Viewers accustomed to seeing Katey Sagal as hapless housewife Peg Bundy on “Married ... With Children” must have suffered a minor case of whiplash with the 2008 premiere of “Sons of Anarchy,” a series in which she plays a tough-minded matriarch of a drug-smuggling motorcycle gang.
Fans who attend a special “Sons of Anarchy” event at Mill City Nights in Minneapolis this Saturday may be in for another shocker. After jazz singer Curtis Stigers performs the series’ theme song and cast members Theo Rossi (Juice) and Ryan Hurst (Opie) answer questions from the audience, Sagal will take on the role she was born to play: pop singer.
Long before she was chasing Al Bundy around the couch, Sagal made her living backing some of the biggest stars of the ’70s and ’80s, including Bette Midler, Olivia Newton-John, Gene Simmons and Tanya Tucker.
“I’m surprised that people are still surprised,” said Sagal, 59, just a couple of days before shooting a guest appearance on “Glee” as Artie’s mother. “My perspective is that I’ve been doing it so long that people should know by now.”
Raised in California, where her father directed everything from the miniseries “Rich Man, Poor Man” to episodes of “Columbo,” Sagal started taking voice lessons at age 5 and picked up guitar and piano by the time she reached her teenage years.
At 18, she was touring with a Broadway production of the rock musical “Two Gentlemen of Verona.”
“I always thought that singing would be what I’d do for a living,” she said. “That’s where I was headed.”
Not all her gigs worked out. She spent six weeks rehearsing with Bob Dylan in 1978, only to be fired along with the other backup singers just a week before the tour hit the road.
“Dylan was pretty much all business. There wasn’t a lot of socializing,” she said. “After rehearsal, we would sit around and listen to tape and if you had made a mistake, he’d glare at you and you’d shrink in your chair a little. It didn’t work out, but it was pretty amazing to stand next to him to sing ‘Just Like a Woman.’ ”
Sagal had more success with Midler, serving as one of her “Harlettes” in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Rock Hall of Famer Etta James was such a fan she allowed Sagal to open for her.
But the ambitious performer was getting antsy. While working with established artists provided great experience — and rent money — Sagal was eager to emerge from the background.
She got her chance when an agent discovered her doing a musical in a 99-seat theater in Los Angeles. By 1985, she had landed a role in a Mary Tyler Moore sitcom simply titled “Mary.” The series was canceled after one season, but her work caught the attention of casting directors looking for a cartoonish mother for a racy new sitcom that would help establish the Fox network as a major player.
Despite the success of “Married ... With Children,” Sagal still thought of herself as a singer masquerading as an actress.
“It kind of freaked me out,” said Sagal, who remained with the series throughout its 1987-97 run. “For the first five years, I’d play on the weekends or throw together a blues band really quick because I thought the acting job was going to go away. I’d better hang onto the singing.”
Sagal finally got her footing as an actress, but it took some years to persuade the industry that she could do more than broad comedy.
A part on ABC’s “8 Simple Rules” in 2002 proved she could hold her own with John Ritter, but the show never fully recovered from his untimely death the following year. She showed her dramatic chops on ABC’s cult classic “Lost,” but appeared in only five episodes.
It wasn’t until “Sons of Anarchy” that Sagal really shined, playing a no-nonsense character who could destroy Peg Bundy with nothing more than a nail file.
The show has earned her a Golden Globe and a chance to sing for a national audience, even though most viewers won’t know it’s her voice performing “To Sir With Love” and “Bird on a Wire” during some of the series’ most indelible montages.
It doesn’t hurt that the show’s creator, Kurt Sutter, is a big fan of Sagal’s music — and her husband.
Those soundtrack songs likely will pop up during Sagal’s Saturday night performance, as well as covers of songs by Ryan Adams, Laura Nyro and Ray LaMontagne. They are all part of an upcoming solo album, only her third in 30 years of recording.
Sagal and her backing band, the Forest Rangers, have scheduled only four shows — all in the Midwest — because shooting for Season 6 of “SOA” starts in mid-May. Sagal is hoping to sneak in more gigs later in the year, and she already has an idea for her next album.
“I really like the new Justin Timberlake material,” she said. “I think I’ll put out a soul record — in another 10 years.”
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431