As front man, guitarist, cofounder and co-lead vocalist of Kiss, Paul Stanley has played to packed stadiums across the globe and sold more than 100 million albums worldwide. But the performer known as “the Starchild” in his kabuki-inspired makeup has another side.
The man born Stanley Bert Eisen in the Bronx, New York, also fronts a project known as Paul Stanley’s Soul Station. Earlier this year, while Kiss was forced to postpone dates on its farewell tour due to the pandemic, the 15-piece-plus band released its debut album, Now and Then, featuring a mix of originals and covers of Motown and soul classics.
So how did the 69-year-old rocker who sang and co-wrote the 1976 Kiss classic “Detroit Rock City” make the move to the Motown sound? As far as Stanley is concerned, it’s not much of a stretch. “I really understand the gist and the soul of that music,” he says. “So it felt completely natural. There’s a Motown influence in Kiss that a lot of people might miss. If you listen to [Kiss’ 1976 hit] "Shout It Out Loud," that answer back and forth, that’s the Four Tops.” Stanley then proceeds to sing a bit of the song a cappella to prove his point. Next he offers a bit of Kiss’ 1979 rock-disco hit, “I Was Made for Lovin’ You,” and admits it was inspired by the Four Tops’ “Standing in the Shadows of Love.”
“There’s other songs that have Spinners or Philly soul,” he adds. “We may not have arranged them that way, but like any good recipe, it’s in there.”
It’s only fitting that Stanley, who has a passion for cooking, compares songwriting to a recipe. “I grew up in a household where music was like food,” he says. “There was variety. That’s really the reason why I think there’s only two types of music — good and bad. I grew up with classical music, Italian opera, show tunes, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, folk music — all of it. I was lucky enough to see Otis Redding live. So for me there’s never been a narrow sense of what music I wanted to listen to.”
Ironically, Stanley’s love of music developed despite the fact he was born with the birth defect known as microtia, which left him with a misshapen right ear and unable to hear on that side. It also made him feel as if he wanted to hide, years before he and his bandmates would don Kiss’ iconic makeup.
“I think all of us would love to blend in and choose when we stand out,” Stanley says. “Those who are born with differences don’t have that luxury. It’s like having a shirt on that everyone is staring at, so you go back to your house and change. But in this case, you don’t get to change. You are stuck. So it’s draining and there’s a sense of being exposed and vulnerable, but really it’s life changing, because it alters how you deal with people, which in turn alters how they deal with you.”
Aside from the physical difference, Stanley also had to overcome not being able to hear in his right ear. “I had to deal with being in school and not being able to really understand much of what was being said,” he says. “So that socially distanced me and made learning very, very difficult in school. At that time, learning disabilities were just not understood. What should be obvious was either overlooked or ignored.”
Though it may sound like a cliché, rock ’n’ roll literally saved Stanley’s life. Long before he became a star, he embraced the long hair favored by his musical heroes, including the Beatles. “It was twofold,” he says. “It was great that I could cover up my ear, and also I was choosing what I was being stared at for now. I was being stared at for the long hair, which was a choice, but what was behind it didn’t change. You can mask things for other people, but you still know you’re behind the mask.”
It wasn’t until years later, when he was a wealthy rock star and doctors developed a procedure to fix his ear, that Stanley had surgery. “It didn’t exist prior,” he says. “There weren’t a lot of adults who had had the surgery, and it involved taking rib cartilage. I don’t recommend anyone have their ribs gouged.” That tissue was then molded into an ear in a procedure that required multiple surgeries.
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Through the years, Stanley has dealt with other physical ailments as part of the rigors of fronting a highly successful rock machine with his longtime partner, bassist and co-vocalist Gene Simmons, and a cast of other bandmates, including current guitarist Tommy Thayer and drummer Eric Singer.
“I’ve had both of my rotator cuffs repaired,” he says. “I tore both of those. About three years ago, I popped my bicep tendon and had to have that surgically repaired. I’ve torn both of my knees and had to have those repaired. I’ve had a hip replacement. So thank God for modern medicine and science, because you can keep going far longer than in the past. Your expiration date, so to speak, has been extended.
“I’m not the person I was when I was in my 20s, but I’m far from the person I thought I would be in my 60s,” he adds.
Still, after nearly 50 years of performing in platform boots, elaborate costumes and face paint, the members of Kiss have decided to hang it up. Their current tour is billed as “The Final Tour Ever — End of the Road.”
“We’re winding down and doing the ‘End of the Road’ tour because we’re not physically capable of doing this indefinitely,” he says. “As we get older, we begin to realize our own mortality. We also begin to see the stresses and strains of what is physically possible. To be onstage running around with 50 pounds of gear and making it look easy doesn’t get easier.”
