Revisiting Ace Frehley’s Tense Kiss Audition
It wasn’t love at first sight – and indeed, Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley’s relationship with colleagues Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley was often going to be tense. But when Frehley turned up to audition for the band on Jan. 3, 1973, and almost immediately upset his future bandmates, no one could deny there was magic in the air.
“Lead guitarist wanted with flash and ability,” read the Village Voice ad placed by Stanley the previous month. “Album out shortly. No time wasters, please.” The attention-grabbing words weren’t entirely accurate since Kiss, then known as Wicked Lester, had been dropped from their record deal. When Frehley first read the notice he knew it was one of many dozens of similar free ads in every edition of the weekly paper. Yet, something brought him back to this one.
“I loved playing the guitar and I knew I was pretty good at it, so that’s what I wanted to do with my life,” Frehley wrote in his 2011 book No Regrets. “There were no other options. I have to be patient and wait for the right opportunity to come along.” He wondered if Stanley’s ad was that opportunity, even though he dismissed most of them as “pure bullshit.” But, he thought: “fuck, I have flash, and I sure as hell have ability. I doubted the part about the band having an album ‘out soon,’ but it seemed worth investigating at the very least.”
He called the phone number and found himself in a “businesslike” conversation with Stanley, who asked him a number of questions. He described himself as “a little like Keith Richards," although he knew almost every guitarist at that time was tall, thin and had long hair. At the end of the call, Frehley was still not convinced but said he’d “think about” attention the upcoming auditions. He later said that had he known the truth about Wicked Lester’s contract, he “probably would have stayed home that day, which obviously would have been the mistake of a lifetime.”
When Jan. 3 came around, Frehley had to rely on his mom to drive him to 10 East 23rd Street, above the Live Bait Bar, in New York City, because he wanted to take his amp and he couldn’t do that on the subway. And he also couldn’t afford a cab. When he got there, he experienced an attack of the “jitters” and decided to down a 16-ounce can of beer in the lobby before climbing the stairs to find the room where his future awaited.
Inside, Simmons, Stanley and drummer Peter Criss were in the process of auditioning Bob Kulick, who’d later fall into the band’s orbit. “We had about 50 guys come in,” Stanley recalled in an ‘80s TV feature. “Bob was really, really good. … Some guy walked in with an orange sneaker and a red sneaker.” “I thought a bum had walked in off the street, except he was carrying a guitar,” Simmons added. Frehley noted that much had been made of his mismatched sneakers, but it had just been a case of hurrying out of the house and not realizing what he’d done until he was en route to the audition. “I wasn’t worried, though," he said. "I thought I looked kind of cool.”
Watch Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley Talk About Ace Frehley's Audition
"He walked right past us, didn’t say a word or anything,” Simmons continued. “And basically plugged in his guitar and just started playing – and we almost threw him out," Stanley said. "‘Who the hell are you? Shut the fuck up! Sit down and wait your turn!’” Simmons recalled, “I thought, ‘Boy, this guy is spaced, out of his mind.’” Frehley remembered Simmons telling him he was being rude, so he apologized. He also remembered refusing to fill in the job application presented to him, thinking, “If they wanted to know more about me, they could ask.”
When his turn finally came, Frehley said Simmons threatened to “kick my ass if it turned out I was wasting their time.” It quickly proved to be a memorable audition – instead of a discussion about mutual influences and finding songs both parties might know, the band performed an original, “Deuce,” and asked Frehley to play along. He threw “every cool lick” he could think of into the solo, thinking to himself, “If this is the kind of stuff these guys are writing, then they might just be on to something.”
After 20 or 30 minutes, Frehley “felt like I nailed the audition, and I felt like these guys had potential, but I didn’t have expectations for changing the world or anything. It wasn’t that dramatic. … Nevertheless, I wanted in.”
They wanted him too. “When we all plugged in and played together, there was just magic,” Stanley recalled. Simmons agreed. “As soon as he played, it was like, ‘This is it,’” he said. The pair, along with Criss, went to watch Frehley perform a few weeks later, then invited him back to their loft, talked and jammed a little, then offered him the job. By that time, the band wasn't called Wicked Lester anymore. The rest, with all its ups and downs, is Kisstory.
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