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REO Speedwagon is an American rock band which grew in popularity in the Midwestern United States during the 1970s and peaked in the early 1980s. REO Speedwagon hits include "Keep On Loving You" and "Can't Fight This Feeling." Both songs are power ballads that topped the U.S. charts, the former being prototypical of the genre and appearing on the group's most commercially successful album, Hi Infidelity, which also included the hit "Take It on the Run," a song that peaked at number five on the U.S. charts.
REO Speedwagon took its name from the REO Speed Wagon, a flatbed truck, often outfitted as a firetruck, manufactured by the REO Motor Car Company. ("R.E.O." are initials of the company's founder, Ransom Eli Olds, who also founded Oldsmobile, once a division of General Motors.) In 1971, GM gave the band rights to the name and logo.
REO Speedwagon was formed by students attending the University of Illinois in Champaign, Illinois in the fall of 1967 to play cover songs in campus bars. The first line up consisted of Neal Doughty on keyboards, Alan Gratzer on drums and vocals, Joe Matt on guitar and vocals and Mike Blair on bass and vocals. In the beginning, Gratzer and Matt handled about 95 percent of the lead singing, with occasional turns by the others. Sometimes the members would switch around on their instruments (with Doughty even playing drums on one song, etc.). In the spring of 1968, the group decided to recruit a permanent front man to handle most of the singing. Terry Luttrell was the one chosen to assume this position. Around the same time, Bob Crownover and Gregg Philbin were brought in to replace the graduating Joe Matt and Mike Blair. Crownover played guitar for the group until the summer of 1969 when Bill Fiorio (ex- Lothar and the Hand People ) replaced him. Fiorio then departed in late 1969, eventually assumed the name Duke Tumatoe, and went on to form the All Star Frogs. Another guitarist, Steve Scorfina, came aboard, only to be replaced by Gary Richrath by late 1970. Richrath was a Peoria, Illinois-based guitar player and prolific songwriter who brought original material to the band. With Richrath on board, the regional popularity of the band grew tremendously. During these early years, there were also several others (including horn players, etc.) who quickly came and went. But by early 1971, the band's lineup was stable at last. The Midwestern United States used to be an REO Speedwagon fan stronghold, and has its roots in this period of the band's history.
The band signed to Epic Records in 1971. Paul Leka, an East Coast record producer, brought the band to his recording studio in Bridgeport, Connecticut where it recorded original material for its first album. The lineup on the first album consisted of Doughty, Gratzer, Philbin, Luttrell, and Richrath.
The band's debut album, REO Speedwagon, was released on Epic Records in 1971. One of the most popular tracks on this record was "157 Riverside Avenue." The title refers to the Westport, Connecticut address where the band stayed while recording in Leka's studio in nearby Bridgeport, and remains an in-concert favorite.
Although the rest of the band's line-up remained stable, REO Speedwagon switched lead vocalists three times for their first three albums. Luttrell left the band in early 1972, eventually becoming the vocalist for Starcastle. He was replaced by Kevin Cronin. Cronin recorded one album with the band, 1972's R.E.O./T.W.O., but left the band during the recording sessions for 1973's Ridin' The Storm Out because of missed rehearsals and creative disagreements. Ridin' the Storm Out was completed with Mike Murphy on the microphone. Murphy stayed on for two more albums, Lost in a Dream and This Time We Mean It, before Cronin returned to the fold in January 1976 and recorded R.E.O., which was released that same year.
REO Speedwagon's first live album, Live: You Get What You Play For (1977), was certified platinum. The band was dissatisfied with the producers on their studio albums because of their alleged inability to capture on tape the quality of the band's live show. The live album, which was self-produced, seemed to change that. Subsequent albums were recorded with band members participating as producers.
In 1977, Philbin was replaced with Bruce Hall to record You Can Tune a Piano but You Can't Tuna Fish , released in 1978. This album contained "Roll with the Changes" and "Time for Me to Fly", both of which received heavy FM radio airplay but fell short of the Top 40 . In 1979, the band took a turn back to hard rock with the release of Nine Lives.
