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Michael Stanley Gets His Heart Back Into Music to Continue 50-Year Legacy

Michael Stanley is back to performing after undergoing open heart surgery in December, 2017 [Joe Kleon / joekleon.com]
Michael Stanley is back to performing after undergoing open heart surgery in December, 2017

This weekend, Michael Stanley receives the Cleveland Arts Prize Lifetime Achievement award for his 50-year music career. But he says it doesn’t signal his retirement.

The Cleveland icon whose brand of heartland rock drew four sold out crowds to Blossom Music Center in 1982 is back on stage after undergoing quadruple bypass heart surgery a year and a half ago. But he admits it’s been a long road back.

Shuffle: Michael Stanley

Finding his way back

Stanely has never slowed down in his decades-long career. He's released nearly two dozen albums and has continued to perform throughout Northeast Ohio, even when the big crowds from the 70s and 80s dwindled.

But in December 2017, Stanley was forced to take a long break when he underwent heart surgery. And he said something changed afterwards.

"I really didn’t feel like me," he said. "I felt like somebody else. I didn’t try to write any songs. I didn’t try to finish any songs I had been writing. And I thought maybe whatever has happened here has taken away that part of me that was all about this. Maybe what I am now, physically and emotionally, has no interest in this.”

Stanley says he always has about three guitars in his living room at all times, as well as a home recording studio. He didn't want to go near any of them. 

"I don’t know if it’s a thing of once they open your chest to the world and something weird happens where you’re just really coming into touch with your own mortality."

It wasn't the first time Stanley has had health problems. He suffered a heart attack in 1991 and two years ago he overcame prostate cancer.

Getting back on stage

Luckily, Stanley said about six months after the heart surgery, he started feeling like himself again. And he jokes when he explains why he decided to get back on stage. 

"It was more like, we already cashed the checks so we better go do it."

"It was the first [show] that was the tough one. And it was like, ‘Okay, we lived through that one, and we didn’t embarrass ourselves so we can try the next one.'”

But, Stanley says he has set some limits now. He told the band he no longer wants to play back-to-back nights. They still put on a nearly three-hour performance, however.

Feeling blessed 

At 71, Stanley said performing is still something that feels more natural to him than anything.

“I’m really kind of blessed that people still want to hear any of this and still come out, and still pay to come out. It’s obviously not the numbers of Blossom, 1982, but it’s an amazing thing. 

"I don’t know if it’s people think, 'I’m going to be there at the last one; he’s going to fall over sooner or later, so I want to make sure I’m at that.' But we’ve been selling out shows when we do them now really quickly and it really amazes me."

Stanley said he looks back fondly at the big moments in his career and remains thankful for his hometown fans. 

"I’ve always said, we didn’t do a lot of the things we set out to do. We didn’t become household names. We didn’t become international superstars. But we also did a lot of things that who would have even thought of? We didn’t set out to hold all of the attendance records in Northeast Ohio, that's ridiculous. But that’s what it ended up."

"We were a working, on-the-road, recording rock ‘n’ roll band for 14 years when the expected life span of a rock band is two or three years. And we’re all still friends and some of us still play together 45 years later."

Stanley's last album, "Stolen Time", came out in 2017, just before his heart surgery. He said new music is coming, but he's not putting any pressure on himself. 

“There was one in the works when all this went down, and it’s still in the works. It will be done whenever it’s done.”

Calling it quits?

As for when he plans to call it quits, Stanley said he looks to his bandmates and friends to help him figure that out when the time comes. 

"People ask me, 'When are you going to stop?' My honest answer is, when our drummer, Tommy Dobeck, wants to stop, that’s when we’ll stop. I haven’t done a show without Tommy in close to 50 years."

"I have a very dear friend, who part of his job in our friendship is to tell me if I’ve stayed too late at the dance. I may think it’s still going fine and it may not be." 

So far, Stanley said his friend hasn't told him it's time to stop. And his bandmates don't think so, either. 

"We sat down before one of the shows a couple months ago, and we talked about it. Should we set an end date or should we just keep going and see what happens? And everyone’s theory was, we’re having fun, people are coming out. We can still do it. So I don’t think there will ever be a, 'This is the end.'"

Stanley receives the Cleveland Arts Prize Lifetime Achievement Award Saturday, May 4, at the Beachland Ballroom, with a benefit concert featuring An Acoustic Evening with Michael Stanley & Friends. 

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