Greatest Hints:
How Michael Stanley Almost
Made Cleveland Famous
By ADAM BESENYODI



"I just find it always funny because everybody's a local band somewhere. I mean, Bruce is a local band in Asbury Park, and the Beatles are a local Liverpool band and, you know, all that sort of thing. So I have no problem with that as far as we're from here."

-- Michael Stanley

Preface

Clevelander Michael Stanley's self-titled first solo album was released in 1972 and was produced by Bill Szymczyk and featured backing by Joe Walsh, Todd Rundgren, and Rick Derringer. It was followed a year later by a second solo album before Stanley put together the first proper incarnation of the Michael Stanley Band and released You Break It, You Bought It in 1975. Ten more albums on five different labels followed over the next eight years. The high water marks were 1977's StagePass -- Epic Records' answer to Live Bullet and Frampton Comes Alive, the Clarence Clemons-backed Heartland in 1980, and 1983's You Can't Fight Fashion, which includes the song "My Town" -- rumored to have been rerecorded in nearly 100 city-specific versions.

In the early 1980s in Northeast Ohio, you knew who Michael Stanley was -- he was the hometown hero, Cleveland's answer to Bruce (right or wrong, for better or worse). New Year's Eve and midsummer MSB concerts were not only expected each year, they were embraced as events. But over time, it became apparent that the national superstardom wasn't going to come for Stanley, and the question of why they never made it big has dogged every member of the band since its dissolution, to the point of thinly-veiled frustration from nearly everyone involved.

The more people I talked to for and about this project, the more it evolved from a "what went wrong" piece into an exploration of how the civic and musical identities of the region at the time related to Stanley's efforts, and how his actual successes reflected back on to Northeast Ohio.

Cleveland's National Image

The river actually caught fire. It had been ablaze on several occasions, truth be told. But the one that was the most damning, the one that ignited the imaginations of the country was on June 22, 1969. It was that incident that sparked a story in Time magazine a few weeks later that described the Cuyahoga River as "chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with surface gases, it oozes rather than flows." A few years later in 1972, it inspired Randy Newman to write "Burn On" with lyrics like "...the Cuyahoga River / Goes smokin' through my dreams" and an ending refrain of "Burn on, big river, burn on." Even into the '80s, the problem was dredged up again; this time by R.E.M. in "Cuyahoga". But it wasn't just the river that caught fire. Mayor Perk set his hair on fire at a ribbon cutting ceremony. And his wife turned down an invitation from first lady Pat Nixon because it was her bowling night. Perk's successor, the "boy wonder" mayor Dennis Kucinich, drove the city into bankruptcy. The national media seized on the blighted civic image of the region.

Cleveland Radio Influence and Support of MSB

During this same period, Cleveland's music industry credibility was nearly as untouchable as the city's civic image was irreparably damaged. Breaking acts like David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen, the Buzzard juggernaut at 100.7 FM was a source of pride for the region. Emerging artists with Northeast Ohio ties, like Joe Walsh and Eric Carmen, were breaking nationally. Jeff Kinzbach, the influential host of the Buzzard Morning Zoo for almost 20 years, described it this way: "We didn't feel influential. We felt a responsibility to keep radio and music as pure as possible and as free as possible. We did not want to be just another formula radio station. We wanted to be the soundtrack to Northeast Ohio." And it was Kinzbach who led a vocal defense against the national dragging of Cleveland through the mud.

Kid Leo, the legendary DJ credited with breaking Springsteen nationally, saw their power in this light: "Those who were at WMMS during the period of the mid-'70s through the mid-'80s knew how influential we were and looked at it as a 'public trust'. We had to make sure that Cleveland's image as the 'Rock 'n' Roll Capital' remained unchallenged. A major member of Cleveland's Rock 'n' Roll 'royal family' was the Michael Stanley Band. They were THE band that was nurtured and championed by WMMS. The radio station wasn't shy in promoting MSB to the national powers that ruled the record industry in those days."

David Spero, Stanley's first manager and a disc jockey at WMMS in the '70s, builds off that sentiment, offering that through the power of Cleveland radio, "We were breaking people like David Bowie, Mott the Hoople, Humble Pie, Yes, Lou Reed. People that weren't getting played anywhere else in the country were coming to Cleveland and selling out [the 10,000-plus seat] Public Hall, and they'd go other places and maybe do a twenty-five hundred seater."

Thanks to support from the likes of KSHE in St. Louis, pockets of MSB fans were cropping up around the U.S., but it was nothing compared to the groundswell of support growing in Northeast Ohio based on the backing of WMMS and on the strength of MSB's live shows. And that became the foundation for the love affair between the city and the band. According to Spero, there was a building process, but there was also a rabid fan base already in place when they began. And that fan base is where the band found their strength and where a city found something it could believe in.

And what MSB provided was a sense of community. Stanley expressed it like this: "It was a really bad time in Cleveland economically, you know, the river burning, you know, the whole 'mistake by the lake' thing, the exodus of people. It was a time of real poor self-image for the city, and I think that we were sort of a rallying point. We were something good that was happening, something that said, 'Hey, we're not all dickweeds and, you know, out of work.' That coupled with 'MMS being, like I said, civic minded and giving everybody a sense of community, I think that was a big thing. I think it was... a lot of them were living through us in a way, which is great. It was like, 'Gosh, if these guys can do it, they just live a mile down the road from me, I can do something!' If we brought that to the party... our stint was worthwhile."

Spero views the fans' ability to relate to Stanley this way: "You always got the feeling Bruce didn't pump his own gas. Nothing against that, that was just kind of what it was. Bruce was bigger than life. Still is. But that was not the case with Michael or Bob [Seger] or [John] Mellencamp, any of those guys."

