He didn't have the onstage theatrics of Ace Frehley or the fret fireworks of Vinnie Vincent, but Mark St. John was more than a foot solder in the KISS Army. The guitarist, who followed Frehley and Vincent in the legendary band's early 1980s lineup, died Thursday from an apparent brain hemorrhage. He was 51.
St. John, who's real name was Mark Leslie Norton, was the band's third lead guitarist, taking over for Vincent after he was fired by band leaders Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley following a tour in March 1984.
Originally a studio session player and guitar teacher, St. John participated in the recording of KISS' 1984 album, Animalize, generally considered to be the band's best album during their unmasked period in the '80s.
St. John's stint was short-lived, however. After playing three live shows and appearing in the video for "Heaven's on Fire," the musician was diagnosed with Reactive arthritis, aka Reiter's Syndrome, during rehearsals for a world tour. The condition caused his hands and arms to swell.
In December 1984, Simmons and Stanley replaced St. John with Bruce Kulick, who remained in the KISS roster through the rest of the decade.
St. John is the second former KISS member to die of brain hemorrhage. Eric Carr, who replaced drummer Peter Criss for a stretch, died on Nov. 24, 1991 (the same day as Queen singer Freddie Mercury) after suffering two cerebral hemorrhages.
Born on Feb. 7, 1956 in Hollywood, California, St. John spent his childhood and teen years in the SoCal city of Garden Grove, where his interests ran more toward jockdom than rock 'n' roll.
"I played all sports, in fact I played sports before I got into music, especially basketball. I mean I tried all sports but basketball is what I excelled in," he told fanzine KISS Strike.
In 1972, during his sophomore year of high school, he took up the instrument that would change the direction of his life, grew his hair out, and joined a band.
"I remember watching television and seeing the Beatles and the Rolling Stones on The Ed Sullivan Show," St. John once told KISS Force in an interview. "They didn't have tubas, they had guitars and everyone was going crazy and that put a spark in my mind. The guitar is rock 'n' roll. That's what it's all about...the guitar is what's happening."
He taught guitar and played in a cover band called Front Page, before getting the call to join what at that time was one of the biggest rock acts in the world.
While his tenure with KISS was short, so was his bout with arthritis. St. John eventually formed his own metal band, White Tiger, in 1985 with younger bro Michael on bass and former Black Sabbath singer David Donato on vocals. The outfit released an independent album, which sold a tepid 50,000 copies.
St. John continued to collaborate with various musicians in the studio and onstage, including Criss, with whom he shopped a demo. The guitarist also appeared at KISS conventions and even surfaced in a music video for David Hasselhoff.
His most recent solo effort was a 2003 instrumental album Magic Bullet Theory.
St. John is survived by his brother Michael and a younger sister. Funeral arrangements are pending.