Peter Criss: Kiss & Tell
George Peter John Criscuola was born in Brooklyn, New York, on December 20, 1945. He was an Italian-American, the oldest of five children. He loved art and jazz, and was performing with a band, The Stars, by the age of 13. As he got older, he had the opportunity to study under accomplished drummer Gene Krupa, who had always been Peter’s idol. Throughout the 1960’s Peter would play with a number of bands in New Jersey and throughout New York. His first recording was with the band Chelsea, a band whose style was similar to that of The Moody Blues. Though the album met with limited success, the band disbanded during the production of its second album when two of the band members failed to show for a gig. Two of his other band mates, Stan Penridge and Michael Benvega, joined Peter in the formation of a new band, Lips. The band never released an album, and Benvega quit the group in 1973.
Peter’s success, however, was about to change. While still performing in Lips with Penridge, Peter submitted an ad in the newspaper indicating that he was an experienced drummer looking for a band to perform with. Members of the band Wicked Lester, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons responded to the ad, growing impatient themselves with the music of their current band. Soon after, guitarist Ace Frehley was added to the band, and they named themselves KISS. The vision that the members had for KISS was unlike anything around at the time. Hard rocking with make-up portraying characters, phenomenal light shows, and fire-breathing antics, KISS took the music world by storm. Their first album, KISS, was released in February of 1974, and KISS became a household name, with Peter Criss being the “Catman” of the group. He joined the Star Child (Stanley), the Demon (Simmons) and the Space man (Frehley).
The characters and persona weren’t the only things going for the bank. Their rock hard beats and engaging lyrics created a huge fan base. Their first concert was at the Popcorn Club on January 30, 1973. Three people attended. The attempt at makeup began shortly after in March. Their first open was for Blue Oyster Cult in December of that year. Their first tour began the next February, and throughout the summer they toured and appeared on various television shows, among them Dick Clark’s In Concert and The Mike Douglas Show. Despite the fact that the band toured extensively and that they began earning a reputation as an excellent live act, none of their first albums, KISS, Hotter than Hell, or Dressed to Kill made any great headway on the charts. In September of 1975 they released a live, double album. KISS thought they could bring the energy of their live concerts into the living rooms of their fans. The album, KISS Alive, spawned their first top-40 hit, Rock and Roll All Night. Though the song first appeared on their Dressed to Kill album, the live version had much more success and is the most well-known of the versions today.
Peter’s first vocal performance on one of their albums was a song he had written when with the band Chelsea. “Beck” was one of the band members’ girlfriends, and she called frequently looking for her boyfriend. Peter wrote the song after the pining girl, but he later changed the name to “Beth” and released it on the Destroyer album. It was the highest on the charts of all of KISS’s song. Peter would perform the soft ballad at every concert, simply sitting on a stool in the center of the stage, and it would become one of the trademark moments of the concert. Peter later lent his vocals to other songs, some he wrote, others he didn’t. One of their other biggest hits, “Hard Luck Woman” was written by Paul Stanley and performed by Criss. Thus, Criss proved himself more than just a drummer.
KISS’s following albums all went platinum when released. In 1977 they were hailed as they most popular band in America, by Gallup poll. Also in 1977 Marvel featured the band in their comic Howard the Duck. KISS would appear in many other comics. Marvel also introduced two KISS comic books, rumored to have real blood contained in the red ink of the pages. During this time KISS merchandise was created heavily. There was a KISS pinball machine, Halloween masks, makeup kits, and dolls.
In 1978 the members of KISS released four solo albums on the same day. Each was marketed as a KISS album, and each had similar artwork, an individual picture of each of them in their respective makeup. Each of their styles was allowed to shine on the albums, and Peter Criss’s adopted a rhythm and blues style that he would continue with on successive post-KISS albums. All of the albums appeared in the top 50 albums on the Billboard charts. Criss’s most memorable songs on his album were “Kiss the Girl Goodbye” and his cover of Bobby Lewis’s “Tossin’ and Turnin.”
