Portrait of An Enigma: Analyzing Vinnie Vincent’s Pre-KISS Output

All images courtesy of Vinnie Vincent Facebook (official)

By Andrew Daly

All images courtesy of Vinnie Vincent Facebook (official)

Before he found stardom as Vinnie Vincent of KISS, there was Vincent Cusano the session musician.

As far as KISS goes, they’ve had a myriad of diversely talented lead guitarists, some of which are more unique, and of course, a better fit than others. Now, for those that don’t know — Vincent Cusano AKA Vinnie Vincent is part of that stable of guitarists who have served under the employ of Gene Simmons, and Paul Stanley.

Most KISS fans will agree that “Space” Ace Frehley is the be-all-end-all when it comes to KISS lead guitar. That said, Bruce Kulick is a well-loved fan favorite. Tommy Thayer has been wonderful both in, and out of KISS, and while Mark St. John was talented, I think it goes without saying that he was a horrendous fit for a band such as KISS.

Enter Vinnie Vincent.

Now, when it comes to Vinnie, he’s always been something of an enigmatic outlier, and his place in KISStory is no exception. Still, the two albums Vinnie Vincent was involved with a member of KISS, Creatures of the Night, and Lick it Up, were, and are some of the fiercest, heaviest, and consistent material that bad has ever put out to date. 

While it’s clear that Vinnie Vincent had a certain chemistry with Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley from a songwriting standpoint, from a personal standpoint, the alliance was nothing short of distorted and corrosive, which seemed to be a running theme for Vinnie as he moved forward.

Vinnie Vincent’s time as a member of KISS, and his two albums have been well documented, and well-loved — with good reason. But what about Vinnie’s output outside of the confines of KISS? 

Today we will attempt to dive into the mind of one of the most talented, and painfully enigmatic guitarists of the last half-century. In another time, or another place, perhaps Vinnie Vincent could have ascended to the level of superstardom which his talent easily should have allowed him to, but instead, we are left with a fractured and disjointed body of work.

Let’s dig in and see what Vinnie Vincent has served up over the years.

Black Satin — Black Satin (1976)

One of Vinnie Vincent’s first gigs was secured with the 70s R&B/Disco outfit, Black Satin for their 1976 record, Black Satin. Not a tremendous amount is known regarding Vincent’s work on this record, but it is widely assumed that he laid down the guitars for the tracks recorded in his home state of Connecticut. Those tracks are “Tears, Tears, Tears,” “Let My Fingers Do The Walking,” “We’re A Star,” and “In The Still Of The Night.” Those expecting to hear the raging bull of a lead player Vinnie was to become will be sadly disappointed. Openminded types, KISS completists, or KISS-adjacent obsessives will dig this. Plus, who doesn’t like to get funky now and again?

The Hitchhiker’s — Hitchhikers (1976)

As previously mentioned, Vinnie Vincent hails from Connecticut, and in the mid-70s, he hooked on at Connecticut Recording Studios, owned by Paul Leka, and ended up working on several mid-level records throughout the remainder of the decade. While it is not entirely clear just how many records Vincent contributed his talents to, we do know that he worked with The Hitchhiker’s on their 1976 record, Hitchhikers. What we know for sure is that Vincent co-wrote the album’s final track, the six and a half minute “This Song’s For You Mama,” and he probably contributed some level of guitar work to the remainder of the record, but to what extent is simply unclear. This is a fun album, and this is an early example of Vinnie Vincent’s keen ability to write a quality track in a hurry.

Treasure — Treasure (1977)

When you think of Vinnie Vincent, you probably think of an ill-tempered guitar wizard, caked in makeup, weighed down by hair spray, wielding a Jackson Flying-V. While Vincent would come to be known for his frenetic Metal-influenced 80s styling, there was a time when he leaned much more Classic Rock. If you’re looking to hear Vinnie Vincent show a completely different side of himself as a guitarist, look no further than his first taste of the commercial music industry, Treasure. Fans of deep-cut 70s Arena Rock (Styx, Journey, Foreigner) will be at home here. What’s most impressive about Vincent’s work with Treasure is it showcases just how versatile of a guitarist he was. While he’s not in his full-blown Hair Metal glory here, there are some great riffs, and Vinnie Vincent’s classic howling bends can be heard as well, albeit in a more restrained form. Also of note, Vincent took a turn as a lead vocalist on the tracks, “Innocent Eyes,” and “Turn Yourself Around.” Treasure was a good band and one that should get more love.

