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Soul Star Man: Paul Stanley (The Interview)

Written by: Ken Sharp

Hard rock to country, pop to jazz, electronica to hip-hop, folk to blues, the real measure and value of music is whether it succeeds in connecting with the listener. 1In that way, all music that taps into that emotional vein is soul music.

In the past 40 + years, as lead singer/front man of KISS, Paul Stanley has delivered on that promise, infusing the group’s brand of anthemic, atomic powered hard rock with passion, swagger, and yes, soul.

Listen to the James Brown-inspired vocal grit that fuels Anything For My Baby from 1975’s Dressed to Kill album or Got To Choose, its riff inspired by Wilson Pickett‘s Ninety-Nine And A Half (Won’t Do) or the soul/pop flavor of Easy As It Seems from 1980’s Unmasked for examples of Stanley’s joyous immersion into the sonic signposts of classic soul/R&B.

Away from KISS, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee has introduced an exciting new musical project, Paul Stanley’s Soul Station, which launched with its premiere show at L.A.’s Roxy Theatre in September 2015.

Backed by  a commanding 10-piece ensemble–Rafael “Hoffa” Moreira (guitar & backing vocals), Sean Hurley (bass)Alex Alessandroni (keyboards), Ely Rise (keyboards), Eric Singer (drums & backing vocals), Ramon Yslas (percussion), Jon Papenbrook (horns), Nelson Beato (backing vocals), Crystal Starr (backing vocals) and Laurhan Beato (backing vocals)–Paul Stanley’s Soul Station offers a vibrant tribute to the most sublime R&B/soul music of the ’60s and ’70s with a rich repertoire culled from the likes of Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, The Temptations, Al Green, The Stylistics, The Spinners and Blue Magic among others.

This writer caught the Roxy debut of Paul Stanley’s Soul Station and witnessed both artist/band and audience equally engaged in the life-affirming, transcendent power of timeless soul/R&B music. We recently sat down with Paul for a candid conversation touching on all things soul.

When did the idea for the Soul Station project first come to mind?

Paul Stanley: Well, my roots are much more broad and varied than some people might realize. This is funny; I was having tea with Jimmy Page in London and we were talking about this. I said, “Before I ever saw Zeppelin or The Who or any of those bands I saw Otis Redding. I saw Solomon Burke. I saw the Temptations.”

So it’s very much a part of my DNA. Motown and Philly soul and Stax/Volt, all that music is really unfortunately too nostalgic at this point and used too often for loops and samples as opposed to hearing a great song.

What’s missing nowadays so much is great live performances of that material. What’s being passed off now as R&B is usually a computer and a drum machine.

For a while I thought about that and I had an opportunity a few years ago to put together something that was in essence Soul Station. We did a couple of private shows and we all looked at each other said, “Why aren’t we doing more of this?” It’s great to have that coming from people who are not only in demand but working all the time with Stevie Wonder or Smokey (Robinson) or Pink or John Mayer. These are real crème de la creme players but everybody has the same passion for this music.

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To be able to recreate it, not in a sterile way but with the same passion and intensity that it was made with is something that we all feel very close to.

There is a timeless appeal to much of this music, can you put your finger on why?

Paul Stanley: I think great music always touches a nerve. I think great music connects with you emotionally and perhaps you don’t always know why, a melody can do that, a lyric can do that. It’s amazing to think of the vitality and the passion of the people who were writing those songs.

It’s weird to think of a Smokey Robinson in the ghettos of Detroit being a kid and coming up with the lyric “just like Pagliacci did, I try to keep my sadness hid” which is from the song Tears Of A Clown. Pagliacci is a great Italian opera and that anybody would know that outside of opera buffs only shows how deeply these writers were.

So for me, I found that a lot of that music was the voice of young America and it was color blind. You had Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff in Philadelphia turning out the Stylistics, the O’Jays, the Spinners. They did an amazing album with Laura Nyro and Labelle of cover tunes. So this is the kind of material where an audience might hear the title of a song and go, “I’m not familiar with that one” but as soon as the song starts you’re singing along because you know those songs and they bring that out of you. I was blown away to have a packed house at The Roxy singing all those songs and not because I asked them to but because you want to.

I saw that show at the Roxy and you were beaming with happiness. This project is truly a labor of love, more emphasis on the love and passion than labor. Joyous seems the right word to describe your immersion into this music.

Paul Stanley: Yeah, that is the right word. (Laughing) Somebody said they haven’t seen me that happy…To be immersed in that music and to be part of making it and creating it is an incredible joy. I beam but so does everybody else on stage. We’re just having a ball. To hear this music played reverently and respectfully and accurately is great. These aren’t new interpretations; these aren’t new versions.

We’re playing those songs with the intensity and intent that they had. And in many cases the people that originally made them can’t do that anymore.

