The drummer for the glam-rock band KISS from its inception in 1973 until his departure in 1980, Peter Criss provided the beat for the group's successful run on the charts throughout the 1970s, as well as one of its biggest hits, the ballad "Beth." Criss' simple but effective drumming and "Catman" image was an integral part of the group as it rose from obscurity to worldwide fame, but substance abuse put him at odds with leaders Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons, which led to his ousting - or escape, according to which source one heard - which coincided with KISS' fortunes plummeting in the 1980s. Criss labored in relative obscurity until 1996, when he rejoined the original lineup for a blockbuster world tour. However, his time in the spotlight was again short-lived, as contract squabbles led to his second departure in 2004. Despite the ups and downs of his career with KISS and as a solo artist, Criss's contributions to the group's biggest and best-loved hits ensured him a loyal fan base for nearly four decades.
Born George Peter John Criscuola in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY on Dec. 20, 1945, Peter Criss was the oldest of five children of Joseph and Loretta Criscuola. His family struggled financially throughout his childhood, and Criss found solace in rock-n-roll and later, the jazz drumming of Gene Krupa, with whom he reportedly studied for a period in the 1960s. As a teenager and young man, Criss played with a number of rock groups, but found little success aside from a brief tenure in an outfit called Chelsea, which released an album in 1970. A name change to Lips failed to reverse their fortunes, and by 1973, the band had folded. Criss' frustration with the vagaries of the business continued to mount, especially after a failed audition for Elton John's band and the rise of his childhood friend, Jerry Nolan, who found fame in 1972 as the drummer for the pioneering glam-punk band the New York Dolls.
Sources varied on how Criss came to audition for KISS: several oft-repeated stories circulated around an ad placed by Criss in a New York paper or Rolling Stone that read "Drummer with 11 years experience, willing to do anything," while others stated that the ad was simply a rumor. Whatever the case, Criss met with singer Paul Stanley and bassist Gene Simmons, who were in the process of revamping the image of their band, Wicked Lester. Criss' drumming and vocal abilities earned him a spot in the band, which soon shortened his surname and changed its own name to KISS, which was reportedly inspired by his previous band, Lips. The addition of Ace Frehley on guitar and a look built around heavily made-up, comic book-style personas completed the final version of the band. Criss' stage character was "the Catman," which was explained as having been influenced by his rough childhood, which required "nine lives" to overcome.
KISS struggled to find a foothold in the industry until 1975, when their live album Alive! (1975) shot them to fame. They soon became one of the most popular acts in the music business, as well as one of the most marketed, with dozens of items ranging from dolls and board games to Halloween costumes bearing the likeness of Criss and his bandmates. His contributions to their stratospheric rise were two-fold; though never a remarkable or powerful drummer, his workman-like percussion provided a solid backbeat for the group's raunchy but melodic songs, and as such, his playing was as integral a part of their early songs as Stanley's vocals and Frehley's guitar. More importantly, he provided the group with one of its biggest, if most unlikely hits with "Beth," a melancholy ballad about a rocker's long-suffering girlfriend. Co-written by Criss and his Chelsea bandmate Stan Penridge, with contributions by KISS producer Bob Ezrin, the song rose to No. 7 on the charts, and remained a staple of the group's live show, which featured Criss performing the song with a pre-recorded music track. Criss' soulful vocals were also featured on the Top 20 hit "Hard Luck Woman," and several other deep album cuts.
But as KISS' fame achieved worldwide status, Criss' personal life began to unravel. Both he and Frehley succumbed to drug addiction, and became unreliable in regard to live shows and recording sessions. A 1978 car accident exacerbated his problems, and the group was forced to replace him with session player Anton Fig for the majority of the 1979 album Dynasty and all of 1980's Unmasked. Sources again varied as to the exact nature of Criss' departure from the band, with Simmons and Stanley insisting that he was fired and Criss remaining steadfast that he had quit the group. Whatever the case, Criss was gone from the KISS camp in May 1980.
Four months later, his solo debut, Out of Control, was released, but found few listeners. A follow-up, 1982's Let Me Rock You, failed to secure a release in the United States until 1997, despite an all-star lineup of players including Steve Stevens and backing vocals by Simmons. He labored in largely faceless outfits for much of the 1980s and 1990s, and toured with Frehley's solo group. In 1991, his profile had sunk so low that he was forced to appear on an episode of "The Phil Donahue Show" (syndicated, 1970-1996) to dispel a homeless imposter who had convinced comedians Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold that he was Criss. Despite his appearance, he eventually sued Star tabloid magazine for perpetuating rumors that he had fallen on hard times.
In 1995, Criss and Frehley reunited with Stanley and Simmons for an episode of "MTV Unplugged" (1989- ). The performance proved so popular with fans that a reunion tour featuring all four original members was launched in 1996. Its near-universal success also spawned a reunion album, 1998's Psycho Circus, though Criss' participation was limited to a single song, "I Finally Found My Way," and drumming on "Into the Void." Finding himself once again reduced to second-string status, relations between Criss and the Simmons-Stanley camp were soon fraught with tensions, and came to a head in 2000 with his departure from the group over contract negotiations. In 2002, Criss made a capable dramatic debut as inmate Martin Montgomery, who attempted and failed gruesomely to blackmail Dean Winters' Ryan O'Reilly into paying top dollar for his loyalty on the HBO series "Oz" (1997-2003). He returned to the KISS fold in 2003 for a tour with Aerosmith, but was dismissed when his contract expired in 2004. In the years that followed his final tour with KISS, Criss maintained a low profile at home in New Jersey, emerging only sporadically to release a 2007 solo album, One For All. In 2008, he was diagnosed with and successfully treated for breast cancer. The following year, he returned to acting in the conspiracy thriller "Frame of Mind" (2009).