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On This Day in Music... April 27, 1951: Ace Frehley, Influential Lead Guitarist and the Heart & Soul of Kiss, Is Born

Kiss was like nothing rock music had seen before, and Frehley quickly became an idol to a whole generation of aspiring guitar gods.

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Ace Frehley was born on this day in 1951.

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Ace Frehley did not start Kiss — in fact, he was the last of the band’s four founding members to join. He was not the band’s primary songwriter. He was a member for a total of 15 nonconsecutive years out of the band's half-century run, less time than Tommy Thayer, the last of his four replacements. And yet the man born Paul Daniel Frehley on this day in 1951 will forever be the beating heart of the band for so many of the Kiss Army faithful.

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Frehley with Kiss in the early 1980s, shortly before his first departure.

Born and raised in the Bronx, Frehley had played in more than half a dozen bands and tried his hand at such varied occupations as letter carrier and taxi driver before he answered a Village Voice want-ad for a lead guitarist position in 1973. (The ad, seeking a guitarist "with flash and ability," claimed that the band would have an "album out shortly." This was not actually true: Kiss' gifts for sometimes questionable self-promotion were intact from the beginning.)

Famously, Frehley was so broke at the time that he had to have his mom drive him to the audition, and was so nervous about acing it that he downed a tall can of beer before heading inside. Once there, his future bandmates Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley and Peter Criss immediately noticed that he was wearing mismatched shoes. As Simmons later recalled of his first meeting with Frehley: “I thought a bum had wandered in off the street, except he was carrying a guitar.”

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Frehley was a formative influence on a generation of aspiring rock guitarists.

First impressions aside, Frehley passed his audition, and for the next several years, Kiss would begin to build a reputation through grueling touring and outlandish spectacle. Never taken particularly seriously by the music cognoscenti, Kiss took a while to fully catch on, but once they did, with 1975’s Alive! and 1976’s Destroyer, they were like nothing rock music had seen before, and Frehley quickly became an idol to a whole generation of aspiring guitar gods.

What was it about Frehley that attracted such intense devotion? His playing lacked the technical polish and innovation of fellow 1970s guitar heroes like Ritchie Blackmore, Tony Iommi and Jimmy Page (to say nothing of later contemporaries like Eddie Van Halen). And yet it’s hard to find a guitarist from a certain age bracket that didn’t look up to him, with everyone from Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello to Weezer's Rivers Cuomo, Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready and Pantera’s Dimebag Darrell (who proudly had Frehley’s face tattooed on his chest) citing him as a formative influence.

For one, Frehley's solos (which he typically wrote on the spot) were immediately memorable and approachable, with the guitarist always emphasizing earwormy hooks over indulgent noodling. His onstage demeanor surely played a key role as well. Kiss became world-conquering stars by selling a degree of maximalism that was heretofore unseen in rock music, and the band’s leaders Stanley and Simmons were among the most tireless (some might say shameless) promoters and marketers that the genre had ever seen. But Frehley had something that they didn’t have: a devil-may-care nonchalance. A barely-aware-that-he’s-playing-an-arena-rock-show unflappability. A fluency with all of the grand gestures of big-stage hard rock without the sense that he was straining too hard to pull any of them off. In short, Ace Frehley was just cool.

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Frehley (third from left) with the rest of KISS' original lineup during the band's 2014 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction.

“As a guitar player, there really isn’t anyone like him,” Superchunk/Mountain Goats drummer John Wurster once said of Frehley. “He has this perfect sloppiness — he’s not that sloppy, but he’s probably unschooled enough that it came out in this completely unique way.”

As Morello put it: “Rock 'n' roll can excel in a number of different ways: There's technical ability, there's songwriting ability, and then there's Magic Awesome Rock Power. And Ace Frehley has that in spades.”

Frehley’s songwriting contributions to Kiss were sporadic — “Cold Gin” and the guitar solo showcase “Shock Me” were the highlights — but he managed to unexpectedly upstage his bandmates when the foursome each released solo albums on the same day in 1978. Frehley’s was the most commercially successful of the four, and the only one to notch a legitimate hit, a cover of Hello’s “New York Groove,” which reached No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100.

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As the band begin to approach the decade mark, Frehley’s contributions grew scarcer, especially when the departure of Criss left him as the odd-man-out in the group's decision-making. He was the band member least-enthused about Kiss’ 1981 concept album Music From “The Elder,” which would later come to be regarded as one of the greatest missteps in rock and roll history. He finally left the band in 1982, spending the next decade recording as a solo artist and with new band Frehley’s Comet before inevitably joining Kiss' full-makeup reunion in the mid-1990s.

He left the band again several years later, and he has rarely been shy about tossing a few less-than-flattering comments towards his old bandmates, Simmons in particular. Though he and Criss rejoined Simmons and Stanley for Kiss' Rock & Ross Hall of Fame induction in 2014, the band did not perform. He was not a part of the band's long farewell tour, which finally concluded last year, nor has he expressed much optimism about the group's planned revival as "digital avatars."

And yet, in a 2024 interview with Billboard to promote his new album, 10,000 Volts, Frehley took time to extend an olive branch. "We’re still friends," Frehley said. "I know a lot of people think we hate each other, but that’s not true. We’re just like a family, but sometimes brothers and sisters have arguments and so on. But when the s--t hits the fan, we’re there for each other. I just wish them the best."


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