Rich Williams reflects on Kansas’ decades of music, mayhem and mystery

By Jeb Wright

The first time the young, wayward musicians known as Kansas first headlined a rock concert, it was in Pittsburgh.

And it kinda happened by accident. (That’s another story.)

But the band’s musical appeal? Anything but a fluke. Formed in 1973, Kansas is still going strong, much to the delight of its fans — including a preternaturally strong enclave of devotees five states and one time-zone away in Pennsylvania, where the band chose to deliver a very special 40th anniversary concert in 2013 that brought all of the original members back together.

Guitarist Rich Williams discusses the wild ride he has enjoyed from the band’s glory days in the 1970s to the dark days of the 1990s, when Grunge ruled the charts, and everything in between.Kansas Don Hunstein archives

If you ever wondered what inspired Kerry Livgren to write “Dust in The Wind,” this early publicity photo might offer a clue. Of course, it’s also an apt metaphor for the band. Kansas was working against the wind in so many ways: It members were barely out of high school, stuck in the Midwest, and offering up a musical style that defied simple categorization. But Kansas managed to beat the odds and set its songs soaring up the charts and into rock and roll history. Photo courtesy Kansas/Don Hunstein.

GOLDMINE: Tell me how the idea to go back to where you first headlined a show became the theme for the 40th anniversary.
RICH WILLIAMS: We wanted to make it one event and do something different on that night. We chose Pittsburgh, Pa., because we have a lot of history there. When we couldn’t get a gig anywhere, we were headlining in Pennsylvania. In those days, you didn’t have the media that we have now. We wouldn’t know how many people were there until we arrived.
We played a show at The Stanley Theater, which is where we are playing the anniversary show. I don’t know what they call the place now, because who remembers the new names of these great old places? The promoter, Rich Engler, who we have done many shows with since, brought in another band; I think it was Styx, but I’m not sure. We were to be the opening act for the show, and someone in the headliner got sick and he was going to cancel. As it turned out, nobody wanted their money back. We were told people still wanted the show, and that they wanted us to play. We showed up, and the place was sold out; we were like The Beatles when we showed up for that gig. The biggest surprise was just being there and walking out and playing to this crowd that were, instead of going, “Who is that?” and yelling for the headliner, there to see us and us alone. It was quite a moment. It was our first headlining gig. There was no way that we knew that or planned it. We had come onto the scene quickly through the grapevine and through the college kids’ word of mouth, but we had no way of knowing that. It really was our first gig where we got on the map that way.

GM: What album were you supporting?
RW: This was our first album. We were just going out and opening for whoever we could. This night was our sudden leap from a Kansas bar band to the big time. We have since played the big arenas in Pittsburgh. We played this place there that had a dome that opened up. We sold out two shows there and broke Elvis Presley’s record. We played at the Syria Masque, which was one of the coolest places you could play. That town has been our Ground Zero, and the heart of Kansas fans has always been in Pittsburgh.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Although Williams had hoped all the previous members could take part in the special Fan Appreciation concert, a heart attack prevented Robby Steinhardt from attending the concert. However, founding members Dave Hope and guitarist Kerry Livgren took part. Although the band chose not to film the concert, Williams predicted that it would likely be found on YouTube. “This day and age, I can just walk onstage and fart, and it ends up on YouTube. So, with YouTube, the show will be out there, but we are not going to record it professionally.” And Williams was right. You Tube searches turn up a ton of footage from that event, as well as other 40th anniversary dates.)

GM: When Kansas was broken up for a few years, did you miss it?
RW: I remember when we took a few years off, and while life was good, there was always something missing. When we finally got back onstage, I remember that at that show, there was a curtain. I remember looking over at Phil, as the curtain was getting ready to open, and the opening music was about to start, and we looked at each other and it was like, “This is what has been missing.” There is nothing else in life that has that, “OK, guys, get ready, because here we go … 1, 2, 3,” then the curtain opens. I have done that many times, but now, just as then, life isn’t complete without it. I’ve seen what is behind that curtain too many times, and it has become such a part of my life. The only time I even notice it is when you take it away.

