Dick Wagner, who played guitar with Alice Cooper, Lou Reed and on records by Kiss and Aerosmith at various points in his career, died on July 30th after being hospitalized in Scottsdale, Arizona for respiratory failure. Two weeks earlier, he had undergone a cardiac procedure, according to Detroit Free Press. He was 71.
In his lifetime, Wagner played guitar with a number of notable names in pop and rock, including Rod Stewart, Hall and Oates and Meatloaf, among others. He also made a name for himself as a songwriter for his mid-Seventies work with Cooper.
Wagner was born in Iowa but grew up in the Detroit area and, as a self-taught guitarist, was asked to back Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison on one-off gigs. By the later part of the decade, he came to prominence as the frontman for the rock group the Frost and, after moving to New York City in the early Seventies, as a member of Ursa Major. The latter group, whose original group featured keyboardist Billy Joel, recorded with Alice Cooper producer Bob Ezrin, who recognized Wagner’s talent and brought him in to play additional guitar on their School’s Out, Billion Dollar Babies and Muscle of Love LPs.
The Ezrin connection would pave the way for Wagner’s biggest gigs. His playing was featured on Lou Reed’s 1973 rock opera Berlin – an album that also featured guitarist Steve Hunter – and, later that year, Wagner and Hunter backed Reed on the tour that was featured on the live albums Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal and Lou Reed Live.
The Wagner-Hunter guitar tandem would go on to play on Alice Cooper’s Bob Ezrin–produced first solo album, Welcome to My Nightmare. It was on that album that Wagner was able to show off his songwriting ability, co-writing the hits “Welcome to My Nightmare,” “Department of Youth” and “Only Women Bleed,” among others. On subsequent Seventies Cooper records, Wagner helped write the hits “I Never Cry,” “You and Me” and “How You Gonna See Me Now” and toured with the singer. The guitarist would occasionally play on Cooper records in the Eighties and Nineties, and he even made an appearance on Cooper’s most recent record, 2011’s Welcome 2 My Nightmare, co-writing one song and playing lead guitar on another.
“Even though we know it’s inevitable, we never expect to suddenly lose close friends and collaborators,” Cooper said in a statement. “Dick Wagner and I shared as many laughs as we did hit records. He was one of a kind. He is irreplaceable. His brand of playing and writing is not seen anymore, and there are very few people that I enjoyed working with as much as I enjoyed working with Dick Wagner.
“A lot of my radio success in my solo career had to do with my relationship with Dick Wagner,” he continued. “Not just onstage, but in the studio and writing…. There was just a magic in the way we wrote together. He was always able to find exactly the right chord to match perfectly with what I was doing. I think that we always think our friends will be around as long as we are, so to hear of Dick’s passing comes as a sudden shock and an enormous loss for me, rock & roll and to his family.”
“Dick and I were lucky enough to play on some pretty cool records,” Hunter wrote in a tweet. “The stuff we did together back in the Seventies was truly magical.”
Outside of his work with Cooper and Reed, Wagner released an Ezrin-produced solo album, Richard Wagner, in 1978. He also played guitar – often uncredited – on records by Aerosmith (a solo on “Train Kept A-Rollin'”), Kiss (acoustic guitar on “Beth”), Peter Gabriel (“Here Comes the Flood”) and Air Supply (“Just as I Am.”) His website contains a detailed discography, right down to an appearance on a record by Elvira.
“Dick Wagner was the consummate gentleman axeman,” Gene Simmons wrote in a statement, via Billboard. “He will be missed.”
“Dick was a stellar player and his work with Steve Hunter on Lou Reed’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal is legendary,” Paul Stanley said in the same article. “He also did great work with Alice Cooper and uncredited ghosting on Destroyer and albums by some of our contemporaries. A huge talent with a huge tone and huge heart. A great unsung hero.”
In 2008, Wagner and his Frost bandmates were inducted into a local online hall of fame, the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends, whose website also contains a detailed history of his works.
Wagner moved to Arizona in 2005 and suffered a heart attack two years later. He spent two weeks in a coma and awoke with a paralyzed left arm, Billboard reports. After two years of rehab, he released a new album, Full Meltdown, in 2009. He also got involved in charities, becoming the first Artist Ambassador for Guitars for Vets and the spokesperson for Hydrocephalus.org, among others.
He eventually performed onstage again in 2011 in the Detroit area. The next year, he put out a memoir, Not Only Women Bleed: Vignettes From the Heart of a Rock Musician, which contained stories from throughout his career. On June 29th of the following year, Billboard reports that he played his final concert in Owosso, Michigan.
“Dick had a huge heart, which is perhaps why it gave him so much trouble, it was simply too full of love, of music and life,” Wagner’s family and record label wrote in a statement on his website. “His creativity and passion will live on forever in the legacy he has left for us, in his music and his words. We have so much of him to celebrate.”
His family plans on holding a memorial tribute for him in Michigan.