Monday, September 14, 2015

My Personal Brush With Former REO Speedwagon Guitarist Gary Richrath Back In The '90s!

With the death of Gary Richrath this past weekend, I am reminded of just how heady the rise to fame must be for those lucky enough to enjoy such a ride, but also how hard the eventual fall to earth can be. I saw this up close and personal in 1993 when I briefly took over booking for the longtime Chicago venue Martyrs.

The owner of the club at the time, a mustachioed man who wore shorts and flip-flops well into November, hired me five minutes into the interview and immediately put me to work formulating the club's itinerary for the next few months. This job was made harder by the confusing docket of shows booked by the previous booking agent.

One of those shows, I quickly discovered, was by the band Richrath, whose new American-flag-adorned self-released CD Only The Strong Survive sat on a desk with a Post-It note reading "$400". The owner then informed me that Richrath was scheduled to play at the club in two weeks and that $400 in question was the band's guarantee for the evening.

That couldn't be right, I thought, and promptly contacted the band's booking agent, who referred me directly to Mr. Richrath, who informed me that the reason the guarantee was so low was because he was still waiting to hear if he'd be taking part in some upcoming REO shows. It quickly dawned on me during the conversation that Richrath was the only one truly holding out any hope for his return to REO and that his continual reliance upon such a long shot actually coming to be was sad, but it was also hurting his bottom line.

"What's your normal guarantee?" I asked the former REO guitarist.

"$1500," he responded.

"So, why $400 for this show?"

"It's non-refundable," he responded. "If Kevin calls me and wants me there for REO, then I have to be able to clear my schedule."

"Has Kevin called you?"


"Has Kevin given you any indication that he might call you."

"I've heard from some people within the band that he's thinking about it."

"Which people in the band?"

"Neil mostly."

The Neil in question is longtime REO keyboardist Neil Doughty, the sole remaining original member of REO. Through mutual friends, I contacted Doughty and asked him if there was any chance of Cronin bringing Richrath back into the fold for shows around the time of our scheduled Richrath show.

"Not in this lifetime," he replied.

It was at this point that my heart sank because I knew I was dealing with a legend who was hopelessly mired in the past, waiting for a phone call that, quite frankly, was never going to come. Oh, Kevin might call him some day, sure, but it wasn't going to be for the one reason Gary had hoped.

Knowing this before Richrath did was one of the more eye-opening experiences of my time in the music industry. Here was a guy who had been to #1, sold-out stadiums across the country, and built REO Speedwagon into the solid machine that it was fronting a third-rate bar band while waiting for the phone to ring.

I went to the owner and told him that we either need to cut another check for $1100 to bring the guarantee up to $1500 and commit to promoting the show in the manner befitting a legend or cancel the show altogether. My vote was for the latter because, in truth, I didn't want to take part in Richrath's further decline into complete obscurity.

A little further digging revealed that the $400 guarantee had been paid out of the pocket of the previous booking agent, who, in light of his recent firing, had made no request to his former employer to be reimbursed. A quick call to the former booking agent revealed that the check had been returned to him as "undeliverable" because the address Gary had given him was incorrect.

"Gary swore up and down the address was correct so I re-sent it to him and it came back a second time as undeliverable," said the former booking agent.

On the day that Richrath and company showed for their gig, I made sure he and the band were given a $1500 guarantee the minute they walked through the door. While his band left much to be desired and Gary himself no longer resembled the iconic guitar god he'd been just a decade earlier, his guitar playing touched everyone in that room. It may have only been 150 people or so who came out, but every last one of them stayed to the very end and most who wanted to do so had their moment with a rock legend, who stayed until the very end, autographing REO CD's  and t-shirts, and posing for pictures with anyone and everyone.

As the room emptied, I could see the glow in Gary's demeanor dissipate. There is no lonelier place to be than in the shoes of a musician after the last fan has left and all that remains to do is grab your instrument and walk out that door yourself into the cold, dark night, or morning. As Gary went for the door, he paused, looked back at me and asked, "Is that it?"

"I guess so," I replied with a smile and a handshake.

"Okay, well..." and out the door he went.

REO's Kevin Cronin
In the years since, I have been continually amazed at REO's touring prowess and how Richrath would have certainly had a problem with some of the band's decisions; like recording a Christmas album and then promoting said holiday album with a combination live performance/ice-skating pageant on NBC.

Such "cheesy" decisions have always been right up Cronin's alley, but were a big reason why he and Richrath weren't getting along at the time Richrath was let go.

Had it been wrong for Cronin to kick the hard-drinking Richrath out of the band? Considering that Richrath had kicked Cronin out of the band years earlier, only to be forced to rehire the popular singer a couple years later, one certainly couldn't blame Cronin for wrestling control of the band away from Richrath at the first available opportunity.

Still, it was a situation that Kevin could have made right many times over the years, but chose not to do so for fear it would undo his new re-branding of the band as a younger, bottle-blonde version of its former self.


