Long before Katey Sagal was out-Lady Macbething Lady Macbeth on Sons of Anarchy, she was an aspiring singer. During the Seventies and Eighties, she sang backup for an eclectic mix of artists, from Olivia Newton-John and Etta James to Molly Hatchet and Tanya Tucker. She even wore mermaid fins for Bette Midler and helped make Gene Simmons’ 1978 solo album a little less cringe-worthy. Later, she had her own band, the Group With No Name, which didn’t last long but lives forever on YouTube (one of the videos features a mind-blowing flute solo that’d make Ron Burgundy proud.) A few solo albums followed over the years – including some choice cuts on the Sons of Anarchy soundtrack – but her music has always been eclipsed by her acting career. Listening to Sagal’s latest album, Covered, there’s something sublime about hearing the baddest biker chick on TV belt out Tom Petty’s “Free Falling.” Rolling Stone spoke to Sagal about Covered, her first new recording in almost a decade, as well as her public freak-outs over George Harrison, being discovered by Gene Simmons, and more.
On Covered, are there any tracks you wanted to cover but couldn’t get the rights to?
There probably are, but I didn’t think about it that way. We just recorded songs and the label put it out, so I’m assuming everything is fine. I guess we’ll find out.
On tour earlier this year, you covered Bob Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” Why didn’t that make it on the album?
We considered it. I’ve been singing that Dylan song for a long time, but it just didn’t feel like it fit with the other songs.
So it wasn’t because Dylan said no?
He fired you as a backup singer before his ’78 tour, so he didn’t tell you, “You’ll never sing my songs again!”
Ha! Oh my God, no. He probably doesn’t even remember that he fired me. For me that was a monumental moment in my life. But for him. . .
So there’s no bad blood between you two?
Not at all. I didn’t take it personally, even then. I barely knew him. He was nice to me when I went to pick up my severance check, that’s what I remember. He said, “Maybe we’ll try it again. Maybe we’ll try it next week.” I was like “Okay, whatever.” And then I ran out of there. It was so intimidating.
You also sang backup with Bette Midler as one of the original Harlettes. Why didn’t you cover her on Covered?
Bette had those complicated Andrew Sisters charts. Musically, that was so much fun – it was like being in a choir. This album wasn’t really about that kind of harmony singing, but I’d love to do it again. Not that I want to jump up and be a background singer again, but I do love singing as part of a group.
Do you miss touring with Midler?
I do. It was always satisfying, but it was also exhausting trying to keep up with her.
You had a whole routine with her while wearing mermaid fins. Is that a skill that ever goes away?
You mean could I do it again?
Yeah. Do you still have that muscle memory?
Oh God, I hope not. It almost gave me an anxiety attack the first time I had to do it. We had these rehearsal fins where they’d wrap your legs together and you’d have to hop and roll around on the floor and flap our feet. It was crazy. But I could still probably do the balls.
You know, those balls that she bounces up and down? I could probably still do that.
You got your first big break as a backup singer from Gene Simmons.
That’s right – on his solo album. He also got me a record deal. I met him while I was working at a restaurant where you had to sing.
You were a singing waitress?
It was a place called the Great American Food & Beverage Company. It was this happening scene. Danny Elfman worked there. Patti Davis, Ronald Reagan’s daughter – she was one of the hostesses. You didn’t need any restaurant qualification to work there. You just had to have some special talent.
Any kind of talent? It didn’t have to be singing?
You could play music or juggle or whatever. You just had to do something interesting. I was a for-shit waitress. I was terrible. But I made really good money because I could sing.
Did you sing the specials to them?
It wasn’t as corny as that. You’d sing whatever you wanted. We’d sing original songs. We had a piano in the middle of the restaurant and sometimes five people would get up and do background singing, just to keep everybody entertained. It was really fun.
And one night KISS sat in your section.
That’s right. It was their first tour and nobody knew who they were yet.
They weren’t in makeup?
