One of the greatest guitar heroes of the 1970s, Ace Frehley was the original guitarist for the enormously popular glam-rock band KISS, and a major influence on a generation of metal and hard rock players who drew inspiration from his flashy, exuberant style. Decked out in his signature "Spaceman" makeup and sporting a guitar that caught fire and launched rockets on stage, Frehley was a core member of the band from its inception in 1973 through the heights of its fame in the late 1970s. Conflicts with singer Paul Stanley and bassist-mastermind Gene Simmons, as well assubstance abuse issues, led to his departure in 1981, and he maintained a solo career until reuniting with the band for a massively successful reunion tour in 1996. Frehley again struck out on his own in 2002, when he served as elder statesman and honored guest with such newer acts as Rob Zombie and Dave Grohl. Throughout the years, his contributions to the group's history and influence on dozens of performers made him one of rock's most beloved guitarists.
Born Paul Daniel Frehley in the Bronx, NY on April 27, 1951, he was the youngest of three children by Carl Frehley, a church organist, and his wife, Esther. As a child, Frehley's home was steeped in music; in addition to his father, both his brother, Charles, and his sister, Nancy, were schooled as musicians. Frehley even taught himself rudimentary chords on the guitar by playing along with his siblings' records. He was also fascinated by both art and mechanics, which, along with his growing fascination for guitar, helped steer him away from problems in school and on neighborhood streets. Though popular with fellow students for his ability to find them dates - which earned him the nickname "Ace" - he was booted from several high schools and briefly abandoned education altogether before returning to earn his diploma at the insistence of his family.
Frehley's passion for music truly ignited during his teenage years, when he visited a friend who had purchased an electric guitar and amplifier. After receiving his own guitar on his 14th birthday, he learned the basics of the instrument from his brother while satisfying his fascination for mechanics by tinkering with its inner workings. The rise of such superstar guitarists as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and especially Pete Townshend of the Who also had a profound influence on Frehley, who preferred to test the limits of his instrument's sonic endurance by turning its volume knob to its highest setting and experimenting with the sounds it produced. By the time he was 15, he was playing in local bands, often with his brother Charles, who eventually abandoned rock-n-roll to pursue folk music and a career as a classical guitarist. From 1970 to 1972, Frehley played guitar for a wide variety of bands, none of which progressed beyond club gigs and opening spots for touring groups.
In 1972, Frehley answered an ad in the Village Voice for a group that sought a guitarist with "flash." Arriving at the audition in a pair of mismatched shoes, Frehley performed for singer-guitarist Paul Stanley, bassist Gene Simmons and drummer Peter Criss, who at the time were playing together as Wicked Lester. His audition impressed the trio, and soon after, he was made their lead guitarist. However, he had signed on to a floundering outfit in desperate need of a fresh image. The transformation from Wicked Lester to KISS began in earnest shortly after Frehley's arrival; after settling on Stanley's decision to change the group's name, Frehley designed the group's logo, with its distinctive double lightning bolt "S." The arrival of former TV director Bill Aucoin as manager not only earned them a record contract with upstart label Casablanca Records, but a much-needed weekly salary that allowed Frehley to quit his day job as a taxi driver. The other key element of KISS' developing image was the heavy makeup worn on stage by each of the members. Initially, Frehley simply painted silver stars over his eyes, but when the group decided to turn the stage makeup into "personas," he streamlined the look to resemble a sort of alien-robot hybrid, albeit with a deep shape of lipstick. An avowed fan of science fiction movies, Frehley's stage persona was initially called "Space Ace" and later "The Spaceman."
The KISS phenomenon was slowly building throughout the early 1970s, with most critics dismissing them as a cartoonish fad. However, they were a top concert draw, thanks in no small part to an array of theatrics, including Simmons spitting "blood" and Criss' elevating drum riser. Frehley's schtick consisted of a smoke bomb that would explode during his guitar solos, which gave the impression that his playing had caused the instrument to catch fire. In 1975, the band released their first album, aptly titled Alive, which captured the frenetic energy of their live performances and yielded their first gold record. Each successive album topped its predecessor in terms of hit songs and record sales, and by 1978, KISS was the most popular band in America. It was also one of the most widely marketed through a dizzying array of merchandise, which featured Frehley and the other band members in comic books, as Halloween masks and action figures, and on board games and pinball machine, among countless other items. A generation of adolescent and teenaged boys hung on every note produced by KISS, and many of them credited Frehley's hyperactive playing as the inspiration for their own eventual music careers, including Soundgarden's Kim Thayil, Pearl Jam's Mike McCready and the late Dimebag Darrell of Pantera.
