Steve Hunter a Guitar Icon with Some Serious Friends

By Dr. Alan Carlos Hernandez on August 27, 2013

photo-mainHOLLYWOOD (Herald de Paris) — Stephen John Hunter, stage name Steve “The Deacon” Hunter, is an American guitarist best known for his collaborations with Lou Reed and Alice Cooper. He first played with Mitch Ryder’s Detroit, beginning a long association with record producer Bob Ezrin. Hunter suffers from pigmentary glaucoma, which has rendered him legally blind.

In the 1970’s, he appeared on five Alice Cooper albums, all of which were produced by Ezrin. His first recording with Alice Cooper was in 1973 as a session musician on the second, last, and most successful album recorded by the Alice Cooper group, Billion Dollar Babies. When Alice Cooper became a solo artist, Hunter followed and appeared on the 1975 groundbreaking album and live show Welcome to My Nightmare alongside guitarist Dick Wagner. Hunter and Wagner had already formed a formidable guitar team, as can be heard on the Lou Reed live album Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal and further demonstrated on the film Welcome To My Nightmare. Nightmare was released on home video in 1976 and featured the celebrated guitar battle between Hunter and Wagner that formed part of the Alice Cooper 1975 live show. He and Wagner also played on Peter Gabriel’s self-titled first solo album, which was likewise produced by Ezrin, in 1977. His first solo album, 1977’s critically acclaimed Swept Away, was also produced by Ezrin.

His first collaboration with Lou Reed was for the Berlin album. He also played in the band captured on Reed’s live albums, the aforementioned Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal and Lou Reed Live. In 2006, Reed and Hunter presented a new live version of Berlin, released in 2008 as Berlin: Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse.

Shortly after his work with the band on the live Reed albums, Hunter played guitar on former Cream bassist Jack Bruce’s solo album Out of the Storm in 1974. Other artists Hunter has worked with include David Lee Roth (in the mid-1990’s) and Tracy Chapman. He also contributed music to, and is featured on the soundtrack of the film The Rose, starring Bette Midler. Additionally, he appears in the film Blame it on the Night, a movie co-written by Mick Jagger, and is featured as one of the guitarists in the band. A film about the guitar partnership of Hunter and Wagner entitled Rock ‘n’ Roll Animals is currently in production.

Hunter toured with Alice Cooper throughout 2011, but opted to leave Cooper’s touring band in 2012 to concentrate on solo projects.

His album The Manhattan Blues Project was released on April 30, 2013, and features contributions from Joe Satriani, Tony Levin, Johnny Depp, Joe Perry, Marty Friedman, Michael Lee Firkins, Phil Aaberg, 2Cellos and Tommy Hendrickson, with background vocals provided by Karen Ann Hunter.

Herald de Paris Deputy Managing Editor Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez had a chance to interact with Steve Hunter and his wife, Karen Ann Hunter.

AC: Tell us a little about your family and how you picked up petal steel guitar at the age of eight. What kind of music did you listen to growing up? Who were your heroes?
I was born and raised in Decatur, IL. When I was very young, maybe three or four years old, we had no television so our connection to the outside world at the time was through radio. I really loved radio . . . it was an opening into a whole other world of sounds and experiences. My father would occasionally get out an old guitar and play. He didn’t know a lot of chords – or songs for that matter – but the sound of a guitar absolutely fascinated me. My father really loved country music (which used to be called ‘country and western’) so we heard a lot of that on the radio. I still like ‘old school’ country. Later, when I turned eight years old, my father asked if I wanted to take lessons on an instrument. I said drums at first but I think I understand why my father suggested the guitar. I said yes. It was a lap steel guitar but to me, at that age, a guitar was a guitar. I totally loved learning songs on the lap steel and I used to practice for hours. I saw a real lap steel player once named Jerry Byrd . . . an extraordinary musician; then I heard what could be done on that instrument. It was a real experience for me. I think I was nine or ten so I had been playing lap steel for awhile. But Jerry Byrd had the sweetest tone and a touch I had ever heard. I took the instrument a little more seriously after that. When I was about 12 I heard Chet Atkins for the first time and was completely blown away. That’s when I decided to switch to regular guitar. I wanted to learn how he did that! And then along came rock ‘n roll with all sorts of other players making incredible music from a guitar. Duane Eddy, the Ventures, and a couple of guys named Santo and Johnny were the first I had heard of to have a hit instrumental single with lap steel as the main instrument. The song was Sleep Walk. And then came Michael Bloomfield, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and all the other Blues-based players and I was truly hooked on guitar.

