In 1978, the four members of Kiss simultaneously released self-titled solo albums, a brilliant marketing move that pushed the already famous group further into the stratosphere. Though it’s not considered a groundbreaking “drum record”—that was never the intention—Peter Criss neatly showcases its creator’s love of soul music, horns, strings, background vocals, and hooks, and even makes a solid case for him being the best vocalist in the band. Here, with forty years of hindsight, the Cat Man reminisces about his contribution to Kiss’s historic quadruple punch.
When we were planning our solo albums, I knew I might never again get the chance to do what I wanted, with horns and strings and singing. I’m a soul singer; I grew up with James Brown, the Ronettes, the Rascals, Phil Spector, and the Motown sound. I understand now why the fans and even the guys in the band didn’t really get it. It was far away from Zeppelin and Hendrix, which was what they were into. What I was doing maybe sounded a bit older. I wanted my solo album to be me. I did my best to get my voice to tackle every aspect of music, from soul to ballads. I loved the simplicity of the drumming on ‘Don’t You Let Me Down’—I borrowed the vibe for that one from Ben E. King’s ‘Spanish Harlem.’ I loved the song ‘Tossin’ and Turnin’’ since I played it in my R&B cover band years before Kiss. I always liked playing drums on it, and that’s why I wanted it on my album. It had some cool, unusual fills on it.
I think because I wrote songs, I knew when and where to lay out with a fill. I really learned that from singing. When we’re younger we put fills anywhere, just to get that fill in. I’d emulate Keith Moon, and I was into Gene Krupa and all the jazz drummers. But the singing was always very important. To me Ringo was the king for playing that way—and Charlie Watts and Hal Blaine. They knew how to not get in the way of the singer and the songs. To me, they were perfect drummers.
When I met [Kiss bandmates] Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, and Ace Frehley, they were full-blown rock ’n’ rollers. They weren’t really into horns or strings; it was mostly guitars. But I had already been on the scene in cover bands for ten years, playing every popular nightclub in New York City. So I was well accustomed to different styles of music. I still believe that music is a universe. I believe you should listen to all different kinds of music.
I really enjoyed working with producer Sean Delaney—God rest his soul—who was originally supposed to do the whole record. He wrote ‘I Can’t Stop the Rain’ and a few others. We recorded at Electric Lady in New York City. Sean recommended Allan Schwartzberg on drums for the songs we coproduced. Allan was one of the most in-demand session drummers at that time, and Sean thought he’d be perfect on those particular tracks. And he is brilliant on them. We got some other heavy session guys as well, like guitarists Elliott Randall and John Tropea. I had no problem with having other musicians on my record. Those were the best guys in New York, and I agreed with Sean. So I concentrated on singing and getting into the songs. And that’s how it started.
And then Sean left and went over to work on Gene’s record, and shortly after, our manager, Bill Aucoin, introduced me to producer/songwriter Vini Poncia. I was familiar with some of the records he did with Ringo—we actually used Ringo’s horn section on the album. We liked the same styles of music, so we went for it, and I fell in love with working with him. Not only was Vini a great producer, he was also a great songwriter and singer. Vini sang background on the album as well.
Right before I started my record with Vini, I was in a very bad car crash and I broke my fingers, my nose, my ribs…it was bad. I stayed in L.A., and when we started recording I played with those iron things they put on you when you break your fingers. But it was my first solo album and I wanted to play on it. At times it was painful, but a good kind of pain. I was using Pearl drums at that time, with my Zildjian cymbals.
I was extremely proud of that first solo record. I know it didn’t fare as well as the other three at the time, but it did go on to become a million-seller. I always felt like the George Harrison of Kiss—maybe I’d get one song on an album. I’d written some of those songs years before, so I had a barrage of tunes ready to go that I didn’t get to do with the band. So for me it was like, Wow, I get to do MY songs now. I wanted the fans to hear it and think, Hey, he’s not just the guy up there with the makeup.
Criss currently endorses DW drums, Zildjian cymbals, Remo heads, and Promark sticks.