“I’ve always thought that there’s just two kinds of music, good and bad,” Paul Stanley says about classifying music. “And I’ve always believed that if you listened to one kind of music exclusively, it’s like eating one kind of food, you’re malnourished.”
Stanley has earned his fame via a rock band, of course; Kiss is closing in on the 50-year anniversary of the onset of its Hall of Fame career. But he harbors great affection for the smooth soul and R&B records he grew up listening to as a kid. With his band Soul Station, he has toured the world performing some of the greatest hits of soul music’s ’60s and ’70s heyday. Now he and the band are releasing their first studio record. Titled Now And Then, it includes nine covers of classics of the genre. But it also contains five Stanley-penned tracks that feel very much a piece of all the evergreens surrounding them.
Stanley took the time to talk to American Songwriter about the new album, the pleasure he took in both writing new songs and singing the old ones, and his insistence on challenging himself with his artistic pursuits. Here are the highlights of that interview.
American Songwriter: Tell me a little about your affinity for R&B as you were growing up.
Paul Stanley: R&B is interesting, because it’s such a wide-reaching terminology for so many different types of music within that. I certainly listened to Lee Andrews and the Hearts and the Impalas and all of those. I do remember seeing Solomon Burke. I couldn’t have been much more than 10. A few years later, I remember walking with my AM transistor radio, which shows my age (laughs). I remember hearing Smokey and the Miracles doing ‘You Really Got A Hold On Me.’ And there was something so honest about it. It certainly wasn’t perfect, but that was part of what made it poignant. I liked with those original records from Smokey that I found him masculine without depending upon testosterone or flexing muscle. It was more strength in vulnerability. I loved it.
Then there was just a slew of these records coming out of Detroit from Motown. I just fell in love with it. I couldn’t get enough. It’s mind-boggling to think that Berry Gordy found all this talent in a single city and had this almost Hollywood-like finishing school and star system. But you can’t argue with the Temptations, Smokey, Martha & The Vandellas, Jimmy Ruffin, the list goes on and on. I was really enamored with that.
When I was 15, I saw Otis Redding. To realize that greatness doesn’t come in one size or color was eye-opening for me, and ear-opening. Very much in the same vein, Philly Soul, and Leon Gamble and Kenny Huff and Thom Bell and Linda Creed, they had their own take on that music and what it was rooted in. It was elegant and often symphonic. It was brilliant. Although I found my way back to rock and roll and certainly was deeply inspired by a lot of British bands, that doesn’t negate the others as part of my foundation.
A great recipe depends on all the ingredients. It’s just a matter of the proportions that you use. But I wanted to go back at this point and get to a music that I think has been relegated to samples in rap songs. And that’s all well and good, but we deserve to hear the O’Jays and the Stylistics and the Spinners. If I can open anybody’s ears to that music, I’ve done good. And I only started the whole band selfishly, because I wanted to hear this music.
AS: When I first heard this album, I was struck by how well the originals you wrote stood up to all those well-known songs. It was almost like they were lost hits being rediscovered. Was it challenging to write to those high standards?
PS: I don’t want to be cavalier and say I didn’t find it challenging. I was immersed in this music with the band and being in the studio and doing shows. And it wasn’t a matter of ‘Let me write in the style of….’ It was more ‘Let me continue what we’re doing. Let me bridge that gap between the past and the present.’ And it was very, very natural. It really started off as, well, let’s put one song on the album that’s a new tune. And when I wrote ‘Save Me (From You),’ it sounded really good. It came out really well. I did the horns and the strings. There are so many great songs and arrangements that can inspire you. That came out so great I thought well, maybe I can write another one. It just started like that. After five of them, I just said that’s it. We’ve got 14 songs for the album. And I love every one of ‘em.
The last one was ‘Lorelei.’ I wanted that drama that I actually heard in Little Anthony & The Imperials. I wanted some of that, but I also wanted some of Jimmy Ruffin’s ‘What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted,’ just a big dramatic tune. I think that any time we write we’re inspired, impacted, influenced, say what you will, by the music we love or the music that is our foundation. There’s a craft to it, and it certainly didn’t come overnight for me. But I have to say, there’s not a song on the album that I’m not very proud of.
AS: Listening to all those songs back to back on the album, I felt like a lot of them are love songs and love-gone wrong songs all in one. Did that strike you at all as you were writing and performing them?