On October 28, 1978, KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park was televised on NBC. The film was campy and received horrible reviews. However, it was wildly popular and was ranked one of the most watched television films of the year. The film was meant to portray the band members as super-heroes, and it was part of their manager’s plan and the record deal they had made. The film portrayed them in a less attractive light than super-heroes, and the band, as a whole, remembers it with some degree of embarrassment.
Criss enjoyed his time with KISS for many years. In 1980 Peter Criss left the group after sporadic absences in the preceding years. He did not play on KISS’s album Unmasked, and his departure was announced a short time later. For some time he enjoyed the time he spent working on his solo endeavors, releasing Out of Control in March of 1980, an album favored by KISS fans. He followed that in 1982 with Let Me Rock You, on which a song written by Gene Simmons appeared. He appeared on the album without his KISS makeup. The album was not released in the United States.
In addition to his solo work, Criss also began work with other bands in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. One, known as Keep, featured Mark St. John, a former post-Ace guitarist with KISS. He played with the band Balls of Fire in 1986, but his daughter Jenilee had just been born, so he left the band after only seven shows in order to spend time with her. Furthermore, he worked with Ace Frehley on Frehley’s album, Trouble Walkin’, as well as providing percussion for his “Bad Boys Tour.” He then created his own bank, named Criss. Mike Stone, member of Queensryche, was his guitarist, and they created two more albums, Criss and Cat #1. The band also played for Ace Frehley on his solo tour.
In 1995, though, fans got the surprise they had all hoped for. The original members of KISS appeared together on MTV Unplugged after Criss attended the official KISS Konvention the same year. This led to an announcement that KISS would embark on a reunion tour, “Alive/Worldwide” in 1996 and 1997 with all four original members. Members of KISS again donned their famous makeup, though KISS had been performing without the makeup since their Unmasked album. Following that tour, in 1998, they cut an album of completely new music Psycho Circus, on which Criss contributed a vocal track, “I Finally Found My Way.” Criss, however, departed from the band again in March 2004, marking his final journey with KISS. He was replaced by Eric Singer, who adopted Peter’s cat persona.
In addition to his music, Criss has added acting to his spectrum of interests. While with the band, KISS, they appeared in a film titled KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park. While the movie was wildly popular with fans, it enjoyed only limited success. After he left the band he portrayed an inmate on HBO’s Oz. He plays a man who was imprisoned due to beating a man to death with a baseball bat. He also had appeared on the supernatural drama Millennium. He appeared as “Mike,” a detective on the film Frame of Mind, a film about the John F. Kennedy assassination. It was released on DVD in 2009.
Peter Criss also has been at the forefront of the breast cancer scene. He was diagnosed with the disease in December of 2007. He discovered himself the lump in his breast, and he was able to have it treated before it metastasized anywhere in his body. Since that time he has been a proponent of getting the message of male breast cancer out to the public. Male breast cancer is not as rare as many may think, and Criss believes that men sometimes feel a stigma associated to the disease. He has sponsored walks and other programs to bring awareness to the disease, and he continues to support the cause. Criss states that the cancer has changed his songwriting, and the songs he composes now are less serious, less depressing.
He will discuss his cancer, his time with KISS, and many other parts of his life when he publishes his autobiography in 2012, titled Makeup to Breakup. Larry “Ratso” Sloman is helping Criss write the book. The book will take its readers into the world of Peter Criss, the girls, the drugs, and the rock and roll. He will discuss how breast cancer has changed his life, as well as his music. “I am so blessed that I am finally going to write my autobiography, and I hope you enjoy the ride," Criss said in the release. "The best of all is I get to share my true feelings of my love for God, family, friends and fame. It's been a wonderful life."
Peter Criss, “The Catman,” George Peter John Criscuola, the man who goes by many names. Many know him from the rock band, KISS. Many have seen him as an actor in one of few acting gigs. Still others know him as one of the first celebrity men to speak out on the subject of male breast cancer. There are many facets and faces of Peter Criss, and the cat is certainly only one of them. Musician, actor, author, cancer survivor, all these things are the man who is Peter Criss.