GM: Do you reflect back on Kansas during the anniversary years?
RW: To explain it to the common man, why is your 30th birthday more noteworthy that your 31st? What is it about New Year’s, or other times where we suddenly have this measuring stick to measure our lives? I don’t know why that is, but it seems to be human nature. Looking back 10 years, who would have thought we would have still been doing this 30  years later? I don’t know how old Mount Rushmore is, but we’re starting to get to be historic. We are becoming a living, love-us-or-hate-us rock and roll piece of history. Forty years — for f**k’s sake, that gets you some sort of street cred just for your tenacity.

GM: Many bands either blow it up almost like a commercial to sell stuff, or they blow it off. Your fans love that Rich Williams, while he is a rock star, is also just a guy in the band Kansas.
RW: I am a huge rock star every night in my dreams, but in real life, I don’t really think about it much. I am just a musician in real life.

GM: Why do you think the fans are still here 40 years later?
RW: Kerry Livgren has written passages of music that are the most powerful things that I have ever heard. He is my favorite writer. Hearing the way that we play those things, the way it is put together and the way it ends up after it is put through the Kansas meat grinder, has a dynamic power to it.
Look at “Song for America,” where that groove sets in, and then it really kicks in, and it is like, “Holy sh*t.” This is not just a bunch of blues licks; it is a gigantic, majestic, beautiful melody. Kerry has done so many things like that which have personally moved me. Kerry has songs that have overwhelming power, and I hear it when we play them. I assume that is what moves other people, too.
Then there is Steve’s voice … he really is one of the best singers of all time. There are a lot of great singers from back then, like Lou Gramm and Steve Perry, and while there are a lot of great singers, only a few are in that group. Steve is clearly in that group.

GM: It appears that Kansas will be around until you choose that final curtain call. Do you ever reflect back that you have been doing this for 40 years?
RW: It is weird to have different perspectives of your own life, depending which angle you want to look at it from. Sometimes, it seems like yesterday. But if I examine it more closely, I have had 10 lifetimes in the last 40 years.

I did a fill-in-the-blanks interview for someone in Argentina yesterday, and they asked about my playing on the new John Elefante album. They also asked me to explain what it was like when John was in the band. My God, by the time John was in the band, almost 30 years ago, I’d already had a career, and Kansas was dissolving, and we were trying to find Part Two.

That time period seems like a few lifetimes ago. I had a whole life before John. There have been many lifetimes since John. No offense to John, but his participation in Kansas is just a blip on the radar. There was a day when John played with us, but so many things happened before and since then.

The other guys left for their own reasons, and they had things that they wanted to do, and that is all great. For me, personally, it would be very tough to do. When the guys all get together, it is just another day at the office for me. For them, it is like, “Wow, I haven’t done this for 25 years. Did I do the right thing?” There has to be that thought on some level, if they are being really honest with you. I would really miss this, as a musician, as this is what I do. This is our baby; this is the horse we rode in on; you’d have to miss that on some level.

It is nothing that they are upset about, or mad, or anything like that, as the guys have all went on with their lives and done what they wanted to do. I certainly don’t mean anything negative, and I want to be sure that comes across. What I am trying to convey is that if I was in their place, I would be going, “Wow, these guys are still out here doing this all the time, and it looks like they still like it.” I would miss this if I had chosen to go another way.

GM: Did you come up with the idea for the anniversary concert within the band, or did someone from the outside come up with it?
RW: We knew it was coming up and we needed to recognize it in some way. For the 35th, we did the live concert DVD and CD “There’s Know Place Like Home.” In that case, we knew we wanted to do something, and we asked, “Where do we want to do this, and why do we want to do this?”  Once we picked our hometown of Topeka, everything started making sense.

