The rock band Kiss couldn’t have predicted that their decision to travel to the Northern Michigan town of Cadillac in support of the local high school football team would garner them press and fans around the world. But as Cadillac prepares for the 40th anniversary of that weekend with Northern Michigan music events and more, Kiss front man Paul Stanley took some time to remember why the band came and what they left with.
Paul Stanley isn’t a man given to hyperbole. Well, actually, as the front man for the legendary Kiss, that’s exactly his day job. Yet in a recent phone interview, the singer and songwriter came across as thoughtful and down-to-earth, whether discussing his band’s longtime underdog status, paying homage to the progenitors of soul and r&b with his band Soul Station, or – and most importantly in this area – the band’s connection to the town of Cadillac.
No one could have predicted that Kiss’s visit to the Northern Michigan city in 1975 would become a hallmark of its commitment to its fans throughout the world. Stanley and the rest of the organization remember well how their decision to show up to support a high school football team resonated with the media and fans everywhere.
“This was another example of the incredible community we have,” he said. “It was reflected in a high school football team that turned itself around.”
Ah yes, the football team. The whole thing started with assistant football coach Jim Neff. The longtime rock and roll fan suggested to head coach Dave Brines that the 1974 Vikings football team was wound too tight. His solution was to charge the players up with the records of Kiss, then a relatively unknown hard rock band that was best known for its outrageous makeup and stage show.
Brines went along with it, and the team didn’t lose another game that year. The next year the music was back. Then Neff upped the ante by inviting the band to town. Next thing you know, there’s Gene Simmons, Peter Criss, Ace Frehley and Paul Stanley in the homecoming parade, at the elementary school, meeting the football team and putting on a show at the high school. They showed up at a city council meeting before taking off in a helicopter and dropped off leaflets signed by the band that said, “Cadillac High – Kiss loves you!”
The many photos tell the story. There’s Gene Simmons with a cheerleader. The band on a fire truck with firefighters below. Stanley catching a football. The group with instruments in the marching band. Atop the cars in the homecoming parade. And all around them, everyone of every age had their faces painted in Kiss makeup.
Stanley said the welcome confirmed the group had something special.
“Children were always important to the Kiss Army,” he said. “Not the music, they were more taken with the look of the band. To see it could get to different walks of life was validating.
“In the beginning, the band was defined by fun. We wrote our own rules, decided to do things our way. We thrived in spite of people who didn’t embrace us. Critics who want to dismiss us have no impact. In our case, here we are 45 years later.”
Jim Neff, the man behind the original idea and this year’s anniversary celebration, said the pictures tell the story. “All the old photos show you having fun,” he said to Stanley.
“This has got to be about fun,” Stanley responded. “Look in our audience – it’s not about raising a fist and grimacing. It’s smiles and enjoyment.”
The story isn’t over. At the 40th anniversary celebration this year, an eight-foot tall monument to the event will be unveiled on the southeast corner of the Veterans Memorial Stadium grounds on Chestnut Street. Though Stanley, Simmons and the band won’t be in attendance (they’re touring Australia) Kiss tribute band Mr. Speed will perform a concert. Plans for a movie about the day Kiss came to town continue to move forward. Simmons and Stanley still recall the event with humor and something approaching awe.
Could it happen again? “It’s not as likely,” said Stanley, noting that the prevalence of social media means it would be nearly impossible for the band to return incognito. “The only reason we felt compelled to do it was because it was so crazy. It was too interesting to not do it.”
But that doesn’t mean the band won’t be returning to Cadillac at some point in time, if not as performers, then to take it all in.
“How could we not come back?” asked Stanley. “I have to see the monument.”
Stanley also took the time in the interview to discuss his newest musical endeavor, fronting a 13-person soul band. He said before he ever saw the Who or Led Zeppelin, he saw Solomon Burke and Otis Redding. He contrasts that with today’s pre-packaged bands where the music is canned and the vocals are auto-tuned.
“We’re living in a time where people have forgotten what great live music sounds like,” he said. “What made Motown and Philly soul so great was passion and great songs.”
His solution was to put together a top-flight band, including veterans of Christina Aguilera, Pink, Smokey Robinson and Whitney Houston’s bands, who have the chops and energy to convincingly perform those tunes. And what tunes they are: “Betcha By Golly Wow,” “Ooh Ooh Baby,” “The Tracks of My Tears,” “Get Ready” and others by the likes of the Temptations, Smoky Robinson and the Isley Brothers.
“This is great music and a crackerjack band,” Stanley said. “You’ve gotta love the way it’s played. I love this stuff so much.”
His passion and professionalism show, as both Rolling Stone and Yahoo offered praise for his performance last month at the Roxy in Los Angeles.
Both Stanley and Simmons look fondly at the event as emblematic of the way in which the group can touch people from all walks of life and all ages. Kiss as philosophers, lifting up the human spirit? Well, yes.
“Believe in yourself,” Stanley said. “I find in my life the time you give to others comes back to you.”
Tickets are still available for the October 10 concert by Mr. Speed, named the best Kiss tribute band in a contest sponsored by Kiss and judged by lead guitarist Tommy Thayer. Its full blast tribute will feature a 32-foot wide stage, a giant lighted KISS sign, big sound, a wall of amps, lights, special effects, colored fog, lighted staircases, a confetti snow storm and Kiss hits galore.
The family-friendly event at the Cadillac High School gym takes place from 2 to 4 pm. General admission tickets are $10. Ticket-holders will have the opportunity to buy one of the Kiss Cadillac T-shirts, with a limited run of 2,000. Click here to buy tickets or for more information about this Northern Michigan music event.