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, the intimate Polaroids taken by Gene Simmons that may or may not exist, and how she can still twirl a pair of balls like Bette Midler taught her.
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.”