On to the 40th … We wanted to do something special, and when we decided on Pittsburgh, then it all started to make sense, and it was the flag that we all started to rally around. There is also a documentary that we are working on, and it if all works out, then in between the orchestral set and the rock set, during intermission, we can show a trailer of the documentary, which we are still working on now. To have die-hard Kansas fans be the first to see the trailer would be great. A lot of things started tying into the event. People are coming in from around the globe.

GM: Tell me about the documentary.
RW: I was in Topeka, and my wife, Debbie, and I were sightseeing. We were over off of First Street at the Ward-Meade Park Botanical Gardens. They have a little town over there; it’s really cool. We were over there, and Phil called. We have tossed around the idea of a book for years. Debbie just walked and took pictures of the garden area while I sat there and talked to Phil about the book. We even thought we could make it an audio book, and we would each do the talking. That was the impetus of it, and it just started evolving into a documentary. We started asking the other guys, and they all wanted to be involved with it. At that time, we were doing this all internally. Our old manager, Budd Carr, ended up putting us in touch with people that he knew from working with Oliver Stone. Suddenly, this super pro team comes in. It is a professionally-done documentary. It is going to be amazing. We found early footage of us playing at The Jolly Troll and other footage that we didn’t even know existed. The few minutes I saw, I was really intrigued by. The final thing to be shot will be in Topeka when we are inducted into the Kansas Museum.

GM: Tell me about that.
RW: There are other people and events going in other than Kansas; it is going to be a big thing. We will be onstage accepting the award at the end of the documentary. The documentary is about the start of Kansas, and where we lived, and what got us together. It is the story of us coming from Topeka and ending up on top of the world. It runs through “Point of Know Return.”

GM: Even after the massive success of Kansas, though, there were difficult times. You did that bus tour in the 1990s when grunge was in and bands like Kansas were a thing of the past.

RW: That time reminds me of a line in “Animal House” when they are getting a lecture from the dean of the college. He looks at John Belushi and says, “Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life.” That is a little too much perspective for me on that era [laughter]. That time is now just a blur.

In Kansas, just as in life, when you think that things are solid, or you things are not solid, you think things are great, or you think things are bad … don’t get too settled into any of that, as things are going to change. For Phil and me, especially, we’ve been tested under fire many times. We have been forged in all of this and we have learned, and this is one of the best ways we have learned to deal with any situation. We say, “OK, now what?”

KansasEpicLegacyGM: When did you realize Kansas was something special and were not just going to be a bar band?
RW: I think we all kind of came of age. We were playing soul music, or The Rascals, or stuff like that. We were playing proms and dances, and, at some point, we got tired of that. You hang around the music stores, and you see the guys who are headed for the Holiday Inn gig, and then you see the other side that is going another direction. Then there are guys saying “F**k it” and are selling their equipment. It weeded everybody out.

We were kind of the last guys standing, and we all knew what we wanted, and we knew we wanted to do it our way. We wanted to play some cool music instead of playing other people’s songs. We always sucked as a copy band; we were terrible at it. We’d be learning certain songs because we had to play them, and we’d go, “That middle section sucks,” and we’d jerk it out and put something else in. It really wasn’t until many years later that I realized that we were learning to be us; we were learning to be true to ourselves. Someone would say, “This sounds cool, but Rich, turn your amp up and give this some balls,” or someone one would go, “Phil, quit doing that tippy-tap and get out the big sticks and beat the f**k out of it.” If we were going to have to play this cover crap, then we wanted to play it in a way that we could feel good about. I think that is how we found our voice. When the original material started flowing through Kerry, we had already developed a way of doing things.

To be honest, a lot of the times, we were hard on songwriters, and it may have led to Kerry and Steve leaving at different points. Think about it. Here is this thing that you’ve created and nurtured, and you present it to the band, and they just laugh at it and say, “What are you thinking?” And then they start dissecting your child and saying, “We have to take this verse out,” and “These lyrics in this part kind of suck.” We have always been very hard on the writers, and I feel for them. I have brought things in myself and received the same thrashing.

At the end of the day, however, what came out the back end of the meat grinder was Kansas music. I have always said that we were the sum of us. We were stronger, as an entire band, than any of the individual parts.

