REO Speedwagon (originally styled as R.E.O. Speedwagon) is an American rock band. Formed in 1967, the band cultivated a following during the 1970s and achieved significant commercial success throughout the 1980s. Hi Infidelity (1980) contained four US Top 40 hits and is the group’s best-selling album, with over ten million copies sold.
Over the course of its career, the band has sold more than 40 million records and has charted thirteen Top 40 hits, including the number ones «Keep On Loving You», «Take It on the Run», and «Can’t Fight This Feeling». REO Speedwagon’s mainstream popularity dissipated in the 1990s but the band remains a popular live act.
In the fall of 1966, Neal Doughty entered the electrical engineering program at the University of Illinois in Champaign, Illinois, coming in as a junior. On his first night, he met another student, Alan Gratzer. They held an impromptu jam session in the basement of their Illinois Street Residence Hall dormitory, and soon started a rock band. Gratzer had been a drummer since high school, and was playing in a local group on the weekends, while Doughty had learned some Beatles songs on his parents’ piano.
Doughty started to follow around Gratzer’s band, eventually sitting in on a song or two. The keyboard player was the leader, but several other band members weren’t happy with the situation. On the last day of the university’s spring semester, guitarist Joe Matt called the band’s leader and told him that he, drummer Gratzer, and bassist Mike Blair had decided to leave the band and start a new one with Doughty.
They made a list of songs to learn over the summer break, and Doughty landed a summer job to buy his first keyboard. On his Farfisa organ, he learned «Light My Fire» by The Doors. The members returned to school in the fall of 1967, and had their first rehearsal before classes even started. They named the band REO Speedwagon, from the REO Speed Wagon, a flatbed truck Doughty had studied in transportation history, and the initials are those of its founder Ransom E. Olds. Rather than pronouncing REO as a single word as the motor company did, they chose to spell out the name with the individual letters each pronounced («R-E-O»). An ad in the school newspaper produced their first job, a fraternity party that turned into a food fight. They continued to perform cover songs in campus bars, fraternity parties, and university events. The first lineup consisted of Doughty on keyboards, Gratzer on drums and vocals, Joe Matt on guitar and vocals, Mike Blair on bass and vocals.
In the spring of 1968, Terry Luttrell became lead singer, and Bob Crownover and Gregg Philbin replaced Matt and Blair, respectively. Marty Shepard played trumpet and Joe McCabe played sax until McCabe moved to Southern Illinois University. Crownover played guitar for the group until the summer of 1969 when Bill Fiorio replaced him. Fiorio then departed in late 1969, eventually assuming the name Duke Tumatoe, and went on to form the All Star Frogs. Steve Scorfina (who would go on to found progressive rock/album-oriented rock band Pavlov’s Dog) came aboard for over a year, composing with the band and performing live, before being replaced by Gary Richrath in late 1970.
Richrath was a Peoria, Illinois-based guitarist and prolific songwriter who brought fresh original material to the band. With Richrath on board, the regional popularity of the band grew tremendously. The Midwestern United States was the original REO Speedwagon fan stronghold and is pivotal in this period of the band’s history.
The band signed to Epic Records in 1971. Paul Leka, an East Coast record producer, brought the band to his recording studio in Bridgeport, Connecticut where it recorded original material for its first album. The lineup on the first album consisted of Richrath, Gratzer, Doughty, Philbin, and Luttrell.
With their equipment being hauled to dates in a friend’s station wagon, REO played bars and clubs all over the Midwest. The band’s debut album, R.E.O. Speedwagon, was released on Epic Records in 1971. The most popular track on this record was «157 Riverside Avenue». The title refers to the Westport, Connecticut address, where the band stayed while recording in Leka’s studio in Bridgeport and remains an in-concert favorite.
Although the rest of the band’s line-up remained stable, REO Speedwagon switched lead vocalists three times for their first three albums. Luttrell left the band in early 1972, eventually becoming the vocalist for Starcastle. He was replaced by Kevin Cronin. Cronin recorded one album with the band, 1972’s R.E.O./T.W.O. but left the band during the recording sessions for 1973’s Ridin’ the Storm Out because of internal conflicts. Ridin’ the Storm Out was completed with Michael Bryan Murphy on lead vocal, and featured Neal Doughty’s memorable «wailing storm siren» entrance on the title track. Murphy stayed on for two more albums, Lost in a Dream and This Time We Mean It, before Cronin returned to the fold in January 1976 and recorded R.E.O., which was released that same year.
Cronin’s return came after Greg X. Volz turned down the position for lead vocalist after becoming a born-again Christian.
In 1977 REO convinced Epic Records that their strength was in their live performances. Epic agreed to let them produce their first live album, Live: You Get What You Play For, which was eventually certified platinum. That same year, the band moved to Los Angeles, California.
