Phil Ehart of Kansas: From Miracles to Masterpieces!

By Jeb Wright

I grew up in Topeka, Kansas.  When I was in Junior High School I began, as did most kids my age, listening to the popular music of the day. I started with the local FM station in Topeka, V-100 FM, and graduated the best station in the Midwest, at the time, KY-102 in Kansas City.  I was discovering bands daily and making the trek to Paul’s Records & Tapes to spend my lunch money on new records. 

One day, my grandfather, who had noticed my new interest in music, said to me, “Our neighbor’s son is named Richard and he plays with an orchestra.  I told her you liked music and she wants you to come over.”  I went next door, knocked on the door and when it opened, Richard’s mother, Mrs. Williams invited me to show me her son’s Gold Records hanging on the wall of the living room.  That was my introduction to the band Kansas.  Soon, I was their biggest fan, and in Topeka, that was saying a lot!

In March of 2015 the band, in association with Legacy Recordings, a division of Sony, will release a documentary of the band that chronicles how Kansas went from six kids in Topeka, Kansas to international rock stars.  All six original members are featured in the documentary.  It marked the first time they had sat down together to discuss their career in thirty years.  Phil Ehart, Dave Hope, Kerry Livgren, Robby Steinhardt, Steve Walsh, and Richard Williams tell the story of Kansas, from getting signed by the unlikeliest of record companies, Kirshner Records (think The Monkees) to duping them into thinking they were regional rock stars by packing the house by giving away free beer, to selling out Madison Square Garden, this is definitive story of Kansas. 

There are tales about Steven Tyler trying to cut the bands power source while they were opening for Aerosmith, as well as great photos of Kansas being surrounded by The Munchkins from the film The Wizard of Oz at the Platinum party held for the band after the success of their release Leftoverture

Garth Brooks, Brian May and producer Brendan O’Brian offer great insight on what Kansas music has meant to them over the years.  The six band members are true stars of this tale, however.  Whether visiting the old band house in Topeka, climbing Burnett’s Mound where the back photo of their self-titled debut was taken, or just recounting their miracle out of nowhere that propelled them to success, any Kansas fan worth his salt will be spellbound throughout this production.  The interviews are interesting, the photos are a time capsule back to when rock and roll mattered most and the insights of former manager Budd Carr, former producer Jeff Glixman and others make this a one-of-a-kind honest look at what can happen when hard work and determination meets luck. 

This is a must-see for any rock fan, but especially for the self-described Wheat Heads.  There is also a version of the documentary for pre-order contains an extra hour of footage.  No matter what version one orders they will pleased by this ‘us against the world’ story of a band from Kansas who took on the world of music and won!  

Jeb: As a guy who grew up in Topeka, Kansas I have to say I am very proud of this documentary. 

Phil:  Thanks, that means a lot.  I told Rich, “Someone like Jeb, who goes back so far, is going to watch this through different eyes than others.” 

Jeb: When I grew up in Topeka your band were heroes to us all.  You still had a lot of things in the documentary I did not know.  You have a little over an hour to cover the history of the band –and you didn’t even do the entire history.  How tough was it to fit in what you needed to fit in? 

Phil: We picked the first five albums.  We knew we couldn’t do forty years and we didn’t want to do just twenty years.  The story was this group of bumpkins knocking around in bar bands and riding around the state of Kansas in a school bus getting discovered by the guy who created The Monkees.  Once you start putting all of this together it is so ridiculous…it’s a story unto itself. 

As I sat down with Charlie Randazzo, the director, he said, “You don’t have a script.”  I said, “You’re looking at the script.  It’s in my head. I know where it started and with the six of us, we will tell you where it went.  We will guide you through it so you don’t need a script.”  We knew the story and we knew how it ended…we knew we were going to end it on Burnett’s Mound in Topeka. 

