By Jeb Wright
On April 18th, REO Speedwagon will hit the road with Styx and Ted Nugent for the 2nd annual Midwest Rock-N-Roll Express tour. This is a great evening of classic rock by three of the best live bands in the business.
REO Speedwagon, who is co-headlining the shows with Styx, are excited to be hitting the road. The band built their reputation as a great live act in the 1970’s and they still receive standing ovations every time they take the stage.
In the interview that follows, founding member and keyboardist Neal Doughty takes us on a trip through time, beginning with the current tour and going all the way back to when he and drummer Alan Gratzer were the only two hippies in the engineer department in college.
Neal tells it like it is and details REO’s colorful history in detail, from the formation of the band, through the dark times and into the glory days.
This is an interview full of great stories including everything from food fights, to band fights, to full frontal nudity.
Jeb: You are getting ready to head back out with Styx. Neal, you keep touring with this band and people keep coming. What makes this a magical evening of music?
Neal: Both bands concentrate on being good musicians; that is priority number one. Plus, the chemistry between the two bands is exceptional, and I think it has a positive effect on the whole evening. We watch each other and expect the best. There is a friendly competition going on behind the scenes, which is constructive for both bands.
Jeb: REO has never lost that touch, either. Last time I saw you in Tulsa everything was perfect…the set, the songs, the vocals, the licks, the riffs and the attitude on stage. How do you guys keep from phoning it in? I mean, you all still appear to really be loving this stuff, even now.
Neal: We take pride in our live show. We spend sound checks finding little ideas to keep it fresh. And we’ve had the same crew guys for a long time; that really helps to oil the machine. We’re home with our families much more than we used to be, so when we do get out there, we’re unconsciously reacting to the change of pace. After a month at home, we realize how lucky we are to still have this, the best of both worlds.
Jeb: I love that Ted Nugent is opening the show as well. Ted brings a little rough edge to the show. Are you a Nugent fan?
Neal: I like his onstage energy and many of his songs. We’ve known Ted forever, and Dave was in Ted’s band for many years. We hadn’t really done an extended tour together until last year, and it worked really well. I sometimes think his rants are a bit over-the-top for our audience, but we’ve had no serious complaints. In some circles, STYX and REO are considered guilty pleasures and Ted adds some “street cred” to the mix.
Jeb: I want to take this interview way back for a bit. REO has such an awesome career but you actually started this thing…back in 1966 or so? How did you meet Alan Gratzer?
Neal: Alan lived right across the hall in my dorm at The University of Illinois. We had a lot in common and became close friends pretty fast. We were just about the only hippies on the Engineering campus, and the only two guys with long hair in a very large dormitory complex; a minority of two against the world. It was nothing more than a strange twist of fate that we ever met at all, but I still consider him to be the closest friend I’ve ever had. Alan and I will always be close. He comes to shows whenever we’re in his part of California, and we fall right back into our old relationship. He’s very happy in his home life and even has grandkids now. He is in good health and looks great.
Jeb: I have heard Alan was in a band that had a dominant keyboard player. The band revolted and you were in the right place to join them in a new band. Is that a true story?
Neal: Yep. Alan played in a campus band that did mainly drinking songs. Then the “Summer of Love” hit in 1967 and everyone but the keyboard player wanted to play the new stuff coming out of the West Coast. He mainly just held down chords, and I knew I could at least do that. When the other guys staged a mutiny, I was ready to jump in. He thought we were insane because they had a decent following at the time.
Jeb: You named REO in a transportation class. Were there any other names being bounced around?
Neal: Actually, no. We weren’t worried about a name because we were just rehearsing for fun. One day we decided to advertise in the campus paper to see if anyone would hire us, so we needed a name fast. The very next day I walked into an engineering class and saw REO Speedwagon written on the board in giant letters. It was a milestone in the history of transportation: a high-speed, heavy-duty truck. I told the guys that night and they all loved it. It was the only name we ever considered.
Jeb: Do you remember the first REO gig? Again, legend holds there was a food fight that broke out during the gig.
Neal: It was a frat house that had invited a sorority over for a dinner. The food fight was planned in advance as a prank on the girls, but we weren’t told that part. We walked in and saw heavy paper covering all the walls. We kinda thought something was up, but it was too late. The evening ended with mashed potatoes everywhere. Alan spent the next whole day cleaning them off the drums. But we made forty dollars.
Jeb: Terry Luttrell came into the fold by 1968. Where did you meet him?
Neal: Our first singer, Joe Matt, was only in the band for one semester before he graduated. Terry was a Champaign native who was well-known on the local blues circuit. I thought he sounded like Jim Morrison, and that was good enough for me. We hit it off right away.
Jeb: Have you stayed in touch with him over the years?
