Three bands were the undisputed arena rock kings of the early
80"s - Styx, Journey, and REO Speedwagon - yet all weren't overnight success
stories (in fact, each group began pursuing different musical styles originally
- prog-rock, fusion, and straight ahead hard rock, respectively, before
transforming slowly into chart-topping mainstream rockers). REO Speedwagon first
formed in 1968, via a pair of University of Illinois students, keyboardist Neal
Doughty and drummer Alan Gratzer. After graduation, REO Speedwagon signed on
with then unknown manager Irving Azoff (who would later guide the careers of
such multi-platinum acts as the Eagles and Steely Dan), which led to the outfit
building a devoted following in the Midwest due to non-stop touring.
By the early 70"s, REO Speedwagon’s Doughty and Gratzer had
welcomed aboard guitarist Gary Richrath to, who would soon prove to be
Speedwagon’s sparkplug (and one of rock's more underrated players), in addition
to bassist Gregg Philbin and singer Terry Luttrell. It was this line-up to be
featured on REO Speedwagon’s 1971 self-titled debut recording, for Epic Records.
The debut failed to break REO Speedwagon through to the
mainstream, as the band's future was thrust into uncertainty shortly thereafter,
when Luttrell left the band.
Speedwagon’s newcomer Kevin Cronin got the gig, who was a
folk singer/guitarist beforehand, with little to no experience fronting a loud
rock n" roll outfit. The Cronin-led line-up appeared to be headed in the right
direction though, judging from 1972"s "REO 2," but the other members of REO
Speedwagon grew impatient with their slow progress towards a commercial
breakthrough, and gave Cronin his walking papers.
Up next as REO Speedwagon’s front man was Mike Murphy, whose
debut with the band, 1974"s "Ridin" the Storm Out," was their first album to
chart on Billboard, and spawned a concert standard with the rocking title track.
Murphy stayed on board for a couple of more releases - 1974"s "Lost in a Dream"
and 75"s "This Time We Mean It" - but neither managed to push REO Speedwagon to
the next level.
Once more, a front man change was required, and instead of
searching for a fresh new face, REO Speedwagon welcomed back Cronin. The move
paid off almost immediately, as REO Speedwagon found their niche by streamlining
their sound, and focusing on melodic rockers aimed at radio, as well as power
ballads aimed at teenage girls" hearts.
1976"s "REO" signaled the beginning of REO Speedwagon’s
winning streak, as both 77"s "Live: You Get What You Play For" and 78"s "You Can
Tune A Piano, But You Can't Tuna Fish" were REO Speedwagon's first to earn gold
and platinum certification. Another live album, "Live Again," was also issued in
1978, followed up a year later by another gold-certified hit, "Nine Lives."
Although REO Speedwagon was slowly inching their way to
big-time success, no one (not even the band) could have predicted the massive
hit that their next album turned out to be, "Hi Infidelity." Issued at the tail
end of 1980, it became one of 81"s biggest albums - spawning one of the best
known power ballads of all-time, "Keep on Loving You," as well as such popular
rock radio hits as "Don't Let Him Go" and "Take it on the Run." "Hi Infidelity"
would eventually go on to sell more than 9 million copies - catapulting REO
Speedwagon to arena headlining status.
REO Speedwagon continued to score further hit albums (1982"s
"Good Trouble," 84"s "Wheels are Turnin"") and singles ("Keep the Fire Burnin","
the #1 hit power ballad "Can't Fight this Feeling," etc.), but the hits dried up
1987"s "Life As We Know It" managed to go gold, but REO
Speedwagon’s fan's sudden disinterest coupled with turmoil between certain band
members led to the exit of both Richrath and Gratzer by the end of the decade.
REO Speedwagon opted to solider on however, with replacement
members Dave Amato (ex-Ted Nugent, guitar) and Bryan Hitt (ex-Wang Chung, drums)
in tow, as their 1988 14-track compilation, "The Hits," proved to be a steady
seller over the years. Further underappreciated studio releases followed, such
as 1990"s "The Earth, A Small Man, His Dog and a Chicken" and 96"s "Building the
With interest at an all-time low, REO Speedwagon was set to
pack it up for good, until a sudden wave of renewed interest in classic rock
bands of yesteryear began to sweep the U.S. during the late 90"s, resulting in
REO Speedwagon launching successful co-headlining tours alongside such acts as
Styx, Fleetwood Mac, Pat Benatar, Foreigner, Peter Frampton, Journey, Lynyrd
Skynyrd, and Bad Company, among others.
The 90"s saw the emergence of countless REO Speedwagon
compilations, including such titles as "The Second Decade of Rock n" Roll: 1981
to 1991," "Only the Strong Survive," "The Ballads," and a specially priced 3
disc set of "Live: You Get What You Play For," "You Can Tune a Piano, But You
Can't Tuna Fish," and "Hi Infidelity." Additionally, further in-concert releases
cropped up - "Live: Plus," "Extended Versions," and a 2001 live set, "Arch
Allies: Live at Riverport," split 50/50 between REO Speedwagon and touring mates
Styx. In a 2001 episode of VH1"s "Behind the Music" series that focused on REO
Speedwagon, Cronin and Richrath cleared up any misconceptions of ill will
existing between either camp, and voiced approval of a possible reunion for REO
Speedwagon in the future.
REO SPEEDWAGON KEVIN CRONIN. REO Speedwagon’s Lead Singer and
principle songwriter. He joined the group in 1972 in time for the band's second
album, REO/TWO A year later, he left to pursue a solo career. Cronin returned to
the fold in time for 1977"s Live: You Get What You Play For, the band's first