What are the greatest challenges you face in delivering this material in a live setting?

Paul Stanley: There’s a big weight on my shoulders because I’m singing songs by some legends and if I can’t deliver them I shouldn’t be doing them. So if I’m gonna sing Smokey or if I’m gonna sing Al Green or David Ruffin or Eddie Kendricks, you better be on-point or you shouldn’t be doing it plus the rest of the band is so damn good.

They have played with Smokey, they’ve played with Stevie Wonder, with Natalie Cole, they’ve played with Whitney Houston and John Mayer and with Carlos Santana; I mean, the list goes on and on. For us all to be together as peers and be creating something this exciting, everybody on stage is smiling. We’re all just caught up in the moment.

To hear Crystal (Starr) sing I Want You Back is just mind-boggling. Her dad was a backup singer for Jackie Wilson. Everybody’s got their roots. From the get go, anybody I ever called to be a part of this immediately said, “I’m in!” just to have the opportunity to recreate and revive these songs; you don’t get that chance.

You probably haven’t used your falsetto as much in a hundred KISS shows combined as you do in the Soul Station shows.

Paul Stanley: Yeah. It’s a change for me rather than singing songs by Edwin Starr or David Ruffin or Dennis Edwards. I’m kind of sticking more in the wheelhouse of doing the more falsetto soul/R&B stuff. It’s fun and first of all, it’s not easy because your singing can’t be mechanical. There is an intent and an emotion in those vocals that you don’t want to miss.

The idea isn’t to recreate something in a sterile way as much as to emotionally inhabit it.

Can you recall your first live exposure to R&B/soul music?

Paul Stanley: Boy, as a kid I saw Solomon Burke, which was really cool and as a young teenager I saw Otis Redding.

You were one of the fortunate ones to have seen the legendary Otis Redding live, what are your memories of that show?

Paul Stanley: He was amazing. I saw him perform in Central Park. It was the Schaefer Music Festival or the Rheingold Music Festival; it went through different names over the years. But Otis was phenomenal. There was a power and a dynamic element to what he was doing you see in all of the greats. I also saw the Temptations live in concert.

At the same show?

Paul Stanley: No, I saw the Temptations a little later. But it was a tour-de-force. It  was a bunch of guys totally in sync and I don’t mean that as a pun. (laughs) But totally in sync and choreographed to the beat and singing their asses off.

It always points to me back to when people nowadays say, “Yeah, well I’m singing along with a track or I’m singing along with a vocal because you can’t dance and sing.” Well, tell that to all those bands ‘cause the Four Tops could do it, the Tempts could do it, the Spinners could do it, and the O’Jays could do it. If you can’t sing and dance at the same time it’s probably because you can’t sing. (laughs)

What makes a great R&B/soul singer?

Paul Stanley: I guess communicating or telegraphing to people an honesty, whether it’s their voice or their phrasing. What comes across is either an honesty or a confessional, which is what makes it so intriguing.

Stanley with KISS fans on the KISS Kruise 2015.

Stanley with KISS fans on the KISS Kruise 2015.

Back then it seems the classic R&B /soul singers were less worried about showing off with vocal acrobatics like the singers of today and more intent on delivering emotion and connecting with an audience.

Paul Stanley: Well, firstly, I think that you have to respect the melody and if you become more about showing off what you can do at the expense of what you’re singing then you’ve lost the plot.  So I’m not a fan of that at all.

Certainly I can remember a time in my career with KISS when I was more enthralled with some of the notes I could hit rather than whether they actually belonged in a song. (laughs) So I think it’s far more important to understand what you’re doing and certainly when you’re singing somebody else’s material that is so great there’s an eloquence to it and you don’t mess with that. I think sometimes when people re-record songs, besides trying to reinterpret them, sometimes it just comes down to somebody trying to replace passion with perfection and some people don’t realize that’s what they’re doing.

That’s why some re-records and recreations fall so flat because the greatness of a lot of that music is that it wasn’t perfect.

It’s perfect in its imperfection.

Paul Stanley: Yeah, exactly. So you remove that and you remove everything.

You’ve described the songs you’re performing with Soul Station as “beautiful songs” and I agree. These are songs rich with melody, commanding singing and consummate production and instrumentation.

Paul Stanley: You could only write most of those songs I’m doing with Soul Station on a piano. They couldn’t be written on a guitar. They are naturally piano-based and there’s a brilliance to a lot of that writing and then on top of it to add these great arrangements and strings and horns. The embellishments on a lot of those songs made it so grand.