Neal: We’ve run into him many times over the years, but lately have seen him a lot more. We had a party for a former crew member down in Nashville at the legendary Exit Inn, and Terry’s latest band played that night. They’re called “The Tons o’ Fun Band,” and they’re really good. His voice is better than ever. At one point he and Kevin were trading vocals and it was heartwarming.
Jeb: When and how did you discover Gary Richrath?
Neal: Actually, he came to us. We had gone through a few guitar players, and the word got out that we were looking again. He made it very clear he wanted to join our band. We went to see him play with another local band and were knocked out. He had a rock star look and could really play the guitar. We made the decision on the spot.
Jeb: Who is Paul Leka and what role did he play in REO’s history?
Neal: Paul was a successful songwriter and producer who worked out of New York. He had just written and produced two giant hit songs: “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Kim Goodbye” and “Green Tambourine.” Our manager convinced him to come see us at an outdoor show in Illinois. Even though it was rained-out after a few songs, he had already made up his mind, based largely on the size of the crowd and their reaction. While we were covering the gear with plastic, they were standing in a downpour and screaming for more.
We went up to him very upset and told him that he didn’t even hear our best stuff. He pointed at the crowd and said, “That’s all I need to hear.” He took us to his Connecticut studio and we made the first album at his expense. He then shopped it around for almost a year. Finally, he found a few people at Epic Records who loved it. It still took them some time to convince the label to sign us. It was two years between the recording of the album and the release and we were holding our breath the whole time.
Jeb: What do you remember about making the first album?
Neal: We did it in two one-month sessions and did a tour in between. During the first month we literally slept on the floor of the studio and ate nothing but fast food. Leka was fronting the studio time, but we had almost no money to live on. The songs were coming together well, so that kept our spirits up. Also, Paul was a really funny guy and natural-born cheerleader.
The second month was much easier. We had some money from playing shows and now were sleeping in a real house and also eating a little better. The house was in the beautiful upscale village of Westport, Connecticut. Alan and I would walk through the local shops and talk about being able to afford that stuff. We thought the record was turning out great and that we would soon be rock stars.
Jeb: How did “157 Riverside Avenue” grow as a song? Was it always long or did it start as a boogie and go from there?
Neal: At the time we started the record, “157” didn’t even have lyrics. It was just a three-chord jam that we called “The Shuffle.” Paul liked the track and thought we should turn it into a real song. I suggested making it a story about the house we were renting in Westport. All of us sat in the control room and wrote the lyrics in about twenty minutes. The exchange between singer and guitar is something that Kevin developed during live shows. It has evolved constantly over the years.
Jeb: Kevin told me of an old bar you guys used to play at that loved REO. Do you know what I am talking about? If so, what made it so much fun to play there?
Neal: That was “The Red Lion” in Champaign, Illinois. It was the only bar on campus that wasn’t a dive. It was a good-sized room with a real stage and some decent stage lighting. The owner used to let us rehearse there, and it’s where most of the first album was written. We used to pack that place to the rafters, and I mean that literally. It was a Tudor-style interior with open-beam ceiling. People were actually sitting in the rafters.
It’s still there and has been nicely restored. We just visited the place as part of a documentary film about the original Champaign music scene. It’s called Out Of Nowhere by Bob Zimmerman. You can find it at http://www.parasol.com/artists/bob-zimmerman/out-of-nowhere-the-champaign-music-scene-dvd/.
Jeb: The Midwest adopted REO early on. I am from Kansas so I remember how damn popular you guys were. Even though you were doing well regionally, I assume there was still little to no money yet.
Neal: We weren’t earning any royalties, but we were never really broke either. We were making a decent living by opening shows for national bands: the Doobie Brothers, the Eagles and others of that tier. We called ourselves the world’s most famous opening act.
Jeb: R.E.O./T.W.O. brought Kevin to the band. How did this happen?
Neal: Terry was getting frustrated by band politics and left by his own choice. It was unexpected and no one in town really fit what we needed. Gary checked the Chicago newspapers and Kevin had a scam going called The Musicians Referral Service. He was the only client. He came down to Gary’s place and played some of his songs with just an acoustic guitar. Gary was impressed and convinced the rest of us to give him a shot.
Jeb: This is a classic album. The track listing is amazing. Talk “Golden Country.”
Neal: Gary brought in “Golden Country” in slightly raw form, well before it was recorded. We all worked on the arrangement and fixed a few of the lyrics. We had played it a lot live, which made the recording very natural.
Jeb: “Let Me Ride” is an REO track that time has not remembered but that is a great one.
Neal: Kevin had a bunch of songs when he joined the band. That was one and so was “Being Kind.” A lot of that record still sounds really good to me, all these years later.
Jeb: Where are you guys on the back of the cover? Also where is that gig on the front of the cover?
