Singer-guitarist Jonah Koslen has lived in sunny Southern California for the past five years, but he has deep ties to Northeast Ohio.
After attending Beachwood High, he started up a band called Snake Eyes and then joined the Michael Stanley Band in 1974. He loved playing with Stanley, whom he still considers to be a friend, but got restless and wanted to start his own damn band, so he left MSB and launched Breathless in 1978.
The following year, the group released its self-titled debut. It would become a hit.
“Playing with Michael [Stanley] and everyone else in MSB was just great, and I loved doing it,” says Koslen in a recent phone interview. He’ll celebrate the 40th anniversary of Breathless
by playing the album in its entirety at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 16, at the Music Box Supper Club
. “I was 25 years old and a young Turk and ready to get out there and do my thing. I wanted to be the next Springsteen or David Bowie. I wanted to lead my own band. [Stanley] didn’t want me to do it, but I had to do it.”
In the wake of forming Breathless, Koslen hired locally based Belkin Productions (now Live Nation) to manage the group. Belkin hooked Breathless up with EMI Records, who footed the bill for the recording of Breathless
The band cut the record with producers Howard Albert, Ron Albert and Don Gehman at Criteria Studios in Miami.
“I had a breakthrough then, and there was a real growth from the stuff I had written with Michael [Stanley] at the end to the stuff I wrote for Breathless,” says Koslen. “The label and management arranged for us to work with Don Gehman. Several people came through at the time and checked out the band live, but we decided to go with Don.”
That proved to be a smart decision. At the time, Gehman, who would go on to work with acts like John Cougar Mellencamp and R.E.M., had worked with Stephen Stills and Manassas and was an engineer on several Bee Gees hits.
The Alberts had produced an album for members of the Byrds who had done a reunion album.
“Ron and Howard [Albert] were there at the beginning, but when they saw how together we were and how I wasn’t about to change my direction, they stayed out of the picture and let me and Don [Gehman] and the band do the work,” Koslen says. “The band had so much to do with the album and had a lot of input.”
Koslen was familiar with Criteria Studios since he had worked there with Stanley.
“It was very popular and just a great studio,” he says. “When we were down there, the Bee Gees were working there, and Eric Clapton was working there too.”
Songs such as the breezy, horn-driven “Dead of the Night,” the anthemic “Unchained Lightning” and the piano ballad “Let Me Down Easy” recall the ornately constructed classic rock hits by acts such as Electric Light Orchestra, Boston and Elton John. Catchy pop tunes like “Walk Right In,” “Takin’ It Back,” “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Mind” and Glued to the Radio” would find their way to commercial radio, and the record was particularly well-received in the Midwest.
“At the time, I remember driving around thinking, ‘Oh my God, they’re playing it again,'" says Koslen. “It wasn’t like they were playing one song. WMMS was playing five or six tracks from the album."
The group supported the album by touring as the opening act for KISS.
“That was wild,” says Koslen when asked about the experience. “It was like opening for the circus. It was a lot of fun.”
Over the years, Koslen has continued to play songs from the album. But for the upcoming Music Box show, he’ll revisit some of the tracks for the first time in years.
“I’ve always played ‘Walk Right In’ and ‘Taking It Back’ and ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change My Mind’ and ‘End of the Earth’ and ‘Glued to the Radio,’” he says. “Some of the [songs] I have never played since back in the day. To go back and listen to it now, I’m just as impressed with the band as I was then in terms of the performance and the energy and the excitement. I think it’s a great collection of songs. The songs are well-crafted lyrically and melodically and wonderfully arranged and produced. I’m very proud of the record. People tell me that there’s a not a bad song on the record, and that was certainly my intention when we did it.”
For the Music Box gig, Koslen and Co. (singer-keyboardist Rik Williger, singer-bassist Bill March, singer-guitarist Donny Thompson, singer-guitarist Danny Powers, drummer Van Eidom and singer-percussionist Rodney Psyka) will perform two sets. They’ll do the first album in its entirety in the first set and then play MSB songs, Breathless songs not on the debut and solo material in the second set.
“We only play about once a year at the Music Box,” says Koslen, “and I’m really looking forward to this show.”
Jonah Koslen, 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 16, 1148 Main Ave., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $25-$65, musicboxcle.com.