REO Speedwagon (originally stylized 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” 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 soon sta
rted 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 got a summer job to buy his first keyboard. On his Farfisa organ, he learned “Light My Fire” by The Doors, note-for-note.
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. An ad in the school paper got them 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 line up consisted of Doughty on keyboards, Gratzer on drums and vocals, Joe Matt on guitar and vocals, and 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. Marty Shepard played trumpet and Joe McCabe played sax at this time 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. Another guitarist, Steve Scorfina, came aboard briefly, and was replaced by Gary Richrath in late 1970.
Richrath was a Peoria, Illinois-based guitarist and prolific songwriter who brought original material to the band including REO’s signature song “Ridin’ the Storm Out”. 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, REO 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 nearby 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. 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 due to his commitment to Christianity.
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 wascertified platinum. In 1977 Philbin was replaced with Bruce Hall to record You Can Tune a Piano but You Can’t Tuna Fish, released in 1978, which received FM radio airplay. The album was REO’s first to make the Top 40, peaking at #29. The album sold over 2 million copies in the U.S., which led it to go Double Platinum. In 1979 the band took a turn back to hard rock with the release of Nine Lives.
The stage was now set for the band’s most popular era. In the fall of 1980, REO Speedwagon released Hi Infidelity, which represented a change in the music from hard rock to more pop-oriented material. Hi Infidelity spawned four hit singles written by Richrath and Cronin, including the #1 “Keep On Loving You” (Cronin), the #5 “Take It on the Run” (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. Good Trouble (1982) and Wheels Are Turnin’ (1984) were follow-up albums which also did well commercially, the former containing the hit singles “Keep the Fire Burnin'” (U.S. #7), “Sweet Time” (U.S. #26) and the un-ranked “The Key” and the latter containing 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), “Live Every Moment” (U.S. #34) and the un-ranked “Break His Spell”.
On July 13, 1985, the band made a stop in Philadelphia (en route to a show in Milwaukee) to play at the US Leg of Live Aid, which broke a record for number of viewers. They performed “Can’t Fight This Feeling” and “Roll With the Changes”, which featured members of the Beach Boys, the REO Speedwagon 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 hits “That Ain’t Love” (U.S. #16) and “In My Dreams” (U.S. #19).
By the end of the 1980s, the band’s popularity was waning. Gratzer retired in September 1988, leaving Neal Doughty as the only remaining original member. In early 1989, Richrath was asked to leave over disagreements with Cronin regarding musical direction. Cronin had been playing in a jazz ensemble called “The Strolling Dudes” with jazz trumpet player Rick Braun, Miles Joseph on lead guitar and Graham Lear on drums. Lear was invited to join REO to replace Gratzer and Joseph was brought in as a temporary guitarist. Back up singers Carla Day and Melanie Jackson were also added in 1989 to boost the group’s vocal sound onstage. This lineup did only one show—in Viña del Mar, Chile—winning 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 and keyboardist/songwriter/producer Jesse Harms (Eddie Money, Sammy Hagar).
The 1990 release The Earth, a Small Man, His Dog and a Chicken, with Bryan Hitt (formerly of Wang Chung) replacing Graham Lear on drums, Dave Amato debuting on lead guitar, and songwriter/keyboardist Jesse Harms, was a commercial disappointment. The album produced only one, and at this time the last, Billboard Hot 100 single, “Love Is a Rock” at #66. Harms was disillusioned and his tenure in the group ended 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 continued to perform for several years before disbanding in the late 1990s.
In the meantime, 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 the ill-fated 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 atRiverport 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 4/26/2006). REO once again teamed with Styx in 2003 for the Classic Rock’s Main Event tour which also included 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 includes 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 will 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.Personnel