I’ve had very few of what one might call “brushes with greatness.” I taught a few guys who went on to make a name for themselves – guys like Olympic Gold Medalist Tim Mack ’90 or Broadway star Rory O’Malley ’99, but I knew them before they made their mark in the world. I’ve met a few famous athletes over the years, but my favorite chance meeting with someone famous happened in a Mr. Hero on Mayfield Road in Lyndhurst.
Ahead of me in line was a dad with two daughters in tow. It was one of those moments where I wasn’t sure if it was just another guy with a beard getting food for himself and his kids or if it was Cleveland legend Michael Stanley. As he passed me on his way out I smiled and gave “the nod.” He reciprocated, and walked out with his Roman Burgers.
Back in the car I said to my wife Ann, “I think I just saw Michael Stanley.” She responded, “Did he have twin daughters with him?” “Could be.” “Well, he lives around here so it was probably him.”
My heart sank – I blew my chance to thank him for the part that he played in making my teen years so memorable. This weekend when Ann told me that she saw on social media that Michael Stanley had passed away my heart sank again.
For anyone who grew up in Cleveland when it was the Mistake on the Lake, when both the river and the mayor’s hair caught on fire, when the city went into default, and when every sports team was a joke – Johnny Carson once said, “Well, today is opening day for baseball and you know what that means: the Cleveland Indians have been mathematically eliminated,” we had very, very little to be proud of. The late 1960s through the 1980s were tough times for our city and so often we tried way too hard to be cool: Many will recall the ad campaign for the city, “New York may be the Big Apple, but Cleveland’s a Plum.” Ouch.
Yet we had one thing that made us proud to be from Cleveland: our music culture. We had it all – from great radio stations like WMMS, to great concert venues like The Agora, to great events like the World Series of Rock, to great personalities like Kid Leo. But above and beyond all of that, we had Michael Stanley.
During my sophomore year I first heard of Michael Stanley through his song “Among My Friends Again.” It was often playing on the radio as we drove to school, mostly because of the opening lyrics: “On a cold Ohio morning, everything is grey…” This song led me to buy the album Friends and Legends
, and I was immediately impressed by the friends and legends who helped to make the album: Joe Walsh, David Sanborn, Richie Furay, and Dan Fogelberg, among others. But more importantly, I grew to love the songs, most especially “Let’s Get the Show on the Road.” With lines like, “the Lord uses the good ones and the bad ones use the Lord,” it hit me right where I was. It was a feeling that his lyrics would reproduce over and over again.
I went on to buy his eponymous first album as well as the first four Michael Stanley Band (MSB) albums. But by then I was going to school in Indiana and I wasn’t as “Cleveland” as I had been when I was at Saint Ignatius and was no longer immersed in the local music scene and so – other than knowing hits like “My Town” – I never really kept up with Stanley’s later recordings.
Through it all, his career included more than 30 albums along with uncountable tours and local shows. One of the first performances by the Michael Stanley Band was in our very own Student Center in February of 1975, and he went on from there to be a New Year’s Eve tradition at the 20,000 seat Richfield Coliseum. From a personal standpoint, my favorite show was at The Agora in October of 1976. Not only was it being recorded for the live album Stagepass
, but I was there with my future wife, who happened to be my Homecoming date the night before.
All Clevelanders “of a certain age” have similar Michael Stanley memories, and over the next days they will reminisce about the songs and the shows that shaped their youth. He was our storyteller, our poet, and our voice – he was Cleveland incarnate and he sang our songs – songs of love, and longing, and pain, and joy. And through it all, he stayed true to his roots, created careers for himself on local television and radio, and always made his hometown proud. He was and will remain forever one of us: a hard working dad from Cleveland who never lost sight of what life is all about – loving your children and stopping at Mr. Hero to get them dinner.