His story is the story of the rise and fall of rock ‘n’ roll in Cleveland—and of the city itself

By Vince Guerrieri

If you were in Cleveland on March 5, when Michael Stanley died, you might have thought he was a former head of state. Disc jockeys on WNCX, the classic rock station, were on the verge of tears as they played his music and gathered recollections from fans and friends. All three pro sports teams in Cleveland tweeted their condolences. And the city of Cleveland has proclaimed today, March 25—which would have been his seventy-third birthday—Michael Stanley Day. A ceremony will be held at the plaza in front of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. There will also be a memorial display of him inside the hall. (The hall has thus far not seen fit to include him as an inductee.) At 10:35 a.m., radio stations in Northeast Ohio will play his single “My Town” in his memory.

The outpouring of grief was like something you’d expect to follow a death in the family. It kind of was. Michael Stanley was part of the fabric of Northeast Ohio. “My Town” was a love song to Cleveland when everyone else was willing—and eager—to take shots at “The Mistake by the Lake.” Stanley was a musician first and foremost, but for the past three decades he also hosted the afternoon drive slot on WNCX. He composed theme songs for the Cavs in the 1980s and the Browns in anticipation of their 1999 return, and performed with Indians players in their 2001 Tribe Jam concert. (Stanley, who went to Hiram on a baseball scholarship, was an avid sports fan; WNCX and 92.3 the Fan share space in the former Halle Building downtown, and at least one Fan reporter was stunned to hear Stanley say, “I read your stuff.”)

Stanley, who had been fighting lung cancer for seven months, had performed as long as he could (he had dates scheduled in Northeast Ohio last summer, but canceled due to COVID-19), and he continued to record almost to the very end (a posthumous album, “Tough Room,” is due out later this year). But the peak of his fame came at a time when Cleveland was at its lowest ebb.

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Cleveland began the 1970s as the city whose river caught fire and whose tallest building was Terminal. That decade ended with a mob war and the city defaulting on its loans. But it was a golden age for rock music in town, not because of the performers that came out of the city—Cleveland never had a recording scene like Motown in Detroit or Stax Records in Memphis—but because of the fans that supported the performers that came to the city. Bruce Springsteen played legendary shows in Cleveland early in his career, including at the Allen Theater and his tenth anniversary WMMS performance at the Agora. Led Zeppelin sold out night after night at Blossom, down the road in Cuyahoga Falls. And thousands of fans filled cavernous Cleveland Stadium for the World Series of Rock—the only World Series that stadium would see after 1954.

But bigger than all of them, at least in Northeast Ohio, was Michael Stanley. His story is the story of the rise and fall of rock ‘n’ roll in Cleveland—and of Cleveland itself. “He had all the talent and necessary ingredients to become an internationally known singer-songwriter with longevity,” John Gorman, director of programming for rock station WMMS in the 1970s, told me. “I was convinced when I met him [that] he would be a superstar. …He had all the ingredients except luck.”

 

If you’ve ever taken the tour at the Rock Hall or found yourself in front of the historical marker for the old Cleveland Arena on Euclid Avenue, you’re familiar with the story of how Cleveland hosted the first rock concert: The Moondog Coronation Ball. The event, on March 21, 1952, was promoted by Leo Mintz, owner of Cleveland’s legendary Record Rendezvous, and Alan Freed, a Salem native who’d worked his way up through local radio stations to become a disc jockey for WJW radio in Cleveland.

Freed hosted a rowdy overnight radio show called “The Moondog Rock & Roll House Party,” during which he played rhythm and blues records, largely by Black artists, describing them as “rock ‘n’ roll.” (Although he might have popularized the term, he did not, as some credit him, invent it; it was a euphemism for sex that had been used even before Freed’s birth.) He referred to himself as “King of the Moondoggers” and now has a tombstone engraved to look like a jukebox at Lake View Cemetery.

The Moondog concert was billed as a live version of Freed’s radio program. Tickets quickly sold out, and plans were made for a second show. But the tickets for the second show had the date of the first show on them, and the Arena was busting at the seams, with thousands turned away at the door. The result was a full-scale riot, which inadvertently showed the passion that existed for rock ‘n’ roll in Cleveland.

Dennis Barrie, a Cleveland native and co-creator of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, believes the passion for rock music came from Cleveland’s place as an industrial stronghold. “I can’t think of many areas committed to rock as that Youngstown-Akron-Cleveland area,” said Barrie, who served as the first director for the Rock Hall and was also involved in the creation of the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles and the Woodstock Museum in New York. “There’s a rebellion and an energy to rock music, and if you’re working on the line in a factory or in a mill doing heavy work the same every day, how do you let go? I think rock is the way they let go.”

The 1960s and 1970s was a heyday for popular music. Baby Boomers with disposable income were more than willing to spend it on records or on live music, and there were plenty of places for musicians to perform, notes Jim Quinn, who was part of the Damnation of Adam Blessing, a psychedelic rock band in the late 1960s based in Cleveland. “You could play five nights a week at nightclubs,” he told me.