PS: There certainly is a subject matter that seems to weave through a lot of the material. It’s either regret, or yearning for the past, or celebrating the present, or having faith in the future. Whether that’s ‘O-o-h Child’ or the duet I did with Crystal Starr, ‘Whenever You’re Ready.’ You know, things aren’t always the way you want them, but whenever you’re ready, I’m here. Certainly, you had that in ‘Someday We’ll Be Together’ with Diana [Ross] and the Supremes. I think what makes that music in general so engaging is that it’s an elegant way to put very common situations.
AS: Was the song selection simply based on the songs you loved the most?
PS: That’s really all it was. The album is a pretty good representation of some of the songs from the live setlist. I wanted to create live a sense of closeness, relationships. When you would hear a song, you would take somebody’s hand who was next to you. Or there are a lot of smiles or gasps of recognition when you hear certain songs, because you almost don’t remember them. But then when you do it brings back a memory. To hear ‘La-La Means I Love You,’ that’s a gem. There’s a simplicity to that whole idea of I don’t know how to say this, so this is how I’m saying it. It’s terrific. I wanted something intimate-sounding. And that’s what I went for. I wasn’t going for bust-a-gut singing.
AS: Speaking of singing, some of the greatest vocalists of all time, people like Levi Stubbs, Smokey Robinson, Al Green and on and on, performed the originals. When you sing these classics, can you afford to think about that, or do you just have to dig in and go for it?
PS: That’s a great question, because understandably those singers all cast a huge shadow. My hope was not to imitate them. It’s not Rich Little doing Motown (laughs). It wasn’t a matter of mimicking as much as understanding the intent and the spirit of it. Not straying from the performance but also not being chained to a note for note rendition.
I’m not Levi Stubbs, I don’t have to tell anybody that, God knows. I’m not Eddie Kendricks or any of them. But I think it’s one of those situations where I innately have an understanding of those songs and that’s why there’s a depth to them. Otis Williams (of the Temptations) said to me, ‘I listened to your version of ‘Just My Imagination’ over and over and it’s as good as the original.’ That didn’t make my day, it didn’t make my week. I’m still trying to figure out how long it’s gonna make my life (laughs.) Otis just said you got it, from the arrangement to the singing. Well, the defense rests.
AS: The other way to look at it is, as a singer, you want to sing great material. What is the feeling like when you get to sing one of these tracks with the amazing band all around you?
PS: It is glorious. That’s the only word I can use. I bask in it. It’s such a beautiful, deep experience to be in the midst of that. And the great thing is, if you listen to the album or watch the videos or see the band live, what’s unmistakable is the joy we’re having. We love what we’re doing, and we all love each other. We’re in constant touch with each other. There’s not a person in the band who doesn’t say, ‘I do other things, but this is what I want to do. This is all I want to do.’ That says a lot. But we’re all really focused and dedicated to this idea of championing this music and doing it with the respect it deserves. Because honestly, you hear some Vegas versions of these songs, and it’s just a token rendition. We want to do these songs in their glory.
AS: Can you put your finger on what it is about these songs that are so comforting to people in tough times?
PS: I can only speak for myself, and I believe the people who have roots in this music and experiences with this music, I guess it just takes you back to a different time. Maybe a simpler time, or so we imagine it to have been because our memories are failing (laughs). Music in its most powerful form just elicits an emotional response that you may not even understand the why of. And I think there’s some of that too. Whether you’re listening to ‘Nessun Dorma’ or you’re listening to ‘Sideshow’ by Blue Magic, it doesn’t matter the form that the music takes. It just matters where it hits.
AS: You’ve done so many amazing things in your career. Does this project have a special, personal place in your heart?
PS: I’m not one to be limited or bound by somebody else’s boundaries or preconceived ideas of who I am or who I should be. It’s just another way of defining who I am. I want to define myself by the challenges that I take on and how well I do with them. Every time I do something whether it’s Kiss, painting, Phantom Of The Opera, Soul Station, I get to know myself better. And I think that’s what art is all about. For me, it’s incredibly gratifying and, again, selfish, because I love this music. And to be able to sing it and be surrounded by a band with varied ethnicities and backgrounds, for us all to feel like a family doing this, it’s frigging awesome. In a word, it’s wonderful.
Main photo by Brian Lowe