John Steel was the youngest of four children. He attended Gateshead Grammar School. As a child, he and his siblings took piano lessons, though only Steel would go on to have a career in music. Growing up, Steel was exposed to records from Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, Fats Waller and Sid Phillips.
Steel's first instrument was the trumpet. In the first group where he and Burdon played together he was playing the trumpets instead of drums. His musical influences initially came from traditional jazz, but he later drew influence from modern jazz. When he transitioned to drums, Steel admired jazz drummers such as Elvin Jones and Art Blakey.
Steel started his career as a musician while still in school around 1957. Steel met the future lead singer of the Animals, Eric Burdon, while they were studying together at the Newcastle College of Art and Industrial Design. They switched from jazz to embrace the new rock 'n' roll explosion.
In March 1959, Steel met Alan Price at a church hop in Byker, Newcastle, and with Hilton Valentine (guitar) and Chas Chandler (bass) formed a band; by 1960 the Alan Price Combo had acquired a reputation in Newcastle. Burdon joined in 1962 from a band called the Pagans, and the Animals were born. Steel went on to play and record with them until March 1966. His last charted single with the group was "Inside Looking Out".
Subsequently, Steel returned to Newcastle and became a businessman, while also working in former bandmate Chas Chandler's management and publishing organisations. In 1971 Chandler introduced him to Eggs over Easy, with whom he played as they started the pub rock music genre. Over the years Steel has remained active as a part-time local drummer and has joined several Animals' reunion incarnations.
Steel has toured since 1993 as the drummer with variations of the Animals line-up, including Hilton Valentine, Dave Rowberry, Zoot Money and Mick Gallagher. In 1993, Hilton Valentine formed "Animals II" and was joined by John Steel in 1994 and Dave Rowberry in 1999. From 1999 until Valentine's departure in 2001. the band toured as the Animals. After Valentine left these Animals in 2001, Steel and Rowberry continued on as "Animals and Friends".
In 2008, an adjudicator determined that John Steel owned "The Animals" name in Britain, by virtue of a trademark registration Steel had made in relation to the name. Eric Burdon had objected to the trademark registration, arguing that Burdon personally embodied any goodwill associated with the Animals name. Burdon's argument was rejected, in part based on the fact that he had billed himself as "Eric Burdon and the Animals" as early as 1967, thus separating the goodwill associated with his own name from that of the band. In 2013 Eric Burdon won an appeal. He's the owner of the Animals name.
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