Neal Doughty started REO Speedwagon with college chum Alan Gratzer over forty years ago.
But the keyboardist from Evansville, Indiana is still “Riding the Storm Out” with longtime singer Kevin Cronin, guitarist Dave Amato, drummer Bryan Hitt, and bassist Bruce Hall.
REO Speedwagon pulls back into Ohio on June 30th for a double-bill with Styx at Blossom Music Center. Motor City Madman Ted Nugent opens.
Doughty assures fans they’ll get nothing but hits at the classic rock extravaganza. Which means those out on the lawn can expect to dance to “Roll With the Changes,” “Time for Me to Fly,” and “Take It On the Run, then flick their Bics—or flash their smart phones—while singing along with Cronin on “Keep on Lovin’ You.”
With album sales north of ten million, REO helped define the genre now known as classic rock. Along with Foreigner, AC/DC, Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, and their buddies in Styx, REO created songs with chunky guitar riffs that everyone mimicked and from-the-heart lyrics everybody knew. They weren’t the only band to indulge the piano ballad craze in the early Eighties—but they were one of the best at it.
You sing “I’m getting’ closer than I ever thought I might,” and anyone within earshot will pick up the memorable refrain.
You’re singing it right now, aren’t you?
See? You still can’t fight that feeling anymore.
Doughty called The Cleveland Sound a couple weeks back to dish on the forthcoming tour—and a little bit of REO history. It became clear during the course of our half-hour conversation that rock’s premier organist still loves his work. Not only does Doughty not mind sticking to the hits at shows; he’s thankful to still be in a position to provide the kind of rock and roll catharsis people demand of his group.
THE CLEVELAND SOUND: Hi, Neal! Great to be talking with you, and we’re looking forward to the double-bill with Styx at Blossom in June.
NEAL DOUGHTY: It’s a beautiful place, yeah!
TCS: REO has toured withStyxbefore. You guys did a DVD together ten years ago— Arch Allies: Live in St. Louis—and just a couple summers back you stopped by together for a show. What’s new with The Midwest Rock and Roll Express? What makes Styx such a great-team up for you?
ND: We’ve toured with Styx on and off for over ten years, and they are just about our best buddies in the business. We sometimes say it’s like having ten guys in the same band. Been all over the world with them, actually. So there’s that camaraderie. And a friendly competition, where we will try to make each other better every night—because we switch who plays first—and the first band will come off stage and be like, “Okay you guys, try to follow that!” And the other band will be like, “Okay, we’ll blow you away!” And it’s all in fun, but it does make both bands do their best every night.
TCS: Ted Nugent is the wild card this time out, literally speaking…
ND: We’ve played with Ted a few times. Never done an extended tour with him. But there is a big connection: Our guitar player, Dave Amato, was in Ted Nugent’s band for quite a while. He played on two of Ted’s albums and did some lead vocals on them. He and Ted are close friends. So that’s an icebreaker there. I’ve only talked with Ted maybe once in my life. But if you get him away from his crazy ranch he’s a pretty nice guy. He’s not as scary as you would think! We get along just fine. So yeah, we’ve got connections all over the place with both bands. We’re actually looking forward to this. Because sometimes you don’t look forward to leaving home for most of the summer. But this is going to be fun.
TCS: What are the logistics like for something like this?
ND: We just built a brand new stage, complete with lighting effects and video and all that. Styx probably has, too, and the idea is to get these two sets working together so that one band can get off stage and the other can get on rather quickly. Because you don’t want your audience sitting there for two hours while you change the set around. We try to make it more like, fifteen minutes. So the production rehearsals are mainly for that. For a really fast set change. Then it’s pretty much three weeks solid. Then we come home for a little bit, then back out for another three weeks. And there’s a chance we’ll do a little more next year; we don’t know yet. But it always works out so well touring with Styx that we usually say, “We’ve got to keep this thing going!” They’re our favorite touring partner, and when you bring Ted into the mix—he’s worked with members of both Styx and REO—you can expect a lot of camaraderie and positive energy.
TCS: You’re the keeper of the flame in REO. Others have come and gone, and although Kevin’s been there forever, it seems, you’re the sole constant member.
ND: I’m the one guy in the band who can never get another job, yeah! I’m still here.
TCS: What was it like getting started back in the late ‘60s? Did you ever think you’d be at it this long?
ND: Our original drummer, Alan—who left the band over twenty years ago—he and I lived across the hall from each other in college. We were both engineering students, and we both got caught up in the Summer of Love. We became hippies somewhere near the end of 1967. He was in a campus band, and they were playing beer-drinking songs at fraternity houses. And we decided we wanted to start a band that could do all this stuff coming out of San Francisco. All this psychedelic rock stuff. And it was purely for fun. We had every intention of graduating and becoming engineers, and that this band was just going to be something fun to do in the meantime. But it just took over everything else. We just got so busy with this band and got such a campus following that we just didn’t have time to do both. So our attendance at class kind of suffered a little bit! So finally we were thinking, “We could always go back and finish the last semester!” But things have worked out rather well for us—so I won’t bother to do that!