The lineup was now set for the band's most popular era. In the fall of 1980, REO Speedwagon released Hi Infidelity, which represented a change in the music from hard rock to more pop-oriented material. Hi Infidelity spawned four hit singles, including the #1 "Keep On Loving You", the #5 "Take It on the Run", "Don't Let Him Go" (#24) and "In Your Letter" (which peaked at #20), and remained on the charts for 65 weeks, 32 of which were spent in the top ten, including three months at number one.
Good Trouble (1982) and Wheels Are Turnin' (1984) were follow-up albums which also did well commercially, the former containing the hit singles "Keep the Fire Burnin'" (U.S. #7) and "Sweet Time" (U.S. #26) and the latter containing the #1 hit single "Can't Fight This Feeling", as well as three more hits: "I Do' Wanna Know", "One Lonely Night" and "Live Every Moment". In addition, the band performed at 1985's Live Aid, (where they performed "Can't Fight This Feeling").
1987's Life as We Know It saw a decline in sales, but still managed to provide the band with the minor hits, "That Ain't Love," and "In My Dreams".
However, by the end of the 1980s, the band's popularity had waned and the group began to disintegrate. In 1988, their future was uncertain as Gratzer retired from the group at the end of that summer to open a restaurant. Former Santana drummer Graham Lear then joined. Lear had been playing with The Strolling Dudes, a side project put together for fun by Cronin and Hall. Around this same time, Cronin and some of the other band members had been getting into healthier lifestyles, adopting better diets, better nutrition, etc. Richrath, however, chose not to follow this course. He had also developed writer's block. After further disagreements between him and the others regarding the band's musical direction, he was asked to leave. Richrath departed in early 1989 after a tour of Hawaii. Strolling Dudes guitarist Miles Joseph was then brought in as a temporary replacement and back up singers Carla Day and Melanie Jackson (who were also Strolling Dudes members) were added to boost the group's vocal sound onstage. This lineup did only one show--in Viña del Mar, Chile--ironically winning the award for best group at the city's annual International Song Festival. After that, Miles Joseph and the back up singers were dropped in favor of former Ted Nugent guitarist Dave Amato and songwriter/producer/keyboardist Jesse Harms ( Eddie Money, Sammy Hagar ).
The 1990 release The Earth, a Small Man, His Dog and a Chicken, with Bryan Hitt (formerly of Wang Chung) replacing Graham Lear on drums and Amato debuting on lead guitar, was a commercial disappointment. Harms was disillusioned and his tenure in the group was short. He was gone by early 1991. These lineup changes were a stinging blow to many fans, especially those of the band's harder-edged material from the 1970s which had been dominated by Richrath's unique style on the guitar. It was the last REO album to chart, reaching #129 on Billboard's Top 200.
Shortly after his departure, Richrath assembled former members of the midwestern band, Vancouver, to form a namesake band, Richrath. After touring for several years, the Richrath band released Only the Strong Survive in 1992 on the GNP Crescendo label. Richrath continued to perform for several years before disbanding in the late 1990s.
In the meantime, REO Speedwagon, unable to interest Epic in new music, released Building the Bridge (1996) on the Priority/Rhythm Safari label. When that label went bankrupt, the album was released on the ill-fated Castle Records which also experienced financial troubles. REO Speedwagon ultimately self-financed this effort, which failed to chart. Epic still distributes the band's original CDs, and owns the rights to compilation projects.
From 1995 to the present, the label released over a dozen compilation albums featuring greatest hits, including 1999's The Ballads, which contained two new tracks. In 2000, REO teamed up with Styx for a joint tour. One of the shows on this tour, an appearance at Riverport Amphitheater in St. Louis, appeared later that year as the live concert video Arch Allies: Live at Riverport. The REO portion of the show was later released as three different packages: The DVDs Live - Plus (2001) and Live Plus 3 (2001), and the CD Extended Versions (2001).
REO once again teamed with Styx in 2003 for the Classic Rock's Main Event tour which also included Journey. The band released a self-financed album entitled Find Your Own Way Home in April of 2007. Though it did not chart as an album, it produced two singles which appeared on Billboard's Adult Contemporary radio chart (their highest-charting singles in 19 years).
REO still tours on a regular basis, with the schedule posted at the REO Speedwagon Website.