It wasn’t difficult, but it was kind of challenging.  Once we went back and revisited all of these places then a lot of things came up.  We had to make sure we had everything filmed.  Robby had a heart attack and everything dropped on the ground.  We had to pick it back up and reshoot a bunch of stuff.  It took over two years to make it.  This was not us going back to Topeka and shooting this in a week.  We took a long time to make it right.

Jeb: Who came up with the idea to do this?  This is a new level compared to other things you’ve done in the past.

Phil: We had knocked the idea around of doing a book.  People are always saying we should do this, or we should do that.  One day, I just started thinking of the story of the band and it just got too confusing.  Once you got into the ‘80s and the ‘90s it really got insane.  Thinking about the first five albums, I thought there was a good story. 

I talked to our old manager Budd Carr and I talked to Rich and we started thinking about it.  I don’t think there is any one person who can say, “This was my idea and from soup to nuts it was all about me.”  It didn’t really work that way.  We all talked about it. Thoughts would come up and someone would say, “We should all go to Topeka.”  We were like, “Well, that would be cool.”  Ideas just came up. Budd said, “I’ve got the director for you.”  When I met Charlie Randazzo, he was the guy who brought it all together, as that is what he does making these documentaries. 

I had to sell the idea to the rest of the guys.  There were some parameters I had to lay down.  It was only going to be about these five albums.  I told them that if anything comes out that is uncomfortable then we will take it out.  I didn’t really want to make this an exposé.  I didn’t want to talk about this, or that, or anything that was embarrassing to people.  I just wanted to tell the story, and once I got the guys onboard, then they did too. 

Once we got that, then it was a greased wheel and it was very easy.  Everybody knew that no one was going to look like an idiot, which I think is a fear of everyone going into something like this.  Nobody wants to be made to look bad.  I said, “If something makes you look bad we will reshoot it, or take it out, or whatever.”  We didn’t have to do that at all.  Everybody was fine with the questions we put together.  We really wanted to tell an uplifting, positive story as to how this band was discovered.

Jeb:  A lot of people don’t know who Budd Carr is.  Tell us.

Phil: Budd started out as our agent, booking the band, and, eventually, he became our first manager.  He was our manager for many years.  As it shows in the film, he is a very intricate part of the band’s success.  Budd went on to be one of the best known and successful music supervisors in Hollywood—in the world, really—doing all of Oliver Stone’s movies and many films like that.   He went from being a music business guy into the film business.  He was very helpful in finding us the right director. I would have hated to have to go through two, or three, directors.  He knew Charlie, who has done many documentaries, so he came and fit right in.  We had a great team.

I was really proud of the six guys in the band.  Everybody held it together and handled a few tough questions and talked about a few tough situations.  Everyone held it together and I was really proud of everybody. 

Jeb: Around Leftoverture there was a hard time between Kerry and Steve.  It has not been talked about a lot.  Steve really opened up about that in the film.

Phil: It was great.  We felt the same way.  There is a version of the documentary you can get that has a bonus disc.  If you get that one, then you’re going to see an entire interview with Kerry and Steve where they really get down to the nitty-gritty and talk about things that were challenges for them as writers, as well as trying to write together.  That is covered in the bonus disc. 

Jeb: No one was thrown under the bus. 

Phil:  We watched a lot of band documentaries getting ready to do this and they kind of bummed us out.  We learned what we didn’t want to do.  That does not mean in any way that this band didn’t have a lot of those same problems.  We just didn’t want to talk about them and just throw all of our dirty laundry out in front of people.  It just didn’t fit the story.  We wanted to tell the story of getting from A-to-Z and how we did that.  I think we succeeded in doing that.  Are there other periphery things?  Well, sure, but it doesn’t add to the story and it didn’t make the story any better, or worse.  We just kept to the storyline.  It was really a self-editing device, to ask, “Does this add to the story?”  “No.”  “Okay it’s gone.”  “Does this take away from the story?”  “Yes.”  “Gone.”  It was easy to just keep our eyes on what we were trying to accomplish. 

Jeb:  I think when it comes to the band Kansas—you are a founding member and the manager of the band and the overseer of the archives—I think you are the mother hen. 