But to this day I’m still interested in engineering. I’ve got a couple nephews who major in that. And I still read those Brian Green books on physics, the ones for the masses. Not everyone can pick one up and understand it—but if you’re interested in physics, reading them is like taking your brain to the gym. So I try to keep my mental facilities in shape by reading a little math and physics now and then.
TCS: Is there truth to the myth that you came up with the band name, basing it on an old-time fire engine?
ND: Yeah! One thing I did learn in physics class, maybe the only thing. I was in this class about the history of transportation. Actually it was originally “REO” Speedwagon, but we made it into initials because they are someone’s initials: Ransom Eli Olds, the guy who built the Oldsmobile. Then he wanted to go off on his own, and he started this Speedwagon company. A flatbed truck that was very high-speed and heavy-duty for its day. They were often outfitted as fire trucks because of those two things. And we just thought, “High-speed and heavy-duty…that’s what we’re trying to do with this rock band.” And I saw it written on the board one day. I walked into class and it was written right there. Because it was considered a milestone in the history of trucking and transportation and automotive engineering, you know? And while I sometimes tell people that that was the only thing I learned in college, I actually did pick up a few other things along the way.
TCS: Your playing style is fairly unique. REO has that big stadium sound with all the guitars, but you add a lot of gospel feeling with the organ and some honky-tonk coolness on piano. How’d you develop this interesting musical vocabulary?
ND: Right. Well, I taught myself to play piano mostly from learning Beatles songs. Because we always had a piano in the house. My mother actually knew how to read music for it. So my influences on piano are definitely guys like Floyd Cramer. The original Nashville cats. Then I picked stuff up from more contemporary musicians, like Roy Bittan—Bruce Springsteen’s piano player. I’ve gotten a lot of things from him. And a lot of things I just do by accident, because I don’t know any better, and they turn out sounding good, so we keep it. My organ playing—I got a lot of that from Al Kooper, who went to play on Dylan’s famous song, “Like a Rolling Stone,” and he showed up with a guitar. Dylan said, “We don’t need another guitar, so why don’t you go play that organ sitting in the corner over there?” And Al didn’t know much about playing organ, so for that particular song he just kind of faked his way through it and came up with some licks that are used every day now. So I didn’t have any off-the-wall kinds of influences. Of course, there was Johnnie Johnson, who was Chuck Berry’s piano player—and who really didn’t get as much credit as he deserved for his success. But he pretty much invented that three-chord rocker thing. And Jerry Lee Lewis built on that. A lot of rock piano players have the same influences. But to play solos, I try to go outside that a little bit and play something that hasn’t been done. A lot of things can happen when you’re making a record, and they happen by accident. So it helps when you don’t know what you’re doing! So I’m proud to say I don’t always know what I’m doing when I walk into the studio!
TCS: And as far as songwriting, how does that work in REO? Do you or Kevin bring in finished bits, or do you all work together as a team, or…
ND: It’s happened both ways. Gary Richrath was the guitar player—he left twenty years ago when Alan did. He and Kevin were the principal songwriters for long time. And they would bring in songs where the foundations were already there, and all the other guys did was come up with the embellishments and their own particular parts. For that first album, we really did write all the songs as a band, where we’d get together and be like, “Hey, I have this bass line,” or we’d all end up working on lyrics together.
Kevin is still a songwriter in his blood. That’s his first love. And for the last couple albums he brought in songs that were almost finished, where we just made sure we didn’t ruin them in the process of putting them on tape! But it’s gone every which way. I’ve brought in songs where everybody added to it, but they still ended up true to what I wanted when I brought them. And that’s what we try to do. The songwriter is king in this band. When a guy brings in a song, we’ll all try to improve it—but nobody will rip it out of his hands and try turning it into something completely different. Although we’ve tried that, too [laughs]! It’s a pretty dynamic process. Sometimes we’ll go all the way around in a circle and take a song 180 degrees from the way a guy wrote it—and in the end it comes back to where we started, and we’ll think, “It was better off that way.” It varies song by song. But our two major songwriters have been the main influence, and most of what they’ve done has remained pretty intact. It’s our job to put the icing on the cake. Any band can have five good musicians. But if you don’t have the songs, you aren’t going anywhere. So we’re thankful that we inherited a couple decent songwriters.