Dan Hartman — Instant Replay (1978)

The work of a session musician is volatile, and they don’t always get to choose the projects they’re working on. As a young guitarist, Vinnie Vincent would take on more or less any project that was sent his way, which leads us to Dan Hartman’s 1978 Disco/Pop record, Instant Replay. By the looks of it, Vincent contributed all the guitars to this record, which mostly consisted of rhythm and acoustic work. This isn’t what one would call his “finest hour,” but Vincent’s playing is nothing short of solid, and workman-like. Also, the title track of the record, “Instant Replay,” went to number twenty-nine of the US Hot-100 Chart…that has to be worth something, right?

Laura Nyro — Nested (1979)

Yes, it seems in Vinnie Vincent’s quest toward notoriety, he left no stone unturned, and in 1979, Vinnie ended up contributing guitars to Laura Nyro’s excellent Pop/Folk record, Nested. Generally speaking, Laura Nyro is very underrated and made some fantastic records. This record in particular is interesting, as it’s entirely more melodic, and commercial sounding than anything she previously had done. One cannot help but wonder if Vincent exerted any of his soon-to-be notorious and duality-laden personality over the recording sessions. Perhaps we will never know.

Felix Cavaliere — Castles In The Air (1979)

In the late-70s, Vinnie Vincent was something of a hot commodity on the New York/Connecticut session musician scene. His versatility and songwriting talents were becoming well-known and understandably appreciated. Once Vincent had finished recording the guitars for Laura Nyro, he immediately went to work on Felix Cavaliere’s 1979 record, Castles In The Air. Once again, this is not exactly the Hard Rock and Heavy Metal stylings we would come to know, and love from the Ankh Warrior, but nevertheless, Vincent contributed all the guitars for, “All Or Nothing,” “Love Is The First Day Of Spring,” and he did lay down a nice guitar solo for the penultimate track, “Don’t Hold Back Your Love.”

Staff Songwriter for Happy Days & Joanie Loves Chachi (1980-1982)

Tired of toiling in obscurity while laying down perceivably forgettable guitar work for Disco and Pop acts, Vinnie Vincent decided to leave Connecticut, and head to Los Angeles, in 1980. It was around this time that he decided to use his innate ability to write a damn good song and take on a role as a staff songwriter for the hit TV series Happy Days, and is not as a well-loved spinoff, and cult-classic, Joanie Loves Chachi. While one would never think of Vinnie Vincent as the type to contribute cutesy songs to the proverbial Pop zeitgeist, nevertheless, there he was, writing many of the series most well-known songs on his old acoustic guitar, while sitting at the Cunningham’s kitchen table, on the Happy Days set. While this isn’t the type of thing Vincent is most known for, it is an interesting footnote in the legendary axman’s history, and for what it’s worth, in his few and far between interviews, Vincent has claimed that his time working on Happy Days, and Joanie Loves Chachi were some of his, “Happiest days.” If that’s not ironic, I don’t know what is.

Carmine Appice — Carmine Appice (1981)

Most Hard Rock, and Heavy Metal fans are aware of the massive disaster that was the failed joint tour that Carmine Appice attempted with Vinnie Vincent a few years back. Yes, it seems that Vincent wasn’t quite ready to “come back” after all. That said, did you know that Vinnie Vincent worked as a songwriter on Carmine Appice’s underrated solo record, Carmine Appice, in 1981? While it seems that Danny Johnson played most of, if not all the guitars on the record, Vincent did co-write one of the record’s standout tracks, “Drum City Rocker.” It seems that Vincent impressed Carmine so much, that he took him out on the road as a member of Carmine and The Rockers in support of the record, and the group even opened for Joe Perry’s (Aerosmith) solo project, The Joe Perry Project. Like Treasure, Carmine and The Rocker’s was one of those very cool late-70s and early-80s groups who we all like to dream of working out.

Peter Criss — Let Me Rock You (1982)

Here is where things get a bit more interesting, and by all accounts, where Vinnie Vincent’s official KISS connection really begins. While it appears that Vincent did not play any guitar on Peter Criss’s second post-KISS offering, Let Me Rock You, it does appear that he co-wrote one of the album’s better tracks, “Tears.” Looking back through the records album credits, you will find that Vincent co-wrote “Tears” with Adam Mitchell, in 1982, who was also working with KISS during this time as a songwriter for their upcoming 1982 record, Creatures of the Night. It is said that Mitchell is who introduced Gene Simmons, and Paul Stanley to Vinnie Vincent, and it was here where Vincent’s session work with KISS officially began. Also of note, “Tears” would go on to be re-recorded by John Waite, in 1984, for his record, No Brakes. The track would go on to break the US Top-40 and the Hot-100. As previously mentioned, “Tears” is a great song. It seems it just wasn’t meant to be for Peter Criss.