Phil: [laughter] Are you just now noticing that?

Jeb: Well, I have noticed, but I didn’t want to call you a ‘mother hen’ to your face! 

Phil:  There are other names for it and there are other farm animals you could use to describe it.  I mean, believe me, the guys have called me a lot worse!  I will go with ‘mother hen’ that’s funny. 

Jeb:  When you make the tough decisions do you have to watch yourself from being overprotective?  You can make it too vanilla, which is just as bad as being too spicy. 

Phil: Yeah, but I trust my band mates.  With these six guys sitting and talking about it, we know there are mine fields that if anyone wanders across them, then somebody is going to blow up.  When we got together for the first time in thirty years at the Hungry Tiger, or Flying Tiger, or whatever it was called in Topeka—that was the first time since 1980 that we had been together.  It was a great occurrence.  It was really cool and it was a fun thing to do. 

Charlie kept it really fun.  I had told him what alleys to go down and what alleys not to go down.  I never really set him up to have someone turn around with a shotgun and blow his head off.   The six of us knew the story that we wanted to tell, and I know I am being a little redundant, but it was not so much me being a mother hen, as it was me saying, “Let’s do it this way” and everyone agreeing. 

Jeb: I love that you all went back to Topeka and you took the cameras back to the old band house where you all lived when you started out.  That was really cool. 

Phil:  We went to 431 Roosevelt…it’s still there.  When we went there the guy that owns it was there.  He rents it out.  We were looking in the windows and the place was empty.  The guy that owns it pulled up with his wife and he goes, “Can I help you guys?”  Of course, the cameras were there.  I said, “You’re not going to believe this, but we’re the band Kansas.”  He goes, “I heard you guys used to live in this house.”  We started talking to him and he let us in so we could look around.  It was great running into those people. 

We went back to a lot of the old haunts and revisited a lot of the places where the band had practiced and where things were discovered and done and everything else.  There will be a Kansas-Topeka Tour when this film comes out.  We picked about everyplace that had any meaning to us. 

Jeb: If you take off the producer hat and just became the guy who lived that…it has to be deep and emotional after all of these years to go there. 

Phil: I was deep and it was emotional.  We were all touched.  We went to Steam Music, which was the music place where we hung out.  We went to the Capitol Building and we went to places where we rehearsed and places we had gigs.  We went back to band houses and we got on that school bus, man that was an experience, as we hadn’t been on a school bus in decades and decades.

As we were riding back through Kansas on that school bus I looked a Rich and said, “What did we do on this bus for fifteen hours at a time?”  It was not like anybody had phones or iPads or anything.  Richard goes, “I don’t know.  Probably a lot of us were hung-over from the night before.”  I was like, “Well, that could be.”  We would just sit there on that school bus and bounce up and down as we rode down the highway. 

We revisited a lot of places and a lot of those memories came back.  I will tell you one thing that had to do with the question that you asked.  Working on the film, as the producer, I was involved with a lot of editing with Charlie.  We would go out to LA and we’d sit together and we’d say, “This needs to go” or “This needs in” or “this is out of sequence as it happened later.”  We were assembling stuff and making sure that it flowed.  In doing this, I saw the ending many, many times.  I don’t want to spoil it for the people who will be watching this by saying what it was.  The guys had never seen the ending.  I had seen it a hundred times. 

When I came back I had a rough of the film because I wanted everyone to see what we were doing.  I got calls from guys saying, “I am sitting here with tears running down my cheeks.  I am crying like a baby.”  I didn’t realize that because I was part of putting the ending together.  When they saw it for the first time it was very emotional for them.  Surprises popped up everyone once in a while in doing this thing. 

Jeb:  Who drove the school bus back in the day?

Phil:  The guys in the band drove.  I didn’t because I was too tired.  After a gig, playing four sets I just got into the bus and went to sleep.  The other guys drove. 

Jeb: Well, we all know the drummer does the most work. 

