Michael Stanley Michael Stanley
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Michael Stanley doesn’t tell this story to many people. 

As he leans back in a chair inside WNCX’s conference room, wearing a distressed black leather jacket over a gray waffle-knit henley and jeans, the beloved 71-year-old musician and disc jockey looks every bit the classic rocker part as he launches into a tale about the start of his music career. 

During his sophomore year at Hiram College, Stanley had recently joined the Tree Stumps. Despite the incredibly uncool name, the rock quartet was one of the most popular Cleveland cover bands during 1967, complete with sparkly matching tunic-like dashikis worn for country club outings and other society dates. 

But group members were frustrated with their original material’s lack of success. Faced with the financial realities of young adulthood, they decided to break up. 

As they were playing their final gig at Otto’s Grotto, a hot spot in the basement of the Statler Hotel building on Euclid Avenue, a producer for ABC Records approached them during a break. After complimenting the band on its sound, he handed them a business card, suggesting they talk.

“People do this all the time, especially back then: ‘Hey, I’m a record guy,’ ” Stanley explains, comically mimicking a slick, suave tone of self-importance in his deep, smoky voice. “Nothing ever came of it for 99.9 percent of the people. I think half the guys in our band ripped the card up immediately. But, like, a week later, he got in touch with the leader of our band and offered us a deal.”

That moment kicked off a 50-year career for the Northeast Ohio native that’s stood the test of time. His success — in the Michael Stanley Band and as a solo artist — has stemmed from his Midwestern charm. A combination of songwriting talent, rock star stage presence and Everyman appeal has gained him a solid fan base. His songs reflect his life — love, loss and uncertainty — and resonate with many. It’s even earning the musician recognition. On May 4, he will receive  the Cleveland Arts Prize’s Lifetime Achievement Award before performing at the Beachland Ballroom.

“It’s quite an honor to receive something like this,” he says. “But it’s also an indication that I’ve been doing this for a very long time. No one sets out for awards like this, but to be honored in this way is just very humbling.”

Michael Stanley was a loner as a child — the last kid anyone expected to become an entertainer. He remembers amusing himself for hours at a time, often by playing the eclectic mix of records his disc jockey father Stan Gee brought home from then easy-listening station WGAR. The station had no need for promotional copies of anything that didn’t fit its format.

“My dad would throw on my bed, like, 10 45s and three albums, just everything from Louis Jordan to Hank Williams to Miles Davis to Buddy Holly,” he says. 

Elvis Presley was a rock ’n’ roll favorite — someone who seemed bigger than life to Stanley. 

“No one had seen somebody that looked like that or moved like that, not in staid, suburban, white society,” he says.

But it was early ’60s folk songs by Peter, Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio and the Brothers Four that inspired Stanley to ask his parents for a guitar and lessons. He wrote songs and played dances with a band during his days at Rocky River High School. 

Once he landed a record deal with the Tree Stumps, who changed their name to Silk and released a 1969 album, Stanley branched out on his own, influenced by Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. 

During that time, executives changed Stanley’s last name from “Gee” to his middle name, “Stanley,” to avoid confusion with another label artist, Arthur Gee.

“It was much easier for me — at that point, anyway — to write songs for me to do as opposed to a band to do,” Stanley says. “I hadn’t realized that a song is a song, and anybody can do it.”

He produced two solo albums, 1972’s Michael Stanley, featuring a country-flavored cocktail of feel-good music and drown-my-sorrows track “Rosewood Bitters,” and 1973’s Friends & Legends, which yielded the music-biz lament “Let’s Get the Show on the Road.”

Despite the early studio successes, Stanley still considered pursuing a musical career “the equivalent of, ‘I’m going to work at the carny for a couple of years.’ “

While working on those albums, he married his  girlfriend, a teacher named Libby, graduated from Hiram and landed a position as a regional manager for the now-defunct Disc Records retail chain.

“We came up in pretty straight-ahead suburban households with that kind of expectation: You grow up, you go to college, you’re able to get a job, you get married, you have kids,” he explains.