Neal: We are in Vriner’s Confectionary. It’s on a street in downtown Champaign, which has since been named REO Speedwagon Way. It is also featured in the documentary. The front cover is just a picture of us on a small stage. The giant “Wings Logo” is really just a T-shirt that was enlarged and blended in with trick photography.
Jeb: Next album KC is out and Mike Murphy is in. Again, why the vocal musical chairs?
Neal: Album three was made in LA with a new producer. He and Gary started thinking Kevin’s voice wasn’t edgy enough for what they wanted to do. I didn’t agree, but didn’t have the power to prevent it. Murph was a Champaign guy whom I really liked when he played with his own band. But, I never did think his voice was right for REO. He and I became very good friends, but something just wasn’t right.
Jeb: Roger Boyd of Head East told me you used his keyboard to get that sound on “Ridin’ the Storm Out.” Is that true?
Neal: “Used” is a polite way to say it - we sort of stole it. We rented a rehearsal hall from Roger and this brand new Mini-Moog was sitting in the room. We started messing with it and got a sound we wanted for “Being Kind.” You couldn’t store presets, so we taped all the knobs in place and took it to Nashville. We joke about it whenever we run into Head East. At least we brought it back. By the time we did “Ridin’,” I had my own.
Jeb: That sound became your claim to fame. Did you ever screw it up and make a mistake during it or have you always pulled it off to perfection?
Neal: I screwed it up a few weeks ago, although that is rare. It’s easier to do on the new breed of synths, but it takes some quick thinking on the technical side.
Jeb: Lost in a Dream seemed to me like a band lost without a great sound. I don’t think this is one of REO’s best.
Neal: It should have been called “Lost In A Bad Dream.” We had no clear-cut musical concept. Gary and Mike were always pulling us in opposite directions.
Jeb: This Time We Mean It just seemed to continue with a period of the band where something was missing. I mean you went from “Golden Country” to “Gambler.”
Neal: By this time, there was no hope. Nobody agreed on anything. Mike wanted to quit just about every day. His songs were not turning out the way he wanted. He finally just left the band.
Jeb: How did you get Kevin back in the band for 1976’s R.E.O.?
Neal: We got up our nerve and just called him. He said, “What took you so long?” He came right back out to LA with a good attitude and a bunch of new songs.
Jeb: I think this album with “Keep Pushin’” and “(I Believe) Our Time is Gonna Come” really began the next era or REO. Was this an exciting time for REO?
Neal: I was so happy to get him back. The Murphy years had been an interesting experiment, and we had some good times on the road. Murphy was a really funny guy and touring with him was a blast but it was not meant to be.
Jeb: It took the live album to put you over the top. REO are such a great live band you finally got the live sound that you needed on a studio record…but it took a live record to do it.
Neal: We felt that our albums were not capturing the energy of our concerts and a live recording was the only thing that would. We recorded it over four nights in four different towns, traveling with a big recording truck. Then we used the best version out of the four nights for each song. That became our first Gold record. Epic flew us to London to present it to us at their annual World Convention. They made a big deal of this “new” American band. That week felt like things were starting to take shape.
Jeb: The classic lineup was in place by You Can Tune a Piano but You Can’t Tune a Fish. Bruce replaced Gregg on bass. Why?
Neal: The other guys thought we needed a bass player who played more solidly and was more cohesive with the drums. They didn’t let me in on it right away because I was really close with Gregg (Philbin) personally. Gregg’s style was too busy for Alan’s drumming. We had known Bruce for a long time and liked the way he played. His bass seems to keep things more solid. And he sings and writes, too.
Jeb: Talk “Roll with the Changes.” Richrath damn near plays your organ solo on the guitar. Did you ever notice that?
Neal: Actually, no, but it does make sense. Our solos were never just random jamming. We crafted them in a way that echoed the melody or other parts of the song. So any similarity would be somewhat intentional.
Jeb: This album was special. Did you know it at the time? Did you think, “We are finally going to make it.”
Neal: It felt like the right band was finally in place. It’s our second most popular album now, and when I hear it, I can see why. But, I didn’t realize it at the time.
Jeb: Nine Lives is a great album man. Why don’t you play “Only the Strong Survive” in concert? That would be such a great tune.
Neal: There are so many old songs we would like to play live, but there’s no room in the set list. Our first priority is playing the hits. That’s what the audience wants and they’re the ones paying us.
Jeb: After that album and leading up to Hi Infidelity you had a lot of personal problems. What happened? And how did you pull it back together?
Neal: Several band members were going through some stormy relationships, but mine was falling apart completely, trying to party my way out of the situation just made it worse. I ended up in the emergency room after a severe panic attack. I spent a few weeks away from the studio and got the anxiety under control, which allowed me to handle the whole thing much better. I cleaned all the negative things out of my system, physically and mentally, and came back to the studio healthy and ready to go. The guys were very supportive through the whole thing, but I was lucky that it only had to happen once.