GM: Even at your most pop, Kansas still sounded like Kansas.
RW: Our most pop moment was, oh, what is the name of that song? It’s in B-flat. I always remember the key [laughter]. “What’s on My Mind?” Oh, wait, no, it would be “People of the South Wind.” That had that constant disco drum beat; that song is our most pop. We never had done happy sounds like that. We were always a much deeper, minor key, melodic band, unless it was a very grandiose thing, like “Song for America.” But that was more of classical composition. I will say that “People of the South Wind” was a little more poppy, and it was a little out of character for us. It was more like us doing a disco song by somebody else.

GM: Your live version of “Belexes” is amazing.
RW: That song was done and gone and lost in time. “Belexes Mach II” became a much cooler song. We rewrote ourselves on that song, and it was like, “That was then and this is now,” and it really became a better song.

GM: If I was introducing a newcomer to Kansas music and wanted to show them what was the best about the entire catalog in one song, I would play them “Miracles Out of Nowhere.”
RW: If you were to pick songs that totally define what this band is about, then that song would definitely be in there. The other one would be “The Wall” but maybe “Miracle” is even a better choice, as the ending of that song is so powerful.

Rich Williams Kansas guitarist photo by Courtni Meadows

From Kansas’ heyday in the 1970s to the dark days when grunge ruled the FM airwaves, to today, when Kansas is marking its 40th anniversary, guitarist Rich Williams has been around for it all. Photo courtesy Kansas/Courtni Meadows.

GM: How do you describe your role in the band Kansas?
RW: Being the only guitar player for most of our career is my role. Nothing that we do is all about guitar or violin or keyboards; there are places for all of them. The sound of Kansas, where you hear a ‘Wow’ moment, is usually a part of the song where we are all involved. Sometimes it is like it is written for a symphony where the entire section creates a sound that is very identifiably us. When you hear Jeff Beck play as a soloist, then you know it is him. But with Kansas, what is most identifiable is the sound that we all make as a unit.

GM: Looking back, what is the most special thing in your musical career? is it getting the first Platinum album? Or selling out Madison Square Garden? Or is it something else?
RW: I am going to be really honest with you here; I think the most special thing will be the last gig we play. There have been many moments that were milestones, and it can even be hard to count them all. What really counts, even during the milestones, is how you feel about them at that moment. Once you’ve seen what’s behind that curtain so many times, how you feel about it really does change with time. My view of all of that, now, is a much broader view, as it is really about now, and not then. My favorite part of us is that we still are, and that I still do this, and that I still completely love it. That is the best part of Kansas to me, the honor of playing guitar in this band.

GM: We may one day be talking about the 50th anniversary.
RW: You never know. Steve has young children; Phil has young children. Billy has a mortgage, and Ragsdale loves his gigs. There is nothing on the horizon that is better than what we have. We manage ourselves; we call our own shots. We play when and where we want. Why would I want to do something else? This was a hobby that turned into a job, that turned into a career, and it is now my life. What a f**king life. How many people do you know that have spent their whole life doing what they love to do and have no regrets?
It has never been better than it is right now to me. I remember this or that, and I wish I wouldn’t have done this or that, or screwed up this or that. There will always be those little regrets. But all of that s**t got me to where I am today. If I am happy now, then why would I change anything from back then, as it got me to right here? These are the good old days, right now.

GM: When Kansas began, did you get invited to join, or did you find the other guys?
RW: Phil and I were in the first band that I was ever in, and we were called The Pets. I was in White Clover with Dave and Phil down in New Orleans in 1969 and 1970. I left after that and came back to Topeka to go to school. Living in a house filled with musicians and living like bums, playing in the French Quarter, while exciting … I wasn’t ready for that. I went back home and went to Washburn University in Topeka. The band had basically broken up, and I just considered that I had shot my wad with all of that.