That life of anonymous domesticity might have continued if Stanley hadn’t fought with his boss and lost his job in 1974, four months after his twin daughters Anna and Sarah were born. To pay the bills while he considered his next career move, he turned to the only other thing he knew how to do: play music.

He talked to David Spero, a disc jockey friend at rock station WMMS, about being his manager. The two in turn recruited three other musicians. The quartet, billed as the Michael Stanley Band, because they simply couldn’t agree on a more original name, performed for the first time at the Agora Theatre on Sept. 2, 1974. They then headed to Miami at the end of the year to record You Break It … You Bought It!, a mix of rockers and ballads.

By the late 1970s, MSB had evolved into a six-piece outfit. In 1980, they released Heartland, which yielded the sunnily upbeat Top 40 hit, “He Can’t Love You.” 

In 1982, the band set an attendance record at Blossom Music Center that still stands, drawing 74,000-plus over four late-August nights.

“There was a tremendous sense of community — that was what was so cool about it,” he says.

True national success, however, remained elusive, even after nine albums on major labels.

“We couldn’t get arrested in Columbus,” Stanley says. “We were big in San Francisco, but we didn’t do much in LA. We were big in Denver, we were big in Texas and Florida, but we couldn’t get into Indianapolis.”

Stanley believes that the band’s image as a collection of nice average Joes — guys so harmless, parents have told him, that they didn’t worry about their teenage daughters attending shows — was hard to market in a world where a sex-and-drugs lifestyle was de rigueur for rock stars.

“I don’t think we were threatening,” he says. “It wasn’t [the] Wayne’s World ‘We are not worthy, we are not worthy’ type of thing. And that was cool. But I also think that worked against us because it was not a good bargaining chip: ‘Here’s five faceless guys!’ ”

Another Top 40 hit came in 1983 thanks to “My Town,” off the album You Can’t Fight Fashion.

“For the first time ever, I felt we were in a position of having a little bit more power than we had before, where maybe we could call a couple shots,” he says. 

But the band’s record label only offered a six-month extension on their expiring record contract instead of another long-term deal.

Stanley turned it down, hoping for a better offer. The label responded by promptly dropping the group.

“I was definitely shocked,” he says. “Not only was it not a counteroffer. It was, ‘Well, OK then!’ They pulled all support from the single and the album.”

Although MSB managed to release two more albums regionally, continuing to record and tour without label support was financially impossible. The band had operated like a company, providing a measure of security for its now-seven members and four roadies by distributing earnings in weekly paychecks.

“I could have just paid everybody when we played some nominal amount and kept all the rest,” Stanley says. “And I probably could have retired years ago. But that wasn’t what I wanted, and that wasn’t what was called for. I mean, it was a band. Everybody from me on down to the last guy on the road crew was invested in the thing. We were going to sink or swim together.”

Simply getting paid if and when they worked, he adds, wasn’t an option for family men with mortgages.

MSB decided to disband on their own terms with a 12-night stand at the now-defunct Front Row Theater in Highland Heights during the 1986-1987 holiday season. Stanley describes the experience of playing the last show as downright horrible.

“As each song went by the wayside that night, you [thought], Oh, my God. There’s only, like, five songs left, and then I’m done. I’m not doing this anymore,” he recalls. “I had no idea whatsoever what was going to happen after that.”

Once again, Stanley parlayed a sideline gig into steady employment. During his last year with MSB, local television station WJW had hired him to do a series of music specials. After the band broke up, WJW offered him a position as a feature reporter on its locally produced edition of the syndicated PM Magazine.

Stanley was elevated to co-host in November 1987, after his predecessor quit the evening before the station’s annual Thanksgiving Day parade telecast. He received a call late that same night ordering him into the co-host seat to help provide live coverage of the event.

Stanley had no interest in parades, let alone rising early on a holiday morning to cover one in freezing temperatures. But the promotion turned out to be a choice job that took him around the world, one for which he won a couple Emmys.

“The very first trip I went on, we went to St. Martin in the Caribbean and stayed at a clothing-optional resort,” he says. “I thought, This is just a great gig! They’re paying me to do this!

