Drummer recalls the comfortable creative environment during the sessions for "Paul Stanley," and provides insight on the tracks he played on, memories of Sean Delaney and more.
Interview by Tim McPhate
KissFAQ: Richie, KISS fans will know you from Piper, a band that was also managed by Bill Aucoin. By the time KISS were working on their solo albums in 1978, had Piper disbanded?
Richie Fontana: Yeah, Piper had disbanded earlier that year. And right after that, after Piper broke up, I continued working for Billy Squier for the whole year that followed. Billy was working on his new material and so he kept me onboard with him. It was Billy and I and a couple of other guys. And we were recording demos of Billy's new material during that time. And right in the middle of all that, I got a call from the Aucoin office that Paul requested me to come down to Electric Lady to play.
Courtesy of Richie Fontana
KF: Did Paul play you any of the material? How did you first hear the songs?
RF: Actually, I first heard the songs -- I think the other guys too, Bob Kulick and Steve Buslowe, probably also -- when I walked into the studio to record them. I walked in, Paul was there [with] Bob Kulick [and] Steve Buslowe. We just sat around and Paul played the songs solo on guitar, just so we could hear them from top to bottom. And then we all plugged in, got on our instruments and we started to create the parts. And we just started running through some ideas of what to play where and all that. Everything was pretty much done on the spot. Once we had it together, we had a structure and an arrangement going for the basic track, they started rolling tape and we just started doing takes. And it was like bang! Just like that.
KF: About how many takes do you think you did for each song?
RF: Some more than others. Oh boy, that's a hard one to remember. I was there two or three days. The only song I remember doing the most takes of was "Wouldn't You Like To Know Me?" which was the most energetic song for me. And who knows, the best rhythm track for that song might have been left on the cutting-room floor (laughs). We did so many takes, I was drumming my brains out on each take. So who knows how the other ones came out. But this was the one Paul chose.
KF: Did you play to a click track, Richie?
RF: No click track. I was the metronome (laughs).
KF: What kit did you play on these tunes? Was it your kit?
RF: No, it wasn't. It was the Electric Lady house drums. I don't even remember what they were, they were probably Ludwigs.
Courtesy of Richie Fontana
KF: As a drummer, did you find not playing on your own kit difficult?
RF: I'll tell you, at the time it really didn't make a difference. Because they entire atmosphere was a whole new thing, just walking in and working with Paul, learning new songs. I said, "Yeah, OK, give me any drum kit." No, it really didn't matter.
KF: It seems this quartet had a camaraderie from the get-go and that you all gelled together nicely. Is that what you remember?
RF: Absolutely. Absolutely. It was really, really comfortable. I mean, the fact that Paul had each of us there, we knew we were all quite adequate to do the job, so that was understood from the beginning. The personalities -- it was interesting because we had never met before. So here we are all never not previously knowing each other, walking into a room and learning new material from Paul Stanley and doing this. So our antennas were at a peak level. The work environment was really sharp and was really great. It was a nice vibe between us all.
KF: And you didn't make it out to L.A., correct?
RF: Correct, I'm not on the L.A. tracks. That's Craig Krampf, a friend of mine.
KF: And I understand that the chemistry wasn't like it was in New York. Since you were the missing link, maybe we can attribute the issue to you not being there?
RF: Maybe. New York is just a different environment, a different atmosphere. I know Bob already knew Paul. I don't know if Steve had already known Paul. But I was like from in-house family with Aucoin and Piper and Sean Delaney and all this stuff. And plus Piper had opened for KISS in about eight cities, just before we disbanded. So that connection was there. New York is just different than L.A. That's all.
KF: Is there a specific reason why you didn't come out to L.A.? Was it another commitment?
RF: No, no. I don't remember anything, one way or another really. I was working with Billy Squier and I was getting calls from Sean Delaney -- I was waiting on him to see what was going to happen with the project [the Skatt Brothers] with him. I think Bob made it out there [and Steve] -- I don't even remember who played on the L.A. tracks.