Phil: Well, you said that, I didn’t.  In fact, you can just title the article that if you want!  [Laughter].

Jeb:  Garth Brooks is a Kansas fan!  I had no idea how much he loved the band’s music.  When he came up in the documentary I was like, “What in the hell is Garth Brooks doing in this documentary?”  Did you know he was a Kansas fan?

Phil: Back in the ‘80s, when Garth first came out and hit big time, he mentioned us in about every article that he did.  We didn’t really know who he was other than being a big country guy.  Garth and Shania Twain changed the face of country and it is because of them that everyone does these really big shows.  We knew he was a big name but that was it.  People would tell us that he would tell everyone how much we influenced him.  He is a big Kiss fan and he really likes Kansas.  That just stuck in my head, I don’t know why.

When we started talking about people that we wanted to have in the documentary I thought of him.  We didn’t want to just have the same run of the mill people.  I didn’t want a bunch of back padding.  I thought, “Let’s get three or four different people and that will make more of an impact than thirty guys talking about ‘Carry On Wayward Son.’”  We contacted him and he was very gracious and he did a tremendous interview.  The things that he said just blew us away.  We were like, “Oh my gosh.”  When I saw his interview I couldn’t believe how nice and sincere he was and all of the things that he said.  We knew he was a fan and as soon as we asked him to do this he said, “Oh hell yeah, I’m in.” 

Jeb: Brian May of Queen is another great guest.  Kansas toured with them in the early days.  The music crossed over but the look and the show… you could not have had two different types of people. 

Phil: [laughter] We know there was times that Queen looked out their dressing room and saw us walk by in our jeans, cowboy boots and overhauls and long hair and went, “Wow, this is just not right.”  I remember Rich looking at a picture of Queen on the Sheer Heart Attack album and pointing at one of the guys on the cover and saying, “Me and this guy are just not going to get along.” 

We actually got along with them all really well.  To this day we are friends with the guys in Queen.  We really hit it off.  Appearances weren’t everything.  They were kind of standoffish for us, and we were for them, at first, but once we started talking we really became best friends and we still are.  It is something that most people don’t know and that’s why we wanted to put people like Garth and Brian in our film.  They were off the beaten path and huge names. 

Brendon O’Brien is the same way.  He is a producer that has done so many great records, but he and I are just friends.  He’s from Atlanta and I’ve played golf with him.  I have known him forever.  He doesn’t do a whole lot of press.  A number of journalists have been more impressed with him than they have with the other guys because he is so reclusive.  We go way back with Brendon.  He said, “I remember hearing you on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.”  When it came time to give him a call he said he would be happy to be in the film. 

Jeb:  As the guys make these comments was it a tug on the heart for you?  Like I looked at it through different eyes, so do you, as you look at it through the eyes of band member, interviewee, producer, editor, etcetera. 

Phil:  Once you see this bonus disc, it is going to blow you away.  We have another hour of outtakes.  We have one section where we have each guy draw a name out of a hat and they talk about that guy.   It is so cool.  I noticed when we were doing the film we never talked about each other.  I wanted to see what anybody had to say about anybody else. 

There were tears during some of the interviews.  A couple of times one of the guys just got choked up.  You are touching on things that have really been buried for a long, long time.  All of a sudden we were un-burying them, if there is such a word.  All of these emotions that have been covered up for all of this time are brought to the surface, it was emotional. 

We are best of friends.  That’s another thing.  The majority of bands like us hate each other’s guts and we are all very friendly with each other.  It was easy to talk to each other and sit at the table and laugh and tell stories because we are all very good friends. 

Jeb: I have to ask this Phil. 

Phil: It’s okay…go ahead. 

Jeb: Will the original six ever play again?  I get emails about this.  I always say, “Well, Billy Greer has kind of earned his place in the band.” 

Phil: [laughter] He’s only been in the band 32 years. 

Jeb: And he’s still the ‘new guy.’

Phil: Yeah.  Okay, go ahead and ask me.

Jeb: Do you see a time that the original six may play together again…at least for one song. 