Warrior (1982)

The story of Warrior is an interesting, if not somewhat convoluted journey. Things got started in 1982, when Boston-based band, New England, featuring Gary Shea on bass, Jimmy Waldo on keyboards, Hirsh Gardner on drums, and John Fannon on vocals and guitar, broke up after the departure of Fannon. The remaining members of the band wanted to continue on, and so, the search for a guitarist and a singer began. Dating back some time, New England had a relationship with KISS, having opened for them in the past. As per Gary Shea, one day in conversation with Gene Simmons, Shea mentioned that he was, “Looking to put a new band together and that he needed a guitarist.” Simmons mentioned, “We have a guy writing songs for us, doing some session work filling in for Ace. He doesn’t have the right look for KISS — he’s too short — but he would be a perfect fit for you.” That guitarist was Vinnie Vincent. As the story goes, Simmons sent Shea Vincent’s demos from the ongoing Creatures Of The Night sessions, and Shea instantly fell in love. Soon after, Vincent met up with Shea, Waldo, and Hirsch, for a jam session, and the chemistry was immediate. At the time, Vincent was in something of a Metal mode, being that he was working on Creatures Of The Night, and so, the material he presented was much harder-edged than anything New England had previously done. So, the newly formed band decided to brand themselves as “Warrior,” to represent that hard edge. The band proceeded forward with Vincent on guitar, and he also served as temporary vocalist for the demos they laid down, while the search for a singer continued. It’s been reported that while Gary Shea got on well with Vincent, Waldo and Hirsh were, “Not in love with Vinnie.” In the eleventh hour, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons, in dire need of a replacement for the officially departed Ace Frehley, called Vincent and offered for him to join KISS immediately, but that he needed to decide quickly with Stanley and Simmons saying, “We need to know right now, are you in, or are you out?” Needless to say, Vincent was in, effectively ending Warrior before it ever got off the ground. As for the remaining members, Shea and Waldo went on to form Alcatrazz with Graham Bonnet and Yngwie Malmsteen, and as for Vinnie Vincent, the rest, as they say, is KISStory.

These are just a few of the most well-known highlights of Vinnie Vincent’s long, and…successful career as a session musician, and songwriter. As is the case with most session musicians, it can be hard to track exactly which records they played on, and if you are able to pin down their discography, it can be even harder to figure out which tracks they contributed to.

Still, throughout his career, Vinnie Vincent has shown himself to be both a multifaceted guitarist and a gifted songwriter. One who has contributed his talents across many genres, and mediums, all with the eye toward eventual stardom, and in this lies the challenge when trying to understand Vinnie Vincent.

After years of session work, and moving around from band to band, Vincent finally caught a break and landed a lead guitar role with one of the biggest bands in the world in KISS. The music he made with Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, and Eric Carr is truly some of the freshest, and best of the Hair Metal era. Furthermore, it is music that still holds up to this day.

And still — Vinnie flamed out with KISS.

Given a second chance at stardom with his own band, the Vinnie Vincent Invasion, whose two records, Vinnie Vincent Invasion, and All Systems Go are also some of the most ferocious of the decade — he flamed out there too.

While one could go for days regarding the myriad of credits Vinnie has accumulated throughout his post-KISS career, for now, it’s better to remember that when we attempt to analyze Vinnie Vincent, we understand that while the man has world-beating talent, some musicians simply aren’t meant to take over the world. 

While Super Stars and superheroes are fun, the world needs villains and anti-heroes too, and it seems that Vinnie Vincent fits those roles quite well. A musical nomad. A man who comes and goes as he pleases. A man who leaves chaos disguised as a triumph in his wake.

Grand swells of chaos and destruction.

When we analyze Vinnie Vincent, this is what we find. From the spoils, take what you want, and leave the rest.

Vincent John Cusano would have it any other way.

All images courtesy of Vinnie Vincent Facebook (official)

Andrew Daly (@vwmusicrocks) is the Editor-in-Chief for www.vwmusicrocks.com and may be reached at andrew@vinylwriter.com

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