Last September, Danny Powers knew something was wrong with Michael Stanley.
Powers — the lead guitarist in the Michael Stanley Band and The Resonators — got a call out of the blue from Stanley, who announced he was coming over to Powers’ Sagamore Hills home. As Powers hung up the phone, he wondered if Stanley’s impromptu visit had anything to do with Stanley’s recent admission that an annual chest scan revealed tiny spots around his lung.
As the two sat down on Powers’ lawn, Stanley confirmed the worst.
“I’ve been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer,” Stanley said. “I need you to help me finish this record.”
Seven months after their talk on Powers’ lawn, that record is here in the form of Tough Room, which will begin shipping out this week from Stanley’s Line Level Music Label. The album, Stanley’s first posthumous record, is out six weeks after the 72-year-old’s death on March 5. A wider release is expected later this month.
Despite the album being written in the twilight of Stanley’s life, the album stays away from the theme of mortality, instead boasting the typical mix of rockers like “I’m Pissed,” an aging man’s humorous indictment of life’s aggravations and ballads such as the touching “You’re the One.” Stanley wrote the songs and recorded his vocal, guitar and bass parts prior to his diagnosis.
“He always jumped into new songs right when he would finish mixing – in this case, [it was] 2017’s Stolen Time,” says Powers, who also doubled as Stanley’s studio technician and equipment repairman.
That process was delayed in late 2017, however, after Stanley had quadruple-bypass surgery. After another setback due to water damage in Stanley’s basement, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, shutting production down indefinitely.
But Stanley wasn’t deterred.
“This album was his last big hurrah,” his daughter Anna Sary says. “It was the last project that he could leave for his family and friends and fans.”
When production started back up again, Powers began driving to Stanley’s suburban East Side home two or three times a week to lay down his rhythm-guitar parts and guitar solos, with Stanley serving as the recording engineer. Despite being on the precipice of four rounds of chemotherapy, Stanley was upbeat. The three-to-four-hour recording sessions were punctuated by laughter, most of which were generated by Stanley’s latest rescue pet, Stevie Ray Dog, who would sit at the top of the basement steps and howl while Powers played.
As songs were completed, Powers sent the digital files containing each musician’s contribution to Stanley’s longtime producer, Bill Szymczyk, who mixed the tracks and e-mailed them back to Stanley for review. With the COVID-19 pandemic raging across the country, Szymczyk mixed the album from his North Carolina studio as opposed to Stanley’s basement to protect Stanley’s compromised immune system.
With very little face-to-face interaction in his last days, Stanley wrote letters to the important people in his life and mailed them out a week before his death.
“He didn’t want people blubbering and feeling sorry for him because, I’ll tell you, he wasn’t feeling sorry for himself,” Powers says.
In December 2020, work stopped on the album as Stanley completed chemotherapy and continued immunotherapy treatments.
In mid-February, Stanley opted to discontinue treatment after the cancer spread to his bones and liver. Production on the album slowed down as well, as the subsequent effects of pain medication combined with the brain fog caused by his chemotherapy treatments made working a struggle. Soon, Powers and Stanley were only meeting on the days Stanley was up for it.
“The hardest part about that was it was making him very emotional,” Powers says.
The recording of Tough Room was finally completed in mid-February, with Szymczyk picking up the master CD on Feb. 24. Despite Stanley saying he was no longer able to distinguish between a good song and a bad song, Szymczyk drove to Stanley’s home to play him the master CD.
Four songs in, Stanley asked for the album to be turned off.
“I’ve heard it all,” he said.
Even with the production of Tough Room coming in the last days of Stanley’s life, the liner notes he wrote make no mention of disease or death, instead it includes a dedication to his late manager, Mike Belkin Sr. The photo he chose for the cover was snapped by his wife Ilsa Glanzberg during a pre-pandemic visit to The Broad, a contemporary art museum in Los Angeles.
“He really felt strongly that he did not want to say any formal goodbyes to his loved ones,” Sary says. “I don’t think he wanted to say that in this album.”