Feature Story
Thursday, March 10, 2005

speedwagon.com photo

At a glance

What: REO Speedwagon and Styx

Where: U of I Assembly Hall, Champaign

When: 7:30 p.m. March 17

Tickets: $24.50, $34.50 and $44.50

Box office number: (217) 333-5000

The current lineup of Styx continues to play the group's hits.

Keep on rollin'

REO Speedwagon still touring despite inevitable changes

By Dan Craft

CHAMPAIGN -- The man who penned that ode to adaptability, "Roll With the Changes," knows the score as well as anyone.

Especially when it comes to dodging life's curveballs and sucker punches.

As Exhibit A in the life and changing times of REO Speedwagon's Kevin Cronin, he cites a particular moment more than 30 years ago.

To be exact, 1972.

That was the year when Cronin, a quiet young folk singer from the south side of Chicago, accepted the offer to join up with a not-so-quiet young rock band.

The occasion was Cronin's very first gig with REO, at Champaign's Red Lion Inn, site of many a Speedwagon performance during that period.

"It was very scary because I was coming into a band that was pretty well established," recalls Cronin. "I was the new guy, so that's always a little bit unnerving."

Worse, "The other guys all were dressed in their fancy clothes and tight pants and cool shirts -- and here was me, this dork from Chicago with Hush Puppies and corduroy pants."

Despite the perilous fashion gap, "It was a crash course in rock, and it was fun and it was great. They had more experience than I did, but I brought some song-writing to the party, some musicality that the band didn't have before ..."

With REO's deep Central Illinois moorings -- including a lead guitar player, Gary Richrath, from Peoria -- it's not surprising that a lot of Cronin's early memories are tied to the region's bar circuit.

Especially that part of the circuit involving the infamous Red Lion Inns in downtown Bloomington and, as noted, on the University of Illinois campus in Champaign-Urbana, where the boys in the band attended school.

Though that era now seems like "another lifetime," some of Cronin's fondest recollections are imbedded there.

He and his band-mates -- Richrath, keyboardist Neal Doughty, drummer Alan Gratzer and bass player Gregg Philbin -- "were growing up and living around the Midwest in a beat-up Chevy station wagon, sleeping three to a hotel room and paying our dues.

"We had that solid foundation of the Midwest, and especially of Illinois."

And if things started going badly elsewhere, "we'd always go, 'You know what? We can still kill 'em in Illinois.' That gave us confidence and kept us plugging away."

And, as noted, rolling with the changes.

During the recording of 1973's seminal "Ridin' the Storm Out" album, Cronin decided it was time to roll on and over some new changes.

"It was really more of a situation where I was a folk singer who really hadn't had that much experience with rock," he says. "At the time, they were really loud on stage, and it was hard for me to sing and hear myself. I ended up having to yell so loud to hear myself that I hurt my vocal cords."

Fearing he was nearing burnout, Cronin left REO in 1973. His album vocals were re-recorded by Michael Murphy. His band-mates "didn't understand what I was going through -- they took it that I just wasn't trying, when all I wanted to do was save my voice."

Three years later, Cronin responded to a call from the band, now based in Los Angeles. Murphy had quit over creative differences. Cronin was persuaded to rejoin, bringing with him the soon-to-be-hit single "Keep Pushin'," included on the in-progress "REO" album.

The old folk singer/rock singer fears disappeared, and Cronin has been on board since, writing REO standards like "Keep On Loving You," the band's first-ever No. 1 single, from the band's touchstone year and album, 1981's "Hi Infidelity."

Though the band's membership continued to evolve, the most famous defection came in the late '80s, when it was Richrath's turn to bid the band adieu.

"The creative tension between Gary and me was part of what made the band work," Cronin says. "That friction caused sparks and made records. Gary's aggressive guitar and my folk songs created the REO sound. It was a good relationship for a long time. But, as often happens when there's friction for a long time, sometimes you rub the sandpaper together long enough and it gets smooth. The friction goes away. And that's what happened to our relationship. We had a great run, though."

The last time the two crossed paths was for a VH1 "Behind the Music" segment on the band several years ago. But it was fleeting.

