Original Kiss Army commander-in-chief Bill Starkey holds his "Kiss Honorary Member" plaque onstage at Hulman Center in Terre Haute during the band's performance on Nov. 21, 1975. Gene Simmons is seen in the background. / Photo provided by Bill Starkey
INDIANAPOLIS -- On Thursday, Kiss will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It's been a contentious entry for founding members Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, who declined to perform at the ceremony because of a dispute about which band lineup - original or current - would take the stage.
But lost in that dispute is someone who played a bigger role in elevating Kiss to stardom than some of the musicians who cycled through the band's lineup over the last 41 years: Kiss Army co-founder and Speedway resident Bill Starkey.
"For me, Kiss is all about the music," said Starkey, a 57-year-old Indianapolis Public Schools teacher. "It was never about the costumes. The whole idea behind the Kiss Army was to get them on the radio, because we liked the songs."
It may not be hard to believe now that Rock and Roll All Nite and Kiss lunch boxes (and action figures and comic books) have entered the pop culture canon, but America wasn't necessarily buying what the band was selling in the mid-1970s. Super fans Starkey and Jay Evans, classmates at North Vigo High School in Terre Haute, Ind., helped change that when they founded rock and roll's original guerrilla marketing team.
Starkey's father, the late William Starkey, took Bill to his first Kiss show, Dec. 8, 1974, in Evansville, Ind. His mother, the late Jane Starkey, accompanied Bill to his second Kiss show, Dec. 28, 1974, at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis.
The Starkey family was open-minded about rock 'n' roll. William worked as a warehouse "expeditor" for Columbia Records in Terre Haute, where millions of vinyl records were pressed and distributed during the last half of the 20th century. He gave Bill his first Kiss record, a self-titled release from February 1974.
William enjoyed the eye-popping show in Evansville, but he eventually teased Bill about the band's underwhelming career.
"He would say, 'Your band isn't doing it,' " Bill recalls. " 'They're playing shows, but the sales are bad. We're not shipping anything.' "
The band's first three albums - Kiss, Hotter Than Hell and Dressed to Kill - failed to race up the charts.
During Starkey and Evans' senior year, the duo won over a small group of converts during a three-car road trip to Indianapolis for an April 22, 1975, Kiss show. It was Evans' first time to see the band, and Starkey said the Kiss Army concept took hold that night.
Evans made bootleg copies of Kiss albums, which in those days meant dubbing to 8-track cartridges, and shared the music with prospective fans.
Starkey said the duo worked in Wayne's World fashion, convening in a basement and conferring honorary titles. Starkey became commander-in-chief of the Kiss Army, while Evans became field marshal.
Why the Kiss Army?
" 'Kiss Fan Club' sounded too wimpy," Evans said.
"We all showed up at school in our Kiss T-shirts and got taunted. Still, it didn't really dampen our enthusiasm. Usually, in high school, anything you get taunted for, you want to shy away from. But we just didn't."
Starkey recalls what his classmates said: "Kiss? Kiss my a--. Starkey, if they're so good, why aren't they on the radio?"
He had no good answer to the question. "That hurt," Starkey said.
So the Kiss Army took its battle to radio station WVTS, which operated out of a ranch-style house in West Terre Haute.
Starkey and Evans recognized their enemy as program director Rich Dickerson, who labeled Kiss as a "mediocre Bachman Turner Overdrive." In modern parlance, this is as insulting as saying your favorite band is worse than Nickelback.
Members of the Kiss Army made phone calls and wrote letters to Dickerson and disc jockey R.J. Cortrecht.
Following high school graduation and as the summer of '75 turned to fall, Starkey and Evans gained ground. A breakthrough arrived with Alive, a Kiss live album released in September 1975. Kiss made headlines in October by playing a high school homecoming concert in Cadillac, Mich., and the band was scheduled to make its Terre Haute debut on Nov. 21.
When WVTS decided to add Kiss to its airplay rotation, DJs asked Starkey to bring his records in for duplication. Dickerson apparently discarded the station's initial stash of Strutter and Rock and Roll All Nite singles.
"It was a slow process," Starkey recalls, "but we got our way eventually."
The Kiss Army vs. WVTS clash then became an orchestrated stunt to promote the Hulman Center show.