Yet Stanley doesn’t necessarily see Soul Station as a more age-appropriate option. “All the Motown artists were in their 20s when that music came out,” he says. “So I don’t know if it is about being age-appropriate. In many ways, Kiss has never been appropriate, period. So that’s never been a part of my professional compass.”
Paul Stanley’s Soul Favorites
He may be best known as the hard-rocking front man of Kiss, but Stanley also has a soft spot for Motown and soul music, which he explores with his side project, Paul Stanley’s Soul Station. In his playlist of Motown and soul classics, Stanley doesn’t just go with the expected favorites. He prefers early Stevie Wonder to his acclaimed latter work, and his favorite Supremes songs were recorded after Ms. Ross left the trio. Don’t tell Diana.
What Becomes of the Brokenhearted performed by Jimmy Ruffin
“What a great question. What happens to people who have been in love and now that love is gone? And he’s singing about himself. It’s just a beautiful melody, and the arrangement is fabulous.”
Uptight performed by Stevie Wonder
“I know everyone loves and is in awe of the later Stevie Wonder work, but I’m so more partial to the earlier, because there was a passion, innocence and joy to it. As time went on, his work got so expansive and intricate, whereas “Uptight” and “I Was Made to Love Her,” they’re easier to relate to emotionally. … It’s ‘Romeo & Juliet’ in the lower neighborhoods.”
This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You) performed by the Isley Brothers
“I remember when I first heard ‘This Old Heart of Mine,’ it sounded like a Four Tops song done by the Isley Brothers. It’s a Holland-Dozier-Holland song, so that makes sense. There’s a sadness about a situation, but there’s also joy in it. It’s not mournful and yet he’s saying this old heart is weak for you. Interestingly, there’s a contrast between the music and the lyric. The music seems so upbeat and almost happy.”
I Want You Back performed by the Jackson Five
“What a game changer. What a way to introduce a phenomenon like the Jackson Five, with a song that was really unlike anything else that was out there at the time. It just felt like an explosion. It’s a great song that you think can’t get any bigger, and then it just explodes after the breakdown into the last chorus. It’s phenomenal. And this young, young voice is so emotive. It’s an old soul with a young voice.”
Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over) performed by the Four Tops
“Levi Stubbs could sing the phone book — and most people don’t know what a phone book is anymore. Levi Stubbs, as young as he was, he sounded like a sage. He just sounded like the voice of experience and a voice that knew pain and joy. There was nobody like him. It was exhilarating, and I think that’s a great example of his singing.”
I Wish It Would Rain performed by the Temptations
“There’s so many amazing Temptations songs. Here you have this group that was just six-foot-tall, testosterone-charged Black men, just really owning everything they did, from those great dance steps to their singing. Everybody in the band was a stellar voice. Of course, with the Temps the two voices that stood out were Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin. ‘I Wish It Would Rain’ just has this mournful almost church tone to it, and not surprisingly, Rod Stewart also covered that. I think if you took Sam Cooke and David Ruffin and mixed them together, you’d get Rod Stewart. ‘I Wish It Would Rain’ is just one of countless Temptations songs that just hit the bull’s-eye.”
Love Train performed by The O’Jays
“What a great, great song: “People all over the world, join hands, start a love train.” I love those kinds of songs that talk about countries or the cities and kind of give shout-outs to them. Eddie Levert is just another one of those voices that as soon as you hear it, you know who it is. And Gamble and Huff and Thom Bell, all the Philly International masterminds, they just had these stirring orchestrations and their songs were on a higher level. It was interesting that Philly International patterned itself on Motown, but it was clearly a different point of view, a different perspective on the same genre.”
Ain’t No Mountain High Enough performed by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell
“Wow. Chemistry. The joy of being a couple and knowing how special what you have is and singing to each other about it. Marvin Gaye went on to be the voice of a generation. Tammi Terrell was just the perfect foil in those recordings. It’s sung with such joy and such a sense of the gift of that relationship. I may have been too young to have that, but it was certainly something to aspire to.”
Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye) performed by Gladys Knight & the Pips
At first I thought I’d go to ‘Midnight Train to Georgia.’ She’s just a stellar singer, and this song is poignant and eloquent. It’s a heartfelt testament. Two people trying to make something work and neither one of us wants to say goodbye. Gladys Knight could make me believe anything.”
Up the Ladder to the Roof performed by the Supremes
“People would of course go to ‘Baby Love’ or ‘Stop! In the Name of Love,’ or a lot of those songs, but quite honestly, I was a bigger fan of the few hits with Jean Terrell after Diana Ross left to be a solo performer. I thought that ‘Stoned Love’ and ‘Up the Ladder to the Roof’ were just awesome tracks. I was sad that they were eclipsed by Diana’s departure, but for my money, those are the two songs I listened to more than any others by the Supremes.”
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