GM: How did you get sucked back in?
RW: Kerry was in Topeka, and he had the band Saratoga. There were other different bands around Topeka, and eventually they turned into Kansas 1. I would go to school for a semester, and then I would get in a band for a semester. Dave Hope and I were in a local successful band called Plain Jane. We are in the Kansas Hall of Fame. We got kicked out of Plain Jane. They were playing a bunch of fraternity parties and stuff, and Dave and I were playing all of these really long Allman Brothers-type jams. One day, they came to us and said, “We want to go another direction,” and we got fired. They were more of a cover band, and they were playing to college kids. We took our equipment and drove home. In the meantime, Kansas had broken up, and Phil had gone to England to see if he could get something going over there. He was striking out. I was not in a band, either. Phil called me from England, and I was sitting in my parents’ basement, and he said, “I am coming back home. I want to get White Clover back together.” Phil had worked with Steve Walsh before. Dave and I were not doing anything. Phil said, ”Remember that guy named Robby Steinhardt who was in Greywacke? They broke up.”

GM: This led to the classic lineup forming and the record deal.
RW: When Phil came back, we all started White Clover. We were writing material, and we made a demo tape and sent it off to Don Kirshner. And he heard “Can I Tell You,” and that is how we got the interest in the record deal. We got a hold of Kerry, because Kansas had broken up and he had all of this great material, so we asked him to join. It was more of a mutation than anything. We were still White Clover when we got the record deal, but we didn’t like that name, so we went back to Kansas.

Kansas Epic Legacy publicity photoGM: I need to ask you about some of the band’s innovativeness to embrace music videos, and, perhaps, some of your most embarrassing moments. Let’s start with the tuxedo shot!
RW: It was explained to us that for overseas promotion, record companies advertised album releases on television with videos of the various artists. While it all seemed a bit silly with the lip-synching and all, we were assured that this was the way to break into those markets, and of course, they would never be seen here. We reluctantly went along with it. I honestly didn’t think the whole music video thing would ever catch on. It seems I was wrong.

We filmed the “Dust in the Wind” and “Point of Know Return” videos on a sound stage somewhere in Chicago. I believe it was four in the morning the entire time we were there. We will all probably wind up with lung cancer or emphysema from hours of breathing all the toxic carcinogenic fog. We were tired. It looks like it was shot during the night shift in Rock Video Hell.

“Point” was a total unknown, as we simply lip-synched for three minutes and went home. The special effects were to be done in post-production. Personally, I was embarrassed when I saw the finished product. Could you possibly cram another cheesy video effect into it? I thought not.

As to the “famous tux shot,” I assure you that I’ll see that painful moment pass before my eyes on my bed of death. Actually, I love watching the video now that it’s three-and-a-half decades behind me; very funny indeed. It truly captures the early rock video bad special effects era. We nailed it!

GM: Even worse was that red hat you had to wear in the video for “Fight Fire With Fire.”
RW: That hat was made for the video. It was a papier-mâché hat. Somebody said, “We need to make a really evil looking hat.” It ended up looking like a dented Frisbee. There are things today that if I had to do them over, I would not do. For instance, when somebody said, “Here, put this hat on,” I would have said, “F**k you. I will sh*t in that hat, but I am not wearing it.” I guess the director felt that my character just wasn’t evil enough, and the hat was just what was needed to save the scene. I must say, I “owned” the hat. I became E-V-I-L! Now seriously, I have a great idea … let’s let this article serve as the last word in the f**king hat conversation.

Kansas CBS video promo shot

In case you were wondering, here are the members of Kansas in costume for the “Fight Fire With Fire” video. To say Rich Williams was not a fan of the hat he wore is an understatement. “That hat was made for the video. It was a papier-mâché hat. Somebody said, “We need to make a really evil looking hat.” It ended up looking like a dented Frisbee. There are things today that if I had to do them over, I would not do. For instance, when somebody said, “Here, put this hat on,” I would have said, ‘F**k you. I will sh*t in that hat, but I am not wearing it.’ I guess the director felt that my character just wasn’t evil enough, and the hat was just what was needed to save the scene. I must say, I ‘owned’ the hat. I became E-V-I-L!,” Williams said. Publicity photo.