AC: You were drafted into the army and switched to guitar. I am assuming, since drafted into the army, you played the blues while serving?
For most of my tour of duty in the army I was stationed on Okinawa at the US army hospital there. It was an ‘air evac’ hospital so we treated lots of Viet Nam combat wounded and their dependents. I had been trained (after being drafted) to be an x-ray technician. I actually enjoyed doing that. For a time I wanted to become a doctor so here I was, working in a hospital. I did have a little trio which played some of the clubs near the base. It was mostly a psychedelic sort of jam band but we did have fun. I entered an all-military talent contest while I was there. By then I had become fascinated by the blues. I put together another trio and we did one instrumental blues song. There were a lot of African Americans in the audience – mostly wounded from the hospital – who had scoffed at me playing blues, possibly because I was white, and I understood that. But at the end of the song, they were applauding me with real enthusiasm. The feeling I had as I walked off stage was a euphoria I had never felt before and I knew at that precise instant that I would pursue a career as a guitar player.

AC: Tell us about the Mitch Ryder experience.
I was playing in a local Decatur band called the Light Brigade. We were doing pretty well. One day, a bass player friend of mine, John Sauter, called me up and told me he was playing with Mitch Ryder in Detroit and that they were looking for a guitar player. He told me it was a great band and that they were going to do a record soon. So I threw my guitar into the car and drove about eight hours up to Detroit to audition. The next day I met Mitch and the drummer, Johnny Bee. We just jammed on Cream songs since I didn’t know any of their songs. It was a wonderful experience and I was thrilled when I got the job!

AC: Who is Bob Ezrin and tell us about your long term association with him.

Bob was the producer of the Mitch Ryder album I did after joining the Detroit band. He and I hit it off pretty much right away. I loved his production and arrangement ideas and he liked my playing. I spent a lot of time with him in the studio and I learned a great deal from that. He and I have done many projects together, some of which you will read about later in this interview. Bob has been involved in many very high-profile projects. Just Google him and you’ll see what I mean.

AC: Was it your objective to be a session guy or a full blown rock star? Tell us about Alice Cooper.
I really wanted to be a side-man/session player. I loved the idea of working on different projects all the time. I always learned something from each experience so that’s what I wanted to do. I thought it would help me develop as a guitar player and musician. I met the Alice Cooper Group in Detroit while I was there playing with Mitch Ryder. I loved those guys and thought they were a really cool band. I have always considered them all friends of mine. I got to know Alice better later on when I started working with him. Simply put, though, Alice is a funny, witty, awesome, generous guy who is and always will be a dear friend. And as everyone knows by now, he is an awesome performer/singer/song writer. It’s always been a joy to work with him.

AC: Your guitar duels with Dick Wagner were fierce! What do you remember about those duels?
Well, first of all they were always fun. I looked forward to that part of the show every night. I had the idea that we would actually look like we were fighting at the end of the duels. And I told Dick to take a swing at me with his guitar and I would fall like he really hit me. I used to have a blood capsule in my mouth and would break it so that when I got up, there would be blood running down my chin. It was a real blast and I think that the part of the audience who could see it, loved it.