"I always expected he (Gary) would end up coming back after dealing with his personal issues, kind of like I did," Cronin adds. "That never happened. And now I talk to him rarely, unfortunately."

Today, the REO old guard is Doughty and Cronin. Next in line: bass guitarist Bruce Hall, who joined in 1978. The "new" kids on the block: drummer Bryant Hill and lead guitarist Dave Amato, who joined around 1990.

• • •

Tooth be told, rivalry becomes friendship

By Dan Craft

James Young, lead guitarist of Styx, and Kevin Cronin, lead singer of REO Speedwagon, have a whole lot in common -- and not just the fact that they'll be sharing Assembly Hall stage space in Champaign on St. Patty's Day (that's 7:30 p.m. March 17, for the holiday-impaired).

On the day when GO! interviewed Cronin, he had just spent four hours in a dentist's chair, sucking in nitrous oxide. He missed his original interview time as a result of the unexpected oral endurance test.

The very next day, when Young called The Pantagraph for his interview, the guitarist's mouth was still partially paralyzed and his speech rendered slightly slurpy by the Novocain injection he'd received ... at the dentist.

But then, these twin rock musician dental episodes somehow make perfect sense.

Both Cronin and Young grew up, Young estimates, around two miles from each other on the south side of Chicago.

Both became singers in rock bands forged in the mid-'70s and hitting their peaks in the early '80s.

Both singers' bands suffered the major defection of a key creative component.

Both men have endured as mild-mannered, well-adjusted rockers well into what Young calls "advanced middle age."

And they've both been playing on concert tours together regularly since the turn of the century.

Young can remember a time when the idea of Styx and REO sharing a stage would have been unthinkable.

Or at least not pretty.

"Our relationship was one of competition ... battling for No. 1," Young readily admits.

It all came to a head in 1981, when REO's "Hi Infidelity" and Styx's "Paradise Theater" were duking it out for supremacy on sales charts and radio play lists.

The two big mainstream pop-rock bands of the moment were both from Illinois -- one from Chicagoland, one from down lower -- and may the best Midwestern sensibility win.

Today, nearly 25 years later, Young likens the old rivalry to that between, say Muhammed Ali and George Foreman.

"You walk 20 years down the road of life and look around and you're the only people left who saw the world from that unique vantage point," Young muses. "Now you have certain things in common that you have with no one else."

The current tour is, understandably, a 50-50 affair, he notes, with the bands sharing equal billing, equal time on stage and taking turns with the closing number.

Just as REO has its Gary Richrath departure (see accompanying story), Styx will forever be burdened with its Dennis DeYoung factor.

The famously thorny relationship -- which saw DeYoung leave in the '80s, then return briefly in the mid '90s -- remains prickly.

"I haven't spoken to Dennis since 1999," admits Young.

He recalls hearing a recent interview with DeYoung in which the ex-Styx player was quoted as saying, "I don't understand why those guys hate me so much ..."

Young says, "I don't hate Dennis. We've had some incredible experiences together. But this is like a team sport, and if the team wants to go one way and there's one player who doesn't -- even if it's the guy who sang most of the hit singles -- at a certain point in time you have to make choices."

The bottom line: "Tommy (Shaw) and I made the choice with Chuck (Panazzo) that Dennis had priorities that were not in the right place as far as we were concerned."

And so life, and Styx, have gone on, with the current old-guard lineup of Young, Shaw and Panazzo (brother of late Styx drummer John, who died from alcohol-related complications in 1996). More recent arrivals: drummer Todd Sucherman, who joined in 1996; singer Lawrence Gowan, who joined in 1999; and bass player Ricky Phillips, who joined in 2003.

Recent proof that Styx still matters to a lot of people: the band's 2004 cover version of the Beatles' "I Am a Walrus" became Styx's biggest radio hit in years (via classic rock stations) ... a forthcoming album of similar cover versions of the band's favorite rock songs is due soon ... the Styx classic "Rendezvous" was selected by Brad Pitt for use in his high-profile Super Bowl commercial for Heineken beer ... and people are still queuing up across the land to see those bitter rivals from a quarter century ago share a 50-50 love fest.

Not to mention some newly refurbished teeth.

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