Kansas publicity photo Epic Legacy

Both Kerry Livgren’s “Dust In The Wind” lyric sheet and the guitar Rich Williams played on the track in the studio are in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. But the band itself is not. Publicity photo.

GM: Please share the story of how you multi-tracked “Dust in the Wind” and then had to do it over.
RW: Before “Dust,” I had not done much acoustic guitar finger picking. Recently, I had taken a few banjo lessons, for some long-forgotten reason. With the banjo comes metal finger picks, so I continued using them on the acoustic. Back in the olden days of recording, we recorded our parts in their entirety, because of technical limitation reasons, from start to finish. If you screwed up, you started over at the top.
After the first track was finally completed, I recorded a second identical track to create the doubling effect. Added to that was a third track using what is called “Nashville tuning,” which was putting only the upper octave strings of a 12-string on my Martin, with the G-string up one octave, to create a sparkling harmonic thing to add to the mix. I don’t recall if that was also doubled, but my guess is it was. All this is a tedious, nerve-wracking process that takes hours, as the clock ticks and money burns. Finally, it was finished, and I went back to the hotel. Sometimes you focus so hard on one aspect of a performance, you are deaf to other aspects. The next morning, when I walked into the studio, heads were hanging and the mood was gloomy. I sat next to [Producer] Jeff [Glixman] at the console, and he said “Listen to this.”  While the performance was dandy, just behind it in the background was this clicking. Once you noticed, it became very apparent. It was the sound of the attack of the metal picks hitting the strings, multi-tracked and stacked together, clomping along with the track like marching Clydesdales. There was no fix; the track was unusable. So the tedious recording process began again from scratch, this time with no picks. Having no calluses on my picking fingers, I was blistered by the end of the day.

GM: Isn’t that the guitar on display in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame?
RW: The Martin D-28 that I used for the recording now has a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along with Kerry’s original lyric sheet. It’s there … we’re not. You’ve got to have a sense of humor in this business.

GM: As long as I hit you up about “Dust In The Wind,” I should bring up the story of Kerry Livgren presenting the band with “Carry On Wayward Son.”
RW: Kerry was on an incredible writing roll, and we had been learning song after song. As exciting as working on new material is, we were ready to move on to the next phase — going to the studio and recording. When Kerry walked in the final day of rehearsals and announced he had one more song, we were less than eager, but there definitely were some cool parts and great lyrics.

The recording process, at least the way we recorded, was not unlike an assembly line. The first thing was recording the rhythm tracks with everyone playing along, but going for a keeper drum and bass track. Guitar, piano, vocal tracks were very basic, and there just for reference. Once we had what we believed was “the” basic track, we moved on to the next song on the list. While not an ideal situation, it was far more economical to assemble songs this way, as time was always short and studio time was expensive. The same process would continue for guitar day, vocal day, violin day and my personal favorite … Keyboard Hell. Anyway, the interesting thing is that while all the other songs on “Leftoverture” had been rearranged and rehearsed many times before we came to the studio, “Wayward Son” was, for the most part, learned in the studio, as the tape was rolling. The version you hear is probably the first time we played it correctly.

GM: Who came up with the name Kansas?
RW: The Kansas name actually went clear back to when Dave played in the Kansas Blues Band with a guy named Darrell Katz, who went to Topeka West High School with us and is now a bigwig at Berklee, doing all of this jazzy saxophone stuff. He has been a professor at Berklee for years. Someone said, “Let’s call this band Kansas,” and that is when the first Kansas name came about. Now, by this time, the first Kansas had dissolved and White Clover had dissolved, and then White Clover came back and got a record deal, but we didn’t want to be called White Clover, because that named sucked. Someone said, “Why don’t we just go back to the name Kansas?” Just about everyone but me had been in the other Kansas, anyway. Everything was in flux. It took the right time, the right place and the right song, but here we are, 40 years later, talking about it. GM

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