Celebrating MSB’s Classic STAGE PASS
Words: TK Smith
Underneath the skies of Northeast Ohio, no band beamed brighter in the spotlight during the ’70 and ‘80s than the Michael Stanly Band. Revered by Ohio natives, the Cleveland-based group produced eleven landmark albums including four charting in Billboard’s Top 100. During the summer of 1983, at the height of their success, MSB broke regional attendance records including four sold-out shows at the 18,000-seat Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls, OH. Formed in 1974 by singer-songwriter Michael Stanley with guitarist Jonah Koslen, bassist Daniel Pecchio and drummer Tommy Dobeck the group epitomized heartland rock - which swept over the American Midwest. While on Epic records, MSB released three fundamental albums including You Break It…You Bought It! (1975), Ladies’ Choice (1976), and the live opus Stage Pass (1977). Each disc built on the growing success of its predecessor and, with relentless touring, the group established a fiercely loyal fan base that would remain to this day.
In 1976 Epic wanted to capitalize on the band’s grassroots appeal and sent producer Bill Szymczyk and his core or engineers to record the band at the famed Cleveland Agora Ballroom. The taping was done over three consecutive nights in late October. Earlier the same year, the band had added keyboard wizard Bob Pelander extending the groups range and adding dynamic texture to their sound. With Pelander on board, MSB had been working up several new songs that they added to the recorded 13-song live set including opening track “Midwest Midnight,” a smoldering rock anthem. Others also made their debut; “Real Good Time” written and sung by bassist Daniel Pecchio, the offbeat rocker “Wild Sanctuary” and the poppy “Nothings Gonna Change My Mind” penned and sung by lead guitarist Jonah Koslen. The group was touring behind Ladies’ Choice so the hook-filled “One Good Reason,” the balls-out “Calcutta Auction” and epic “Strike Up The Band” met with enormous applause. “Movin’ Right Along” from Stanley’s self-titled 1972 solo record cut the set in half with a 9-minute jam showcasing Pelander’s stunning jazz piano chops.
An odd fit was the over-the-top cover of Carol King/Shirelles “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” followed by Koslen’s “Waste a Little Time On Me” from 1975’s You Break It…You Bought It. Daniel Pecchio delivered the emotional ballad “Pierette” while the set favorite “Rosewood Bitters,” (again off Stanley’s first solo record) met with overwhelming response. The crescendo of the night was the now legendary “Let’s Get The Show On The Road” from Stanley’s second solo album “Friends and Legends.” The recording captured the band at their apex, full of energy and thriving as songwriters. It was dubbed Stage Pass and followed the double LP (gatefold) format of Peter Frampton’s breakthrough best-seller Frampton Comes Alive then riding high on the charts. It was packaged with a photo of a busty gal stuffing a stage pass between her well-endowed cleavage. Though the record failed to ignite national fire, it did extremely well regionally and is now considered a classic along the northcoast capturing the best of Koslen-era MSB.
In 2007 Stage Pass turned 30 years old. To celebrate it’s anniversary Jonah Koslen put together a group of seasoned musicians to pay tribute to the spirit of the record. “We’ve been taking this show on the road for the past few years,” says the guitarist when we spoke at a local Starbucks. “The mood between me and Michael has always been good. For years fans have asked me to do songs from those early MSB records so when the anniversary of Stage Pass came around, I thought I’d bring it out and play it from beginning to end. I thought it would be fun. I wanted to get the original cast together but knew Michael wouldn’t be interested because he has his own solo records to promote. So I ran it by a couple friends to see if they were interested. I did, eventually, talk to Michael about it and he was like, ‘Great, do it”. We’d done a bunch of the songs before, when we toured as ‘Michael Stanley and Friends’ but we’d never done Stage Pass all the way through.”
