The deacon of rock

By Sergio Ariza

Steve Hunter, born June 14, 1948, in Decatur (Illinois), is possibly the best session guitarist in history, with only one other competitor for the title, his friend Dick Wagner, of course whereas they have both appeared on several immortal records by Lou Reed and Alice Cooper, Hunter edges him out,  even if it’s just for the monument to the electric guitar which is the Intro that he played for Sweet Jane by Reed, on Rock ‘n Roll Animal. One of the most incredible odes to the main instrument in our pages. 

Hunter’s career has been one of an elite mercenary, his performances in the rock world during the golden years should have allowed for a glorious wealthy living for all of his days but, as happens to many session players, Hunter has  on many occasions seen economic troubles due to not having been given necessary credit, as was common practice in the profession. On much of his most recorded work such as Billion Dollar Babies by Alice Cooper and Train Kept A-Rollin by Aerosmith, for example. Fortunately, in recent years, his wife has fought to correct these errors and get Steve recognition and merit, besides a fair economic compensation.

He started his career early but his first big break didn’t arrive until 1971, when a friend told him that the legendary Mitch Ryder, one of the fathers of the exciting rock scene in Detroit, was looking for guitarists for his new band. Ryder was reforming the Detroit Wheels, and decided to shorten the name to Detroit. in the autumn of 1970 Hunter had a successful audition and Ryder was delighted with his new guitarist. They immediately got to work on recording their first record and that’s when he would meet someone that would change his life. The one chosen to produce the record was a young Canadian who also played keyboards and whose main credential was having got Alice Cooper famous with Love it to Death and I’m Eighteen. We’re talking about Bob Ezrin who was also impressed with Steve’s 6-string playing. 

The most renowned song on that recording would be a version of Rock and Roll from Lou Reed’s last album with Velvet Underground, Loaded. It was Ryder’s personal choice, because he loved the song, but it was Hunter who left his fingerprint on it. Inspired by Leslie West of Mountain, he did such a spectacular job it seduced the author of the song himself, Lou Reed, who just as Ezrin, would never forget the name Hunter.

But let’s not get ahead of events, the Detroit record didn’t make waves beyond the motor city and Hunter found himself once again out of work. For a while he was touring with the Chamber Brothers, a soul band that had recorded the fabulous Time Has Come Today, in 1968. It was while playing with them that gave fruit to 2 fundamental events in his life. The first was the first time he played a piece that would become  the Intro to Sweet Jane  which he composed while still in Ryder’s band. The second was in meeting the man with whom he would perform some of the best guitar duels in the 70s, Dick Wagner. It was in Florida, while Wagner was playing with his band Ursa Major.

After the tour finished, Hunter was jobless again, but Bob Ezrin hadn’t forgotten about him, he was producing the new Alice Cooper album Billion Dollar Babies, and needed guitarists to occasionally cover for Glen Buxton, the lead guitarist of the group, who was suffering from pancreatitis. The first 2 names to come to mind were Hunter and Wagner. This time though they wouldn’t play together, it was done  separately. Hunter was used more and can be heard playing solos on the title song, Raped and Freezin’ (the second, after Buxton’s), Unfinished Sweet, Generation Landslide, Sick Things ( with a Gibson SG trying to sound like Clapton of Cream) and Hello Hooray, where he takes charge on a solo with a pedal steel Gibson. It was an incredible contribution, but, as was custom at the time, he wasn’t mentioned in the song credits; his name only appears in the ‘special thanks’ bit. 

His next adventure would be the one to bring him fame and recognition. Lou Reed was in London preparing the follow-up album to Transformer and Bob Ezrin was his producer. His company had given him all the means necessary and the ex-Velvet surrounded himself with elite musicians to record what would become Berlin, people like Jack Bruce, Steve Winwood, Aynsley Dunbar and the Brecker brothers. Reed was clear about who he wanted on guitar, the guy who had played his Rock and Roll just like he wanted it to sound. Reed told Ezrin to find him, and it didn’t take long, he knew his phone number by heart. The next thing Hunter remembers is that he was on a plane crossing the Atlantic to record with one of his heroes. The first song he did was Men of Good Fortune, Hunter put his headphones on and got ready to play, when Jack Bruce started with a bass line he couldn’t believe his luck, here was a country boy from Decatur Illinois was playing with Cream’s bassman,.But instead of feeling intimidated he was inspired to play better, his parts on songs like How Do You Think It Feels and the final Sad Song are among the best of his career. The critics of the day were ruthless with the record, calling it a ‘disaster, devoid of hope’, but years later it was seen through different eyes and its powerful music, together with the sad lyrics, gave it the stamp of the classic it always was. 

