Except for the fact that he was born in outer space, as a kid Ace Frehley was just like you and me. He brought his well-worn copy of Are You Experienced? into high school, staring at the cover over and over, looking for secret clues and waiting for his next chance to hear it again.
Of course – and this is where he’s different from most of us – this curiosity would soon spur Frehley into using his talent, drive and charisma to become one of the most influential and beloved guitar players in rock history.
Ace’s work as lead guitarist and as a songwriter for Kiss helped turn the band into one of rock’s hottest phenomena, with a string of hit albums, sold-out shows (and yes, merchandise sales) rarely matched in rock history. His acclaimed, smash hit 1978 self-titled solo album demonstrated that he could comfortably stand in the spotlight alone, and his long, distinguished and slightly idiosyncratic post-Kiss career has proven that to be true.
Over the past couple of decades, a parade of guitar heroes from newer generations – including Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, Slash, Anthrax’s Scott Ian and late Pantera legend Dimebag Darrell (who went so far as to have Ace’s face tattooed on his chest) have testified to the influence Frehley had on their own work. Ever noticed whose famous lightning bolt guitar strap Eagles of Death Metal frontman Jesse Hughes is always wearing on stage?
Perhaps more importantly, Frehley has remained a true individual, ignoring the trend-chasing, reality show nonsense and profit-maximizing traps many of his peers have fallen into. Instead, he’s operated on his own unique, comet-like timetable and released acclaimed solo albums such as 1989’s Trouble Walkin’, 2009’s Anomaly and 2014’s Space Invader only when sufficient inspiration struck. As a result, his fans have remained extremely loyal, helping Ace achieve the best-selling solo career of any Kiss veteran.
Now, fresh off the critical and fan praise for Space Invader and its supporting tour, a clearly energized Frehley has returned to Earth orbit a lot sooner than usual with a new record entitled Origins Vol. 1. It pays tribute to Hendrix and the other legendary artists who inspired him to begin his own musical journey with powerful, energetic covers of songs like Jimi’s “Spanish Castle Magic” and Led Zeppelin’s “Bring it on Home.”
The cover of Origins Vol. 1 prominently displays many famous landmarks of the New York City skyline (surrounded by UFOs, of course), a fitting tribute to the place where Frehley’s incredible life story began. He grew up in a rough section of the Bronx. Despite demonstrating early aptitudes in everything from academics to art to athletics, Ace quickly realized that music, not school or running with the “greaser gangs” in his neighborhood, would be his ticket to a better life.
“Instead of hanging out at the corner candy store, looking for trouble, I was rehearsing with my band,” Frehley explains in Kiss: Behind the Mask. “Of my friends from those days, a couple of ‘em straightened out, but a lot of them are dead now. If it wasn’t for music, it’s a pretty good chance something bad would have happened to me.”
His path became even more clear after Frehley attended his first-ever rock show, with the Who and Cream opening for Mitch Ryder at the RKO theater. “I’d never seen anything like that. It was a big turning point. After the concert, I decided I wanted to be a professional rock musician, and nothing was going to stop me.”
From then on, Ace kept busy honing his skills and trying to find the right combination of bandmates to help him break through. “All I wanted was a chance to keep playing, and to improve, and to stand up there in front of as many people as possible,” he recalls in his 2011 autobiography No Regrets – A Rock and Roll Memoir.
Schoolwork was pushed farther and farther back in Ace’s lists of priorities, until eventually he dropped out just a few credits shy of graduation. But it’s not like he wasn’t getting a valuable education. “Townshend, Page, Clapton, and Hendrix – I had some of the best teachers in the world. I like to say that I never took a guitar lesson, but really that’s not quite accurate. By studying their work and emulating their actions, I became the guitar player I am today. If you love playing, you figure it out on your own. You study, and you practice until your fingers bleed.”
It was also around this time that Ace (born Paul Daniel Frehley, April 27, 1951) earned his now ubiquitous nickname. It happened because of his ability to break the ice with members of the opposite sex, not just for himself but also for his shy friends. “All you need is that one little icebreaker. But most guys are too scared to even give it a shot,” recalls Frehley. “’You know, you are such an ace, man,’ one of them said one night, after I’d introduced him to a girl he’d been lusting after… that was it. The nickname stuck.”
While finding romantic companionship was easy, Ace would struggle for years to find the right band to help make his dreams come true, eventually going back to night school to complete his degree and work a series of jobs such as delivering furniture, driving cabs or even serving as a mailman to support his music career. “I lasted about six months, which is the average time I held a job,” he laughingly recalls.
Everything began to change when Ace saw an ad in the December 17, 1972 edition of the Village Voice: “LEAD GUITARIST WANTED With Flash and Ability. Album Out Shortly. No time wasters please. Paul.”