Even though Springsteen did incorporate identifiable Midwestern topics like Youngstown and the steel mills in his songwriting, Stanley's take on regional subject matters seemed to resonate more closely with the Northeast Ohio fans. When thinking about all of the heartland rockers of the era, Stanley points out, "the Midwest guys, I think we were all rather faceless. There wasn't a lot of 'image', per se. I've always said, I think a great deal of our success had to deal with the fact that you could look at us on stage and imagine yourself up there. You look at Rod Stewart on stage, [and you think] 'Wow, I don't know if I could wear those pants... and my hair would never do that.' We were the guys next door, and we just got luckier or worked harder or stuck at it or whatever, or had more talent, or whatever. But it wasn't that far removed from your everyday thing here. But if you saw us in the grocery store, we were approachable, we weren't scary."

MSB is often compared to the Cleveland Browns of the mid-'80s. Victims of "The Drive" and "The Fumble", the Browns came within one game of playing in the Super Bowl two years in a row. But ask a die-hard Browns fan if they stopped believing in or supporting the team because they fell a little short, and they'll tell you they still supported the team and wished them well and cheered them on. The Drive for MSB was coming time and again so close to scoring the national break-out hit, and the Fumble was the management and label mishandling. But the hometown fans have never abandoned them. And they remain steadfast in their support and love for the band that wrote the soundtrack to their lives.

MSB Attendance Records Across the Region

Don Grierson, the head of A&R for EMI-America during the late '70s and early '80s, was responsible for signing the Michael Stanley Band to the label and had this to say about their reputation: "I knew of Michael Stanley because of this Ohio story way before I ever met them and signed them... You were in the business you knew what was going on. There were acts in certain pockets that were doing well and did or didn't break on a national level."

Setting attendance and sellout records across the region, it was that "Ohio story" that propelled MSB to glory in their hometown. And, as a result of that superstardom, there weren't a lot of bands that wanted to follow them on stage. Spero recalls, "I remember Billy Joel opening for us once down in Akron at the Akron Civic [Theatre] and trashing his dressing room being pissed off about, like, 'Why am I going on before this guy? I've never even heard of him!' And I think realizing he was probably better off going on in front of us in Akron. He'd just come out with Piano Man. Mellencamp opened for Michael at the [Richfield] Coliseum."

In the early '80s, MSB broke attendance records at the 18,700-seat Blossom Music Center and the now long-gone 20,000-seat Coliseum at Richfield, then they would turn around and promptly break their own records the following year.

Stanley agrees, saying "I think it's that. I think it really is that... The fans gave us a sense of community too... It's so cliché, but... the years of the three sellouts and the four sellouts at Blossom, I mean, those were beyond comprehension."

Michael Stanley's Enduring Local Popularity

Stanley evaluated the stability of his musical career and situation annually. Of this, he says, "Every year on New Year's Eve, I would ask my wife, 'So, what do you think? You wanna go another year?' You know, we weren't making any money. She'd say, 'Well, you know, things are looking up. Let's try another year.'"

But it got to the point where it wasn't worth giving it another year. In late 1986, Stanley officially broke up the band. Of the decision, he says, "It was totally an economic thing. My dad came to me and said, 'Are you sure you wanna do this?' I said, 'No, I don't wanna do this, but I have to. I can't pay everybody anymore. And everybody has families, and it's not fair to string them along. And I'd rather go out kinda on top than, you know, end up playing the Holiday Inn.'" And they did go out on top: The band played twelve straight sold-out "farewell" concerts at the 3,200-seat Front Row Theater before moving on.

Reflecting on the fan reaction to the end of the band, Stanley observes that "there were a lot of people, too, who, when it didn't happen completely for us, there were a lot of people who were angry... And I think a lot of them were angry at us. 'We believed in you, just like the Browns. We believed in you, we bought the t-shirts... and you didn't win the big game.' And what can you say? We did what we could. But I can understand that, you know." It was obvious the fans' anger came out of love.

Stanley describes MSB as "America's most successful unsuccessful band, because who else that is not a household name made like 13 albums as a band? Somebody liked us 'cause they kept giving us money to make albums, you know."

In the years since, Stanley has become ingrained in the landscape of the region by coming into the living rooms and cars of his fans every day for the past 20 years. Immediately following the dissolution of the band, Stanley landed a gig as co-host of the Cleveland edition of PM Magazine and a weekend show on WMMS. Five years later, he took over the afternoon drive slot on WNCX, where he remains today. He still performs, usually with his band the Resonators, and sometimes with the Midlife Chryslers. And the fans remain.

Conclusion

Music is such a personal experience for both the artist and the fan. In a way, Stanley's career is a perfect mix of what every music fan secretly wants: the soundtrack to their lives, and that personal relationship with the artist remaining in tact. The fans in Northeast Ohio know MSB was good enough to have been huge on a national scale, but because of his largely local celebrity, Stanley is an accessible part of their lives in a very concrete way every day.

Ultimately, Stanley's thoughts lead him to peace and this contentment: "I'm still doing this because I love it. I'm certainly not making a living at it... It's what I do. For better or worse, it's what I do. Hopefully the perseverance is respected."


For details on how this paper was put together and Adam's impressions of the Pop Conference, check out his blog, Random Thoughts Escaping. Thank you to Janet Macoska for opening her photo archives for this project. Prints and posters of her work are available for purchase at her web site.

Adam Besenyodi loves to talk pop culture. He is a former editor and writer for PopMatters, a participant in the Pop Conference and a freelance writer.

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