Thursday, August 17, 2006

U. P. played into REO story

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REO Speedwagon performed in the Upper Peninsula at several pivotal junctions in their career.

You may remember the quintet from Champaign, IL first hit the singles chart in 1977 with the seminal "Ridin' The Storm Out," a rocker written by lead guitarist Gary Richrath.

Then, on Aug. 28, 1978, as "Time For Me To Fly," their third hit was charting, the group played at Marquette's Lakeview Arena to a crowd of swooning girls and air guitar playing guys.

As the 80s unfolded, and the band was battling it out with rivals Styx and Journey, the hits came fast and furiously for REO. Their "Hi Infidelity" album contained four radio-friendly singles including chart topper "Keep on Loving You" and another Richrath tune, "Take It On The Run," with its infectious line "heard it from a friend" and fiery guitar work. The song reached No. 5.

REO returned to Marquette in 1981 in support of the "Hi Infidelity" LP which was the best-selling album in the country for four months.

In 1985, the group registered their biggest single with "Can't Fight This Feeling." More saturation airplay followed.

By 1988, Epic Records had released a "best of" compilation called "Hits," which contained two new songs: "Here With Me," which reached the Top Twenty; and "I Don't Want to Lose You."

With a black and white cover depicting the four off- kilter letters of its title, "Hits," flew off store shelves.

A ballad, "Here with Me," was generating significant time on national radio when REO prepared to play at the U. P. State Fair on Saturday, Aug. 20, 1988. The group had also recorded a video of the song for MTV.

My wife Sue and I had been looking forward to the show because, with three hits the previous year, it looked like REO was at a career peak. Adding to our excitement, the group's manager had invited us backstage to meet the band after the 8 p. m. concert.

As we watched Richrath, with his cherry sunburst Les Paul guitar, singer and guitarist Kevin Cronin and the band storm through their hit-filled program, including the Top Ten "Keep The Fire Burnin'," we didn't realize things were about to change for the veteran group.

It seems Richrath and Cronin couldn't agree on the future direction of the band, or who's songs to put on their albums. Richrath wanted a rockier sound (his songs), while Cronin thought the group should continue to stress ballads (his songs).

Consequently, in the months following the Escanaba show, drummer Al Gratzer retired and Richrath was asked to leave the band.

With the change in personnel, the hits stopped. Still, Cronin kept the REO Speedwagon name before the concert-going public by touring extensively.

Following his split from REO, Richrath released a solo album, "Only the Strong Survive" in 1992. The disc included remakes of the title track and "In Your Letter" from the multi-million selling "Hi Infidelity."

Richrath was replaced in REO by ex-Ted Nugent and Richie Sambora guitarist Dave Amato.

REO's most recent local appearance, which besides Cronin and Amato, included original keyboardist Neal Doughty, bassist Bruce Hall, as well as drummer Bryan Hitt, came on June 2 and 3, 2006 at the Chip-in Island Resort and Casino in Harris.

In the years since the breakup of the original band, Cronin and Richrath have apparently patched up their differences but there has been no REO Speedwagon reunion.

During the last decade, Richrath has been working on a follow-up solo album, while REO has been marketed with seemingly countless compilation albums, as Epic Records continues to grind out profits from their back catalog, repackaging those old hits in various new combinations.

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