REO Speedwagon - Biography
By David Downs
REO Speedwagon is more of a legend than a working band. At this point, the group has had more former members than current ones and only one of its founders remains in the line-up. But the spirit of REO, with its soaring guitars, melodic piano, and anthemic, reverb-laden arena balladry, lives on in classic radio playlists and the hearts of millions of aging listeners. The band formed in 1968 in Illinois and, although they debuted on Epic records in 1971, it was 1980’s Hi Infidelity (Epic) with its iconic power ballad “Keep on Loving You” that launched the band into the spotlight. Good Trouble (Epic) added the hit “Keep the Fire Burnin’” in 1982 and 1984’s Wheels Are Turnin’ (Epic) added “Can’t Fight This Feeling” to the soundtrack of adolescent slow dances of a generation. Ignored by the Grammys, REO enjoyed more street-level support, selling nine million copies of Hi Infidelity. They rocked the middle of the Billboard 200 for the good part of two decades before hurtling out of popularity in the ‘90s. REO Speedwagon continues to tour, but as a nostalgia act.
In 1966, REO Speedwagon’s only consistent member, keyboardist Neal Doughty entered University of Illinois in Champaign, Illinois as an electrical engineering major and found himself woefully unprepared. He met fellow engineering student Alan Gratzer, another long-haired flower power kid capable of doing differential equations. Gratzer drummed in a band that he installed Doughty in after their keyboardist was fired. Named after an old truck that Doughty had studied in Transportation History, REO Speedwagon’s first gig was a frat party that turned into a food fight. They were paid $40. Through numerous line-up changes, Doughty and Gratzer added pivotal guitarist Gary Richrath in late 1970. Richrath, from Peoria, Illinois, was also a songwriter and would go on to write future REO hits. The group toured locally and developed the Midwest core of their international fanbase. The group signed with future music mogul Irving Azoff and Epic Records in 1971.
R.E.O. Speedwagon (Epic), their 1971 debut, featured Doughty, Gratzer, Richrath, bassist Gregg Philbin, and singer Terry Luttrell. The album failed to make an impact. The band switched lead vocalists three times for their first three albums. Luttrell left and folksinger/guitarist Kevin Cronin stepped in for 1972’s R.E.O./T.W.O. (Epic). Cronin would later play a bigger role in REO, but he would be fired and rehired before that happened. Mike Murphy fronted the band on 1974’s Ridin’ the Storm Out (Epic), which managed to get onto the Billboard charts with the title track. The electrical synthesizer intro segues into hard-charging arena rock with a soft edge, preceding the ‘80s arena rock sound by more than half a decade. Two more albums failed to yield notice, and Cronin returned for the band’s true rise to fame.
In 1976, the band recorded R.E.O. (Epic), which was well received, as was the following year’s platinum-selling Live: You Get What You Play For (1977 Epic). REO was a live band, and they were learning to channel that energy into recordings. You Can Tune a Piano, But You Can’t Tuna Fish (Epic), their seventh studio album, was released in 1978 and went double platinum.
Hi Infidelity ditched the band’s rougher, more progressive edges and launched four hit singles written by Richrath and Cronin. The biggest of the singles was “Keep on Loving You” – all cheesy piano and distorted guitar. Produced by Cronin, Gratzer, and Richrath, the album channels an amphitheater’s worth of reverb and treble. Hi Infidelity charted for 65 weeks, including three months at number one, competing only with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, as well as Styx.
In 1982, the band’s tenth album, Good Trouble (Epic), became their second-best seller, hitting number seven on the Billboard charts with the single “Keep the Fire Burnin.’” REO’s reign began to end with Wheels Are Turnin’ (1984 Epic). Again self-produced, the album features the number one single “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” arguably the apex of their mainstream penetration with its bright keyboard tinkles and soft rock balladry.
Commercial prospects slid with 1987’s Life as We Know It (Epic), which went gold. Soon band turmoil made Richrath and Gratzer quit by the end of the decade. New members cycled through a series of ignored studio releases. As grunge raged across the country’s musical landscape, REO fans became characterized in pop culture as ignorant and out of touch. Yet, in the late ‘90s, the band could still co-headline tours with groups like Styx, Fleetwood Mac, Journey, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. A slew of REO compilations filled the racks of franchise music stores. Epic dumped them, and the band’s later self-financed records didn’t chart. As of 2009, the band consists of Cronin, Doughty, Bruce Hall on bass, Dave Amato on lead guitar, and Bryan Hitt on drums. In September 2015, guitarist Gary Richrath died. Cause of death is unknown.