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Michael Stanley, Cleveland’s Hometown Rock Hero, Dies at 72

Chris Willman
·7-min read

Michael Stanley, who became known nationally for a radio hit in 1981 but was the very symbol of rock ‘n roll for decades in the city of Cleveland, died Friday at age 72. The cause of death was lung cancer that had been diagnosed seven months earlier.

Stanley’s illness became known when he took leave of his usual afternoon radio shift at Cleveland’s 98.5 WNCX in late February and the station released a statement requesting prayers for his family.

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In a letter posted Saturday on the radio station’s website, Stanley wrote a farewell to fans: “Hey gang… Well, if you’re reading this then I am off to catch up with that big club tour in the sky. But before the bus pulls out I wanted to thank all of you for being a part of my musical journey…. Somebody once said that if you love your job then it’s not really work. And if that’s true (and I definitely think it is) then I have been happily out of work for over 50 years! Sure it would have been nice if this had all lasted a bit longer but my time on this mortal coil has been blessed with great family, friends and coworkers and you can’t ask for much more than that!… Take care of yourself and each other and remember, now more than ever: It’s your world… pay attention! Peace.”

Joe Walsh, another Cleveland rock hero — and a player on Stanley’s second album in the 1970s — paid homage. “Michael was the king of Cleveland, and of course the Michael Stanley Band became a Midwest powerhouse,” Walsh said in a statement published at Cleveland.com. “Michael has always been a master at the craft of songwriting. His songs have a way of getting in your head and became songs you end up singing to yourself over and over from then on… His music will always be part of me.”

Tweeted KISS’ Paul Stanley: “RIP MICHAEL STANLEY… No relation to me, was a Cleveland legend. A musician & songwriter who could pack arenas. He then transitioned into a radio personality. A bright light & warm soul. His letter to his fans before his death says it all. Such grace.”

Stanley started out as a solo artist in 1973 with two albums in a more contemplative singer/songwriter vein before forming the Michael Stanley Band, whose 1975 debut on Epic Records, “You Break It… You Bought It,” introduced the more robust, arena-friendly anthems that the group came to be known for. The MSB had its biggest national profile in 1980 when the single “He Can’t Love You” reached No. 33 on the Billboard 100. That song and a 1983 follow-up, the Cleveland-inspired “My Town,” which also cracked the top 40, were early staples of a nascent MTV.

But before and after that, the band was disproportionately huge in Ohio and surrounding states, which took their song “Midwest Midnight” (introduced on the live album “Stage Pass,” with its famous cleavage-baring cover) to heart as a statement of regional pride. In its late ’70s/early ’80s heyday, the Michael Stanley Band would sell out multiple nights at the Richfield Coliseum and Blossom Music Center.

Most of the early records by Stanley and his group were produced by Bill Szymczyk, best known as the Eagles’ producer. “All the way through the entire career, I could never get him a monster hit record — that always pissed me off,” Szymczyk told the Plain Dealer. “I was like, ‘Damn, Bob (Seger) sure busted out. How come we can’t get Michael, too.’ He was huge in the Midwest — Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh. We just couldn’t bust him out of there.”

The Michael Stanley Band broke up in 1986, after having gone through a succession of major labels that included Epic, Arista and EMI America. (As a solo artist, Stanley recorded for MCA and Tumbleweed, and his first band, Silk, released an album for ABC in 1969, also produced by Szymczyk.) After the breakup, Stanley returned to solo albums and also hooked up with the bands the Resonators and the Ghost Poets, releasing work on Razor & Tie or his own labels.

Stanley was enough a part of Cleveland iconography that he appeared as himself on “The Drew Carey Show,” set in that city. But that was hardly the extent of his TV credits. The rocker was most recognized in the post-Michael Stanley Band years as a local TV and radio broadcaster. He co-hosted “PM Magazine” on Cleveland’s Channel 8 from 1987-90. He also spent a year on the same station’s “Cleveland Tonight,” with his television years garnering him 11 local Emmys. Following his stint on TV, he became an afternoon radio DJ from 1990 through February 2021, alongside occasional albums and local shows.

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Greg Harris, president/CEO of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, released a statement saying: “It is with a heavy heart that we share that Cleveland’s native son and local treasure Michael Stanley has passed away. Michael was our city’s most beloved musician, songwriter and rocker. His heartland music resonated with legions of listeners, and his concerts set attendance records and took on mythic proportions. Even more importantly, Michael’s songs spoke to our hearts.”

“As fans we adored and revered him, and in return he loved us right back,” Harris continued. “The energy of his music and its ability to bring people together helped to make Cleveland the Rock and Roll Capitol of the World, and it galvanized the community to rally together and make our city the home of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. We will miss Michael dearly. My sincere condolences go out to the Stanley family on the passing of Michael. His contributions to rock and roll and our region will not be forgotten, and we are honored to preserve his legacy and tell his story forever at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.”

A statement from his family said that the singer/songwriter (and, in his final act, DJ) — full name Michael Stanley Gee — had “passed away peacefully at home on March 5th with his family by his side… Michael battled lung cancer for seven months with the same strength and dignity he carried throughout his life. He will always be remembered as a loving father, brother, husband, a loyal friend, and the leader of one of Cleveland’s most successful rock bands.”

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The funeral service will be private, and Stanley will be buried at Lake View Cemetery, the family said.

Stanley did his final afternoon drive shift on WNCX on Feb. 19. On March 3, the classic rock station finally acknowledged his absence, saying, “Michael Stanley is dealing with serious health issues that prevent him from joining you in his 3-7pm time slot. It has been important to him to be on air up until recently, because you, his fans, mean that much to him.”

Stanley left an unreleased album in the can — which brought producer Szymczyk back into the fold, more than 50 years after he produced the 1969 album by Silk, followed by a healthy run of records for Stanley and the MSB in the ’70s. Szymczyk told Cleveland.com that although Stanley was in declining health as they cut the “Tough Room” album last year, “It’s pretty rocked out. He always has… rousers and weepies. I was always drawn to the rousers… and this one has more rousers than weepies.”

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Stanley is survived by two daughters, Anna Sary (Christian) and Sarah Sharp (Aaron); his wife, Ilsa Glanzberg and stepson Cole Sweeney; his sister, Nancy Oosterhoudt, and niece, Claire Kloss; and five grandchildren: Mallory Sidoti (Mike), Aidan Kraus, Brody Kraus, Wren Sary and Phoebe Sary.

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