REO Speedwagon’s Big Breakout
The nerve of those hostages. I mean, who do those guys think they are, anyway? Some kind of heroes or something? Here we are doing our first live TV show, and they have to be released from Iran, so our show is delayed. Can you imagine that?”
Kevin Cronin plops down on a brown leather sofa, takes a sip of Gatorade, runs a hand through his curly, shoulder-length brown locks, leans forward and continues his tirade. “I mean, why couldn’t they delay someone else’s show? I mean, I wanna know: Who do those guys think they are?“
Cronin, of course, is not really serious. In fact, he’s mimicking the accent John Belushi made famous on Saturday Night Live. Tonight, though, Cronin is backstage at another live comedy show, Fridays, and his band, REO Speedwagon, is waiting to go on.
The group members have been in a celebratory mood most of the evening: not only will this be their first appearance on live television, but their new album, Hi Infidelity, sold a million copies just five weeks after its release in late November, and their single, “Keep on Loving You,” is in the Top Ten. Now, however, they are beginning to feel a bit anxious about the show, and it isn’t helping matters that Fridays has been delayed half an hour for a news update about the hostages.
“I’m almost never nervous before a regular concert,” Cronin says, no longer joking. “But tonight, I’m really nervous. We’ve done lots of TV before, but never live. And we’ve been waiting around here since ten a.m.
“I hope they get the name right this time,” he adds. “During dress rehearsal, they introduced us as Reo Speedwagon.” He pauses. “It’s R-dot-E-dot-O-dot Speed-wagon — REO Speedwagon!”
At that point, the guests are asked to leave the dressing room–the program is finally about to begin. The band does two songs, and afterward, the emcee thanks “REO Speedway.“
It comes down to the concept of being a family band,” keyboardist Neal Doughty says. “In fact, we’re almost as corny as Donny and Marie.”
“The Osmonds?” Alan Gratzer, REO’s drummer, stares at Doughty in disbelief. “I never quite compared us to the Osmonds. I’m not ready to start going to church.”
“But it’s the same sort of deal,” Doughty says. “It’s kind of a family operation.”
“Well, I think we take more drugs than they do,” Gratzer says.
“According to them,” Doughty replies. “Who knows what they’re really like.…”
It’s four days after the Fridays airing, and the two members of REO are seated in the living room of Gratzer’s blue-and-white frame house in smog-infested Sherman Oaks, a suburb just north of the Hollywood Hills. “My wife, who’s an interior designer, and I bought the place because it’s like the houses back home,” Gratzer says. “It’s a real Midwestern house.”
Gratzer and Doughty founded REO Speedwagon nearly fourteen years ago at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. Named by Doughty after a high-speed truck he learned about in a History of Transportation class, the group was managed back then by an ex-chemistry and mathematics major named Irving Azoff. And a young singer named Dan Fogelberg used to open some of their shows.
“Dan used to live about two houses down from me,” Gratzer explains. “It was real funny: Here we were, this hard-rock band, and Fogelberg would come out before us with an acoustic guitar and play all the songs off his first album. No one knew who he was, but he was good enough so that people didn’t boo him offstage.”
After playing for a couple of years at clubs like the Brown Jug, Ted’s Warehouse and the Red Lion, and after going through numerous personnel changes (“There actually are quite a few people who can say they were members of REO,” says Gratzer), the band signed with Epic Records in 1970. With the exception of Jeff Beck, REO has been on the label longer than any other artist.
Over the next six years, the band — the core consisting of Doughty, Gratzer, guitarist Gary Richrath and bassist Gregg Philbin — recorded six albums, went through three lead singers (including current vocalist Kevin Cronin, who sang on the second album, left, then rejoined for the sixth) and established a reputation for being a hard-working hard-rock band. It was the kind of group, in other words, that could sell out 12,000-seat halls in St. Louis, Cleveland or Chicago, but went virtually unnoticed by people on either coast, not to mention the critics.
“That used to bother us a lot,” admits Gratzer, who is handling the lion’s share of the conversation while Doughty, who resembles actor Michael J. Pollard, sits silently in a chair, his legs crossed and his arms folded. “Whenever we would be reviewed,” Gratzer continues, “we’d almost immediately be lumped into this ‘Midwestern’ genre: ‘Midwestern rockers, no substance, no this, no that.’ When we’d play a live show, and it was a great show, sold out, people storming the stage, four encores, we’d read the next day that we didn’t do so well, and we just had to take it with a grain of salt.”
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