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REO Speedwagon

REO Speedwagon

REO Speedwagon , 1980s-era Midwestern purveyors of pop power ballads. Membership: Neal Doughty, kybd. (b. Evanston, Ill., July 29, 1946); Alan Gratzer, drm. (b. Syracuse, N.Y., Nov. 9, 1948); Barry Lutnell, voc; Greg Philbin, bs.; Kevin Cronin, gtr., voc. (b. Evanston, Ill., Oct. 6, 1951); Michael Murphy, voc; Bruce Hall, bs. (b. Champaign, Ill., May 3, 1953); Dave Amato, gtr. (b. March 3, 1953); Bryan Hitt, drm. (b. Jan. 5, 1954); Jesse Harms, kybd. (b. July 6, 1952).

REO Speedwagon began life as a bunch of Univ. of Ill. students playing hard boogie rock. Taking its name from a kind of fire truck, the band became popular in clubs around the Midwest, and came to the attention of manager Irving Azoff, who also handled The Eagles and Steely Dan. The band worked its way up to opening act status and signed with Epic records. REO went through several personnel changes through the early part of the 1970s, replacing vocalist Barry Lutnell with Kevin Cronin, and bassist Greg Philbin with Bruce Hall. Cronin, more folk-oriented than the rest of the hard-rocking band, took a stab at a solo career and was replaced for three albums by Michael Murphy. These recordings were steady, but not big, sellers. Cronin returned for 1976’s REO, an album that, if anything, sold less than the band’s previous efforts.

REO’s biggest problem was that their studio albums didn’t capture the appeal of their live shows. So, the band put out a live album, You Get What You Play For, which went platinum, bringing them new fans. With You Can Tune a Piano, but You Can’t Tuna Fish, the members started producing themselves, with the band’s musical yin and yang—reformed folkie Cronin and unrepentant hard-rock guitarist Richrath—leading the charge. The creative fusion worked and the band started to break through outside the Midwest, even placing a song, “Roll with the Changes,” onto the upper reaches of the charts in 1978. The album hit #29 on the charts and went platinum. Continuing to straddle this tenuous creative razor blade, Nine Lives went gold, hitting #33.

This set the stage for High Infidelity, a theme album about relationships that went over to the pop side of the spectrum. The 1980 chart- topping, platinum hit “Keep on Loving You” introduced the power ballad to pop radio. The band followed this up with the gold #5 “Take It on The Run” and the Top-30 “In Your Letter.” Produced with the aural equivalent of a high-gloss finish, full of angelic harmonies and bright guitar work, the album spent 15 weeks at #1, eventually selling more than nine million copies.

Although the next album, Good Trouble, went platinum and spawned the #7 1982 hit “Keep the Fire Burnin’” and the #29 “Sweet Time,” the group considered it a pretty weak album, done in too big a hurry to capitalize on their success. So the group took a much-needed break, reconvening for Wheels are Turning in 1984. The second single released off the album, “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” confounded everyone who claimed the group was over, topping the pop chart for three weeks and going gold. While the follow-up singles were less-successful, the album eventually went double platinum.

In 1987, the group continued working, landing three more hit singles from the gold Life As We Know It: “That’ Ain’t Love” (#16), “In My Dreams” (#19) and “Here with Me” (#20). In 1990, two founding members, drummer Alan Gratzer and guitarist Gary Richrath, left the band. Richrath eventually resurfaced in his own band. While none of REO Speedwagon’s subsequent albums, with former Wang Chung drummer Bryan Hitt and former Ted Nugent guitarist Dave Amato, charted, the band continued to be a live attraction, returning to its original role as a popular live band that sold a few albums.

Discography

REO Speedwagon (1971); R.E.O. 2 (1972); Lost in a Dream (1974); Ridin’ the Storm Out (1974); This Time We Mean It (1975); R.E.O (1976); Live Again (1978); You Can Tune a Piano, but You Can’t Tuna Fish (1978); Nine Lives (1979); Hi-Infidelity (1980); Good Trouble (1982); Wheels Are Turnin’ (1984); You Get What You Play For[live] (1985); Life As We Know It (1987); The Earth, a Small Man, His Dog and a Chicken (1990); Second Decade of Rock & Roll (1991); Believe in Rock & Roll (1995); Building the Bridge (1996); The Ballads (1999).

—Hank Bordowitz

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