Founding a long-running, successful rock band has always been a long shot. The odds against a band forming while The Beatles were still together, continuing for five decades, and returning four songs to the charts via a Netflix show appearance just last year have to be nearly incalculable. But endurance in the face of uncertainty has long been a trademark of REO Speedwagon. From early struggles and line-up changes to major successes and seemingly endless touring, the group from Champaign, Illinois has been riding out the storm of rock for over five decades.
The band began when college freshman and keyboard player Neal Doughty met drummer Alan Gratzer on his first day at the University of Illinois in the fall of 1966. They started jamming and formed a group almost immediately. Gratzer already had a band, and Doughty began to sit in with them. It wasn’t long before Gratzer, bassist Mike Blair, and guitarist Joe Matt decided to quit the old band and join Doughty in a new one. In the fall of 1967, the group returned to campus; Doughty brought with him a Farfisa electronic organ. At school, a serendipitous note on the blackboard in a History of Transportation class yielded the young group’s name. It was the name of a 1915 model of truck that bore the initials of its designer, the legendary automaker Ransom E. Olds, founder of Olds Motor Vehicle Company. The truck was, of course, the REO Speed Wagon, though the band closed Speedwagon to one word.
After gigging for a while, with Matt, Blair, and Grazter doing vocals, lead singer Terry Luttrell joined in 1968. Soon after, the band membership began to rotate quite a bit. Doughty and Gratzer were constants, but the bass and guitar slots changed frequently. Temporary guitarist Bill Fiorio later found fame under the name Duke Tumatoe. Gregg Philbin would become the bassist, and in 1970, the band added a legitimate guitar hero in Gary Richrath. Richrath had wanted to join the band and knew that he could take them to a new level with his artistry and songwriting. The group’s reputation grew beyond Illinois into regional popularity, becoming a draw in the Midwest (which still features heavily in their touring). After signing with Epic Records in 1971, the band cut their first album, R.E.O. Speedwagon (they would later drop the periods).
“157 Riverside Avenue” (Uploaded to YouTube by REO Speedwagon)
R.E.O. Speedwagon was released in October of 1971 and credited all five members (Doughty, Gratzer, Richrath, Philbin, and Luttrell) as the writers of all eight songs. While single “Sophisticated Lady” just missed the Hot 100, the album’s second track, “157 Riverside Avenue,” has remained the most popular song from their debut album.. A staple of the band’s live shows, it’s known for including solos from each member and sometimes extending for more than ten minutes over its recorded length.
The record deal provided the band with some stability with one exception: the lead singer role. Luttrell departed in 1972 and was replaced for one album by Kevin Cronin. Cronin left, paving the way for Michael Bryan Murphy; Murphy filled the frontman slot for three records. Cronin came back for 1976’s R.E.O. and has remained the lead vocalist ever since. However, with six albums under their belt, the band still believed they weren’t hitting their full potential with the audience. Convinced that their real drawing power came from the shows themselves, they persuaded Epic to deploy a strategy that had worked for KISS: making a live album to convey how REO really sounded when you saw them. Live: You Get What You Play For dropped in 1977, eventually selling a million copies and making the live version of “Ridin’ the Storm Out” a Hot 100 charter that is still played regularly on rock radio. That same year, Philbin left and the band added bassist Bruce Hall, who remains at the spot today.
With the momentum of the live album, the band truly turned the corner on 1978’s You Can Tune a Piano, but You Can’t Tuna Fish. The Top 40 album was produced by Cronin and Richrath who also, together and individually, wrote the whole of the album (with one exception, “Runnin’ Blind,” co-written by Richrath and Debbie Mackron). The album went double-platinum and produced two signature songs, “Roll with the Changes” and “Time for Me to Fly.” Though their subsequent Nine Lives record had a harder edge, the band chose after that recordto broaden their approach to incorporate more pop layers into their rock sound. It was a change in direction that would lead to the defining successes of their career.
“Keep On Loving You” (Uploaded to YouTube by REO Speedwagon)
1980’s Hi Infidelity gave the band four Top 40 hits, including the #5 “Take It on the Run” and the #1 “Keep On Loving You.” That chart-topper sold a million copies and helped lay the blueprint for the power ballads of that decade; it also didn’t hurt that it was paired with one of the first 20 videos to be played on a new cable channel called MTV. The band would continue to juxtapose rock numbers and power ballads to great success, much like contemporaries Styx and Journey. “Can’t Fight This Feeling” would hit #1 in 1984. All told, the band would have 12 Top 40 singles through the 1980s. Hi Infidelity would receive a diamond certification for sales exceeding 10 million records.
Unfortunately, the years of the classic line-up were over by 1988. Gratzer retired from music. The next year, Richrath was fired. He and Cronin had gone through collaborative ups and downs over the years, but 1989 was the breaking point. Shortly thereafter, the rising tides of hip-hop and alternative rock marked a shift in musical taste, and a number of long-time bands faced commercial difficulties. The band has released three original albums and one Christmas album since 1990, though they haven’t captured the audience of their earlier work.
However, Epic has mined their catalog for a variety of successful compilations, as well as new and classic live albums. The aptly titled The Hits has sold four million copies. Today, Doughty, Cronin, and Hall remain with the band; guitarist Dave Amato and drummer Bryan Hitt have been in since 1989. At a 2013 benefit, the band was joined on stage by Richrath for the first time since the 1980s. Unfortunately, Richrath passed away in 2015, sad news that was broken in an announcement by Cronin.
The band itself has never left the road, hitting the tour circuit with ongoing regularity. They frequently team with other veteran rockers like Pat Benatar, Styx, .38 Special, and Chicago. The band made an appearance in one episode of the Netflix series Ozark; the one guest-spot put four of the band’s songs back on the Billboard rock chart in 2020. REO Speedwagon is the epitome of a hard-working band that keeps showing up for the fans. Fifty years after their first album, they remain a touring draw that can find new audiences in unexpected ways. One might say that as long they keep on rollin’, fans will keep on loving them.
Featured image: Bruce Hall, Kevin Cronin, and Dave Amato perform in 2018. (Brandon Nagy / Shutterstock)
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