By the time the short-lived follow-up to PM Magazine, Cleveland Tonight, ended in 1991, Stanley had begun his foray into radio with a weekly new-music show and series of commentaries on WMMS. Then-program director and afternoon drive-time disc jockey “Kid Leo” Travagliante subsequently hired him to take over the midday shift. But a physical altercation with the program director who replaced Travagliante after his sudden departure for Columbia Records ended Stanley’s tenure before it really began.

“He ended up coming over the desk at me,” Stanley recalls. “We just kind of rolled around until somebody broke it up.”

In 1990 he received a call from WNCX’s program director. He asked if Stanley had ever thought about going on the air again.

“I thought it was something I’d do for a couple of years, until I got my sails straight and saw which way I wanted to go,” Stanley says.

The job, however, retained its appeal. The 3-to-7 p.m. hours gave Stanley ample time to record and perform. Six months after MSB broke up, he had begun playing live with a group of musicians billed as Michael Stanley and Friends.

Even when he wasn’t performing regularly, he continued writing songs. In 1993, he released his first post-MSB effort with the group the Ghost Poets. Three years later he released his first solo album in over two decades, Coming Up for Air.

“Once you get a bunch of songs together, it’s like, Well, that’s all well and good. Now what are you going to do with them?” he explains. “You can just put them in a drawer or on a cassette. Lots of people do. But it was like, Well, I’ve got a certain history here and a certain possibly viable audience. Let’s see.

As Stanley was rebuilding his professional life, his personal one was falling apart. In 1990, he and Libby divorced.

“There were those that would say my original marriage lasted as long as it did because I was on the road for half of it,” he half-jokes. 

But then his voice takes on a somber tone. “That period of time was probably my midlife crisis period on a number of fronts,” he says. “I suppose, in retrospect, it’s easy to say that I didn’t handle it all that well.”

In 1991 he suffered a major heart attack that damaged a third of his heart muscle while he and fiancee Mary McCrone, then a WJW producer, were visiting her sister and brother-in-law, singer Wayne Newton, in Las Vegas. The cardiac event inspired the chillingly haunting title track on Coming Up for Air.

Stanley has injected humor into past recountings of the health crisis, pointing out that as he was naked in the Las Vegas Hilton’s Elvis suite when it occurred, his first thought was to put on a robe. But he gets serious when he talks about dealing with the psychological challenge of living in fear of another attack.

“I can’t get up every day and have that fear hanging over my head,” he says. “If today’s the day, today’s the day.”

Stanley and McCrone divorced after eight years of marriage. Shortly thereafter, in 2000, he began seeing Denise Skinner, a former marketing staffer living in LA whom he got to know while MSB was signed to the label EMI. They reconnected after he happened to see her on To Tell the Truth, a resurrected TV game show on which she was a contestant, during an evening of channel-surfing.

“It [was] so out of context,” he remembers. “I’m going, ‘That’s Skinner! What the hell is she doing on To Tell the Truth?’ ”

Stanley found the last phone number he had for her, called it and left a voicemail message. Skinner returned the call, flew in for a visit, and a long-distance romance eventually began. They married during a 2002 trip to Las Vegas in an impromptu ceremony at the Graceland Wedding Chapel.

Stanley credits Skinner with introducing him to a more healthful lifestyle and helping him start Line Level Music, the company that retains ownership of his work and sells Stanley’s albums directly to fans on his website. 

Stanley and Skinner remained together until 2011, when she died after a six-month battle with lung cancer.

“[Denise and I] had 10 wonderful years,” he says. “A lot of people don’t get 10 wonderful minutes. I came to terms with that.”

It was the latest in a string of major losses. In the preceding 15 to 16 months, Stanley’s mother, father, stepfather and two close friends had died. Through it all, he managed to continue working and maintain a positive attitude.

“It wouldn’t have been hard at all to become a hermit,” he says. “That brings a certain safety, a certain comfort. But at the same time, what are you losing by doing that?” 

Stanley never expected to marry again. 

“I wasn’t looking for another ride on the love-mobile,” he says.

He would prove himself wrong.