AC: How do you like being on stage with all the glitz and the glamour? Did you ever succumb to the temptations of rock stardom: sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll?
I did all my drug and drinking experimenting before I really got into any major band. I found it boring after a while. And with drinking, my body doesn’t seem to like alcohol . . . it makes me very sick. So, that part was taken care of early. I will admit though, sex in the 70’s was a wonderful thing. There just always seemed to be lots of beautiful women around all the time – in many ways it was bliss. And rock ‘n roll was all-consuming in those days. So, out of the three, I did partake in the sex and rock ‘n roll part. But the sex part of the 70’s began to cool when AIDS reared its ugly head. Everyone was very paranoid of getting it then. I lost friends to it, both male and female. Rock ‘n roll kept on going as it will, but it was changing and in many ways left me out of its evolution. That is the nature of music and any art really. The glitz and glamor never really seemed to matter to me. I was interested in the music and the show but not really interested in that aspect. Of course you hope people appreciate your work and you always hope to get credit for what you’ve done. But the music business can be brutal at times. It’s probably the worst business in the world. That’s what you end up learning how to handle more than anything else.

AC: How did you go from Alice Cooper to working with Lou Reed and what was the Lou Reed experience like? How was it different from the Alice Cooper experience?
First of all, I went from Lou Reed to Alice Cooper, not the other way around. On the Detroit album I had done an arrangement of a Lou Reed song called Rock ‘N Roll. It was a lot more rocking than Lou’s version. Lou heard my version, loved it, and then set out trying to contact Bob Ezrin and me to do his album, Berlin. That’s how I became involved with Lou. I did the Berlin album with him and then we toured together, which inevitably lead to the recording of Rock N Roll Animal and Lou Reed Live. After that is when I began working with Alice – again through my association with Bob Ezrin who, by then, had produced a couple of Alice things that were very successful. Actually I found Lou to be a very quiet sort of guy back in the 70’s when I first worked with him. Later, in the 2000’s when I worked with him again, I found him hilarious, intellectual, a lot of fun and more out-going. Alice, of course, is also a funny guy but he has always been a pretty outgoing kind of person, I think.

AC: What was it like to work with Jack Bruce of Cream? Did you bring an Eric Clapton vibe to the mix?
I think Jack wanted me to bring me! He and I had worked together on Lou Reed’s Berlin album and I think we both really enjoyed it. I was thrilled because Cream had been one of my all-time favorite groups and here I was, playing with the bass player!

AC: Tell us about your work with Peter Gabriel.
That was another project with Bob Ezrin producing. I had heard of the band Genesis of course, but I really wasn’t all that familiar with their music. I didn’t really know that much about Peter before we started working on his record. It really didn’t take very long, especially after beginning to learn his songs, that I saw him as a musical and lyrical genius, as well as an awesome singer. His music was something I had never played before and I loved it. It was very challenging but totally accessible, which is a very delicate balance. Working on his record was a joy every day, and so was the tour, which I was lucky enough to be a part of. There were eight musicians on the basic tracks of the album and eight musicians onstage. It was very powerful and I looked forward to every day in the studio and every show on the tour.

AC: I heard that you worked with David Lee Roth. Good or bad? Glam or gross?
David is very centered and focused in the studio and I like that. It makes for better records, of course. But we also had fun. Dave’s got a great sense of humor so it was fun every day. I was amazed at how much into blues David was. He’s a great blues singer and can play harmonica pretty well too. That gave him and me a really good common ground.

AC: You toured with Alice Cooper until 2012 and left to embark on solo projects. It there a time when the road gets too old?
The road can be pretty brutal at times and it does seem to get harder as you get older, unless it’s a very posh tour. It’s not the shows – they are almost always fun and a real joy. But the traveling gets to you after awhile. Even if you fly business class, it seems you just never catch up on sleep and you seem weary all the time.

