By Meagan Douches
Cheech Iero is a Hamilton resident that prefers to stay under the radar.
Frank A. Iero, Sr.—better known as Cheech—is considered to be one of the best drummers on the East Coast. He’s worked with countless music legends including John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Johnny Cash, the Blues Brothers and Iggy Pop. The musician taught John Lennon’s son, Julian, to play drums, and he says he happened to be one of the last people to see the former Beatle the night of his assassination.
“We had been working in the studio and John [Lennon] was recording an album,” Iero said. “That night, we found out that the single ‘Starting Over’ had just gone gold, so we were having a little party. I had to go to another session somewhere and I was driving home through the tunnel and then he got shot. I had just left him.”
Ironically enough, as Iero recounts this story at the Barnes and Noble coffee shop in Hamilton Marketplace, The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” plays in the background. Iero doesn’t seem to notice as he leans back in his chair, folding his hands into the pockets of his black leather jacket and peering out from behind his dark sunglasses.
Iero is modest about his success, though, and tries to avoid the spotlight. When asked to do an interview, he responded, “What do you want to interview me for? I’m not that interesting! It’s my son you should talk to!”
That son is Frank Iero, Jr., a musician best known as the rhythm guitarist of My Chemical Romance, a rock band that reached international fame in the mid-2000s with hit albums like “Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge” and “The Black Parade.” While Cheech promotes his son’s success as any proud parent would, his own backstory is just as fascinating of a tale.
Iero was born and raised in Trenton and graduated from Trenton High School in 1965. His father, Frank J. Iero, was also a drummer and was a member of the Jimmy Vincent Trio and the Russ Radice Band. He sparked Cheech’s interest in music as a young child and began teaching him to play the drums.
“My father was a big inspiration,” Iero said. “Just seeing him up there and watching how happy he was when he was playing—I never saw him smile like that. He was on top of the world.”
Iero formed his first band, The Rainbows, when he was 9. It wasn’t long before the group booked their first gig, which Iero says they took very seriously, planning out a set list and writing several of their own songs.
“We had had like four lessons, but it was cute,” he said. “We even earned $7 a piece.”
As he got older, Iero continued to practice his music, though his father told him he was going to become a doctor. This led him to attend college at Rocky Mountain College in Montana where Iero earned a bachelor’s in Biology and Chemistry.
While Iero did well in school, it was clear that the sciences were not his true passion.
“I used to sneak up to New York and tell my parents I was out studying with the guys,” Iero said. “We would go into the Village and go see Frank Zappa.”
After graduating college, Iero spent his days taking the train into New York City and knocking on doors to try and make connections. He says that he became friends with some janitors at the recording studios who eventually introduced him to the higher-ups.
In the late ’70s, Iero began writing for different publications and was hired as the editor of Modern Drummer Magazine, where he had the opportunity to meet many people in the business. Around the same time, Iero got a position as the Project Coordinator and Staff Drummer at Record Plant Recording Studios in Manhattan. The studio produced records for many musicians, including Jimi Hendrix, Lou Reed, Fleetwood Mac, Aerosmith and Alice Cooper.
In the early ’80s, Iero did an interview with Peter Criss, drummer for the rock group Kiss, for Modern Drummer Magazine. Iero found out that Criss was leaving the band and that the group was in search of a new drummer. He tried out for the position. The band wound up loving him, and asked Iero to join them for their upcoming world tour.
At the same time, Frank, Jr. had just been born. Iero knew that joining the group meant prioritizing his music career and leaving his family for months at a time to travel and perform. He felt torn between fame and family, but in the end, he decided that his family was more important than his rock career.
“Record Plant had a recording studio in Sausalito, and I was always traveling back and forth. My son was really small and I was missing his first words,” Iero said. “It was hard.”
So Iero told the manager of Kiss that he couldn’t go on tour.
Though Iero gave up his chance to tour with Kiss, in doing so he was able to maintain a close relationship with his son.
“My father found out how to study music, enrich his playing, perform and record with legends,” said Iero’s son Frank, “and [he] still found the time to do dumb stuff with his kid like water balloon fights and imaginary treasure hunts.”
While some people would think that the offer to become part of a famous rock group must have been the height of his music career, Iero sees it differently. He says that the biggest highlight was years later when he got to work with his son, creating music and playing drums for My Chemical Romance’s album “The Black Parade.” Iero played drums on the albums’ hit track, “The Black Parade,” and fourth single “Teenagers,” which were both released with the album in 2006.
“They goofed on me so bad in the studio, but it was fun,” he said.
Like his father before him, Iero began teaching his son to play drums from a very young age. As he got older, Iero would take his son on the road from time to time. Yet, he says he never imagined that Frank would follow in his footsteps and become a professional musician.
“He was in his senior year of college, on an academic scholarship, when he told me he was going to drop out and go on the road with this band,” Iero said.
Iero was very upset when he found out Frank was dropping out of school and he tried to convince him to wait until graduation. Though, having the same passion for music, he understood his son’s choice. The band, of course, was My Chemical Romance. MCR took off soon after Frank joined the group.
“And the rest is history,” Iero said. “So he did pretty well for himself!”
While Iero had imagined a different lifestyle for his son, there was no denying that Frank had the same veneration for music as his father and grandfather.
“As a kid there was no question what I wanted to be when I grew up,” Frank said. “I wanted to be in a band, I wanted to play shows, I wanted to be my grandfather… I imagine the same went for my dad. There would be no us if it weren’t for him, and he was our role model.”
After living in San Diego and working at Black Ball Music during the 90s, Iero decided to return to Mercer County in 2004 when his mother became ill. His parents and his sister lived in Lawrenceville.
Iero worked as the head of the Trenton Community School Percussion Department for several years and was an investigator for the Mercer County Persecutors Office until he retired in 2012.
Iero never gave up music. He kept his passion alive, and still does today, by teaching drum lessons to the next generation of music-lovers. Iero does private lessons from his Hamilton home, where he lives with his wife Deborah, as well as lessons at Music Forte in Levittown, Pennsylvania. He now has three grandchildren—Lily, Cherry and Miles—who he hopes to see around the holidays.
Though things didn’t go quite as expected, Iero says that he couldn’t be happier with the way that everything turned out.
“I’m so proud of [Frank],” Iero said. “He’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Currently on tour with his band, FrnkIero And The Cellabration, Frank is now experiencing the same music/family balancing act that his father went through many years ago.
Iero and his son are planning to head into the studio in January to collaborate on some new music together.
Iero says that he also spends much of his time working with A-Cappella Drumsticks, a family-owned company based out of Hightstown which was previously known as Cappella Drumsticks. Iero is currently teaming up with owner Carmen Cappella to design a line of vintage model drumsticks, mallets and brushes for underground percussion.