Jeb: This album, while it made you rich and famous, also began the huge split between Cronin and Richrath. You were kind of stuck in the middle. How did you deal with it?
Neal: It was a subtle change from my point of view. Gary had always been the leader, but now the momentum was shifting toward Kevin. The record company even wanted it that way since his ballad finally got us a giant radio hit. Gary was upset about losing some control over the musical direction, but it was not an obvious constant fight.
Jeb: Tell me about the Hi tour. Any good memories?
Neal: It was so long ago that it’s like another life. I haven’t really tried to remember the details. I did not like being that famous. They say it changes you, but it actually changes everything around you. People treat you like you’re a phenomenon rather than a person. I’m glad it happened, because it’s the reason we’ve been able to keep going so long. But, I’m much happier being “human” again.
Jeb: The band struggled with Good Trouble even though it was a good selling album. What are you thoughts on the record?
Neal: I like that album and it has some of my best keyboard playing. But Kevin and Gary felt they had been rushed through the songwriting process. Epic wanted the record out while the buzz was still going from Hi Infidelity. Kevin still feels that the songs weren’t really finished.
Jeb: In 1984 you had a huge hit with “One Lonely Night.” Tell me about writing that song.
Neal: I was home alone for a period of time and the title and its melody just popped into my head one day. I put down a rhythm track for the whole song and kept playing it in my car. The rest of the lyrics came to me gradually as I drove around Los Angeles every day.
Jeb: Alan and Gary left after Life as We Know It. Why? Did you do anything to try to stop it?
Neal: That was totally out of my control. Alan had made up his mind to retire and have more of a home life. Gary and Kevin were too much at odds to keep working together.
Jeb: Are you worried about Gary? Word has it he has a lot of substance abuse issues and is kind of reclusive?
Neal: That is the word on the street, but I can’t confirm it personally. I left LA years ago and haven’t been in touch. I finally met the right woman and moved to Minnesota. We are really happy and will be up here until we get old and move to Florida. I hope Gary eventually finds the same kind of happiness.
Jeb: On a good note, Building the Bridge was a great album.
Neal: We started that record with a small label that went under about half-way through. We found another small label, but by the time we finished, they were also having financial problems. It costs a lot of money to promote a record, and it just wasn’t there.
Jeb: Find Your Own Way Home was a good album, but not a GREAT album.
Neal: I was against making that record in the first place. I felt the trend was going toward buying one song at a time over the Internet. I guess I was ahead of my time and it caused a lot of problems between me and the band. Plus, Kevin had keyboard parts in his head that just weren’t the kind of thing I play. I ended up leaving the project and the producer finished the keyboards. It was a stormy time, but now we’re all friends again.
Jeb: Are you okay being a band that plays the hits or will there be more new music?
Neal: I consider the audience to be our boss and 99% of them want to hear the hits. At the same time, it’s frustrating for Kevin because he has a lot of songs still in him. I think we will do a new song now and then, but probably not a whole album. It will probably be singles available through download.
Jeb: I love the song “Like You Do.” Live, it exemplifies the greatness of REO. The guitar, the organ solo, the lyrics, the vocals. To me, despite the pop years, THIS is the true genius of REO. Agree or disagree.
Neal: I agree and that is one song we are doing live now. It goes over really well and shows the crowd we can rock as well as play ballads.
Jeb: Back to the Styx and REO tour. Back in the day you had Hi Infidelity, and Styx had Paradise Theater, and you were flopping back and forth in the charts. Was there a rivalry between the bands back then?
Neal: We didn’t even know the guys in STYX back then, but we did have a competition going on the charts. We were really mad when they bumped us out of the top spot. We heard they were very upset when we got it back the next week. It never comes up now. We’re happy to be touring together. I don’t think there is a more compatible group of guys in the business.
Jeb: Do you enjoy the nights more when you headline or when you play in the middle? Is headlining still the best spot?
Neal: Originally the word “headlining” came from the size of your name on the marquee, not from the playing order. We consider every night to be an equal billing - same perks, same set length AND the same size logo on the marquee - but there will always be the perception that the closing slot has the most prestige. I’ve seen our fans fighting about it online. Having said that, I’ll take the middle slot anytime, the crowd is at their best at that point in the evening. I’d say most of the guys in STYX would agree.
Jeb: Last one: I want the funniest STYX/REO story from any of your tours…after all these years there has to be a good one you can tell me.
Neal: I can’t really tell you THE funniest. Let’s just say that it involved frontal nudity and that a certain member of STYX is crazy. And I say that with love.