Powered by the vocals and songwriting prowess of guitarist Kevin Cronin, REO Speedwagon continues to bring their brand of Midwest rock and roll to the masses. The band tours with an arsenal of hit songs, many of which can still be found in regular rotation on classic rock radio.
Cronin briefly departed the band during sessions for Ridin’ the Storm Out but rejoined in 1976. Together with guitarist Gary Richrath (whose Gibson Les Paul sound became synonymous with the band’s biggest hits), REO Speedwagon broke into the mainstream in 1980 with Hi Infidelity, an album that sold more than 9 million copies and gave the band its first No. 1 hit, “Keep On Loving You."
Richrath left the group in 1989 and was replaced by Dave Amato, whose resume includes stints with Ted Nugent and Richie Sambora.
I spoke with Cronin about this year's Midwest Rock ‘n Roll Express Tour, which includes veteran rockers Styx and Nugent. We also discussed Hi Infidelity and Cronin's recent encounter with Richrath.
GUITAR WORLD: Where did the idea for the Midwest Rock and Roll Express tour originate?
We had always been toying with the idea of taking a little bit of our Midwest culture and bringing it around the country. So last year I called my buddy Tommy Shaw, and he told me he was in. Then, to find that third piece, Tommy mentioned Nugent (from his Damn Yankees relationship). The idea worked out so well that we decided to do it all again this year.
Nugent has made some controversial statements lately. Was that a concern?
You know, it's America and everyone has a right to their own opinion. But I don't see Ted as this polarizing political figure. When I think of Ted, I think of one of the greatest lead guitar players around. He's just got that incredible tone and attitude. Back in the day, he and [Gary] Richrath were the guitar heroes from the Midwest.
Let's talk about Hi Infidelity. What personal relationships inspired that album?
Hi Infidelity was one of those records where the stars just all lined up. The fact is, we had either been in the studio or on the road for a long time, and the nonstop process was starting to take its toll on all of our relationships. It all came to a head in 1980, when we started working on songs for the album. As a songwriter, you write about what's happening in your life. At the time, my marriage was in bad shape and so was Gary's. Neal [Doughty, keyboardist] actually came home from the tour to find a letter on the kitchen table from his wife saying she had split. That's actually where the song "In Your Letter" came from.
Another pivotal moment was the song "Keep On Loving You."
That was the song no one wanted to record. Everyone thought it was this sort-of "wimpy" piano ballad, but I kept playing the melody over and over in the studio until everyone was sick of it [laughs]. Then one day, Gary decided to plug his Les Paul into a double stack of Marshalls. He turned it up as loud and nasty as possible and started playing along with me trying to drown me out. But once I heard the way the song sounded with the sweet piano melody and the gnarly guitars, the lightbulb went off, and I said, "This is it!"
People like to think that it was some secret formula we discovered to get a hit single, but the truth is it was an accident [laughs].
What was it like for you growing up and playing?
Guitar saved my life. I really wanted to be the point guard on our basketball team, but unfortunately I wasn't given that gift. So I started taking guitar lessons but wasn't really sure why I was taking them. Then on a night in 1964, I saw the Beatles play on Ed Sullivan and everything changed for me. They were the first band that played their instruments, sang their songs and wrote their songs. They encapsulated everything I wanted to do and from then on, there was no other option.
Tell me how you came up with "Roll With The Changes."
When I rejoined the band, they were all living in LA and I was in Chicago. I wasn't too keen on living there but eventually decided to relocate to LA. At the time, I remember feeling the need to feel the Earth roll beneath me as I moved from Chicago to LA, so I decided to drive it. I hooked a little U-Haul trailer up to my Ford Pinto station wagon and headed west. Somewhere between Denver and Albuquerque, I had this idea that a lot of things were changing for me and I was "rolling."
I was driving at the time and couldn't pull over, but I had this brown paper bag from when I had stopped earlier at a truck stop. So as I'm driving, I started writing the lyrics down on this brown paper bag. The truth is you never know when you're going to be inspired. Having said that, I definitely don't recommend songwriting and cross-country driving at the same time [laughs].
Tell me about the interesting encounter you had with Gary recently.
Gary and I hadn't seen each other in way too long and I wanted to touch base with him and see what was going on. We finally were able to connect and got together for lunch. It was great because Gary got some things off his chest, and we both got to share some things neither of us really knew about that went back twenty years.
A few days after our meeting, I got a call from him, and he said, "Dude, I want my guitar back." We had a 1941 Martin D-28 with herringbone binding. It's a beautiful acoustic Gary bought back in 1980. Back then, we had always shared each other’s equipment. Gary even had one of my Les Pauls and some recording equipment that eventually was stolen when his house was broken into. We had never "officially" traded each other, but since I had played most of the acoustic parts on the records, it just sort of evolved that the Martin wound up in my possession.
This particular D-28 was the one I played on every record since Hi Infidelity. It's a very special instrument, to say the least. So when Gary told me he wanted it back, I was like, "Dude, you want it back? Can I buy it from you?" [laughs]. He said he had been writing and just wanted it back, so we set up a day for me to return it to him.
In the meantime though, I took another guitar I had in an old tweed case from my collection. It was a Fender Nocaster (a 1951, before they had settled on the name Telecaster). I knew that it was valuable, but since I didn't play it much, I thought Gary might take it as a trade for the Martin. So I stuck it in my car and brought it along. As I'm about to give the Martin to Gary, I tell him about this "other" guitar I had with me.
I open the case and Gary looks at the Nocaster and says, "Uhm, that's my guitar too!" [laughs]. So basically, as if it wasn't already hard enough to part with the Martin, I had to part with the Nocaster too! The two most valuable guitars in my collection turned out to be Gary's all the time [laughs]. It was awesome though, because they're meant to be with him, and it felt good to give them back.
What are your best memories of working with Gary?
Gary was my rock and roll older brother. Everything I know about being in a rock band I learned just by watching him. He was a huge influence on me. I miss the guy, there's no question about it. Fortunately, we found Dave Amato, who's been with us now for 23 years and is doing an awesome job of filling those big shoes. It's bitter-sweet for sure.
Photo: Randee St. Nicholas
James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.