In 1978, bassist Gregg Philbin left the band. Depending upon which band member is expressing an opinion, it was either because Philbin was disenchanted with the new corporate-structure REO where Cronin and Richrath got bigger slices of the pie instead of the equal credit they once shared as a «garage band», or he was asked to leave over his lifestyle issues affecting the music quality. Philbin was replaced with another Champaign, Illinois musician, Centennial High School alumnus, Bruce Hall, to record You Can Tune a Piano but You Can’t Tuna Fish. The album was released in 1978 and received FM radio airplay. The album was REO’s first to make the Top 40, peaking at #29. The album went on to sell over 2 million copies in the US, ultimately achieving double platinum status.
In 1979 the band took a turn back to hard rock with the release of Nine Lives.
The stage was now set for the height of the band’s popularity. On November 21, 1980, REO Speedwagon released Hi Infidelity, which represented a change in sound, going from hard rock to more pop-oriented material. Hi Infidelity spawned four hit singles written by Richrath and Cronin, including the chart-topping «Keep On Loving You» (Cronin), plus «Take It on the Run» (#5) (Richrath), «In Your Letter» (#20) (Richrath), and «Don’t Let Him Go» (#24) (Cronin), and remained on the charts for 65 weeks, 32 of which were spent in the top ten, including 15 weeks atop the Billboard 200. Hi Infidelity sold over 10 million copies and set the bar for rock bands across the country.
The band’s follow-up album, Good Trouble, was released in 1982. Although it was not as successful as its predecessor, the album performed moderately well commercially, featuring the hit singles «Keep the Fire Burnin'» (U.S. #7), «Sweet Time» (U.S. #26) and the Album Rock chart hit «The Key.»
The band came storming back two years later with Wheels Are Turnin’, an album that included the #1 hit single «Can’t Fight This Feeling» plus three more hits: «I Do’ Wanna Know» (U.S. #29), «One Lonely Night» (U.S. #19), and «Live Every Moment» (U.S. #34).
REO Speedwagon tour around the US in 1985, including a sold-out concert in Madison, Wisconsin in May. On July 13, on the way to a show in Milwaukee, the band made a stop in Philadelphia to play at the US leg of Live Aid, which broke a record for a number of viewers. They performed «Can’t Fight This Feeling» and «Roll With the Changes,» which featured members of the Beach Boys, the band members’ families, and Paul Shaffer on stage for backing vocals.
1987’s Life as We Know It saw a decline in sales, but still managed to provide the band with the top-20 hits «That Ain’t Love» (U.S. #16) and «In My Dreams» (U.S. #19). The Hits (1988) is a compilation album from REO Speedwagon. It contains new tracks «Here With Me» and «I Don’t Want to Lose You.» «Here with Me» cracked the top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the top ten on the Adult Contemporary chart. They were the last songs recorded with Gary Richrath and Alan Gratzer
By the late 1980s, the band’s popularity was starting to decline. Alan Gratzer left in September 1988 after he decided to retire from music to open a restaurant. In early 1989, Gary Richrath quit after tensions between him and Kevin Cronin boiled over. Cronin had been playing in The Strolling Dudes, a jazz ensemble that included jazz trumpet player Rick Braun (who had co-written the abovementioned «Here With Me» with Cronin), Miles Joseph on lead guitar and Graham Lear on drums. Lear had already been invited to join REO in September 1988 as Gratzer’s successor and Joseph was brought in as a temporary stand-in for Richrath. Back up singers Carla Day and Melanie Jackson were also added. This lineup did only one show, on January 7, 1989 in Viña del Mar, Chile, where it won the award for best group at the city’s annual International Song Festival. After that, Miles Joseph and the back up singers were dropped in favor of former Ted Nugent guitarist Dave Amato (who was brought aboard in May 1989) and keyboardist/songwriter/producer Jesse Harms.
The 1990 release The Earth, a Small Man, His Dog and a Chicken, with Bryan Hitt (formerly of Wang Chung) on drums, was a commercial disappointment. The album produced only one, and – to date – the band’s last Billboard Hot 100 single, «Love Is a Rock,» which peaked at #65. Harms, disenchanted by the album’s failure, left the group in early 1991.
Shortly after his departure, Richrath assembled former members of the Midwestern band Vancouver to form a namesake band, Richrath. After touring for several years, the Richrath band released Only the Strong Survive in 1992 on the GNP Crescendo label. Richrath (the band) continued to perform for several years before disbanding in the late 1990s. In September 1998, Gary Richrath briefly joined REO onstage at the County Fair in Los Angeles to play on band’s encore song, «157 Riverside Avenue». He then joined REO once again in Los Angeles in May 2000 for the same encore but no serious plans for a reunion ever materialized.
