By Thom Jennings
Niagara Gazette — This week’s Tuesday’s in the Park features one of the greatest arena rock bands of all time, REO Speedwagon. The band gets its name from a brand of flatbed truck that was a precursor to the modern pickup. The “REO” stands for Ransom E. Olds, the founder of Oldsmobile.
Formed in Champaign, Ill., in 1968, the band dominated AOR (album-oriented rock) radio stations in the 1970s with songs like “Roll With the Changes,” “Keep Pushin” and “Ridin’ the Storm Out.”
In November of 1980 REO released “Hi Infidelity,” the number one selling album of 1981, which featured the massive hit, “Keep on Loving You,” which hit No. 1 on March 21, 1981, the same day I attended my first REO concert in Rochester, a memory I shared with REO bassist Bruce Hall during a recent interview.
“I am glad you were there. That was a pretty amazing time in our life,” Hall said.
As exciting as it was for me as a fan to witness REO finally achieve massive commercial success, I could only imagine what it was like for Hall.
“It must be the same feeling an astronaut has when they get into outer space. Up to that point, we had been doing well, but 'Hi Infidelity,' took off like a rocket and everything changed.”
Even before “Hi Infidelity,” REO had established themselves as one of the greatest live bands on the arena rock circuit.
“REO is from the Midwest and the old-school way of doing things was to play in front of as many people as possible and build a fan base. Playing live is what REO does better than anything.”
One of the main reasons REO is so good live is because of their front man Kevin Cronin. With his beaming smile and boyhood enthusiasm, Cronin knows how to work a crowd. Cronin is the voice behind most of REO’s signature hits, with one notable exception, “Back on the Road Again,” from REO’s “Nine Lives” album, sung by Bruce Hall.
“That song is a fun song because it is about moving from one place to another. When I wrote the song, it was about leaving your girlfriend at home and not letting her know you had a girlfriend in every town. As I got older, it came to mean that I was glad to be back in town and see the fans again. It’s moved along well with me through the years and I love singing it.”
Over their years on the road, the band has rolled with the changes in their lineup. The most notable was the departure of guitarist Gary Richrath in 1989. Finding a replacement for a guitar god like Richrath was no easy task, but REO managed to do just that when they found Dave Amato.
“Dave Amato is so good, every night he is on and he is just a pleasure to play with, he’s one of my best friends right now. Gary will always be my musical brother and I miss him very much and I always wish him the best.”
The current lineup of Cronin, Hall, Amato, drummer Bryan Hitt and keyboardist Neal Doughty has been performing together since 1989, representing the longest stable lineup in the band’s history. Doughty has been in the band 45 years, the longest of any member.
“Neal is one of the funniest people I know and the smartest person I know. Neal and (former REO drummer) Alan Gratzer started the band at the University of Illinois, and Neal was an engineering student. He taught himself how to play piano; he modeled himself after Floyd Cramer. When you hear him play you know it’s Neal Doughty by his runs and licks.”
Originally, I had been scheduled to speak with REO lead singer Kevin Cronin but fate seemed to intervene. As it turned out, Bruce Hall solved an old mystery from 1981, when a former classmate of mine claimed she lost her pet mouse on the floor of the hotel where REO Speedwagon stayed in 1981.
“I am at the hotel, I get out of the shower and I look in the corner of my closet and there is this mouse there. I put the lampshade over and a tin on top. I told this girl that was working with us at the time, Elizabeth Frey, and she said she liked the mouse.”
They named the mouse Rochester and it went on the road with them.
“He was a little road dog, and eventually Liz got him a girlfriend and they multiplied. We let them all go on Gary’s ranch in California so his relatives are running around there somewhere.”Thom Jennings covers the local music scene for the Gazette.