken skin – you know, goosebumps – the first time I heard him.”

The public schools in West Germany were overcrowded, and teachers often taught in classrooms with fifty or more students. It was not an ideal learning environment for someone with a visual impairment, and Kay was mocked and taunted by his classmates whenever he asked for help. 

In 1958, the 13-year-old and his mother moved to Toronto, Canada, one step closer to the United States. The school he attended helped Kay continue to improve his English.

“I enjoyed being with kids from Ukrainian, Estonian and Lithuanian homes. We were all learning English together," he said. “Finally, I was in friendly company." 

Kay’s English also benefitted from listening to the fast-talking radio deejays. At last, he understood the lyrics to his favorite songs. He also tuned in to a radio station in nearby Buffalo, New York, that carried gospel music from the black churches.

"This was an ‘aha’ moment," he said. “Ray Charles, Little Richard and many other rock and rollers had their roots in that gospel music. I absorbed it all like a sponge."

Although a tenth grade gym teacher nicknamed him John K, it would be several more years before he legally changed his name.

The singer/songwriter/guitarist behind iconic songs like “Born to Be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride” spoke with OnMilwaukee in advance of his August 13 show at The Pabst Theater.  

OnMilwaukee: When did you think music could become your career?

John Kay: When I was 14, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind gave me a reel-to-reel tape player and some pre-recorded books. I discovered that I could use that machine to make recordings of myself playing guitar and singing the songs I heard on the radio. I was appalled at what I heard. Sheer youthful arrogance! But I kept at it and began going to open mic nights at the nightclubs. At that time, folk singing groups like the Kingston Trio were very popular. But I loved the Delta blues songs by Son House, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. Before I had a band, I performed songs recorded by those musicians and many others.

When did you transition from a solo performer into working with a band? 

In 1965, I became the singer for a Canadian blues-rock band called The Sparrows. We had some success playing in Canada, and more importantly the Haight-Ashbury nightclubs in San Francisco and the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. Our guitarist, Mars Bonfire, quit the band after a few years because he didn’t see a future with us.

In 1967, we changed the band’s name to Steppenwolf and made a single with Columbia Records. It tanked because Columbia didn’t understand that we were a hard rock and blues band. But we recorded all our songs in L.A. and an album was released in early 1968. That proved to be the trigger for us. The album had “The Pusher” and a Mars Bonfire song, “Born to Be Wild,” on it. Mars is still receiving royalties on that one!

Your first show in Wisconsin was in May 1968 at the University of Madison.

We were on our first cross-country then to promote the album. The tour began in L.A. and eventually concluded at the Fillmore East theater in New York City. The late 1960s had evolved into a culture clash between college students who thought they knew it all and the older generation who resented their youthful arrogance. The proverbial idea of shaking hands and working together quickly became an “us versus them” mentality that resulted in largely unproductive results. Even though Steppenwolf rubbed some people the wrong way, our songs like “The Pusher” certainly did not promote drug usage. Some of our music advocated keeping the things that were good about America and getting rid of the bad.

In February 1970, Steppenwolf played to 6,000 people at the Milwaukee Auditorium. Did the exposure in “Easy Rider” help the band move to shows at the larger venues?  

To a certain extent, yes. Being a part of the film’s soundtrack expanded our fan base. But by the time the “Easy Rider” soundtrack was released, Steppenwolf already had hit singles on AM radio. We also benefitted from being heard on the underground FM stations. Those disc jockeys often played an entire side of an album they liked, mainly because no one with any authority was paying attention to what they did.

Why did the band come apart for a time in 1972?

It just wasn’t fun anymore. I was under a lot of pressure to write songs, make records and go on tour. It became more responsibility than I could handle. I needed a break.

What can the audience expect at your upcoming show?

It’s a great opportunity to engage both Steppenwolf and John Kay fans for the evening. But this is not just a Steppenwolf unplugged show. I’ll be doing material from my various solo albums, and I’ll share some stories and anecdotes that happened along the way. 

How would you describe some of the things we’ve discussed today?

Everyone’s dealt a hand in life. It comes down to how you play it.