By Jeb Wright
Billy Greer has been the “new“ bass player in Kansas since 1984, a moniker that one must learn to live with when replacing a founding member of the band, regardless of how long ago it happened. But Greer has taken it all in stride and grown into a leadership position in the band’s live show, becoming the band’s emcee and getting to utter those famous words, “Good evening, and welcome to Kansas” at the start of every show.
For Greer, the opportunity to play with Kansas was a dream gig, as he had been a fan since the band released its self-titled debut. He finally got the call when the band was re-forming, minus original bassist Dave Hope and multi-instrumentalist Kerry Livgren. The band learned of Greer from his time with vocalist Steve Walsh in the band Streets, which garnered a minor hit when “If Love Should Go” reached No. 87 on the singles charts in 1983.
Greer took time to relive his nearly three decades in the band, from being flown in to his first Kansas rehearsal by guitarist Steve Morse to working with iconic producer Bob Ezrin on the album “In the Spirit of Things,” to the excitement he feels about sharing the stage this summer with Dave Hope, the musician he replaced.
GOLDMINE: How did you get hand-picked to reform Kansas in 1984?
BILLY GREER: I joined Steve (Walsh) in the band Streets in 1982 when he left Kansas. Phil (Ehart) and Rich (Williams) had come to a gig in Atlanta on our first tour, so they had heard me play and sing with that band. They knew I had a voice similar in range to Steve and knew that they would need a strong vocalist to help with harmonies and sing Robby’s (Steinhardt) parts.
GM: When you first walked in and then when you jammed … tell me the story.
BG: I was asked to be a member of Kansas when they decided to get back together and Steve was coming back to be the singer for the band. I had moved back home to Tennessee when I got the call from Phil. He said I would be coming in as the new bass player, and Steve Morse would be the new guitar player. So, in July of 1985, Steve Morse flew his plane into my hometown airport, in his twin-engine Cessna, picked me up and we flew back to Atlanta. We first got together in Phil’s basement. Intimidated is not a strong enough word to describe how I felt standing alongside Steve Morse, who was voted in Guitar Player magazine as the best all-around guitar player in the world. I must say that he was very patient and complimentary, and I can truthfully say that I really went to school playing with Steve, and all the guys for that matter.
Steve Morse and I even collaborated on a song called “Every Time it Rains,” which was demo-ed by the band and ended up on my project with Mike Slamer called Seventh Key. Steve Walsh wasn’t there for the first couple of sessions. He was out touring with Cheap Trick. He came in a few days, and we really went to work.
GM: Dave Hope is who you replaced. Did you have a lot of respect for his playing?
BG: I had a chance to meet Dave when Kansas was playing their first gig without Steve in Huntsville, Ala., on their “Drastic Measures” tour. All of the members of Streets went over and caught a dress rehearsal performance. Dave was very gracious and was, and has always been, an inspiration to me. I became a Kansas fan after I heard the first album when it came out. Dave played some really complicated stuff and created the perfect job for me. Thanks, Dave!
GM: “Power” had the mix of Kansas progressive music with “Musicato” and more pop songs like “All I Wanted.” It was, for lack of a better term, a powerful album. Any good memories from recording that album?
BG: It was my first album with Kansas, and it was a little overwhelming, because here I was recording with one of my favorite bands, as a member, and with one of my favorite vocalists and with one of the best guitarists in the world. Andrew Powell, who had produced The Alan Parsons Project, produced the record. We were recording in a studio in Nashville called The Castle. One bonus was that a song that I had brought to the band was picked to be on the album. Steve Walsh did a re-write on some of lyrics, and Steve Morse wrote a middle section, and the song “Three Pretenders” was born.
GM: Legend holds that Richard Belzer was in a video for “Can’t Cry Anymore.“ I thought I knew everything about Kansas, but I do not remember this.
BG: Check it out on YouTube. It seems that we missed that magic window to get airplay when MTV transformed into a different beast. We had this great song, a great video and a great guest star, yet the video got very little airtime on MTV. It was very disappointing.
GM: Next up was “In The Spirit of Things.” This was produced by the legendary Bob Ezrin. How did that come to be?
BG: Bob was an amazing and inspirational producer. As I recall, he had just come off recording “A Momentary Lapse of Reason” by Pink Floyd. As it turned out, Bob was a Kansas fan and was available, and we were very lucky to get him on our team. We did things in the studio that we had never done before.
I know Phil was more relaxed recording the drum tracks. We were playing with a click track, and, for the first time in Kansas recording history, Phil didn’t have to play the song from the beginning to end. If he made a mistake, or got off the click, we actually punched in on a 24-track tape, which was kind of unheard of. It made for a lot of extra work for our engineer, Brendan O’Brien. At the end of day, Bob would map out which take we would use and where the tape had to be cut. Brendan would have to stay and work for hours splicing 2-inch tape. As you may know, Brendan has gone on to be a very successful producer in his own right.
GM: What was Ezrin like?
BG: Bob was fun to work with and got the best out of you without being a hard-ass! He was, however, a stickler for lyrics, and Steve Walsh did a lot of re-writes to get the lyrics just right.
GM: This is a concept album. Some fans swear by it, and some swear at it. What is your take?
BG: I personally loved the record. Some fans think it is blasphemous that David (Ragsdale) and I are playing with the band. They only recognize the six original members as relevant. Whatcha gonna do?
GM: Kansas is an amazing band. What are your favorite Kansas songs to play live?
BG: “Miracles Out of Nowhere” has great lyrics, plus I get to sing lead. “Magnum Opus,” because it keeps you on your toes and thinking. “Dust in the Wind,” because I get to play guitar. “Carry On Wayward Son,” because who wouldn’t want to end their show with a rock classic?
GM: What will that show be like in Pittsburgh? Even after all these years, will you be nervous?
BG: It’ll be very special to have all the original members on the stage at the same time. I won’t be as nervous as Kerry (Livgren), Dave and Robby!
GM: Are you looking forward to jamming with Dave?
BG: Of course, but I’ve done it before. We did a two-week tour of Germany with Dave and I switching back and forth on bass.
GM: What is the biggest misconception, in your opinion, people have about the band Kansas?
BR: That we are so serious all the time. Actually, Kansas has a great since of humor. GM