At Dickerson's request, Starkey penned over-the-top letters in support of Kiss that were read on-air for two weeks. Dickerson delivered a shock-jock rebuttal for each one, and every seat for the show sold - marking the venue's second-ever concert sell-out, following a July 1975 performance by Elvis Presley.
The Kiss Army caught the attention of Kiss management, who made the band's visit to Terre Haute an unforgettable experience for Starkey.
Starkey met the band at the airport, he appeared with Kiss during a visit to WVTS and he accepted a "Kiss Honorary Member" plaque onstage during the show. A gathering at a Chinese restaurant followed the show, and he ate breakfast with the band at its hotel the next morning.
Starkey had an idea that he would run the national Kiss Army fan club from its home base of Terre Haute. Actually, a Nov. 10, 1975, letter from Rock Steady Management - the company representing Kiss at the time - to Starkey notes that the band looks forward to the organization of "national Kiss Army headquarters in Terre Haute."
But Starkey's leadership of the Kiss Army was short-lived. In 1976, Starkey received a letter from Boutwell Enterprises of Woodland Hills, Calif., informing him that they would be running the Kiss Army. This for-profit version of the Kiss Army dissolved around 1980, but in the late 70s, Kiss Army was as dedicated and influential a fanbase as the Grateful Dead's Deadheads and Jimmy Buffett's Parrotheads.
In 2003 book Kiss: Behind the Mask, Ron Boutwell is quoted as saying the Kiss Army grew to nearly 100,000 members after the release of 1976 album Destroyer and the club collected $5,000 daily in membership dues.
Starkey received no financial compensation. He's been the band's guest at some concerts in Indiana, and at other times he's fallen off the Kiss radar.
"I appreciate everything that Bill did," band member Stanley said during a 1996 interview with The Star, "and, of course, I appreciate the spirit in which it was done."
For Keith Leroux, days like Starkey's Terre Haute experience happen all the time.
Leroux stands onstage during concerts to make photographs for KissOnline.com, and he sometimes fills the role of substitute tour manager at special events or even promoter, in the case of a 2012 free show for 2,000 members of the military in Bristow, Va.
In the 1980s, after the members of Kiss ditched their makeup and costumes to focus on straightforward pop-metal, the then-teenage Leroux helped establish a fan club known as Kiss Force while living in Massachusetts. Today, Leroux lives in Indianapolis and works for the band as its social and digital media guru.
Leroux said he agrees with Simmons and Stanley that members from all eras of Kiss deserve Rock Hall recognition.
The band's bio at RockHall.com mentions only Simmons, Stanley, guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss. Frehley and Criss played in the band in the 1970s and then again during a reunion phase (1996-2001 for Frehley; 1996-2003 for Criss).
Leroux notes that Kiss lineups featuring guitarists Bruce Kulick, Mark St. John and Vinnie Vincent and late drummer Eric Carr recorded platinum-selling albums. Current members Tommy Thayer (guitar) and Eric Singer (drums) have toured the world with Kiss, and made multiple studio albums with the band.
"I went to see Kiss in the '80s, and the arena was pretty full," said Leroux, 46. "They weren't playing clubs."
Simmons - who was a paid promotional partner of the IndyCars series in the mid-2000s - along with Stanley, Thayer and Singer will hit the road this summer for a 40th-anniversary tour that also features Def Leppard on the bill.
Leroux straddles official and non-official status in the Kiss universe. Outside of his employment with the band since 2005, he's the co-owner of Indianapolis-based memorabilia company Kiss Army Warehouse. And Leroux has presented Kiss fan conventions since 1998.
His business partner in Kiss Army Warehouse and the conventions, Steve Stierwalt, is a fan who abides by the announcement that precedes every Kiss concert: It's "the hottest band in the world."
"Who else puts it together? The stage, the music, the whole thing? Nobody does it," Stierwalt said. "And the fans are the greatest."
The next Indianapolis Kiss Expo is scheduled for May 17. Simmons attended last year's event, and guitarist Thayer will be this year's guest of honor.
Kiss Army co-founder Evans won't be among those in attendance. He has seen Kiss perform live just four times: twice in Terre Haute, once in Indianapolis and once in Jacksonville, Fla., where he's lived since 2000.
"When I walk through a mall and see some greasy-haired kid wearing a Kiss Army T-shirt, I think, 'Gosh, I conceived that, and this is what's happened to it since then,' " Evans said. "It's a really weird feeling."
Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com
Read the original story: Kiss Army's original generals rock on