Although he’d seen hundreds of comparable ads before, this one intrigued Frehley. “I figured, f—, I have flash, and I sure as hell have ability.” Short on cash at the time, he got his mother to drive him and his gear to the audition. Upon arriving, Ace was struck with an unusual case of the jitters, “almost like I sensed there was something important about this one.” Of course, the band waiting upstairs was the other ¾ of the original Kiss, and after impressing them at the initial audition, Ace was offered the lead guitarist job at a second jam session two weeks later.
Years of hard work followed, with Ace and his bandmates developing their unique and highly theatrical stage show, including their famous facial makeup. Frehley, always an excellent art student, not only helped his bandmates refine their individual looks, but also designed the group’s famous logo.
Kiss developed a reputation for combining great music with a one-of-a-kind stage show, distinguished themselves from the other bands in the New York club scene, and secured a much-coveted record deal. Then they criss-crossed the country over and over, blowing the doors off any band brave or foolish enough to share the stage with them.
They also kept quite busy in the studio, releasing their first three albums in a span of just 13 months. Frehley wrote or co-wrote a handful of the band’s most important songs during this era – including “Cold Gin” and “Parasite.” But he shied away from the microphone at first. “I wasn’t ready for it at the time. I was insecure about my singing voice.”
Ace’s dazzling guitar work on the band’s 1975 double-live commercial breakthrough Alive!, and his increasingly sophisticated playing on the studio follow-up Destroyer helped Kiss become a household name, filling arenas all over the world and selling millions upon millions of records. Eventually, he got the courage up to tackle his first lead vocal, which he remembers recording “lying on my back, with the lights down in the studio.”
The resulting track, “Shock Me” from 1978’s Love Gun, which was based on a real-life near-death experience on stage, became an in-demand concert highlight and gave him the confidence to take on more vocal duties. “After that it was like, ‘all right, I’ll sing more now.’ And the next thing you know, I’m leaving the band and I’ve got a solo project happening.”
Admittedly, he’s skipping ahead a bit there, past that incredible 1978 solo album, which sent his cover of “New York Groove” into the Top 20 and surprised many by outselling his bandmates’ own concurrently released solo efforts. This creative and commercial success made it clear that Frehley deserved an increased share of the songwriting duties in Kiss.
The resulting tensions over the band’s creative direction, combined with Ace’s addiction battles, caused Frehley to leave the group in the early ‘80s. He essentially disappeared for five years before reemerging to begin his solo career with 1987’s highly rated Frehley’s Comet, the self-titled debut from his new band.
A second Frehley’s Comet album, 1988’s Second Sighting, a live EP and countless tour dates followed over the next two years. Frehley then established himself as truly independent force and gave his fans the uncut Ace experience they craved with the release of his second purely solo album, 1989’s hard-hitting Trouble Walkin’.
A few years later, he rejoined Kiss for a record-breaking year-long reunion tour that led to a reunion album (1998’s Psycho Circus, featuring Frehley’s excellent “Into the Void”) and two more successful treks around the globe.
Then just like that, Frehley walked away again in 2000, choosing to follow his own internal sense of direction. He took his longest-ever break from the music business, taking the time to completely conquer his drinking problems. “I don’t miss the hangovers, I don’t miss the smells, the late nights at the bars, or the people,” he declared in a 2014 Guitar World interview. He re-emerged with newfound clarity and a renewed focus on his solo career. Two of his best albums to date – 2009’s Anomaly and 2014’s Space Invader (which became the only Kiss-related solo album to ever crack the Top 10 on Billboard’s Top 200 albums chart) followed, as well as the no-holds barred New York Times best-selling 2011 autobiography No Regrets.
In 2014 Frehley was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside his former Kiss bandmates. Although there has been some natural tension between the two camps over the years Ace insists, ”We’ve always been friends. The press seems to amplify negativity. I guess it makes good copy.” To that end, he invited Paul Stanley to sing on one of his new album’s many highlights, a cover of Free’s “Fire and Water.” Frehley explained, “He jumped at the chance to do this because it’s something that’s outside of Kiss and his character in Kiss, and it gave him a chance to, you know, sing.”
Elsewhere on Origins Vol. 1, Ace reclaims “Cold Gin” and “Parasite” from the Kiss catalog by singing the lead vocals on both for the first time ever. He also teams up with McCready, Slash, Lita Ford and Rob Zombie guitarist John 5 on supercharged covers of Thin Lizzy’s “Emerald” and the Troggs’ “Wild Thing.”
“I’m really thrilled with the whole thing,” says Frehley, who indicates a second Origins volume could be headed our way sometime in the future. “I’m excited about it, and I think there’s a song on here for everyone.”