To understand the impact of Stage Pass, to its fans and Koslen himself, it’s important to appreciate how Jonah came to his decision. After leaving MSB in 1977, Koslen recorded his first solo disc Back Tracks (1978) then formed Breathless and signed to EMI who had also acquired the Michael Stanley Band. Breathless released two albums, the self-titled (1978) with some chart success in the single “Takin’ It Back” and Nobody Leaves This Song Alive (1980). Shortly thereafter Koslen disbanded Breathless and formed new outfit Jonah Koslen and the Heroes again recording two independent albums Aces (1983) and Orange (released in late 1990s). Determined to find greener pastures, Koslen moved to LA at the height of ‘big hair’ bands and put together one of Sunset Strip’s hottest bands, the Bandaloo Doctors with Jimmy Crespo (Aerosmith), Dan Sheridan, Kevin Valentine (Shadow King, Kiss, Donnie Iris) and Bonnie Bramlett (Delaney & Bonnie & friends). The band gained rave reviews even attracting the attention of fellow Clevelander Gilby Clark, later to join Guns and Roses. Sadly, the record industry never paid much attention and after a few years, the group disbanded with Jonah heading back to Ohio to reconnect with his old bandmate Michael Stanley.
“At the time, Michael had dissolved MSB and was working in local TV and later at a local radio station as a DJ,” says Koslen. “Around ’93 the MSB records were getting reissued on CD which sparked interest back in the band. Wanting to work together again, Michael and I formed the Ghost Poets, bringing on Bob Pelander on keyboards and Jennifer Lee on vocals. We later added Rodney Psyka on percussion, Erock on bass and Tommy Dobeck on drums. It was a great band with a great record behind it but the music business had changed so much. Even with our old fans it was tough.” Stanley and Koslen went back to working solo but over the years Stanley would assemble an all-star cast and bring back the hits on the occasional hot Ohio night. Says Koslen, “since then I’ve gone on to finish writing a rock opera I had begun in the 70’s (The Terminal Tower), an album of island music (Telling On Myself) and a few other projects. But people are always asking about Stage Pass so it only made sense to put together a nice show and take it out on the road a few time a year. The crowd still goes crazy when we play those songs. We’ve added a few more numbers to the middle of the set like “Blue Jean Boy” “Among My Friends Again,” and “Ladies Choice” otherwise the concert would be just over in 35-minutes (the length of the original album). Everyone seems to love it.”
Michael Stanley supports the project, “I’m as excited as everyone else is to hear Jonah and his band perform the Stage Pass album live and in concert,” says Stanley. “I can't wait to sit in the audience and have the experience of hearing our classic MSB album in all its rocking glory, this time as his friend and a fan.” Returning the favor, Stanley includes Jonah’s “Nothings Gonna Change My Mind” in his live show as a dedication to Koslen and Stage Pass. Says Koslen, “I grew up listening to Bobby Vee, and Chubby Checker then later got into the Byrds, Bob Marley, and Jimi Hendrix. Coincidently, right before I joined the Michael Stanley Band, I bought Michael’s first solo record (the blue one). So, when I joined MSB, I got to combine all those elements of music I was influenced by including his. Though we wrote separately, we’d work out arrangements together. I really enjoyed that using lots of harmonies, big choruses with an emphasis on melodies and parts. Stage Pass captured that and is a great snapshot of us at our peak. I’m proud of each musical era of my life and appreciate the opportunity to share this era with our fans.”
Jonah Koslen is also currently co-managing a stellar Fleetwood Mac tribute project that is receiving rave reviews. “I’d like this band to be so spot on, so perfectly Mac that the original band would respect us,” Koslen says with a smile. All Jonah’s ‘musical eras’ can be accessed from his website here, including many of his harder to find cherished gems. Our recommendation is Strike Up The Band Live, the Best of Breathless 1978-81 and his solo disc Telling on Myself.
*A special thanks to Jonah for his time in speaking with us about the phenomenon that is STAGE PASS.
Website: Jonah Koslen