AC: Tell us about your other solo projects along the way.
In 1977 I recorded my first solo album called Swept Away for the Atco label. That album was produced by Bob Ezrin. Ten years later in 1987 I recorded my second solo record called The Deacon for a label called NoSpeak, which was a subsidiary of IRS Records. That album was co-produced by myself and Paul Brown, who was also the engineer. About 2008 I recorded two albums myself having, by this time, gotten into digital computer recording with Pro Tools software. One of the albums was a collection of hymns called Hymns for Guitar. They were some of my favorite hymns and all were done on acoustic guitars, both layered and solo. I also recorded an album called Short Stories which is a collection of various genres and moods. And finally, in 2013 I completed the current album The Manhattan Blues Project. My wife Karen designed the cover and artwork and sang background on that CD.

AC: Did contracting serious eye problems derail your career at any juncture?

No, I wouldn’t say it derailed my career at all. Playing onstage now with the sight problems present some challenges, but I am usually able to find ways around that. Besides, I can still record. There are so many tools to aide people with vision impairments that recording is not a problem.

AC: Serious music folks around the planet are talking about your new album The Manhattan Blues Project. How did this project come about and is this a homage to New York?
First of all, yes it is an homage to New York, thus the titles of most of the songs. I saw a lovely picture posted on facebook of a beautiful sunset in Central Park. As I looked at the photo I started getting an idea for a song. And that’s how Sunset in Central Park was born – and also the concept for the entire album.

AC: You feature heavy cats like Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Joe Perry and Johnny Depp, who all said some very nice things about you. What does each one bring to the table and what has each one said about being a part of the project? How did you pick these cats or did they pick you?
Each one of the guests on my album brought their own personality and style of playing to the record – which is exactly what I hoped would happen. And I picked them for that same reason: their personalities and their style of playing. In the case of the guitar players, I had hoped there would be a contrast between their playing and mine, and there was. It makes for a fun and exciting listen to hear that contrast. So I was very happy it worked the way it did.

AC: It’s been said that in the album you revisit your blues roots and that this album has been inside of you, exploring things you’ve wanted to say musically for a long time on guitar. Do you think you accomplished your mission on this project?
A very simple answer…yes! I am very proud and pleased with the way this album has turned out.

AC: What is next for Steve Hunter? What are you working on now and what are some of the things you still want to accomplish in the future?
My wife Karen and I are talking about doing more tracks together. We did an album called Empty Spaces which is a collection of her songs that we did together. She is a great singer so we want to do more. I think we will do perhaps five or six songs, probably available just as downloads. But that is one thing. I might also do another hymns record. I really enjoyed doing Hymns for Guitar – I have had a good response from the CD so I am considering doing more. One thing I have always wanted to do though, and which might be a little ambitious, is play with a full orchestra. I really love orchestral music and I think the sound of an electric guitar playing a melody in front of an orchestra would be an amazing sound and experience. Hopefully, one day!

AC: What would you say to an aspiring musician who has to overcome some physical challenges in order to pursue their art form?
Well, there are certainly many stories out there perhaps more inspiring than mine. One that comes to mind, always, is my dear friend Jason Becker. Do yourself a favor and look him up on the Internet. He was destined to become the next great guitar player. He was an amazing genius of a player. But then, at age 19 or so, he contract ALS – Lou Gehrig’s disease. He is completely paralyzed now and can’t even breathe on his own. But through the movement of his eyes he is able to communicate and make music. He is my constant inspiration. His story makes my eyesight problem seem really trivial. Another story to check out is a man named Tom Hicks. He is nearly totally blind due to retinitis pigmentosa. Yet he led a group of blind or sight-impaired children up Mount Kilimanjaro. There are many stories of people who have overcome their problems to pursue their passion. If that passion is strong enough, you can and will simply overcome anything standing in your way.

AC: What would you like your legacy to be and how would you like history to remember you?
I would like to be remembered as being a good, kind person who loved guitar and playing the blues.

AC: How can people find out more about you and avail themselves of your music?
The best way is through my website . Everything is there.

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