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Members include Dave Amato, guitar; KevinCronin (born October 6, 1951, in Evanston, IL),vocals;Neal Doughty, (born July 29, 1946, in Evanston, IL,core member), keyboards; Alan Gratzer, (born November 9, 1948, in Syracuse, NY, core member), drums; BruceHall (born May 3, 1953, in Champaign, IL),bass; Jesse Harms (joined in 1991), keyboards; BryanHitt, drums; Graham Lear (joined in 1990), drums;Terry Luttell, vocals; Michael Murphy,vocals; Greg Philbin, bass; Gary Richrath,(born October 18, 1949, in Peoria, IL), guitars, vocals. Addresses: Record company-Epic, P.O. Box 4450, New York, NY, 10101-4450.

REO Speedwagon emerged from Champaign, Illinois in the early 1970s with an amiable, if unremarkable, brand of pop-laced hard rock that failed to gain either commercial or critical recognition for nearly a decade. In 1977, the group finally earned their first gold record with YouGet What You Play For, a live album that captured the sound that the band had been delivering doggedly around the Midwest. Several years later, REO Speedwagon's Hi-Infidelity became one of the biggest selling rock albums of the decade, entering the number one chart position on three separate occasions. However, the group's shift towards middle-of-the-road ballads, while probably the key to REO's new found fame, did not impress critics any more than had earlier material. After releasing several more albums, REO Speedwagon slid back into the obscurity of regional touring.

REO Speedwagon was formed on the campus of the University of Illinois by drummer Alan Gratzer and keyboard player Neal Doughty in 1968, who for the most part would remain the core of the band throughout years of line up changes. Rounded out by bassist Greg Philbin, guitaris tGary Richrath, and vocalist Terry Luttrell, the band had become a fixture at local venues whe nthey were noticed by agent Irving Azoff. After Azoff was able to slate the group as the opening act on a number of Midwestern tour bills, most notably with Bob Seger, REO had gained enough stature to cut their self-titled debut album for Epic. Although the record captured the rollicking fun of live bar music, REO Speedwagon produced no hits and flew underneath the radar of most critics.

Until the late 1970s, there was little that distinguished each REO album from the next, aside from an occasional replacement of a member. The most important of these was Kevin Cronin, who took over as lead vocalist with R.E.O./T.W.O., the group's sophomore effort released in 1972. Cronin departed after that album but returned in 1975 to relieve substitute Michael Murphy. Although Cronin's style of singing is not recognized for its innovations, his knack for writing ballads later became an integral part of the band's commercial day in the sun. Still, although they borrowed their name from a fast-paced fire truck, REO Speedwagon was slow in reaching thecharts.

Oddly enough for a group that had not yet warmed the public over with studio favorites, REO at long last achieved their first gold album with the two-record live effort, You Get What YouPlay For, released in 1977. With Cronin and Richrath taking over at the production helm, the group capitalized on Play For's momentum with the whimsically titled studio album You Can TuneA Piano But You Can't Tuna Fish in 1978. The record was REO's first to produce a million-selling single, "Roll With the Changes," and tempered the group's hard rock leanings with catchier, pop-oriented hooks. With the subsequent release of Nine Lives in 1979, it grew clear that this fusion was the group's new direction.

Found National Success at Last

While REO's transformation into easy to take pop-rock balladeers began to rack points with audiences, it was clear that critics saw the band's newfound success to be indicative of the public'sembrace of bland, unimaginative music. As the 1980 release Hi-Infidelity made itself comfortable in the number one album slot for almost five months, selling over six and a half million copies, music journalists gave REO kudos, grudgingly. J.D. Considine's comments written for Rolling Stone in July of 1981 are representative. "For the most part, the formula REO Speedwagon follows is simple and dependable. Kevin Cronin croons a melodic, slightly nave pop song, underpinned by strumming acoustic guitars and a lot of echo. Classic MOR [middle-of-the-road]production, except that instead of strings there's the familiar crunch of Richrath's guitar. In a way, it's almost too neat-the most obvious something-for-everyone formula since [1970s bubblegum pop group] the Partridge Family."

