It is 1976, and REO Speedwagon is about to release its sixth album. Titled R.E.O., the record will languish at #159 on the U.S. charts. The band’s previous release, This Time We Mean It, climbed all the way to #74 before dying, so the band, in many respects, is going backwards. But not for long. They are only a couple of years away from putting out Hi Infidelity and finally realizing across-the-board acceptance and success.
Singer Kevin Cronin has returned to the group after leaving them following the recording of R.E.O./T.W.O., the band’s second record. And guitarist Gary Richrath feels good about it. The new record sports some new wrinkles — his first attempt at slide — and he is pleased with the relationship between the band and producer John Stronach. He talks about his guitars, his early days, and his absolute love for Jeff Beck in Part I of this blast-from-the-past interview from the mid-’70s.
Where did you grow up?
Gary Richrath: Peoria, Ill., which isn’t too interesting. The first music things that I heard was, oh, Everly Brothers kind of thing and a lot of country guitar. My uncle was a country guitarist, and he gave me a guitar and said, “Learn how to play this; it’ll keep you from starving,” and I said, “Great!”
Was there much music happening in that area?
GR: Dan Fogelberg was in a band at that point that was our rival. Dan Fogelberg...we all know him, alias Mr. Acoustic. At that point in Dan’s life, he was in a band that did all Who material, and he used to fling the microphone cords. He was our big competition; we were The Yardbirds, and he was The Who and Buffalo Springfield. That was happening.
There was actually a lot of music there then, but after about a year or year and a half, it just tapered off, and everything moved to Champaign, Ill. Which is where this band got together and where Dan moved and where everybody moved. And that was at the point when Danny started getting into his acoustic thing, and I started getting into R.E.O. And he’s the only other person that I know of that has come out of Peoria. There was a lot of music around then and still is.
The people in Fool’s Gold all originated in Champaign, so that place right there became a big music scene for a while. That was during ’70, ’71, and it was the big thing, ’cause everybody came to the University of Illinois to get out of the draft. So, there was a real happening music scene right there.
How old were you?
GR: I was 16 then. So, I’ve been playing about 10 years, I guess it is. And from that point on, it was constant practice and the whole trip and all that. And there were small bands around Peoria that I played in — local bands and that. A couple small, little records that never did anything. And then I moved to Champaign and started with R.E.O., and that was in 1970, and so I’ve been with them for like six years. And [it] progressed to the point where we are now.
We started doing records, I think, in ’71; that’s about a half year after I joined the band. The record that will be coming out now will be our sixth one.
What were the first two albums?
GR: The first album was called R.E.O. Speedwagon. And the second one was, R.E.O./T.W.O., which has the singer that we now have back in it (Kevin Cronin); which is probably, out of the first five albums, the most representative of the band. It’s still a real rough record but sounds more like us than the other four do…
So, what kind of guitar was it that you began on?
GR: My original one… a Harmony! It was one of those acoust