Without Richrath’s involvement, REO Speedwagon lost their recording contract with Epic, and ended up releasing Building the Bridge (1996) on the Priority/Rhythm Safari label. When that label went bankrupt, the album was released on Castle Records, which also experienced financial troubles. REO Speedwagon ultimately self-financed this effort, which failed to chart.
Revival of the hits
The commercial failure of the band’s newer material with its revised lineup demanded a change in marketing strategy. As a consequence, Epic began re-releasing recordings from older albums with updated artwork and design.
From 1995 to the present, the label released over a dozen compilation albums featuring greatest hits, including 1999’s The Ballads. In 2000, REO teamed up with Styx for an appearance at Riverport Amphitheater in St. Louis, which was released as a live concert video Arch Allies: Live at Riverport. The REO portion of the show was released again under three separate titles: Live – Plus (2001), Live Plus 3 (2001) and Extended Versions (2001) (which was certified gold by the RIAA on April 26, 2006). REO once again teamed with Styx in 2003 for the Classic Rock’s Main Event tour which also included another band from their common rock era, Journey.
The band released a self-financed album entitled Find Your Own Way Home in April 2007. Though it did not chart as an album, it produced two singles which appeared on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary radio chart.
REO Speedwagon continues to tour regularly, performing mostly their classic hits. They are popular on the fair and casino circuits, but still team with other acts to play large venues. They teamed up with Styx to record a new single entitled «Can’t Stop Rockin'», released in March 2009, as well as for a full tour that included special guest .38 Special.
In November 2009, REO Speedwagon released a Christmas album, Not So Silent Night…Christmas with REO Speedwagon.
In Summer 2010, the band — then touring with Pat Benatar — announced that it would release a 30th anniversary deluxe edition reissue of Hi Infidelity.
On December 2, 2009, REO Speedwagon released an online video game, Find Your Own Way Home, produced by digital design agency Curious Sense. The game was the first «downloadable casual game» produced with a rock band and was cited by numerous publications including the New York Times as an innovative marketing product for a music act.
REO Speedwagon headlined on the M&I Classic Rock Stage at the Milwaukee Summerfest on June 30, 2011. On March 11, 2012, Kevin Cronin appeared on the Canadian reality TV series Star Académie. He sang a sampling of REO’s hits with the show’s singing finalists.
On November 22, 2013, they announced a benefit concert with Styx titled «Rock to the Rescue» to raise money for the affected families of the tornadoes in central Illinois. The concert was held on December 4, 2013 in Bloomington, Illinois. Richard Marx joined REO on stage for a joint performance of two of his hit songs. Gary Richrath reunited with REO one final time for a performance of «Ridin’ the Storm Out» to end REO’s set at the sold-out concert. Richrath stayed on stage to help with the encore of «With a Little Help From My Friends» along with REO, Styx, Richard Marx, and others. Richrath was originally from the town of East Peoria which was damaged during the storm. Families impacted by the storm and first responders sat near the stage for this special REO concert.
In early 2014, it was announced that REO Speedwagon and Chicago would be teaming up for 15 dates throughout 2014.
Gary Richrath died on September 13, 2015 due to liver cirrhosis.
In 2016, the band went on tour with Def Leppard and Tesla.
The band performed with Pitbull the song Messin’ Around live on the ABC TV show Greatest Hits in 2016, that version of the song was also released as a single on iTunes.
The band toured the UK arena circuit with Status Quo in December 2016.
•Kevin Cronin – lead vocals, rhythm guitar, keyboards (1972–1973, 1976–present)
•Dave Amato – lead guitar, backing vocals (1989–present)
•Bruce Hall – bass, backing and lead vocals (1977–present)
•Neal Doughty – keyboards (1967–present)
•Bryan Hitt – drums, percussion (1989–present)
•Alan Gratzer – drums, percussion, backing vocals (1967–1988; live guest 2005–present)
•Joe Matt – lead guitar, lead vocals (1967–1968)
•Mike Blair – bass, backing vocals (1967–1968)
•Terry Luttrell – lead vocals (1968–1972)
•Bob Crownover – lead guitar (1968–1969)
•Gregg Philbin – bass, backing vocals (1968–1977)
•Joe McCabe – saxophone (1968)
•Marty Shepard – trumpet (1968)
•Bill Fiorio – lead guitar (1969)
•Steve Scorfina – lead guitar (1969–1970)
•Gary Richrath – lead guitar, occasional vocals (1970–1989; died 2015)
•Mike Murphy – lead vocals (1973–1976)
•Graham Lear – drums (1988–1989)
•Miles Joseph – lead guitar (1989; died 2012)
•Carla Day – backing vocals (1989)
•Melanie Jackson – backing vocals (1989)
•Jesse Harms – keyboards (1989–1991)