Phil: It’s possible.  It’s possible, and that is as much as I can say.  The other night we were playing and Robby got up on stage and played a couple of songs with us.  Kerry is going to come and play with us next month next month, and Robby is going to be there too, and Dave is going to show up. 

The guys hop up on stage when they can, but as far as the six of us…it’s possible because everybody is upright.  You just never know.  It will not be a reunion tour, or anything like that.  That is not going to happen because some of the physicality’s of some of the guys won’t let that happen.  Some of their problems would keep them from touring.  You never know, we may end up jumping up on stage and playing a song. 

Jeb: Was there ever a time where you thought, “This is really going to work.  We are going to make it.” 

Phil: From day one.  It was out of naiveté.  It was not because I had a crystal ball.  I just knew this was a great band and that we were going to be famous.  It was totally out of not knowing anything.  I just thought that if you were in a really good band then you would do really well.  I had nothing else to prove me wrong.  It is not like I was around a bunch of guys in bands that had failed.  Most other bands from Topeka from the time we made it had gone on to college, or were working at Sears, or something.  I just thought, ‘This is a good band and now we are with Don Kirshner.  We are on our way.”  That is just how green and protected we were living in this little town. 

I think that is what makes this such a great story, as it was such a long shot.  In reality, it never should have happened.  It was too many long shots to get us out of Topeka and get us to be international headliners.  To start where we started, and to have this guy with The Monkees discover us…that is why it is a miracle. 

That is a good question.  I don’t think there was ever a time where we were sitting there where anyone of us said, “Dude, this ain’t going to happen.”  “You’re right.  We’re doomed.”  I think it is because of the belief in ourselves and because we had Don Kirshner.  Don would not let us go away.  We weren’t selling tons of records but he always upped us.  “Okay, let’s do another one.  Let’s do another record.  Let’s have a hit.”  When you keep hearing that year-after-year-after-year, and you’re out there playing gigs, and the crowds are getting bigger and bigger, and more money is coming in so we can afford more than a dollar a day…We just never, ever, got to a point where we thought we were wasting our time and we wanted to hang it up.  It never got to that…ever, at least for me, and I think we kind of undergirded each other.  “If Phil believes in it then I do too.   Steve…you in?”  “I am in.”  Nobody ever questioned whether we were going to be there the next year.  We just showed up and went to work. 

Jeb:  I did an interview with George Thorogood where he said, “Every band is really just one guy.  Without that one guy there is no band.”  I remember thinking, “What about Kansas?” 

Phil: It was definitely a group effort, you’re one hundred percent right.  There was never really a leader of Kansas.  First of all, we were all very strong minded—don’t take that for being smart!  We were strong willed.  We had a common goal and we pulled in the same direction, most of the time.  Everybody had their job that they did and that is what we did.  It was the strength of the six of us hanging in there. 

Jeb: Was it more fun to look back at selling out Madison Square Garden or the Leftoverture Platinum Record Company party, or was it more fun to look way back to the famous FREE BEER gig that got you signed and riding around in the school bus?

Phil: That is a great question.  I think the absurdity of the Platinum party was so funny, but so was riding in the bus and the free beer gig and the whole Steven Tyler thing.  We were just cracking up.  I hate to harp on this bonus disc, but that is where you will see us really laughing at the six of us, more than anything. 

Jeb:  Looking back how much was hard work and how much was luck?

Phil: It depends on how you define those words.  I think we were extremely lucky, but our hard work prepared us to be lucky. We worked hard to be a great band.  We would work and rehearse, and work and rehearse, so that when Wally Gold came to see us we blew him away. 

If you watched us on Don Kirshner then you saw us playing these incredibly difficult songs like we were playing in some club.  We worked hard to be that good of a band.  The hard work prepared us for the lucky breaks.  I don’t think if we hadn’t worked really hard then when the lucky breaks came along we may not have been so successful.  We may not have been as good of a band.  The two go hand-in-hand.  When the breaks came along we were ready for them. 