In addition to the hooky nature of Hi-Infidelity's songs, the inclusion of ballads was also decisive in the band's turn toward success, as the slow-tempo "Keep On Loving You" and "TakeIt On The Run" were the biggest of the album's four chart hits. REO themselves attributed the change in popularity simply to hard work and maturity. When asked by the skeptical Stereo Review critic Steve Simels why it was only after a decade that REO caught on, Cronin replied,"Because we're better songwriters. I don't think, five years ago, I could have written 'Keep OnLoving You.' Plus, we've gotten better as producers. This time out, we had a chance to really rehearse the album before we did it, to really learn the songs."

Whether Hi-Infidelity's run away popularity was a question of the public's mood or time-tested craftsmanship, REO began to slip from its commercial crest almost upon its arrival. REO's1982 follow up album Good Trouble, like Hi-Infidelity, worked to strengthen the once-generic band's identity as songwriters and producers, but wallowed in hackneyed, forgettable lyrics. "Thequestion is whether lack of content will hurt REO," mused Considine in Rolling Stone in August of 1982. "Not so much losing their instincts, I'd guess, because unlike the majority of bands cashing in on the hard-pop sound, REO seems to have arrived there almost by accident, after yearsof touring the heartland. Now that they've made the big time, we'll see how deep their roots run,Don't get your hopes up, though: Good Trouble already finds them piling on the fertilizer."Although both the album and its single "Keep the Fire Burnin" both broke the top ten charts, such critical prophesies would soon come to pass.

Failed to Match Earlier Success

Before hitting their terminal sales slump, the group had one more giant hit with "Can't FightThis Feeling," a single from REO's 1985 Wheels Are Turnin' album. Once again it was a melodramatic ballad that gave the group a hit, this time about a platonic friendship that gets sparked into romance. As the subject matter may suggest, Cronin's lyrics had not become anymore imaginative, and the groups record continued to be critically panned. However, after being panned for over a decade, REO had learned to take reviewers' potshots in stride. "For a while it was very important to me to be accepted by critics," Croni confessed to Rolling Stone's MichaelGoldberg in 1985. "We've gotten some reviews on this record [Wheels Are Turnin'] -if the recordwas actually that bad, the record company would have never released it. I don't think we deserve all the abuse we get. But I'd rather be abused than ignored."

Unfortunately for Cronin, his fears of being shunned completely were just around the corner. With Life As We Know It, a studio album released in 1987, REO enlisted outside songwriters Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg to take a stab at a more adult oriented kind of pop, but impressed neither listeners or critics in the process. As Rolling Stone's Jimmy Gutterman reflected,"[o]n the surface, this ostensibly ambitious move makes sense: after a dozen-odd albumsof peppy mid tempo love songs and rockers, the group must have wanted to try something new, if only from boredom. But REO acts as if starting anew is a simple equation that can be solved bypushing the right buttons ... Life As We Know It replaces one used-up formula with another."After this album, REO's efforts rarely were given even a passing nod from major music journals.

By the early 1990s, REO had seen the retirement of core members Richrath and Gratzer, and were largely resigned to releasing compilations of earlier material, such as The Second Decadeof Rock & Roll, released in 1991. However, with new guitarist Dave Amato and drummer Bryan Hitt in tow, REO were able to remain intact. Finally coming to a full circle, the band's career again consisted of regular touring on smaller stages and state fairs throughout the Midwest, where diehard fans still filled out sizable audiences.

by Shaun Frentner

REO Speedwagon's Career

Band formed in by Doughty and Gratzer in Champaign, IL, 1968; signed to Epic andreleased self-titled debut album, 1971; released first gold record You Get What You Play For,1977; dropped longtime manager Irving Azoff, 1977;released multi-platinum album Hi-Infidelity,1980; found a brief comeback with single "Can't Fight This Feeling," 1985; released thirdcompilation album The Second Decade of Rock and Roll, 1991.

REO Speedwagon's Awards

National Academy of Recorded Music Awards Best Selling Album, Hi-Infidelity, 1980; Best Selling Album by a Group, Hi-Infidelity, 1980.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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