Michael Stanley, Heroic Heartland Rocker, Passes On

Remembering the life of a beloved son of Cleveland rock

RIP Michael Stanley (Art: Ron Hart)

It indeed seems odd that an artist can have a prolific career but not receive the due recognition he or she so decidedly deserve.

Yet such was the case with Cleveland-bred rocker Michael Stanley, who not only released several excellent albums with his namesake Michael Stanley Band, but also continued to release well over a dozen discs under his own aegis as well. And yet despite having twice attained a secure stature in the nascent world of Album Oriented Radio, as well as major label affiliation — first with Epic Records, Arista Records and the budding EMI Records roster —  the bigger breakout that once seemed so inevitable never came to fruition.

Nevertheless, Stanley — who died last Friday at age 72 after a bout with lung cancer — was an icon in his hometown. Not surprisingly, he went on to become an on-air personality on WMMS radio, the station that championed him throughout much of his career. He was so beloved in fact that the city accorded him the Cleveland Arts Prize Lifetime Achievement award in 2019 and the Cleveland City Council opted to rename one of its main thorofares “Michael Stanley Way” in his honor. 


VIDEO: Michael Stanley Band “My Town”

Stanley’s first venture into music came while he was still in college. It was then that he released the first album that included him in its credits, Smooth as Silk, an effort titled after his first band, which went by the name “Silk.” His next record was released under his own name, and simply titled Michael Stanley. It was followed by another individual outing, Friends and Legends. And while neither album made much of an impact, it was evident he was developing a name in celebrity circles courtesy of contributions from Joe Walsh, Todd Rundgren, David Sanborn and producer Bill Szymczyk, who would later go on to oversee albums by the Eagles. 

Joe Vitale, who played drums with Walsh and later, Crosby Stills and Nash, was a featured musician on both albums. “So very sad… RIP my friend,” he opined on learning of Stanley’s passing.

Stanley’s best shot at winning national acclaim came courtesy of the albums he recorded with the Michael Stanley Band from the mid ‘70s to the early ‘80s. It was at this point that the MSB, as they were known for short, released several albums that are still considered classics by his early admirers — You Break It, You Bought It, the live Stagepass and those released in the latter stage of the group’s collective career — Heartland, You Can’t Fight Fashion, MSB, and Cabin Fever. Each achieved modest sales, but despite the band’s knack for sturdy, hook-laden heartland rock and roll, a signature song. “Rosewood Bitters,” and a single called “He Can’t Love You,” which managed to make it to the midrange of the nation’s pop charts, Stanley and company never found the means to achieve definitive break-out band status. 

After the group dissolved in the early ‘80s following a twelve night stint of sold out shows at the Front Row Theater in Highland Heights Ohio, Stanley reemerged with a band called The Ghost Poets before embarking on an extended solo career that eventually culminated with the album Stolen Time in 2017. Nevertheless, his life was continually plagued by misfortune. He suffered a near-fatal heart attack in the early 90s and subsequently survived a battle with pancreatic cancer, which claimed the life of his mother. He also lost his third wife Denise to lung cancer, the disease that eventual took his life as well.


AUDIO: The Ghost Poets (full album)

Nevertheless, Stanley remained resilient to the end. “Hey gang… Well, if you’re reading this then I am off to catch up with that big club tour in the sky,” he wrote recently. “But before the bus pulls out I wanted to thank all of you for being part of my musical journey, both on the stage, on record, and behind the microphone here at WNCX.”

John Gorman, program director at WMMS, the aforementioned station that championed Stanley early on, his inscribed his own eulogy on Facebook, sharing an epitaph that summed him succinctly.

“Michael Stanley, rest in peace. Cherish the memories – and there are many,” he wrote. “He was an affable pragmatic guy with volumes of musical ideas inside his head waiting to get out. He also earned respect from any musicians he played with. Within days of its release, ‘Let’s Get the Show On the Road’ was our most played track… Because of Michael’s closeness with WMMS, he was an honorary member of the Buzzard team and we commenced a long-term relationship to boost one another’s careers…One more thing. Michael has written and performed some of his best music over the past few years and those albums should not be overlooked.  Michael was a class act – period.  He took the time.”

A truly relentless rocker until the very end, he leaves behind a legacy that will doubtless continue to be shared by a legion of fans and friends for some time to come.


Lee Zimmerman
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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville, Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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