Jeb:  In life you have to be ready for when the opportunity comes.

Phil: You have to be prepared.  That is what you prepare for.  Luck can be called ‘a break.’  You wait for that break.  You can use that in any example in life.  People educate themselves, or practice, or whatever, so when that break comes they are ready to take advantage of it.  That is how I’ve got to look at it.  We practiced and worked so hard that when Don Kirshner decided to sign us we were going to make the most of it.  When we went out on the road we knew we were going to kick ass every night as that is what we prepared for. 

Jeb:  Are you able to be a fan of Kansas’ music or are you too close to it?

Phil: Oh, big time.  We weren’t so much that way when we were learning songs.  When you’re inside a song it is hard to be a fan of it.  Once you get it recorded and you can sit back and listen to it and you play it over and over…I am a very big fan of Kansas music.  I would be rather I was in the band or not.  If I was not in this band then I would like this band. 

There is some great stuff that I really like. In fact, I like most of it.  I think I can speak for all of the guys, they all think a lot of Kansas music.  We are not talking about thinking a lot of ourselves, but rather the music that we wrote and arranged and performed and recorded as a band.  We are proud of them.  We are fans, in a humble way. 

Jeb: Last one:  Where does this documentary sit in the history of Kansas?  Where does it fit into the legacy? What does it mean?  It is a bookend?  It is a new chapter? 

Phil: It is a standalone story that can go with all of the other things we’ve created.  That is the way to look at it.  I think we kind of joked among ourselves that if our kids ever asked us, “Dad, what did you do in life?”  We can say, “Well here.  Here is what we did.”  A lot of us have younger kids that were not around when we were in our heyday and don’t have any idea what it was that we did. 

I think it is an inspiring story and that is what we looked to do.  We wanted to tell a true story that was also uplifting and pretty impossible to believe that something like this would even happen, especially to such magnitude, to be so successful at it.  I think that is how we look at it; as an uplifting story that sits on the shelf and it goes with Point of Know Return, Leftoverture, or any of our recordings.  This is really where the band came from and where it started.  Not everybody knows that and some people may find it interesting.

A lot of severe Kansas fans…I had one severe Kansas fan write me and he had no idea that the black music inspired us so much.  He thought we would just be prog fans.  There was a sprinkling of that, but really, we played the R&B stuff, the soul music and all of the black musicians of that time period.  That is what we liked.  I think a lot of people will go, “WHAT?  What in the heck are you talking about?”  It is a big curve. 

Jeb: I was like that.  I had no idea you played the Four Tops!  I would have never guessed that. 

Phil: There are fans that think, “I know everything about Kansas.”  This shows, “No you don’t.  You don’t know everything.”

Jeb: Steve left the band when this was in the can.  Was that bad timing?

Phil: We were totally done with the film and then Steve retired.  Nothing lasts forever.  Sometime I will be stepping down and Rich will be stepping down.  It happens and that’s okay.  It was handshakes and bro-hugs and that’s that. 

Jeb:  The band is now back to a six-piece and Ronnie Platt is singing great.  The future looks good. 

Phil: He’s been a real godsend for us, as these are not easy shoes to fill by any means.  We are back to the original six set up like we had before.  It is working great and we are all very excited to press on. 

You asked really good question on where this documentary fit in.  I am still thinking about that.  It could be a chapter as to the origins of the band.  This is where it all started and we’re still going today.  It is nothing more than that.  It is not to fan the flames of the original band, or to hint that the original band is getting back together to make an album.  No, it’s not.  We got back together to tell the story.  Like Rich said, “We need to do this as soon as possible, as people are probably going to start dying.”  I was like, “Gee, that’s uplifting.”  Then, Robby has a heart attack, so you never know!  It was just something we wanted to do and we are very happy that Sony partnered with us.  I had to go sit around a table and pitch this story to them.  They leaned forward in their chairs and said, “Let’s do this.  This is going to be great.”  We couldn’t ask for a better partner in making this happen.