Frehley's contributions to the group from inception to the mid-1970s were largely relegated to his guitar work, but on occasion, he penned or co-wrote several songs, including "Cold Gin," "Shock Me" - which was inspired by an accidental on-stage electrocution in 1976 - and "Into the Void," among others. However, he felt insecure about his vocals, and frequently turned over singing duties on these tracks to Gene Simmons. Ironically, it was Frehley's eponymous solo album, released as part of a massive promotional campaign that saw all four KISS members release their own records on the same day, that achieved not only the highest charting single with "New York Groove," but also the greatest record sales.
The success of Frehley's solo effort underscored a growing schism within the band between its acknowledged leaders, Stanley and Simmons, and Frehley and Criss. The latter men chafed at their secondary status within the group, despite Frehley's increased songwriting and singing on each successive album. Both had also developed serious drug and alcohol issues, which came to the forefront in a Halloween 1979 interview with Tom Snyder on "The Tomorrow Show" (NBC, 1973-1982), on which Simmons and Stanley struggled to reign in an inebriated Frehley. Criss was eventually removed from the group due to his erratic behavior and playing, and was famously replaced by Eric Carr. Frehley soon found himself increasingly at odds with the group's musical direction; their 1980 release, Unmasked, favored a pop-friendly sound that found little favor with fans, and a follow-up that promised to return to their heavier roots was soon abandoned in favor of an arcane concept album called Music from 'The Elder' (1981). Frehley vehemently disagreed with the change, but found himself outvoted by Simmons and Stanley throughout the recording process. He recorded his guitar parts separately from the group and announced his departure from KISS in June 1982. However, he remained a business partner until 1985, receiving one-quarter profits from albums until 1984. He was also featured on the covers for the greatest hits compilation Killers (1982) and Creatures of the Night (1982), though the guitar parts were actually performed by Bruce Kulick and Vinnie Vincent, respectively.
In 1984, Frehley attempted to establish himself as his own entity with Frehley's Comet, but failed to secure a record contract until 1987. The band's self-titled debut for Megaforce generated healthy sales and a Top 40 single, "Into the Night," on the Mainstream Rock tracks, but subsequent efforts failed to preserve its modest fan base. A fourth album, Trouble Walkin' (1989) was released as an Ace Frehley solo record, and sparked interest by featuring former KISS drummer Peter Criss on several tracks. The pair had retained good relations in the years after their departure from the band and eventually launched a joint tour in 1995. The move was part of a wave of nostalgia for the original lineup of KISS that began in earnest in 1994 with tribute albums, the book KISStory (1995) and appearances by Criss onstage with the current lineup.
In 1995, Frehley and Criss joined Stanley and Simmons for an episode of "MTV Unplugged" (1989- ) that marked their first performance together since 1979. The subsequent album shot to No. 15 on the Billboard chart, and served as the flashpoint for the KISS Reunion tour. In February 1996, the original lineup appeared in their old makeup and costumes at the 38th Annual Grammy Awards. Two months later, the band announced the launch of the KISS Alive/Worldwide Tour, which earned 43.6 million over the course of 192 shows, making the band the highest grossing act of 1996. The 1998 album Psycho Circus purported to feature all four original members for the first time since 1979's Dynasty, but both Frehley and Criss made only minimal contributions to the record.
The subsequent Psycho Circus tour drew fewer ticket buyers than the reunion tour, and a 1999 feature film, "Detroit Rock City," which focused on a quartet of '70s-era teens trying to score tickets to a KISS show, was a flop. The group announced its Farewell Tour in 2000, which ran out of steam in early 2001 when Criss quit over a salary dispute. Assuming that the tour would also mean the end of his reunion with KISS, Frehley completed the tour and marked his final appearance with the band during the Closing Ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics. In a controversial move, guitarist Tommy Thayer and drummer Eric Singer donned Frehley and Criss's stage makeup for the remainder of the Farewell tour and a subsequent 2003 jaunt with Aerosmith.
Frehley soon returned to his solo career while enjoying numerous guest appearances at award shows and live concerts with performers like Slash, Tommy Lee and Rob Zombie, all of whom counted Frehley's tenure in KISS as a major influence on their own music. He also briefly flirted with acting in the low-budget crime thriller "Remedy" (2005), and successfully brought his alcohol and substance abuse issues under control. In 2009, he dispelled rumors of his death by suicide by releasing Anomaly, his fifth solo album, which reached No. 27 on the Billboard 200 chart.