Gorman, who moved to the area from Boston in 1973, said there was almost a farm system for touring acts coming to Cleveland. They’d start with shows at the Agora, originally opened in 1966 on the campus of Case Western Reserve University, or the Allen Theater, and then move up to Public Hall. If they were really big, they could play at Blossom Music Center (outdoors, opened in 1968) or the Richfield Coliseum, which opened in 1974 with a performance by Frank Sinatra and supplanted the Cleveland Arena for sports and music shows. “Cleveland is a real rock and roll city,” Gorman says. “It had this infrastructure where you could break a lot of acts.”

Macoska - Michael Stanley 2017

Michael Stanley in 2017. Photo by Janet Macoska.

That infrastructure included WMMS, which was becoming a powerhouse on the rock music front—and a source of pride for a city that needed it. (The station’s new mascot was a buzzard, because, Gorman said, “Everyone said Cleveland was a dead city. What else would be flying over it?”) It also included Belkin Productions, started by two brothers, Mike and Jules Belkin, to represent and manage local talent and promote local events. Belkin and WMMS came together in 1974 to put on a series of shows under the name of “The World Series of Rock,” filling Cleveland Stadium with throngs to see the top rock acts of the day. “The World Series of Rock at the old stadium is legendary on a national level, not just locally,” Barrie told me.

Quinn left music performance around 1973 to focus on promotions and management. Among the acts he promoted was Michael Stanley, who played with The Michael Stanley Band starting in 1974. “I booked their first gig opening up for Loggins and Messina at Blossom,” he says. “They had such a huge following. They probably played every college in Ohio.” Stanley’s following translated to some other cities, but never into the breakout national success that followed, say, Bob Seger’s “Live Bullet,” recorded at Cobo Arena in Detroit.

Part of that was probably due, Gorman says, to where Stanley was located. “If you really want to make it big, you have to get a good management firm with connections in New York, Los Angeles or Nashville,” he says—but that wasn’t just the case in Cleveland. Growing up in Boston, Gorman saw two bands that seemed destined for success: Aerosmith and the J. Geils Band. “But the best they could do were opening acts at clubs. In both cases, they had local management who said, ‘This is as far as I could take you,’ And they made contacts in New York and Los Angeles that took them to the next level.”

It was a jump Stanley couldn’t quite make.

 

By the 1980s, just as it looked like things were getting better in Cleveland—as the city’s comeback narrative, still unfinished, started to be written—the rock ‘n’ roll party was dying down. The World Series of Rock had gotten too unruly and unwieldy, and Browns owner Art Modell, whose Stadium Corporation controlled the stadium’s operations, ended the concerts. Live music venues started to shutter, done in by changing laws (the drinking age steadily rose from eighteen to twenty-one) and shifting listening and spending habits. At the same time, deregulation was leading to concentration in the radio and concert promoting industries. Quinn says the live music industry crashed in the late 1970s. “People were spending their money at the mall and not at the record store,” he said. “They were playing video games.”

But, like Huey Lewis said, the heart of rock ‘n’ roll was still beating in Cleveland. Spurred by WMMS, the city and its rock fans were advocating for the new Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. “The city was passionate enough to raise the money,” Barrie said. “The community wanted it, and the city fathers, who may have not understood it, at least realized that. It cost $92 million, and it was worth every penny.”

Michael Stanley, adrift after the breakup of the Michael Stanley Band, latched on with WJW, becoming a TV host at PM Magazine. From there Stanley went into radio, first briefly at WMMS and then for three decades at WNCX. All the while, he kept writing and performing music with different groups, including the Resonators and the Midlife Chryslers. “The music he put out over the past twenty years was, I think, the best music he’s done in his life,” Gorman told me. “He wasn’t just a great performer; he was a really good writer too.”

And he continued to do both. It wasn’t summer in Northeast Ohio without a Michael Stanley concert, be it Packard Music Hall in Warren, Cain Park in Cleveland Heights, or Nautica in the Flats. He opened the new amphitheater in downtown Youngstown, and an early gig at Black River Landing in Lorain spelled success for its annual Rockin’ on the River concert series.

On some level, if you engage in any kind of creative work, that work is its own reward. But Stanley was regularly honored. A section of Huron Avenue, in front of the building where he was an afternoon drive time DJ for WNCX, was renamed for him, and, in 2019, he was given a special lifetime achievement award by the Cleveland Arts Prize. That recognition, and the more recent celebrations of his work and city-wide response to his death, are a reflection not just of the love his fans had for him, but of his own prodigious talent.

“I’m glad to see he’s getting the respect he deserves, and it’s unfortunate he’s not here for it,” Gorman said. “The people in this region should really be thankful they experienced the talents of Michael Stanley. He was the real deal.” ■

 

 

Vince Guerrieri was born in Youngstown three weeks before Black Monday, and left there without ever really escaping it. He’s an award-winning journalist and author now living in the Cleveland area.

Cover image: Michael Stanley performs at Blossom in 1981. Photo by Janet Macoska.

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