Wicked Lester: The peck before the big KISS

Friday, April 17th, 2009 | musiX

KISS fans are a peculiar bunch—willing to shell out hundreds of thousands of their hard-earned dollars to see the band play in makeup 30 years on, or to get their grubby little paws on ultra-rare bootlegs or a still-sweaty Gene Simmons cod-piece. Kooky, I tell you.

Any KISS fan can also tell you that there was life before the makeup and cod-pieces. Gene Klein (born Chaim Witz, who would later become Gene Simmons) and keyboardist Brooke Ostrander formed a band called Rainbow in New York in 1970. The pair soon recruited a couple of guitarists in Stephen Coronel and Stanley Eisen (who would later become Paul Stanley), and drummer Tony Zarrella. Rainbow played mostly covers and would perform only one gig at Richmond Community College in Staten Island.

By 1971 the band had changed its name to Wicked Lester and began writing more original material. Wicked Lester went into the studio later that year (after performing only two shows). In the process Coronel was given the boot, and session guitarist Ron Leejack was brought in to record the leads. The record—made up of mostly originals as well as a few covers—took a year to record. When brought to prospective label Epic Records, the album was turned away and would never be released.

The Wicked Lester record has, of course, circulated in bootleg form for years with varying quality. Two tracks—“Lover Her All I Can” and “She”—which would resurface on KISS’ Dressed To Kill album in 1975, appeared on a KISS box set a few years ago. The Wicked Lester songs aren’t horrible, just unfocused, with flutes and horns fluttering and squawking over folky, slightly funky, psychedelic rock. My favorites are the Simmons-penned “Simple Type” with vocals from both future KISSers and the cover of Infinity’s “(What Happens) In the Darkness,” a rollicking Ike and Tina-inspired burner punctuated by Stanley’s sassy (and underrated) rock vox. And “Molly” reminds me of something you’d hear on The Electric Company (some of Morgan Freeman’s best work). It also boasts this gem of a lyric: “Molly, my pal, you’re my gal … ”

You know the rest of the story. Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley (second and third from left respectively in the photo) recruited Peter Criscuola (later the Catman Criss) and Paul Frehley (Space Ace) and conquered the world 10 times over. So … when’s the Wicked Lester reunion?

“She”Wicked Lester

“Simple Type”Wicked Lester

“(What Happens) In The Darkness”Wicked Lester

“Molly”Wicked Lester

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