TCS: You’ve had a lot of room to play on REO albums like You Can’t Tune a Piano, High Infidelity, Good Trouble, and Wheels are Turning. I mean, ordinarily you don’t get a lot of solo organ or piano going on unless you’re in a prog band—like Rick Wakeman in Yes. But even on the hits there’s this immediate Neal Doughty sound.
ND: Well, yeah. I consider myself lucky in that respect. You don’t see a lot of band where the keyboard player does too many solos—and I’ve got one in like, every other song. A lot of that came from how Gary used to put so many guitar tracks down, like sixteen unison guitar tracks just to get this full wall of sound. And rhythm guitar and rhythm piano are kind of in the same part of the sonic spectrum. And he’d say, “Okay Neal, you do something brilliant, but don’t step on my guitar parts.” And I’d think, “Well half of the wavelengths are already taken up, so I’ll have to do something completely different.” And that would usually end up being a solo. That way, you can pop out without covering up what everybody else has done. That’s really the way it evolved. And I enjoy playing solos much more than I enjoy playing rhythm piano. For a while there I didn’t even know how to play properly! When we started doing the piano-type ballads, I kind of had to learn how to do that on the spot. But yeah, I love having the spotlights shine on me for a few bars. I’m proud of some of those solos and feel lucky that I got to do them. It just all came out of the way the band used to put records together.
TCS: Finding Your Own Way Home was released almost five years ago. Before that, there was almost a ten year gap between albums. Will you be playing any new material on the road, or are you working on anything for the future?
ND: Our live show is still 100% based on the original hits. We probably wouldn’t have done any new albums if it hadn’t been for Dave and Bryan. I always call them the “new guys,” but they’ve been in the band longer than the original guys. And they were full of energy. They were REO fans. The rest of us were like, “Let’s just do these songs until we die!” Or retire. But these guys really wanted to do some new stuff. And even though I thought they were really good—records like The Earth, a Small Man, His Dog and a Chicken and Finding Your Own Way Home. They had solid songwriting and smooth production.
But there is that unwritten law out there that the public doesn’t really want a bunch of new material from an established band. We had the entire Seventies when we were playing classic rock, and the Eighties when we played rock and some love ballads. And Styx is the same way. To this day, any band that had two or three big ballads and a repertoire of classic rock to back them up with, they can probably keep playing forever. So we don’t really do anything from those new albums. We’ve tried all of them, and we just learned: People come to hear those original hits. The turntable hits of the Seventies and radio hits of the Eighties. That’s what they want. And they’re paying us, so we’re not going to take their money just to educate them about what we’re doing lately. If we wanted to do something to keep our creative juices flowing, as they say, that’s fine. You try a couple songs. But if the audience wants you to get back to the stuff they know, you do it. The customer is always right! We fully understand now that those songs are the ones they came to hear, and we’re not going to cheat them out of their money by playing a bunch of stuff they don’t know.
TCS: REO Speedwagon is reaching new generations, thanks to your music being included in video games and movies. I took my kids to a Dr. Seuss movie a couple years ago, so there they were, running around the house singing “Can’t Fight This Feeling.” And this is twenty-eight years after Wheels Are Turnin’! Not bad for longevity.
ND: [Laughs] Yeah, Horton Hears a Who. We have a lot of our audience like that…the children of our original fans. And for all I know, the grandchildren of our original fans! It’s not uncommon at one of our concerts to see a teenager—or even someone younger than that—knowing every word to a song that written like, forty years ago. It’s the type of music that a second generation of people can still enjoy. You have parents playing it all the time. We went through a decade where you had this mix of punk and angry rock and other stuff—stuff that I personally appreciate—but which a lot of kids never latched onto. They say, “I think I’ll just stick to what my parents have been listening to.” So our audience is a very interesting mix of young and old. It’s the same withStyx, and—I’m assuming—with Ted. We haven’t played with him as much, but he does fit right in beautifully in the lineup. The people that come to see REO and Styx are going to like Ted Nugent. If they’ve never seen him before, they’re going to be pleasantly surprised.
TCS: Yeah, I’ve seen him a few times. So, and with Damn Yankees with Tommy Shaw (of Styx).
ND: He’s like the number one showman in the business. And we swear, he’s not as dangerous as you’ve heard! Don’t worry: You will walk out of the concert alive! We can’t let him kill the audience before we get a chance to play! Obviously, I’m saying all this in fun. But Dave Amato has nothing but good things to say about Ted. He even lived with him for a while; Ted was giving him a place to crash. And he raves about what a good guy Nugent is. If he were some devil-worshipper, he would not be on an REO /Styx tour!
I’ve got to say Blossom is just like, one of the most beautiful venues in the country. The whole back is like, just woodlands. We’ve played that place so many times, and it’s really one of our favorite spots. Out in the middle of nowhere, where the rich neighbors don’t try to get you arrested for playing too loud!