That’s what I love with Soul Station is that the music is grand; it’s lush and yet it’s got incredible power and passion. I didn’t want anybody to think that this was gonna be sappy or soft. Look, when you’ve got Sean Hurley and Eric (Singer) and Ramon (Yslas) playing percussion, you’ve got a foundation that kicks you in the stomach so this music encompasses everything. It’s got a great low end and kick to it and then you’ve got these amazing swirling strings and horns and vocals. It is beautiful music and the sentiments are beautiful and that doesn’t mean they’re sappy.

Many of these records are perfect soul/R&B miniatures where everything fits together so seamlessly and meticulously and if you took one musical puzzle piece out the whole thing would collapse.

Paul Stanley: Totally. It’s rock or pop music or R&B that’s based on a very solid foundation. These people clearly understood the rules to great arrangements and great orchestrations. La La Means I Love You by the Delfonics is an awesome elementary concept but it’s so cool.

The same goes for the simplicity behind Stylistics songs that par a part of your live set like You Are Everything and Betcha By Golly Wow. There’s a beauty in that simplicity.

Paul Stanley: Yeah, that’s right. There’s an eloquence to the simplicity. It’s one thing to be simple and it’s another thing to be eloquent.

Can you pick a few favorite deep soul/R&B cuts?

Paul Stanley: Good question… There’s loads of great Delfonics deep cuts. Blue Magic…

Speaking of Blue Magic, one of your many impeccable selections for your live set is their song Sideshow.

Paul Stanley: There’s a very simple and honest poignancy to Sideshow. To describe everything as part of a side show is really unique. It’s an interesting take on it.

Why do you think the late ’60s through mid ’70s were such a watershed for R&B/soul music?

Paul Stanley: I’m not sure. I guess it’s a matter of enough creative forces in different parts of the country understanding and grasping the same thing, whether it was a Holland-Dozier-Holland song or a song by Gamble and Huff or a song by Thom Bell. It’s almost like an art movement where you have various artists who are part of the same movement that are kind of spurring each other on.

While it might surprise some, your love of soul/R&B music resonates in KISS with self-penned songs like Got To Choose, Easy As It Seems, What Makes the World Go Round and Shout It Out Loud.

Paul Stanley: Yeah. As for Easy As It Seems, what it comes out sounding like as opposed to what it was as it was originally written as are two different things. The roots of that song and the others you mentioned were certainly in R&B. Certainly Shout It Out Loud, the answer vocal and backgrounds was inspired by the Four Tops. That’s exactly what it is, it was taken from the Four Tops with the lead vocal and then the backgrounds answering it.

I found it interesting that you copped Stevie Wonder’s rap from Fingertips Part II for the live version of 100,000 Years. It’s funny but the majority of the KISS fans would not know you were tipping the hat to him.

Paul Stanley: When I first heard Fingertips it was so unlike anything on the radio because first of all, it was live and it was improvised. The song pretty much ends and falls apart and then one of the background musicians asks “What key?” and they start up again and then you hear the announcer announcing Little Stevie Wonder. That was exciting and painted a picture that I wanted to certainly be a part of.

Will the Soul Station set list be fluid? Are there any plans to add additional songs? I can hear you nailing songs like The Stylistics’ You Make Feel Brand New and Rubberband Man.

Paul Stanley: The only reason we don’t do You Make Me Feel Brand New is we’re doing You Are Everything by the Stylistics. We were toying with maybe doing You Make Me Feel Brand New. I wasn’t as much a fan of Rubberband Man as I was of a song like I’ll Be Around. We’re adding a few songs to our set because I actually want Nelson (Beato) to sing and I want Laurhan (Beato) to sing ‘cause Crystal was singing so great. So we’re adding two more killer songs to the set list.

Would you have any interest in writing new music that taps into this essence for a Soul Station studio album?

Paul Stanley: Yeah. We recorded the Roxy show on multi-track and it’s really pretty amazing how great it is. It sounds like studio recordings. I’ve talked with some of my friends about the possibility of writing some Soul Station songs and just picking up not only that vibe but the style as well.  So all of that could happen in the future.

Finally, tragically, we lost David Bowie earlier this year. What’s your take on his artistic legacy?

Paul Stanley: The thing that I loved about Bowie after his Hunky Dory phase and when he got into the Ziggy stage was that it kind of reinforced the idea that we were all kind of exploring something new and that that was okay.  As different as we were from each other there was a common exploration and abandonment of the norm, perhaps for very different reasons, I can’t say.

Interestingly enough, more than some of what he did as an artist, his contribution to Mott the Hoople was stellar and also had some impact on me, whether it was All The Young Dudes or seeing Ian Hunter change quite a bit after All The Young Dudes and seeing his eyes opened up to the possibilities and doing All The Way To Memphis and Honaloochie Boogie. So Bowie’s impact was there for me with the Mott the Hopple stuff perhaps sometimes more than what he did an artist.

I respected him enormously as an artist and for his artistry but it didn’t necessarily mean I was a fan of everything he did.

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