  1. Nice story, beautifully written.

  2. This is what I always thought, but the way you put it into words was very sobering, honest and quite sad.

  3. Sorry I didn't read this sooner. Very poinint yet gorgeusly written thank you

  4. Thanks for the article. I'm not sure why that after all of these years I feel so connected to the version of REO that I grew up following. Oh yeah....It was Gary's guitar playing and his obvious love of performing. It's a complicated ending....It wasn't as sad that Gary got pushed out of the band as it was that his vices got the best of him. And I really can't fault Cronin for demanding sobriety as a requisite for being a member of REO. Kevin was a marketing machine....Gary was the soul of a band.

  5. Screw you Kevin Cronin not only are you a mediocre singer at best!!!!!! But you turned REO into a top 40 girly band and have never shown much of any respect for most of its former members and I frankly don't care what kind of sucess REO Speedwagon has had,you destroyed who they were and truly meant to be!!!!!!!!! REO has not put out a "Rock Album of any validity since" you can tune a piano but you can't tuna fish" FUCK YOU KEVIN CRONIN AND GOD BLESS YOU GARY RICHRATH

  6. It always hurt me to see the things the band and particularly Cronin put Gary through around this time. Gary loved that band and it was like his air and to just be kicked out knowing he was struggling is just so horrible to me. As much as Cronin claimed they were like brothers and even lived near each other at one point, he could have done more to help someone he knew and was close to for so many years. The Behind The Music episode for REO tells so much about how this threw Gary into a depression and it's so hard to hear that. Gary hated all the cheesy things that Cronin would put the band up to and just wanted to go back to their hard rocking roots. Though they couldn't treasure him, us as fans did. He was an inspiration to me and many other guitar players and he will live on! He will always be the heart and soul of REO. Our Guitar Man.

  7. The Kevin Cronin hate is unwarranted and misplaced. We all loved Gary's guitar prowess. He also wrote some fantastic songs. But fans never had to deal with the demons that he was wrestling with. I'm sure many of you have had addicts in your life. So you know they will suck the soul right out of you. It doesn't matter how many chances you give them... you can bet they will burn you over and over again. Only the guys in the band know the details. So they parted ways. I believe that Kevin would have loved a sober Gary back in the band. But it wasn't in the cards. Cronin and the "new" REO lineup has been exactly the same for 30 years now. And to say that Cronin is wimpy or girly or gay or whatever else is just stupid and childish. The guy has written and recorded many of REO's best songs. Yeah, there are ballads (which are great, by the way) but mixed in are rockers like "Keep Pushin'", "Let Me Ride", "Roll with the Changes", "I Believe Our Time is Gonna Come", "Lightning", "Being Kind Can Hurt Someone Sometimes". Each one a classic. Play the song "Wish You Were There" and just enjoy Kevin's passionate vocals and Gary's soaring guitar, beautifully complimenting each other. Goosebumps aplenty. The recordings keep these guys together forever.

    1. Agree, Toad, Gary would have been welcomed back with open arms if he wasn't so miserably impaired. Very sad.

  8. This is the saddest article I've read about Gary. Yes, all the years of details that happened between the guys, we will never know. Depression is so hard to pull out of. It sounds like he waited years for Kevin or someone to call & see how he's doing; to just show an interest. It's what family should do. Give him options, another chance, step out to help and give him a hope to live for. He was dumped from the ability to express the talent that brought him great joy. His sensitive nature made it even worse. His drinking and lifestyle took its toll on his body,but in my humble opinion, I believe he died of a broken heart.

  9. One could argue that Gary's drinking was elevated by the fact that the very guy he recruited in the band was trying to turn the band into something they never were. As far as Kevin being let go, Alan Gratzer stated in an interview that the decision to give Kevin his walking papers was a band decision, so that cannot be pinned soley on Gary. But Gary was the one who got him back in the band. Then after Gary teaches Kevin all he knows about the business Kevin starts to try and move the band from Rock and Roll to mainly ballads. Once he got the #1 hit with Keep on Loving You, the record label moved their attention away from Gary and over to Kevin. I cannot think of anything worse happening to a guy who was rock through and through. Kevin basically created a situation that would cause anyone in Gary's shoes to start drinking. You can see in some of those video's that Gary was treated like garbage. This seriously would have had a negative effect on anyone like Gary who was a little insecure. Kevin knew this and created the very problem he needed in order to submarine Gary. He did it and the rest is history. Kevin never wrote another hit after Gary left. What does that say about Kevin's true talent. Gary was the sound of REO and when he left that band became just a cover band of their old lineup.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. By the way, for anyone who says its unwarranted to dislike Kevin, there are plenty of articles on the web that would suggest otherwise. Kevin is the kind of guy who would try to take credit for something even if he knew it wasn't him. After Gary passed he had Gary's son Eric play on a Ridin' the Storm Out performance at one of their concerts. Ridin'the Storm Out was written by Gary Richrath. It isn't officially credited to both of them. It would have been if that was the case because REO had other songs that were credited to more than one writer so if Kevin had anything to do with writing it, it would have been credited that way. Anyway when he introduced Gary's son and told the crowd Eric would play on the song he told this story about how the song came about and at the end of his story he said and I quote, "I think it was ME who said, hey I think we have something here". Totally taking credit away from Gary. That statement in that situation wasn't necessary. Anyway I think I have a problem with this whole thing because all too often people just assume it was all Gary's fault and he is no longer with us to voice his side.(RIP) Plus based on some of the things I've read from reliable sources Kevin truly did play an undermining role in Gary's departure from the band. Kevin has admitted Gary taught him everything he knew about the business and this was how he thanked him. Just seems like the whole thing could have been handled much differently.

