John Kay: Now That I Know, I Care
Hard-edged rock star reveals softer side as a compassionate environmental, wildlife, and human rights advocate.
A Time of Renegades and Rebels
My, how time flies —believe it or not, 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the iconic film, Easy Rider, starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson. Facing a budget crunch, Dennis Hopper, who also directed the film, decided to use the music of Bob Dylan, The Band, Steppenwolf, and Jimi Hendrix on the soundtrack rather than hiring their own musicians to create a score. Easy Rider became one of the most influential films of the sixties, and the music most associated with it launched to stardom one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most legendary bands.
I recently had the privilege of speaking with John Kay, lead singer of Steppenwolf, and one of the voices of our generation. Preparing for our conversation, I did my homework learning that John was born in East Prussia, now part of Russia, and along with his daring and caring mother, fled their homeland and made their way to West Germany when he was 5-years old, and then to Canada as a teen in 1958. Growing up, he constantly listened to American Armed Forces Network radio, and became obsessed with rock ‘n roll music.
Kay faced an uphill battle at first, moving to a new place and having to learn a new language, not knowing a single person other than his mother, and dealing with eye problems that caused him to be legally blind. His salvation was the radio, where he learned to speak English, and was able to listen to all sorts of music, and soon realized that music was in his future.
The Wild Years
In Canada, Kay joined The Sparrows, a blues rock band. After spending five years in Canada, The Sparrows made their way to New York, before settling in Los Angeles, where the band fell apart. In 1967, Kay transformed three former members of The Sparrows and two Los Angeles musicians into the hard-rock band, Steppenwolf.
Within a year, Steppenwolf released their first album, which was an immediate hit, landing in the Billboard Top 5! The album included Born to be Wild, which skyrocketed the band to worldwide fame, and The Pusher, both of which were used in the film, Easy Rider. The band followed with additional hits including Magic Carpet Ride, Rock Me, and Monster, among others, leading to tours around the world.
In 2018, the song, Born to be Wild, was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, having been recognized as shaping the course of music! Check out this photo from the Ed Sullivan show:
Their music described as “raw and real,” they were never afraid to speak their mind. Songs of the environment, socio-political climate, human rights, and issues of day —there was no shortage of material for their music.
As a special treat, it’s time to let loose and rock ‘n’ roll with this interview with John Kay and Steppenwolf performing their signature song, Born to be Wild…
The band broke up after five years on the road but got back together in one form or another as they continued their tours around the world. The one constant in Steppenwolf was John Kay, the lead singer. And the one constant in his life has been his wife, Jutta Maue, who he met in 1965 during his days with The Sparrows.
Taking the World in a Love Embrace
Steppenwolf continued their intensive touring schedule until their 40th anniversary, in 2007. During the ensuing ten years, they would still play a limited number of concerts, primarily to support the funding of the Maue Kay Foundation, which Kay and Maue established in 2004 and helps support individuals and organizations engaged in the protection of wildlife, the environment, and human rights.
Kay and Maue believe that children, wildlife, and indigenous people have been victimized by population growth, degradation of the environment, armed conflict, and poverty. Populations are struggling to preserve their homelands, culture, and way of life. Animals and native wildlife are in great danger due to habitat destruction, human and animal conflicts, the bushmeat trade, and ivory poaching. Here is a short video introducing the Maue Kay Foundation and projects they support …
In addition to seeking donations to support their foundation, their secondary mission is to spread the word about the inspiring work and people they have seen and met in their travels. Many of these people and organizations are featured on their website, www.mauekay.org.
In 2011, an IMAX film, Born to be Wild was released, featuring the efforts of the late Dame Daphne Sheldrick of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya, whose mission is to rescue, raise, and re-introduce orphaned elephants into the wild; and Dr. Brute Galdikas, who does the same work with orphaned baby orangutans on behalf of the Orangutan Foundation International in Borneo. View this touching trailer of the people and their efforts to save wildlife…
Kay and Maue have immersed themselves in the wildlife and conservation community, traveling to Africa, Indonesia, and South America, to learn and experience efforts to preserve the environment and wildlife, and to experience the needs of people whose cultures are at risk.During a fundraising event, Kay spent time with an individual who was unaware of, and very curious about his humanitarian efforts. After spending time with this person and passionately describing the issues, the response was profound – “Now That I Know, I Care” – which has become the motto of the Foundation. Kay’s mission is to use whatever means possible, including his celebrity status, to continue spreading the word, and to garner the same reaction wherever he travels.
End of an Era, Start of a New One
Steppenwolf officially retired in October of 2018, after 50 years of hard-earned success. In his parting message to the Wolfpack, the band’s loyal supporters, Kay salutes them and says, “So after playing —more than once —all 50 states, 9 Canadian Provinces and 21 other countries these past fifty years, we say ‘Thank you all, it’s been a hell of a ride.’ You can learn more about Steppenwolf at steppenwolf.com
Now, Kay is focusing on the next chapter in his life. He says, “I have lived the life of a rock ‘n’ roller, much of the time standing in the spotlight. Now it’s time I help shine the light on those who are doing important, inspiring work, and whose efforts are truly worthy of support.”
You might say that Kay has slowed down since the retirement of the band, but he is way too passionate to retire. And, while Steppenwolf no longer tours, you can still catch Kay on the road with his new presentation entitled Born to be Wild: From Rock Star to Wildlife Advocate, as he continues to spread the word about the Maue Kay Foundation, and raises money to support its causes.