I thought they were super-secretive about their identities in the Seventies.
Well, this was. . . Are you sure they wore makeup at the very, very beginning?
I’m almost positive they did.
Well they weren’t wearing makeup that night. And they’d just come from a gig. Nobody knew who they were.
What did you sing to them? Did they make any requests?
They asked for a Beatles song, but I can’t remember which one. They talked about being big Beatles fans – we had that in common. I almost got arrested once for being too much into the Beatles.
We heard about that. You were 12 and apparently suffering from severe Beatlemania.
I don’t know what happened. The police had to escort me home because I was so hysterical. There’s some video of me out there on the Internet, where I’m at a Beatles concert and just losing my mind, screaming and crying.
For any Beatle in particular?
George Harrison. I was screaming because they were holding us back and I wanted to be closer to them. We were in the middle of a suburban neighborhood.
What was it about George? Why did you love him more than the others?
He seemed more accessible to me. Everybody loved Paul McCartney. And John Lennon seemed too cool. George felt to me like, “Oh, I could get him. He’s like me.” [Laughs.] Which of course is ridiculous.
Did you meet Harrison before he died?
No. I met Ringo. He’s the only Beatle I ever spent time with. I’ve been to parties at his house. But I never got a chance to meet George.
Sorry, we got off topic. We were talking about your singing waitress job and Gene Simmons.
Yeah. [Laughs.] It sounds ridiculous, but that’s how I introduced myself to him. I took his food order and sang him a Beatles song, and I guess I did okay because Gene was hugely helpful to me and my career. He came to one of my band practices that week and took us to Neil Bogart at Casablanca Records and they signed us. Without him I don’t know how long I’d have waited for a break.
Let’s talk about the Group With No Name.
That was such a lame name. Nobody could come up with something good and somebody mentioned the ‘No Name’ idea to Bogart and he thought it was great. I thought it was ridiculous. But it was a good band.
I saw a few of your videos on YouTube. They’re not bad.
I haven’t seen them in forever. You liked it?
Oh yeah. There’s one video of “I Don’t Want To Lose You” where you can practically smell the weed.
Ha! There’s a really cool video I just saw of me singing “Chain of Fools.” It was a drug benefit for some rehab situation and it was awesome. I totally forgot about it. It must have been 30 years ago.
You never had huge commercial success as a singer. But did it ever feel like you were getting close?
It felt that way all throughout my 20s. Not only in that band, but when A&M Records was courting me. I would go in and cut demos with producers. I came very close. And I had a good shot of something really big happening.
So what went wrong?
I was a mess. I have a feeling I might’ve shot myself in the foot. Things work out for a reason. It was an exciting time but it was also very disheartening. I knew I was doing the right thing – I knew that I was supposed to be singing. I had this very high aspiration but I just couldn’t quite get there.
A mess because of drugs and alcohol?
I’m 27 years clean and sober, but I definitely had addiction issues in my 20s. I got sober when I was 30. There were a lot of personal things going on, too. My parents passed away in my 20s. I had a lot of shit that I just didn’t deal with. Or that I dealt with it by drinking myself into a stupor.
What’s your best Hammer of the Gods moment?
You mean a crazy rock story?
Yeah. Something with a hot tub full of cocaine.
Well, we had some good times on the road with Etta James. She’s not an inhibited one. [Long pause.]
If you don’t want to mention names, that’s fine.
I was big on the LA club circuit. I remember after a gig one night on the west side, I had this boyfriend named Spider. He was a saxophone player in this band called Top Jimmy & the Rhythm Pigs. Have you ever heard of them?
I haven’t, but they sound awesome.
Spider was a big blues guy. We’d jump in his RV after gigs and drive to Vegas – just kind of partying our way through the night. We did a lot of wild things.
That’ll do. Actually, having a saxophonist boyfriend named Spider sounds like a Gemma Teller Morrow story.
And that’s all I know about show business. It’s fun but it’s hard work.