REO Speedwagon took its name from the REO Speed Wagon, a flatbed truck and fire engine, 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. 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 Alan Gratzer on drums and vocals, Neal Doughty on keyboards, Joe Matt on guitar and vocals, and Mike Blair on bass and vocals. In the spring of 1968, Terry Luttrell became lead singer, and Bob Crownover and Gregg Philbin replaced Matt and Blair. Joe McCabe played sax at this time until moving to Southern Illinois University. Crown played guitar for the group until the summer of 1969 when Bill Fiorio replaced him. Fiorio then departed in late 1969, eventually assuming the name Duke Tumatoe, and went on to form the All Star Frogs. Another guitarist, Steve Scorfina, came aboard briefly, and was replaced by Gary Richrath in late 1970. Richrath was a Peoria, Illinois-based guitar player and prolific songwriter who brought original material to the band including REO’s signature song “Ridin’ the Storm Out.” With Richrath on board, the regional popularity of the band grew tremendously. The Midwestern United States was the original REO Speedwagon fan stronghold and is pivotal 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 Richrath, Gratzer, Doughty, Philbin, and Luttrell Starting out in a used Chevy station wagon, REO played bars all over the Midwest. The band’s debut album, REO Speedwagon, was released on Epic Records in 1971. The most popular track 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 Michael Bryan 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. In 1977, Philbin was replaced with Bruce Hall to record You Can Tune a Piano but You Can’t Tuna Fish, released in 1978 which received FM radio airplay. The album was REO’s first to make the Top 40, peaking at #29. The album sold over 2 million copies in the U.S. which led it to go 2x Platinum.. 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 written by Richrath and Cronin, including the #1 “Keep On Loving You”, the #5 “Take It on the Run”, “In Your Letter” #20, and “Don\’t Let Him Go” #24, 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.” plus three more hits: “I Do’ Wanna Know” (U.S. #29), “One Lonely Night” (U.S. #19) and “Live Every Moment” (U.S. #34).
On July 13, 1985, the band made a stop in Philadelphia (en route to a show in Milwaukee) to play at the US Leg of Live Aid. They performed “Can’t Fight this Feeling” and “Roll With The Changes,” which featured members of the Beach Boys, the REO Speedwagon band members families, and Paul Shaffer on stage for backing vocals.
1987’s Life as We Know It saw a decline in sales, but still managed to provide the band with the hits “That Ain’t Love” (U.S. #16) and “In My Dreams” (U.S. #19). By the end of the 1980s, the band’s popularity was waning. In September 1988, Gratzer retired and in early 1989, Richrath was asked to leave over disagreements with Cronin regarding musical direction. Cronin had been playing in a jazz ensemble called “The Strolling Dudes” with jazz horn player Rick Braun, Miles Joseph on lead guitar and Graham Lear on drums. Lear was invited to join REO to replace Gratzer and Joseph was brought in as a temporary guitarist. Back up singers Carla Day and Melanie Jackson were also added in 1989 to boost the group’s vocal sound onstage. This lineup did only one show—in Viña del Mar, Chile—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, Dave Amato debuting on lead guitar, and songwriter/keyboardist Jesse Harms was a commercial disappointment. Harms was disillusioned and his tenure in the group ended in early 1991.
These lineup changes and Richrath’s departure 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. Shortly after his departure, Richrath assembled former members of the midwestern band Vancouver to form a namesake band, Richrath. After touring for a couple10 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 lost their recording contract with Epic, and ended up releasing 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.