KF: Yes, it was Bob, Steve and, as you mentioned, Craig. There was also another bassist, Eric Nelson. Carmine Appice also played on a track.
RF: Yeah, I think Steve played on one more track than I did. I don't know, it didn't make a difference either way.
KF: Richie, you play on the album's first four tracks. I was hoping we could go track by track and you could provide some commentary. "Tonight You Belong To Me" is the lead track on the album.
RF: That's one of my favorite songs. I thought Paul [made] a wise decision to have that as the opening track to the album because it has, what he even said, that epic feeling to it. It was ear-candy when I first heard that song because it was really melodic but at the same time it was really powerful.
KF: It's very dynamic. There's the quiet acoustic intro and that electric guitar comes in and just punches you in the gut.
RF: Right, it was really great. We did some cool stuff; we turned one of my cymbals into a gong. I did some overdubs where we didn't have a gong there so what we did was, I just took a crash cymbal and we sped up the tape really fast and I hit the crash and than we slowed the tape back down and it sounds just like a gong.
KF: That's neat.
RF: So I did some overdubs afterward, after we cut the basic track. But that one song, yeah [it's] one of my faves. Fantastic.
KF: The second tune is "Move On."
RF: "Move On," that's just good old rock and roll. You know, that was fun. It was pretty straight-ahead. There was not a lot of fancy drumming or anything.
KF: Paul has described it as having a bit of a Bad Company feel.
RF: Yeah, I'd agree.
KF: A couple of the elements that really make the tune work are the dynamic swing with the piano during the bridge section and the background singers, the gals from Desmond Child & Rouge.
RF: Oh yeah, that really made the song much wider. "Ain't Quite Right" is one of my favorites, because that's such a classy, great song.
The Beatles, "Yes It Is"
KF: That's one I feel gets overlooked on the album. It's a quiet tune and Paul's vocal is right on the money. And I think Bob adds some nice guitar work.
RF: Oh yeah. That song has little Beatle elements in it that I love. It was my natural instinct to come up with the parts I came up with for that song. But thinking back, I'm really doing the Beatles' "In My Life" from "Rubber Soul." There's other things in there like some of the harmonies and things; there's an old Beatles B-side called "Yes It Is," and it was the B-side to "Ticket To Ride" way back in the day. I mean, little elements like that -- it was so melodic and so classy [and] Paul's vocals were fantastic. That's one of my really favorite tracks even though I don't know if it's one of the more popular ones with the fans, because it is a quieter song. Very classy.
KF: And "Wouldn't You Like To Know Me?" is one of the four on the floor, straight-ahead rockers on the album.
RF: Yeah, "Wouldn't You Like To Know Me," I love that one too. It's like power pop, which is right up my alley. I mean the music I write is that way. It's just real melodic rock and roll -- melodic, pop melodies with balls. Yeah, that was like a la Raspberries (laughs). It's a great track.
KF: Yes, Paul has specifically referenced the Raspberries with that track.
RF: Yeah, that influence is definitely there.
KF: Though you didn't play on them, have you given a listen to the other tracks on the album?
RF: Oh yeah. The production is fantastic. Some of the tracks on the other side -- the B-side of the album. Yeah, it was really beautifully done. A lot of those tunes sound pretty sophisticated. "Hold Me, Touch Me," I mean I can see why they picked that as the single.
KF: True confession time. I like that song because I enjoy ballads. But some KISS fans aren't particularly fond of that track and maybe would have preferred something else as the lead single.
RF: Well, it's a very lush production. KISS fans, they don't go for those. Like they didn't like "Shandi."
KF: There's something to be said for that sentiment. Personally, I like the diversity that adds up over the entire KISS catalog, including songs like "Shandi."
RF: Yeah. With me, I have no problem with that. It's what we all come from. Paul and Gene and all the guys in KISS we were all influenced by the same things with the Beatles and things like that. That's in there. Paul's a great songwriter and that kind of stuff is gonna come out.
