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Cleveland Music Icon And Radio Personality Michael Stanley Dead At 72

Michael Stanley at the 98.5 WNCX studios in 2018. [Mary Fecteau / ideastream]
Michael Stanley at the 98.5 WNCX studios in 2018.

Updated: 6:07 p.m., Saturday, March 6, 2020

This town is gonna be here long after he’s gone, but it will always be Michael Stanley’s town. Cleveland icon, beloved rocker and radio personality Michael Stanley Gee passed away this weekend at the age of 72, after a seven-month battle with lung cancer.

According to a statement from Belkin/Live Nation and 98.5 WNCX, where Stanley was the afternoon drive-time DJ for more than 30 years, he died peacefully at home with his family March 5.

“Michael battled lung cancer for seven months with the same strength and dignity he carried throughout his life,” the statement said. “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.”

That successful career stretched over 40 years, starting with the band Silk in 1969 and through an outfit called the Resonators in more recent years. But he’s probably most fondly remembered for his leadership of the Michael Stanley Band, from 1974 to 1987, known affectionately by fans as MSB.

To this day, the band holds the consecutive night attendance record at Blossom Music Center.  MSB sold-out four nights in a row in August 1982.  In a 2018 ideastream interview, Stanley was still shaking his head about it.

“People always say, ‘I can’t believe you guys sold-out so many concerts,’” Stanley said.  “We were just amazed as anybody else.”

Northeast Ohio music critics and fans alike were hit hard by the loss.

John Soeder, pop music critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer from 1998 to 2012, called it “just a really sad day for all of us here in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio.”

“I mean, I'm struggling to wrap my head around the idea of a world without Michael Stanley in it. It just seems so permanent,” Soeder said. “You know, it's like someone put out a memo today saying oxygen has been canceled.”

The Northeast Ohio native and graduate of Rocky River High School and Hiram College would have gone down in local lore based on his music alone, particularly for hits like “He Can’t Love You” and “My Town,” with its MTV video love-letter to Cleveland in the 1980s. But he also had parallel careers as the television co-host of “PM Magazine” from 1987 to 1990, as well as afternoon drive-time host on WNCX from 1990 until just a few weeks ago.

In May 2019, he was awarded the Cleveland Arts Prize Lifetime Achievement award for his 50-year music career. A few months later, part of Huron Avenue in Downtown Cleveland was renamed Michael Stanley Way, the sign a stone’s throw from WNCX’s front door.

Stanley was a “serious artist, and a really serious songwriter,” said Michael Heaton, former music and movie critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who penned the “Minister of Culture” column. 

“He was really a student of the craft and it meant everything to him to, you know, to write a good song,” Heaton said. “You know, 18 albums. That's a lot of music.”

For Soeder, Stanley’s “heartland rock” was the soundtrack of an era in Northeast Ohio.

“If you grew up in Cleveland like I did, you heard Michael Stanley's music on the radio, perhaps before you were even old enough to actually go to concerts,” Soeder said. “His music was played right alongside all the big artists of the day in the 1970s and the 1980s. And here in Northeast Ohio, we didn't really differentiate. We thought of Michael Stanley and the Michael Stanley Band kind of in the same breath as any of the superstars of that era, because here in Cleveland, they were superstars.”

Asked by ideastream to pick a favorite song, Soeder struggled to name just one, adding that so many songs are “part and parcel of kind of the Northeast Ohio experience.”

“I do think one of his very best is ‘Rosewood Bitters’, which was really one of the first songs that brought him any attention. And he [Stanley] was in his 20s when he wrote and recorded that,” Soeder said. “But that song, it’s internal and it has kind of a wisdom that is way beyond the years of a 20-year-old who wrote it.”

Despite being a hero in Cleveland, there was a humility and a lightheartedness about Stanley, said Heaton, who remembered the musician as somewhat “amused by his fame.”

“We were at some show, at the Odeon or something, and with some obscure artist [performing], that you would normally be a real music nut to know about,” said Heaton, recalling a moment with Stanley. “He and I were there standing in the back and a woman came up to him. She said, ‘Oh, my God, I can't believe I'm meeting Michael Stanley!” And Michael said ‘Yes, and your life will remain exactly the same from now on.’”

WNCX on Friday also posted a message from Stanley to his fans on Facebook that read in part: “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 part of my musical journey, both on the stage, on record, and behind the microphone here at WNCX…. 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 fifty years!”

Stanley will be laid to rest at Lake View Cemetery in a private service, the Belkin/Live Nation statement. In lieu of flowers, contributions in his memory can be made to the Cleveland Food Bank and/or the Cleveland Animal Protective League.

“Michael’s family would like to thank Hospice of the Western Reserve for their dedicated care, his friends and extended family for being there, and his fans for their love and support during the past forty years,” the statement said.

Jenny Hamel is the host of the “Sound of Ideas.”