Some of us remember the time as if it were yesterday. Sitting in the bedroom of a friend's home in the mid-1960's, taking the brand new record from the album cover with the five hip-looking guys on it, and playing "Projections" by The Blues Project. A few years later we were putting the needle down on the hot new album by the first great rock band with horns: Blood, Sweat & Tears.
A common denominator in both bands was guitarist-singer Steve Katz. He'll be playing some of both groups' tunes and reminiscing about his experiences over five decades in music at Lovin' Cup on Saturday.
Katz spent most of his youth in New York City. At 15 one record — "Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers" — and one book — Sam Charters' "The Country Blues" — changed his life. "I was totally immersed in country blues," says Katz.
By his late teens, his family had moved to Queens, but Katz found the gravitational pull of Greenwich Village irresistible. Folk legend Dave Van Ronk was conducting hootenannies at the Gaslight Café and Katz had to be there. He began studying guitar with Van Ronk and another folk legend, Reverend Gary Davis.
"One of the first things I learned from Van Ronk was 'Candyman,'" says Katz. "Dave taught it to me back-picking style. Then I went to see Rev. Davis and he said, I'm going to show you this song, 'Candyman,' but he taught me a style where the thumb was not going in reverse. I became a 'Candyman' expert."
Katz will be playing "Candyman" at Lovin' Cup along with newer tunes like "Kettle Of Fish," a song about those halcyon days in Greenwich Village.
"It was amazing," says Katz. "I used to go to Van Ronk's apartment and Bob Dylan would be sleeping on the couch while I was taking my lesson. One time I went up there and Dylan wasn't on the couch. He came in toward the end of my lesson with his new album on Columbia. He said, 'Look at this, the strings are backwards.' You know, on his first album they reversed the photograph."
Being at the epicenter of hip in the 1960's, Katz witnessed the counter-cultural changes first hand. "When I first went down there I was going to beatnik coffee houses," says Katz. "There were still people wearing berets, playing bongos, and reading poetry. It was really fantastic. I loved the poetry and the smells of empanadas and falafels on the street. Then the smells became marijuana, patchouli oil, and incense; the hippies came in."
It wasn't long before he hooked up musically with friends he met in Washington Square, friends like Maria Muldaur, John Sebastian, David Grisman, Stefan Grossman, and Joshua Rifkin.
"Some of us were into country blues and some were into bluegrass and old-timey music," says Katz, "so we thought, is there some way we can play music together? We ended up jamming on jug-band music." They formed the Even Dozen Jug Band and made an album on Electra Records.
Katz's next chapter came when another Van Ronk student, Danny Kalb, walked into Fretted Instruments, the store where he was teaching. Kalb said rhythm guitarist Artie Traum was on vacation; would Katz like to audition for his band?
"This was after Dylan went electric, so everybody started picking up an electric guitar," says Katz. "I said I don't play electric. He said that's OK, we'll get a pickup for your guitar. But when I plugged it in it was so loud, it sounded awful, so I turned it down to zero. When we were done he said, 'I really like the way you played; you played some tasty things.' He couldn't have heard a note but I got the job." Kalb's band was The Blues Project.
One of my favorite tunes on that first Blues Project album was "Steve's Song," written and sung beautifully by Katz. But I always wondered about that non-title title. Katz provided an answer.
After recording the album, the group went out on the road. "MGM called and said, we have the artwork and we know all the song titles except one. What's the second song on the first side? Our manager said 'Um, um, well I know it's Steve's song.' They said thank you and hung up. The song was actually called 'September 6, 1966.' I wouldn't have named a song after myself."
Eventually, keyboardist Al Kooper and Katz left the band. Kooper planned to move to England and decided he would raise money for the move by gathering his musical pals for a gig at the Café Au Go Go. But the audience didn't show up, so Kooper stayed.
The consolation prize: that group of musicians put together a band called Blood, Sweat & Tears. Katz remembers the magic of Fred Lipsius' horn arrangements.
"It was the first rehearsal at the Café Au Go Go," says Katz. "When I sang 'Morning Glory' and the horns came in on the chorus... I'm standing there, the horns are behind me and the whole thing lifts from the verse to the chorus. It was like, oh my God... It was the most incredible feeling I ever had."
There's a lot more for Katz to cover at Lovin' Cup. After he left BS&T, his next group, American Flyer, was produced by The Beatles' producer George Martin. And Katz himself produced two excellent albums for Lou Reed: "Rock n Roll Animal" and "Sally Can't Dance."
He recently spent three years touring with a new incarnation of BS&T, mostly playing harmonica, but Katz spends most of his time at his Connecticut home working with his wife on their pottery business. When he goes on the road these days, it's just him, his guitar and his stories.
"It's so much fun not to work with other musicians for the first time in my life. It has a freedom to it. I don't have to worry if I add an extra bar to a song. The drummer's not going to look at me like I'm crazy," he says.