KF: Richie, would you say that Paul had a "mission statement" going into the recording of this album?
RF: Yeah, definitely. He wanted our input but he had the basic structure and everything together. He knew what he wanted to do. He had all his arrangements set in his head. I sat there with him when he was doing some of his overdubs, with the EBow guitars and things. So he had it mapped it out pretty good. He had a definite direction.
KF: Paul's album is very strong throughout and it has been described by some as being the most KISS-like of the four albums. Do you think this album went a long way to prove that Paul really is the heart and soul of KISS?
RF: Well, as far as the writing goes, he's one of the focal points. I think that's why, because first of all, the voice -- it starts there. But he stretched a little. He did things that were unlike KISS in a way.
KF: That's true. Paul has said the album broadened his scope as an artist. We were just talking about it, but take "Hold Me, Touch Me" -- Paul hadn't recorded a ballad like that at that point.
RF: Right. I've seen it written where if they say Paul's album was the most-KISS like, it was always mentioned as a compliment. I mean, he'll take it.
KF: Are you familiar with some of the songs on the other KISS solo albums?
RF: Oh yeah, definitely. Well, [I haven't listened] in a long time. Some of the things I remember. There's some really good stuff on Ace's album. Peter's got some good old rock and roll and R&B on his. There's a couple on Gene's that I really like, "Man Of 1,000 Faces," and the first track, "Radioactive." The opening to the album I think is fantastic how they did that.
KF: I love that intro too. As a kid, one of my brother's friends was into KISS and one time when he was over he played that and it scared the living daylights out of me.
RF: I'll bet it did.
KF: And in living with it for all these years, I just think it was such a great way to start a Gene Simmons solo album.
RF: Yeah, what I thought was great about it, is his character in KISS [is] the Demon, and he's up there singing rock and roll and all this stuff. And when he finally got a chance to do something solo for the first time, there was that thing, that sound. It was like, "Wow." It was really fantastic. I don't know who did the strings on that, it might have been Ron Frangipane?
KF: That's exactly who it was.
RF: Well, he scored an orchestra for one of the songs on the second Piper album. We had one song with strings. So he was like doing a lot the things for Aucoin's acts.
KF: Obviously, there was a great deal of publicity surrounding the KISS solo albums when they were released in September 1978. Do you recall just how omnipresent KISS was during this period?
RF: Yeah, it was very exciting, especially for the people in-house, at Aucoin. It was a little scary at first, I think for them, business-wise, because there was a lot for the public to swallow. I mean if you were a fan, you had to go out and buy four albums. So they didn't sell as fast as they thought they would, but eventually they did. It was like KISS times four, so it was asking a lot. But eventually they got it. They were criticized for that. It was like, "Ah, they didn't sell as well." But everybody had [the albums].
KF: Following the KISS solo albums, the band reconvened for a new studio album, 1979's "Dynasty," which Peter Criss did not play on. After your successful stint on Paul's album, did you record any demos with Paul? Also, Richie, there is a rumor that you may have worked on some recordings that may have materialized on "Dynasty." Can you shed some light?
RF: There's some truth to that and some not. That rumor, I don't know how that rumor ever got started that I played on "Dynasty" because I did not. It was Anton. As a matter of fact, some years ago I was at a party with Anton and I drove him home. And I said, "Anton, whenever I can, I try to correct that." (laughs)
RF: He was in the back seat of my car, and I said, "I know you know that's going around." But yeah, I don't know how it got started but people thought that. I started demos with Paul. That did happen. After I worked with Paul on his solo album, he called me again because he was producing some demos not for himself, but for the Alessi Brothers, Billy and Bobby Alessi. And he got the same crew that he liked working with in New York. It was Bob Kulick, Steve Buslowe and myself. And I've said this before, I'm not 100 percent sure, but Bruce [Kulick] might have been in on one of those sessions. I'm not sure. So you know, Paul called me back again. We did some more stuff, it was all at Electric Lady. And we had a chemistry going. We just did his album and he was stretching a little bit, producing demos for somebody else. He said, "Let me get my guys." So we had a little studio clique going there for a little while. But as far as "Dynasty" goes, I did not play on that album.
