Before They Were Kiss: The History of Wicked Lester
The seeds of Kiss, quite famously, grew from an early '70s band called Wicked Lester. The group has always been better known for its footnote status, however, than for anything it actually did. After all, Wicked Lester performed only a handful of times. Their lone recording -- an album that offered an unsettling blend of hard and soft rock, prog and pop -- was never officially released by Epic Records.
Of course, without Wicked Lester, who knows where the young Gene Klein and Stanley Eisen may have ended up? Within two years, they would emerge as the costumed Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley -- with world fame only a few steps beyond. Thing is, though, you can scarcely make those things out of the mess that was Wicked Lester. “We were at a point in our careers where we were happy to just go in and record,” Stanley told Classic Rock in 2013. “We were good boys. We did everything that the producer told us.”
The group actually grew out of an earlier outfit called Rainbow, which featured Simmons and keyboardist Brooke Ostrander -- the only other stalwart member of Wicked Lester. Guitarist Stephen Coronel was recruited, having been a childhood friend of Simmons'. It was Coronel who recommended Stanley. Drummer Joe Davidson joined, but he was quickly replaced by Tony Zarella, and Wicked Lester's initial lineup was set. There was only the matter of finding a new name, once Simmons and company discovered another group was already calling itself Rainbow.
They'd become Wicked Lester after debuting in early 1971 (as Rainbow) at Staten Island's Richmond Community College. Two more shows followed with the new moniker, first at South Fallsburg, N.Y., and then in Atlantic City. Bad luck, it seemed, followed them everywhere. Coronel once recalled a deflating moment when "a thief broke into the rehearsal room and our equipment and guitars were stolen. So, we had to buy whatever used guitars and amps we could find. But we kept playing." A demo tape followed, produced by Ron Johnsen, an engineer at Electric Lady Studios. When Epic agreed to fund the recording of a full-length album, however, the label stipulated that Coronel be replaced.
Ron Leejack stepped in, as Wicked Lester gathered to finish what was to be their debut project -- blending a series of originals with such difficult-to-believe cover songs as Gerry Goffin's 'Sweet Ophelia,' Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil's 'Too Many Mondays' and the Hollies' 'We Want to Shout It Out Loud.' Certainly, some embryonic elements of Kiss' signature approach are there, in particular when it comes to some of Leejack's pyrotechnics. ("I just cranked it up and just overplayed -- taking extended solos and played every trick I knew on guitar," he told Julian Gill in 2000. "Gene and Stan were looking at me like, 'What's he doing?'") The rest, however, couldn't be more surprising to anyone who only knows Simmons and Stanley in their subsequent incarnations as fire-breathing, fireworks-firing, blood-spewing arena rockers.
"We hardly sound like Kiss," Simmons admitted in a 2001 talk with Billboard. "In fact, if anything, we sound like Jethro Tull meets the Four Seasons. But, hey, that was then. This is now." Later, in a talk with Rolling Stone, Simmons described it as "like a cross between Three Dog Night and the Doobie Brothers."
Clearly, this strange amalgam of sounds pointed to a youthful lack of direction. Wicked Lester didn't seem to have a road map for their own ambitions. As such, sessions ultimately dragged on for the better part of a year, as the group attempted to mesh with Leejack's differing approach. Some of the demos ultimately had to be completely redone. When they tapes were finally handed over to Epic, A&R director Don Ellis deemed them unsuitable for release.
Simmons, in retrospect, completely agrees with the assessment. “Paul and I weren’t happy with the record,” he told Classic Rock. “It had a West Coast American hippie sound. We looked at each other and decided to form a new group, which was Kiss.”
That happened following the departure of Zarella and Ostrander, which left Simmons and Stanley to rebuild the band once again. Peter Criss joined, leading to another showcase for Ellis at Epic. He once again demurred, and with that the influential but largely unheard history of Wicked Lester began to draw to an unhappy close. By December 1972, the group had begun searching for yet another lead guitarist. Ace Frehley was a member of Wicked Lester before the holidays were over, completing the first and most famous lineup, and the one that would soon become Kiss. The newly renamed and newly costumed foursome played their first show together in January 1973.
“We liked the concept of being able to immerse yourself into your own fantasies and come out a completely different person," Stanley once told the Star. "Makeup helped us do that.”
CBS attempted to officially release the remixed Wicked Lester tapes in the mid-'70s, hoping to capitalize on the Kiss' subsequent fame, but Kiss and their label president at Casablanca quickly snatched up the masters for $138,000. It seemed Kiss were just as interested in keeping the more pop-leaning elements of these sessions under wraps as much as they were at keeping photos of Stanley and Simmons without their makeup from the press. At that point, they weren't appearing in public without their onstage attire.
Meanwhile, bootlegs of Wicked Lester's initial work, including one titled 'Original Wicked Lester Sessions,' eventually found their way to the general public -- forcing Stanley and Simmons to face their checkered past. “It’s not that I’m embarrassed by it,” Stanley told Classic Rock. “You let something pass for long enough, and time goes by and you can kind of chuckle at it.”
Careful listeners can trace how these initial moments as Wicked Lester later found their way into the Kiss catalog. Both Stanley's 'Love Her All I Can' and 'She' (by Simmons and Coronel) appeared in updated form on the 1975 album 'Dressed to Kill.' Meanwhile, a chorus from Wicked Lester's Hollies cover clearly served as a loose inspiration for the 1976 hit 'Shout It Out Loud.' Later still, three Wicked Lester songs -- 'Keep Me Waiting,' and the original takes of 'She' and 'Love Her All I Can' -- emerged on a 2001 Kiss box set.
By then, Stanley and Simmons had firmly established themselves, as they headed toward the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Their former bandmates, however, followed much different paths.
Ostrander went onto to become a music teacher before dying of cancer in 2011. Leejack attempted to continue on with Wicked Lester briefly, and later had a song on Carmen Appice's 1980 solo album. His work in the band Cactus was collected on the early 2000s albums 'Barely Contained' and 'Fully Unleashed.' Zarella also announced, at one point, that he was getting Wicked Lester back together, though nothing more apparently became of it. Meanwhile, 'Goin' Blind,' a post-Wicked Lester song credited to Simmons and Coronel, appeared on 1974's 'Hotter Than Hell.' Coronel also worked with the band Lover before returning to the news with an arrest on child-pornography charges in 2014.