In June 2017 Stanley married Denise Skinner’s best friend, Ilsa Glanzberg, an instructional aide at a Venice, California, elementary school, before approximately 75 guests in a sunset ceremony on the roof of a friend’s house on Venice Beach. The two had gotten to know each other during Stanley and Skinner’s courtship and marriage.

“Denise would not agree to start dating him unless I approved,” Glanzberg, now 61, says. The Indiana native had served as the couple’s de facto wedding coordinator for their Las Vegas ceremony. And after Skinner was diagnosed with cancer, she was among the West Coast friends and relatives who came to Cleveland to help care for her.

“At least once or twice a month [after her death], we would talk,” Glanzberg adds.

Two years after Skinner died, Glanzberg asked Stanley if she could spend a long weekend at his far-East Side home. She felt she could get some much-needed closure to Skinner’s death by seeing the house, her garden and friends again.

“The place felt like a home again for a few days as opposed to just a house,” Stanley recalls of the visit.

After Glanzberg returned to California, she asked him to mail a sweater she’d left at his house. It arrived with a note.

“It was a beautifully written letter about how our connection was strong and maybe we should think about the possibility of making it stronger,” she says.

Glanzberg was stunned. As a happily single woman who had raised a son alone, she wasn’t looking for a man or a commitment. But Stanley had long ago confirmed her first impression of him as “charming and wonderful and smart, funny.”

The two continued their friendship, exchanging paper-and-pen letters and visiting one another. By early to mid-2014, she felt the same way about him. Although she was too surprised by his April 2015 marriage proposal to accept it, she began to rethink her answer after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer the next year. She asked for a do-over while preparing a Sunday breakfast in his kitchen.

“If there is a God, He was awake and paying attention,” Glanzberg says. “He just gave me a gift that I never expected.”

Stanley shares the sentiment. “To end up with Ilsa was just a miracle,” Stanley says. “It was a blessing.”

The couple still maintains a long-distance relationship. “We talk three times a day, we text each other goodnight every night, and we try to see each other every six to eight weeks,” Glanzberg reports. 

Retirement will provide Stanley with more time to spend with his wife as well as his two adult daughters and five grandchildren. However, he isn’t ready to roll the credits on his career just yet. He does concede that, after writing some 400 songs, crafting a lyric has become more challenging.

“It’s hard to come up with something to write about that you haven’t written about already,” he says.

But he was back to work at WNCX less than two months after a second heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery in late 2017. Three months after that, he was on the Hard Rock Rocksino stage with his nine-piece band the Resonators. He estimates they do about 25 shows a year from the East Coast to Atlanta to St. Louis, traveling as far as a weekend and profit margins allow.

“The audience is much smaller, obviously, than it used to be in the heyday,” he says. “But they’ve given me a lot of freedom to continue to do this.”

This month’s Cleveland Arts Prize’s Lifetime Achievement Award is fitting for a man who mirrors Cleveland’s spirit — hardworking, humble and determined. Those characteristics appeal to an audience who grew up listening to his songs not only here in the Rust Belt, but beyond the heartland.

“Michael Stanley represents a connection to a broader audience that is well beyond our fine-arts community,” says Alenka Banco, Cleveland Arts Prize executive director. “We felt that that was a really important message.”

Fans can expect his show after the awards ceremony to be full of hits — the 1980 ballad “Lover,” the 1983 anthemic “My Town” and the 2008 rocker “Just Another Night in America,” to name a few. 

It’s a performance that’s sure to showcase why Barry Gabel, Live Nation’s senior vice president of marketing and sponsorship sales, calls Stanley “Northeast Ohio’s poet laureate.”

“Indiana might have a [John] Mellencamp, Detroit might have a Bob Seger,” he says. “We have a Michael Stanley.”

At 71-years-old, Stanley doesn’t know how much longer he can keep being the Michael Stanley we’ve known onstage for the last 50 years. He doesn’t want to be one of those musicians who embarrass themselves by continuing to perform long past their prime.

“I have a guy, a friend of mine, whose job is to tell me when it’s time to hang it up,” he says. “So far, he hasn’t done that.”

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