However, when Reed wanted to introduce the album live the only thing  that was clear for him was that he wanted to be a rock star, a ‘rock animal’ and allowed for Ezrin to be the one to find the perfect band to make it so. This is how Hunter and Dick Wagner played together for the first time (Wagner also played on Berlin, but they didn’t meet up). The first gigs on tour were on European soil, mainly in the British isles, the band was pure fire and Hunter and Wagner seemed predestined to play together  on stage. As for Reed, the man who had invented the noise became the epic rock ‘n roll star, and the suit fit like a glove, thanks to his splendid guitarists. When the tour went to the U.S, Reed’s manager told  them they needed to jam on something before the singer took the stage. That is how Hunter taught the rest the piece that he had written years before. On the first attempt there was the magic and Hunter realised that he had found the perfect band to play it.  The interaction with Wagner was incredible, with Steve playing melody and Dick doing harmonies. On December 21, 1973 they gave their last show of the tour in New York, and the result was recorded for posterity, which resulted  on 2 records, Rock ‘N roll Animal, released in 1974 and Lou Reed Live in ‘75. And to make history, those legendary licks were squeezed out of a Les Paul TV Special running through a Hi Watt 100 watt amplifier.  

After that Hunter became one of the most respected session players. Days after that mythic concert he was in the studio at Record Plant in NY, recording something for Ezrin in studio A . Ezrin  was also executive producer of Get Your Wings, the second effort by the then unknown Aerosmith, who were recording in studio C. On one of the breaks, Jack Douglas, who was working with the Steve Tyler lads, ran into Hunter  in the hall and asked him “Do you feel like recording something?”. In an instant Hunter had his Les Paul TV Special plugged into a Fender Tweed Twin amp and was laying down the first solo (the second was recorded by none other than Wagner) of the song that was going to be one of the most iconic in their career. Yet again, his name failed to appear in the credits. To his benefit it must be said that Joe Perry got to collaborate with Hunter on his 2013 record, The Manhattan Blues Project. He got more of a thrill and presence in the credits, from  a call from Jack Bruce asking him play together on his 1974 record Out of the Storm.    

He was riding the crest of the wave and his next step was to get back with Wagner and the band of Rock ‘N Roll Animal. Alice Cooper, the band, were breaking up and the singer and frontman was looking for new players to accompany him. On advice from Ezrin he decided to call the ‘animals of rock’ to record his first solo album, in spite of still calling himself Alice Cooper. The result was the impressive Welcome to my Nightmare that led to a lucrative tour in 1975 in which he gives free rein to all his theatrics, accompanied by the pòwerful guitars of Hunter and Wagner. It was on that tour where his beloved ‘59 Les Paul TV Special was broken and replaced by a BC Rich Seagull. Rest in peace to a guitar that deserves a monument. 

The band stayed with Cooper until the end of the 70s but the quality  of the records and the tours was  falling  at the same pace as the singer’s drinking habits were rising . But Hunter had time to leave his mark on other places. The most remembered is his work on Solsbury Hill, the first solo record by Peter Gabriel, also produced by Ezrin, in which he created the memorable acoustic part on a Martin D-18 or 28,  borrowed from a recording assistant. That same year, 1977, he recorded his first solo album Swept Away, produced by the indispensable Ezrin, who gave him his definitive nickname, the ‘deacon’, due to his healthy habits in relation to liquor and drugs. Many people wonder how it’s possible that Hunter and Wagner never recorded anything on their own but Steve the good guy, always said that once you take out the equation of Reed and Cooper, making great songs, that just isn’t the same.   

The 80s were not friendly to a rock guitarist, with blues roots and who plays  for pay, so his appearances became more sporadic. In addition to all of this, he developed a problem with his sight that eventually would leave him almost blind, and piles of hospital bills would cut deeply into his finances. The fact that Hunter never saw any money coming from a great part of his recordings, as he wasn’t  credited on many of them, didn’t help. In the end, his wife reached a solution to the ordeal, but the rock stars never forgot about him either.

In 2006 Lou Reed and Bob Ezrin decided to do a series of concerts based on Berlin and did not hesitate to call Hunter. The shows went on for a year and they ended up being immortalised on the record Berlin: Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse. And,  it couldn’t be any other way: on the reunion of Reed and Hunter, the performances ended with Sweet Jane.

Alice Cooper also remembered him for the sequel of Welcome 2 my Nightmare, released in 2010. That same year the original band was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Hunter took the stage with them in place of the deceased Glen Buxton. Despite not being admitted to their band, few of the members would reject the idea of making a place for the deacon of rock.  

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