He may be best known for the rock scorcher and biker anthem “Born to Be Wild,” which his band Steppenwolf unveiled to great acclaim in 1968, serendipitously coining the term “heavy metal” along the way. But there is much, much more to Canadian Music Hall of Fame great John Kay than that evergreen anthem. Not that claiming a connection to the classic 1969 American road movie Easy Rider featuring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper – which featured the song prominently – is a legacy to sniff at.
Born in what was then East Prussia, Germany at the end of World War II, John Kay grew up trapped behind the iron curtain. His first distinct memory is a daring night-time escape with his mother to West Germany, where later he was profoundly affected by the American rock ‘n’ roll he heard on U.S. Armed Forces Radio. Though he didn’t speak English at the time, the music’s primal energy touched something deep in him, instilling both a driving ideal of personal freedom and an abiding interest in American culture.
In 1958 he immigrated to Canada and continued his love affair with music, performing as a folk and blues singer throughout North America before joining the rock band The Sparrow, which became part of the scene happening first in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood and then later, in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district and finally on L.A.’s famed Sunset Strip.
There in 1967 Kay formed Steppenwolf, which quickly became one of the world’s foremost rock n’ roll bands, releasing such standards as the above-mentioned “Born to Be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride” – songs that catapulted the band into international prominence and which today stand among rock’s most indelible anthems.
Other classics include powerful songs like drug condemnation “The Pusher” (written by Hoyt Axton and also featured in Easy Rider) and “Snowblind Friend.” Because of the lyrical content of songs such as “Monster,” Steppenwolf has long been considered the thinking man’s rock band.
Since Steppenwolf’s humble beginning in a garage on Fountain Avenue in Hollywood, Kay has led and continues to lead the band, now in its fifth decade. As Steppenwolf’s vocalist and primary songwriter, he’s been the band’s driving force, guiding it through personnel changes, the good times as well as some rough times, always ready to speak his mind, never willing to compromise the band’s music.
Kay now spends the majority of his time working on the Maue Kay Foundation – a non-profit charitable foundation he formed with wife Jutta Maue Kay in 2004, which supports individuals and organizations engaged in the protection of wildlife, the environment and human rights. Thus, John Kay and Steppenwolf perform only on a selective basis. Indeed 2007, which marked the band’s 40th anniversary, also went down as their last year of intensive touring.
Occasional concerts for the foundation offer the “Wolf Pack” – as Steppenwolf fans are known – the opportunity to see their favourite band. And through his music and the foundation’s efforts, Kay is able to support the causes he deeply cares about while endeavouring to make the world a better place.
Joins folk/blues group The Sparrows
“Born To be Wild” and “The Pusher” immortalized in the iconic Peter Fonda film Easy Rider.
Co-founded global wildlife initiative Maue Kay Foundation with wife Jutta