Dear Guitar Hero: Richard Williams Discusses Kansas' History, Versatility and Lasting Influence

Richard Williams. He’s played on every Kansas album since with the group’s self-titled 1974 debut. But what Guitar World readers really want to know is…

Why do you think the Seventies produced so many iconic bands? — Rich Fazio

It was a time of unrestricted experimentation. In addition to pop-music groups, there were bands that stuck out of the box, and it was allowed by the record companies.

But the music business squashed that a long time ago. Bands are still playing challenging stuff, but in the popular world of music most of them are never going to see the light of day. The Seventies bands were immediately identifiable, and each had its own stamp.

Kansas sold out Madison Square Garden when they played there [June 28, 1978]. What do you remember about that show? — Carmine D’urso

Three things pop into my head right away. First, riding to the show in a limousine. It was just another arena show for us, because we were so unaffected by our success. In hindsight, though, I thought, Holy shit, we just played the Garden, and it sold out! The second thing that stands out is that, on the way to the show, Jeff Glixman, our road manager then, got pissed off after seeing people on the side streets selling bootleg Kansas T-shirts.

So he got out of the limo and told some guy to stop selling them, and the guy pointed a pistol at Jeff and told him to get out of his face. The third thing that comes to mind is we wanted to record our live album, Two for the Show, at the Garden. We had the mobile recording track with us at the venue that night, but the American Federation of Musicians wanted to charge us $50,000 to use it, so we told the union we weren’t paying that sum of money and recorded the album in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

Although Kansas is best known for “Carry On Wayward Son” and “Dust in the Wind,” to me those songs don’t accurately represent the group’s sound. Overall, on the majority of your catalog, Kansas sounds like an American counterpart to European progressive rock bands such as Yes and King Crimson. Would you agree? — Albert Morris

The heart of Kansas is in that style of music, but we don’t sound like any of those groups. We’re a ballsy American rock band above all. But those bands were our heroes and made us realize that you could assemble songs in weird time signatures and didn’t have to format music in a traditional manner. Those are the types of influences that, collectively, brought the original members of Kansas together. Personally, I loved early Yes, early Genesis and Gentle Giant, and each of the bands from that genre were completely and uniquely different from each other.

Kansas’ level of musicianship is awesome, yet you’ve channeled that virtuosity into many catchy, memorable songs. What makes the band so versatile? — Mike Sabatino

Coming out of Topeka, Kansas, there were a lot of guitarists I knew who were better than me. If music were all about virtuosity and chops, we’d all be listening to very high-brow jazz and the opera and symphonies. Individually, the members of Kansas are all pretty darn good, but collectively, the sum of the parts is incomparable.

One of the great things about music is that you can sit down and play by yourself, but it’s far more joyful to hear the organic sound of people of like thought playing together. That’s what music is all about. The members of Kansas had a common direction. We were friends who stuck together and created something magical.

I saw the promotional video for Kansas’ documentary, Miracles Out of Nowhere, online. I was happy to see artists as diverse as Brian May and Garth Brooks gush about the band. Why do you think Kansas’ music appeals to not just the public at large but big-name musicians as well? — John Dinapoli

There’s an honesty to our music; all people can relate to it. We’re not contrived, we’re not an act, and we’ve never chased fame. We’ve always been a hard-working, blue-collar band. Kansas was the opening act for Queen’s first U.S. tour, and we bonded with those guys. Brian’s appreciation for us has always been heartfelt.

I’ve known for years that Garth was one of our biggest fans. He’s been able to incorporate the rock-concert experience into country music, which I’m proud to say was partly inspired by Kansas and his admiration of us. Regarding the documentary, we just wanted to tell the story of the original band members coming from Topeka and climbing to the top of the mountain.

When all the original members were in the band, Kansas could replicate its studio recordings with great clarity and precision onstage. How did you guys pull this off so effortlessly? — Vincent Macrino

It was the mindset at the time. Onstage, we’d play our most demanding songs from our albums and pull them off. We’d record the songs as if we were playing them live.

What was it like coming from Topeka to New York City to record Kansas’ first album at the Record Plant, where John Lennon and other famous artists also happened to be recording at the time? — Lauren Glaser

It was quite an experience. I didn’t get to see John Lennon—I would’ve shit myself had I did—because we were on the graveyard shift in Studio C while the big acts were recording in a different part of the building. The studio was near Times Square, which was not cleaned up like it is today. There were drug dealers, hookers and porn everywhere. It wasn’t safe walking those streets at night.

People would approach you and say, “Wanna buy some shit?” It was terrifying. As for our first album, it was recorded, mixed and completed in three weeks. I cowrote the opening track, “Can I Tell You,” which was the song that caught [manager/producer] Don Kirshner’s attention and landed us a record deal.

Kerry Livgren was Kansas’ primary songwriter during the band’s heyday. How much input did you have on his songs? — Pete Bedrosian

It varied. Some songs were written entirely by Kerry, while others were a group effort. He has the remarkable ability to compose songs in his head in an evening; then he’d present them to the band, tell us what to play, and we’d help him arrange the parts and offer our suggestions.

Kerry was influenced by classical music, and it shows in his writing. Besides being a superb guitarist and keyboardist, Kerry is a songwriting genius. I mean, here’s a guy who was able to turn a fingerpicking exercise, “Dust in the Wind,” into one of the most popular songs of all time! There is and never has been a song like that on the radio.

“Icarus (Borne on Wings of Steel)” is one of the heaviest yet most progressive songs I’ve ever heard. What inspired it? — Sid Rosenthal

The song revolves around the whole concept of flight. Kerry was very inspired by aviation. Both he and his father flew planes. The lyrics are about the story of Icarus, and musically the song has many shifts in dynamics. Whenever a band member would bring in a song, it would go through the Kansas “meat grinder,” in that we would just chew it to pieces. Each member of the band would challenge one another. Dave [Hope, bass], in particular, was brutal. He would say things like, “That middle section sucks! Crank it up! We need something with more backbone there.” “Icarus” goes over great live. The crowd goes wild when we play it.

Can you talk about the incident that led up to you losing your right eye one Fourth of July in your early teens when a homemade bomb blew up in your face? — Gary Deleo

It was the summer between seventh and eighth grade. It was hotter than hell, and I had already blown up all my fireworks. So I took money out of my coin collection and got on my bicycle and rode to the outskirts of town to buy more fireworks. Then I went down to my basement and dumped all the powder from the firecrackers into a glass medicine bottle with a porcelain top with the intention of making a bomb that would make more of a statement than simply blowing up a bunch of firecrackers.

But when I twisted the lid shut, the friction from the threading on the bottle sparked, and the whole thing exploded and ripped me to pieces, and my parents rushed me to the hospital. I wore a prosthetic eye for a while, but I got rid of it because it wasn’t very comfortable.

What inspired you to play guitar, and who are your musical influences? — Jerry Egan

Seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 inspired me to want to be in a band. I didn’t begin playing guitar then, but that’s when I wanted to start. The guitarists in the Yardbirds had a huge influence on me—Page, Clapton and Beck contributed greatly to the development of rock guitar. And John Mayall’s Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton was mind blowing. It was an album where guitar was not a background accompaniment; it hit you right in your face. That was “Guitar 101” to me.

Photo: Neil Zlozower/Atlas Icons

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