KF: Well, I'm glad we can put that to rest.
RF: But the crazy thing that could be related to this, and it might be one of your questions, they may have considered me to replace Peter Criss at the time.
KF: Yes, I was going to ask about that.
RF: Well, I was in a band also handled by Aucoin, signed to Casablanca with Sean Delaney. It was this dance, power rock group called Skatt Brothers. I was living in L.A. and I got a call one day at the house from Bill Aucoin's West Coast secretary. She said, "Why don't you come down to the office. I want to talk to you." She goes, "Come down here alone." I went down there and she said, "Listen, I just want you to know that Bill called. He's with Gene and Paul and they're talking about you about possibly being in KISS." I just sat there like a deer in the headlights because my head started spinning. Like, first of all, "Oh my God." Then again, "I'm signed to Casablanca doing this with Sean." It was a mixed emotion. It was excitement mixed with paranoia (laughs). And I harbored that secret for a while. I didn't talk about it with the band I was in or anything. But obviously it never came to be and we talked about it later on with Bill. It was obviously because, at that point, KISS had yet to be unmasked. You know, they needed someone who was unknown so they could preserve the mystique. And I had already been on two Piper album covers, I'd been in "Circus" magazines, all the rock magazines, with the Skatt Brothers, all kinds of things. I don't even know why they brought my name up. I think they liked me; I had already worked with Paul. Piper toured with them so they knew me, they knew I could sing. So they might have just said, "Richie Fontana might be good." But obviously, they couldn't. I think that and that alone may have been the only reason I never even got the shot at it. So that's the end of that.
Courtesy of Richie Fontana
KF: That's all very interesting. Of course, KISS ultimately filled that position with a relative unknown in Eric Carr.
RF: Yeah. And I met Eric once after he got the gig. I met him in Queens at a rock club. And I just walked over to him, he didn't know who I was. I walked up and said, "Congratulations." I told him who I was and he was very nice. That was the one and only time I ever met him. That was just when he first got the gig. There was a club in Queens called Camouflage and I was told that Eric used to like to wear camouflage clothes. I mean, he got out of that quickly once he was in KISS.
KF: Richie, when is the last time you've chatted with Paul? Has it been a while?
RF: Oh, a very long time. Well, let's see. It was the '80s because I was starting to really expand my musical horizons. I was doing a lot of songwriting, cutting demos and stuff. I would talk to Paul to get his opinion on some of the music I was writing. So one time, he told me to drop my tapes off at the hotel. He listened to them and he called me back and he gave me his critique. And that was like the early '80s, before I started working with Laura Branigan. That was the last time I spoke with Paul. Ace, I've seen more since than anybody. Oddly enough, because I really didn't know Ace or Peter very well back in the day.
KF: I know some musicians got gold or platinum albums for their services. Did you get one Richie?
RF: I got a platinum album, I'm looking at it right now. It's on my wall.
KF: Who do you cite as your biggest drum influences?
RF: Well, it's going to make me sound old, but I tell you, it started with Ringo Starr. I always rattle five names right off the top who are my drumming gods and there's Ringo, Keith Moon, B.J. Wilson from Procol Harum, Mitch Mitchell, and John Bonham. When I was a kid growing up in New York, those are the guys who influenced my playing the most. But I've never been much of a soloist as a drummer. I'm pretty much a band drummer but I try to be creative with my parts and try to play meaningful things. As I grew up, I practically lived at the Fillmore East as a teenager, and I saw a lot of great people. I saw every band you can think of in those days. Like when Jethro Tull came through town, Clive Bunker was a great drummer. Jeff Beck had all these great guys, Cozy Powell. You know, it expanded later on, but those are my top five.
