CLEVELAND — If you grew up in Northeast Ohio in the 1970s and '80s, chances are, Michael Stanley and his band, the Michael Stanley Band, wrote the soundtrack to your formative years. For the last three decades, Clevelanders were also lucky enough to have had Michael take us through afternoon drive time, playing classic rock songs on 98.5 WNCX.
The beloved musician-turned-DJ had been battling a serious illness for some time, and his former manager and best friend David Spero confirms to 3News the local entertainment legend passed away in his sleep Friday night at the age of 72. WNCX later wrote that Stanley had been battling lung cancer for the past seven months "with the same strength and dignity he carried throughout his life."
Born Michael Stanley Gee, Stanley grew up in Northeast Ohio, graduating first from Rocky River High School and then Hiram College. Although he went to Hiram on a baseball scholarship, Stanley quickly found his calling in music. He played in a band that was first called The Tree Stumps, then Silk, and was able to secure his first record contract in 1969. Record executives soon changed his name from Michael Gee to Michael Stanley.
In 1974, Stanley put together the band that would take his name and catapult him to success. The Michael Stanley Band, or MSB for short, would record 11 studio albums and set concert attendance records at the Richfield Coliseum and Blossom Music Center.
"I didn’t get into this whole thing to be the front man of MSB or whatever," Stanley told 3News' Monica Robins in 2014. "I got in it to be a songwriter. That's what I wanted to do."
In 1981, MSB received national attention when the song "He Can't Love You" cracked the Billboard Top 40, getting as high as No. 33 on the chart. According to author Jacob Hoye in his book, "MTV Uncensored," "He Can’t Love You" was the 47th video ever played on MTV. Two years later, "My Town" became the band’s second Top 40 hit, peaking at No. 39.
Stanley was part of what would become known as the genre of "heartland rock," emphasizing the values of blue-collar middle America, along with such artists as Bob Seger and John Cougar Mellencamp. But as popular as MSB was locally, they just couldn’t quite ascend to national stardom.
"We couldn’t get arrested in Columbus," Stanley told Cleveland Magazine in a 2019 interview. "We were big in San Francisco, but we didn’t do much in LA. We were big in Denver, we were big in Texas and Florida, but we couldn’t get into Indianapolis."
The band would break up in 1987, playing a dozen farewell shows at the Front Row Theater.
"My biggest regret is that, for a lot of people, there was a feeling that it wasn’t a successful band or that we were only a Cleveland band." Stanley told Monica Robins. "We toured seven or eight months out of the year for 13 years. We had two top 40 hits. You don't do that if you're not successful. Did we reach the level that we wanted to, or that the fans wanted us to? No, we didn't."
Although he would continue to write, record, and perform his music for fans for decades to come, Michael Stanley became known to a whole new generation in Northeast Ohio on radio and television. He was the co-host of WJW Channel 8's PM Magazine and Cleveland Tonight from 1987-91. In 1990, he became the afternoon drive host at 98.5 WNCX, a position he would hold for the next 31 years.
Less than two hours after Stanley's death was announced, the radio station shared a letter he wrote to fans in his final days, beginning with him saying, "If you're reading this then I am off to catch up with that big club tour in the sky." He thanked his family, friends, co-workers, and supporters "for being a part of my musical journey" and ended with his famous catchphrase: "It's your world...pay attention!"
"Somebody once said that if you love your job then it's not really work," he said. "And if that's true (and I definitely think it is) then I have been happily out of work for over fifty years!"
3News spoke with David Spero about the life and career of Michael Stanley. You can watch in the player below:
Michael Stanley is survived by his wife Ilsa, his two daughters, and five grandchildren. WNCX says he will be laid to rest at Lake View Cemetery in a private ceremony, and the family asks that donations be made to the Greater Cleveland Food Bank and Cleveland Animal Protective League in his memory.