Canadian Goldy McJohn, founding member of Steppenwolf, has died at 72
Steppenwolf is seen in this undated handout photo. (Rock & Roll Hall of Fame)
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press
Published Friday, August 4, 2017 9:23AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, August 4, 2017 4:07PM EDT
Goldy McJohn, a Canadian founding member of Steppenwolf whose roaring organ sounds and big hair brought a powerful presence to the group behind the classic-rock staples "Born to be Wild" and "Magic Carpet Ride," has died.
The keyboard player, whose given name was John Goadsby, died on Tuesday of a heart attack, according to a post on his Facebook page. He was 72. A funeral service is scheduled for next Friday in Seattle.
McJohn and husky voiced lead singer John Kay were among the founding members of Steppenwolf. The group, which also included Canadians Jerry Edmonton on drums and Nick St. Nicholas on bass among its core members, got its start in Toronto as the Sparrows.
St. Nicholas, who was McJohn's roommate in Toronto's trendy Yorkville neighbourhood in the 1960s, loved his distinct playing style and recruited him for the Mynah Birds and then the Sparrows.
"The organ was sort of like the bridge. It covered the space between the notes when he'd hold a note," Toronto-raised St. Nicholas said Friday from Ventura, Calif.
"You hear it in 'Magic Carpet Ride' and also in 'Born to Be Wild,' he had a percussive style like no other keyboard player and it stood out."
Rockabilly musician Ronnie Hawkins recalls seeing the Sparrows playing at his club, the Hawk's Nest, above the Le Coq d'Or Tavern on Yonge Street in Toronto.
"They were just starting when they were at the Hawk's Nest but I remember them, and (McJohn) had that afro or whatever you call that great big head of hair," Hawkins said by phone Friday from his home in Peterborough, Ont.
"(The crowd) loved them. That's what got them started. They were so good at the Hawk's Nest, they started getting jobs everywhere."
After securing a deal with Columbia Records, the Sparrows spent time in New York and then migrated west to the San Francisco Bay area and Los Angeles, where they broke up and reformed as Steppenwolf.
As St. Nicholas tells it, they were ordered to leave the country by U.S. immigration officials after his parents in Toronto had filed a missing person report for him.
Within the 60-day period of their deportation, they got signed to ABC/Dunhill Records and recorded the group's self-titled 1968 debut album, which included the iconic track "Born to be Wild." It was written by Mars Bonfire, who was the Canadian guitarist for the Sparrows and the brother of Edmonton.
"It came out and boy, that's what put 'em on top," said Hawkins.
"It became a big one and it's still getting work for them. You still hear that song. It sounded like one of them wild, teenage things."
The gritty biker anthem, as well as the group's hit cover of Hoyt Axton's "The Pusher," were on the soundtrack for Dennis Hopper's cult classic 1969 film "Easy Rider."
Steppenwolf also achieved success with the psychedelic "Magic Carpet Ride" and subsequent tracks including "Rock Me," "Straight Shootin' Woman" and "Move Over."
In '72, Steppenwolf "had kind of burned out" and disbanded, Kay told The Canadian Press last October.
While they did reform with the core lineup, putting out a few more albums, they eventually broke up again.
"Toward the end of the '70s, my daughter was at a certain age and I said, 'Let's disband the band,' so we went our separate ways," Kay said, noting St. Nicholas and McJohn had been kicked out of the band in the preceding years "for a variety of reasons."
Since then there have also been various incarnations of the group, including John Kay & Steppenwolf.
McJohn also went on to play in other groups including Manbeast and Humble Pie.
Last year, Steppenwolf was shortlisted for inclusion into the 2017 induction class for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but ultimately was not selected.
St. Nicholas described McJohn as an adventure-seeker who often found himself in precarious situations, like the time he flew his hang glider into a cactus tree.
He last saw McJohn about 20 years ago but had planned to reunite with him soon and wanted to recruit him for his rock supergroup World Classic Rockers.
"We were going to get together when I heard he passed away," he said. "I felt like I lost one of my good friends."
McJohn's wife, Sonja, told The Canadian Press by phone from Seattle on Friday that he had still been playing the organ until the day before he died.
"I bought him an organ that he wanted really bad and he played it almost every day since I got it for him," she said, adding they had been together for 30 years.
"And I wish I could hear him now."