Rocker Michael Stanley Recorded a Final Album: The Inside Story

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Michael Stanley

The sudden passing of Cleveland rock legend Michael Stanley in early March came as a huge shock to his fans. If there was a silver lining, however, it was the outpouring of wishes from those same fans—not just in Cleveland, where the 72-year-old Stanley had long been rock royalty, but everywhere.

“It’s amazing how much it was recognized nationally. I didn’t realize how far his reach was,” said Anna Sary, Stanley’s daughter.

Cleveland declared March 25, 2021, “Michael Stanley Day,” where his long career was celebrated with not just a remembrance of his eclectic life, but new music. Before he died, a la David Bowie or Warren Zevon, Stanley made one last album, Tough Room, with his band and longtime pal and producer Bill Szymczyk. Listen to one of the tracks, “Hold On,” below.

Listen to the Michael Stanley Band hit “In the Heartland”

Tough Room features 14 new tracks that Stanley recorded in the months before his death. The album was produced by Michael Stanley featuring members of The Resonators and mixed by longtime friend and executive producer Bill Szymczyk.

“The day after my dad passed, my niece Mallory started a petition to make it Michael Stanley Day,” said Sary. Seven-thousand signatures on a petition later, the Cleveland city council made it happen.

Related: Our obituary of Michael Stanley

“Needless to say, we were thrilled. His upcoming birthday was going to be bittersweet for the family. We were really hoping to get him to 73. That was the goal,” she said. “But the fact that the city is honoring him in this way on this big day…Cleveland is truly his city. He had the opportunities both professionally and personally to relocate. He chose to stay here.”

The cover of the Michael Stanley Band’s 1981 album

Michael Stanley Day included a ceremony with Stanley’s family and friends outside the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. His music was played throughout, with a display set up inside the Rock Hall, with artifacts from his career.

After bursting out of Cleveland with hits like “He Can’t Love You” and “My Town” with the Michael Stanley Band, he had a career as a WNCX-FM Cleveland DJ and TV personality, set local records for concert attendance and so much more.

“By nature, he’s just a true poet. He always was a poet at heart. He always said, ‘I didn’t have plans to be a frontman.’ He just wanted to write great songs,” Sary said. “We were pretty young at the height of his fame. As an adult, I wish I’d been older and appreciated it more…our nights at Blossom [Music Center] were just some of the best memories when it came to his career—running around the pavilion during soundcheck, falling asleep backstage after the show.

“I’m sure he and my mom had to explain it when the girls would want kisses from the crowd,” his daughter said with a laugh. “There were a lot of roses and stuffed animals and bras thrown up on the stage. That was probably very confusing for us. It was so important to him to get this last album done. It has become a passion project for Bill and my sister and me,” she said. “Now that he’s no longer here, the fans want it even more. I hope it’s a way to process their grief.”

Michael Stanley, Joe Walsh & Bill Szymczyk (Photo: Lisi Szymczyk; used with permission)

“There was an urgency. It was, ‘I gotta get this done.’ That was early on,” Szymczyk said. “We just jumped right in and did it.”

Szymczyk and Stanley got together every year or so since 1992 to record a new album; this time was no different, pandemic be damned.

“It was the annual hang, and the hang was more important than making music, to be honest,” Szymczyk said. A flooded studio at Stanley’s house made the gap a little longer this time, and the pandemic forced it online.

Related: Bill Szymczyk on the making of Joe Walsh’s But Seriously, Folks album

Stanley’s drummer, Tommy Dobeck, singer Jennifer Lee and guitarist Danny Powers were in Cleveland, with Bob Pelander’s keyboards recorded in Las Vegas.

“He was very up throughout the whole mix,” Szymczyk said. “Up, positive, he went through chemo, then stopped that…it wasn’t until the very end that he went downhill quickly.”

Szymczyk started mixing in December, after Stanley got his lung cancer diagnosis in November. “We literally finished three or four weeks ago,” Szymczyk said. He then made the trip from his North Carolina studio to play the finished tracks for Stanley one last time.

Stanley urged him not to come. “I’ve already heard everything,” he told Szymczyk.

Bill Szymczyk and Michael Stanley (Photo: Lisi Szymczyk; used with permission)

“I said, ‘You haven’t heard it mastered. And I gotta see you.’ He fought me on that. He said, ‘I don’t want to see anybody.’ I said, ‘I’m not anybody, I’m me.’” They hung out for three hours and listened to what they had done. They exchanged a final hug, and Szymczyk headed home. Walking out that door “was the worst. It was the fucking worst.”

The resulting tracks for Tough Room have a timeless feel – well-written, smart lyrics, strong melodies. “He’s a good writer,” Szymczyk said, simply. “I’m in fucking classic rock heaven.”

Hidden tracks are a Szymczyk trademark, and the one here is “BOTHT,” which stands for “best of the hidden tracks.” It spans everything from a childhood interview and snippets of albums dating back to 1969. It ends with a short, emotional sentence from Szymczyk.

His daughters have not listened to Tough Room yet; they plan to take it in at the same time the public does. “I want to hear it along with them,” Sary said.

Listen to “Hold On” from Michael Stanley’s final sessions, produced by Bill Szymczyk

Mark Brown

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