KF: Switching gears, it's been three years since we lost Bill Aucoin. What do you think of when you think about Bill?
RF: Oh my God, so many things. I mean, my career wouldn't have been what it was, for as much as it was, if it wasn't for Bill. Because he was a genius. He was more than just a rock and roll manager. He understood show business in general. He had a broad scan of the whole scene. For him to see KISS and see the potential in it, that was a brilliant move right there. With Sean with him, it's a fantastic story. And we all got educated from it, in a business sense. Then they signed Starz and they signed Piper -- for a long time, we had just the three bands and then Toby Beau came along. Like I said, they were brilliant. They were very enthusiastic and very unique people. They created an incredible atmosphere, we were all part of it. A lot of us musicians stepped into the major leagues of the business via that. So that's all we knew when we first got in. Before everyone was dreaming about having a record deal and this and that, and worked hard for it. And we stepped into through it that way, under the umbrella of KISS and all the success that was going on. It was very, very interesting and I'm pretty sure it was unlike any other company. So I feel very fortunate to have met both those guys.
Richie Fontana, "Everytime I Dream"
KF: You released a solo album, "Steady On The Steel," in 2002. On this album you wrote all the songs and play all of the instruments and I've seen you describe it as "power pop." What is the backstory on this project?
RF: Those are a bunch of songs, most of them I wrote in the '90s. I just decided to compile them and put them out like that. I got real serious about that. I made the commitment some years ago to step out and just go solo. And I would have been fronting my own band and this and that but ... yeah, all my influences are all in there. It's melodic music, it's rock and roll, and right now what I'm doing with those songs is, even though there's a very retro sound to them, I pitch those songs to other artists. And that's where I'm at nowadays. My performing days are behind me. I got that under my belt, I love it, it was great. But what I want to do now is just get my songs out there and get other artists to record my songs. And I have some that are more generic than others that would be good for some people. They could re-work them or do whatever they want with them. But that's what I do now.
Richie Fontana meets a young KISS fan.
KF: Richie, I don't mean to get too personal, but I read on your website that you announced that you have multiple sclerosis. How are you feeling these days?
RF: Oh, I'm happy to talk about that. That's OK. I'm doing great. Everyone that gets MS has their own version of it. People who don't know anything about it, they hear something like that, they probably think of the horror stories or the worse that they've seen, because there's some really bad cases. My clinical cause, I'm truly one of the lucky ones. I've had it for a long time, [but] I'm on my feet. I use a cane to get around, and I drive my car. And my version of it, I definitely can be considered lucky. I have my complaints but it hasn't got in my way too much. So thanks for asking but I'm doing fine.
(KissFAQ thanks Richie Fontana for his time and contribution to Back In The Solo Album Groove, our 35th anniversary retrospective dedicated to the 1978 KISS solo albums. For more information on Richie, visit his website.)
About Richie Fontana
Native New Yorker Richie Fontana was the drummer for Piper, a five-piece power pop group that was managed by Bill Aucoin. Fronted by Billy Squier, the group released two studio albums, "Piper" (1976) and "Can't Wait" (1977), and opened select dates for KISS in 1977. As a member of the Aucoin Management family, Fontana was selected by Paul Stanley to play drums on the first four songs on his 1978 solo album. Fontana subsequently joined forces with KISS creative guru Sean Delaney in the Skatt Brothers, a pop-rock/dance group that issued 1979's "Strange Spirits" via Casablanca Records and scored a hit, "Life At The Outpost," in Australia in 1980. Fontana subsequently played drums for platinum-selling solo artist Laura Branigan from 1983-1985. Branigan was best known for Top 10 hits such as "Self Control," "Solitaire" and "Gloria." In 2002 Fontana issued his debut solo album, "Steady On The Steel." Produced and arranged by Fontana, he also performs nearly all the instruments and vocals. Listen to samples and purchase a copy at Amazon or iTunes.