In the mid-'60s, "The Pusher" was popularized by a Canadian group called The Sparrows, who played it as a long jam during their concerts. Three members of that group - lead singer John Kay, organist Goldy McJohn, and drummer Jerry Edmonton - formed Steppenwolf in 1967 and recorded a much shorter, more radio-friendly version for their first album, released in 1968.
In a Songfacts interview with John Kay
, he explained how he came across the song. "In the summer of 1964, after having been an East Coast guy in Toronto, and later in Buffalo, New York, I was in Los Angeles," he said. "This was the folk music revival, and I played in little coffeehouses. But the places where the pros played were The Ash Grove - which was where traditional people like Son House performed - and The Troubadour in West Hollywood. I hung out there in order to learn from the pros that played there. I hung out there so much that Doug Weston, the owner of The Troubadour, said, 'I can use you at the box office. I'll pay you a buck an hour.'
But the main reason for me to be there was to learn, and one of the guys that played there regularly was Hoyt Axton. I immediately liked what he played - a bluesy-styled acoustic guitar. And he had a voice that I really liked. He wrote songs that connected, and one of them, of course, was 'The Pusher,' which brought down the house every time he played it.
It's a simple three-chord song, and I learned it. I did not really meet Hoyt at that time, even though I was hanging around, so when I hitchhiked back to the East Coast with my guitar on my shoulder and wound up in Toronto in a coffeehouse, 'The Pusher' had become part of my solo acoustic repertoire and found its way into The Sparrows, which was the Canadian band I joined. So, when The Sparrows eventually migrated from Toronto through New York and to LA and busted up there, from the ashes of that band was formed Steppenwolf."