  12. There is no lonelier place to be than in the shoes of a musician after the last fan has left and all that remains to do is grab your instrument and "walk out that door yourself into the cold, dark night, or morning."

    No truer words.


  13. Replies
    1. Judging by his Jabba the Hut-like appearance in the video above, I'd say booze, drugs and cheeseburgers were the more likely culprit.
      Love his guitar playing and creative genius. Too bad he didn't know how to prioritize his life.

    2. I agree that his poor physical condition was the direct cause of his death. But being driven from REO, I believe, led to the depression and self abuse.

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. This comment has been removed by the author.

  16. Saw Gary with his new band Richrath at Pearls Oyster Bar in Austin TX back in 1990 or 91. Even then, his body had started to morph into what looked like a diabetic/alcoholic condition, with his head and neck swollen abnormally large. That he made it another 25 years, albeit slowly getting larger and sicker, is amazing. REO TWO was THE high school party album of the mid-70s Midwest.

  17. I am one of the people who was responsible for Gary's introduction into the Champaign IL music scene that eventually propelled him to stardom with REO Speewagon. In late 1969 I was in a Champaign band called Feathertrain, which I had founded along with Champaign native Geoff Poor.

    We initially had tried to start our own booking agency to compete with Irving Azoff and Bob Nutt's Blythum Ltd, but eventually gave that up and joined them. They provided us with a manager who was formerly with the One Eyed Jacks, and we added two Black singers, changed the drummer and bass player (the latter being to BRUCE HALL who is still with REO) and added an organist, Dana Walden, who later became a successful composer and member of the R & B crossover band "Champaign."

    The new band, which was basically a Three Dog Night cover band, was very successful, and got to the point where it was jeopardizing my college studies. As a result I announced I would be dropping out and the band began to look for a replacement at lead guitar.

    At a gig in Peoria, Gary showed up with his Les Paul guitar but no amplifier. We watched him riff over the neck of the guitar at blinding speed and I commented that if it sounded as good as it looked, he was definitely a prospect.

    A few weeks later he had his chance as the band auditioned him, this with full amplification, along with the original REO lead player, Bill Fiorio (now known as "Duke Tomato") and decided unanimously on Gary.

    Gary replaced me at our next recording session and gigs and I went home to cram for my finals. Eventually I became a lawyer, figuring that "there is no such thing as a 40 year old Rock n Roll star. Boy, was I wrong.

    1. Wow, thanks so much for sharing. I love hearing about that moment in midwest rock history. Think I've re-read your comment ten different times and each time ends with a "WOW!".

    2. Thanks so much for your nice comment Superior. I just read today that there was a Memorial Concert in Champaign for Blythum co-founder and guru Bob Nutt (which included a performance by Terry Luttrell who was kicked out of the band after a fight with Gary). It further appeared that Bob was found dead inside an empty house a year ago where he had gone to seek shelter as he was homeless. Meanwhile, Irving Azoff, who was chiefly responsible for the success of REO after he brought them out to LA, lives in a 25 Million Dollar mansion in LA. As for Gary, Geoff Poor had informed me a few years back that he was working as a janitor at Urbana High School. I imagine his death was alcohol related. Sad.

  18. It's unfair for people who don't know these guys personally to sit at home posting nasty things on the internet about who was at fault when we don't know anything. One thing I do know is that countless bands have had to let members go when they started to descend into the pit of addiction. I wonder even about the cause of Richrath's death. Only thing I can find is Kevin saying it supposedly had something to do with a stomach issue. Makes me wonder if he was actually covering for him yet again. Who knows, but drugs and alcohol have destroyed so many people. Listen and learn, Kids, don't do drugs.

  19. No one is responsible for anyone else’s unhappiness or death. We all have freedom to leave unhealthy situations, and make the choices as to how to respond to things. I don’t know either man, but saying Kevin caused Gary’s death is completely unfair. Sadly, Gary made his choices and they were his undoing. So sad they couldn’t work it out.

  20. This comment has been removed by the author.

  21. I love REO Speedwagon I play guitar myself born in 1963 Gary richrath was a true idol thought you was one of the most tasteful players out there still do may you rest in peace my friend

  22. Thank you for sharing this story, I really appreciate it!

    REO Fan Forever!!!

  23. I saw REO with Gary and it was incredible. Kevin has lost his voice and they play loud to cover it up. I wouldn't pay much to see them again.

  24. Thanks for such a great story. I’ve been a promoter myself and as a talent buyer I’m sure you’ve got plenty.