Keep On Rollin' - RIP Gary Richrath - by Matt Walters


"We're very lucky in the band in that we have two visionaries, David and Nigel, they're like poets, like Shelley and Byron. They're two distinct types of visionaries, it's like fire and ice, basically." - Derek Smalls, "This Is Spinal Tap"

It's no secret that most of my favorite bands feature multiple songwriters, each with distinct personalities. I usually blame Donna Knappie for this. 

Donna was my 16-year-old babysitter in 1977, solely responsible for brainwashing 3-year-old Matt by placing a brand new copy of KISS' Alive II in his hands. Upon opening the gatefold LP, the sight of the larger than life pyrotechnics of the Love Gun version of this band firing on all cylinders completely mesmerized me. I had never seen anything like this, and it completely terrified me. Naturally, I immediately led my parents to the nearest Sam Goody in order to demand that they purchase a copy of the LP Destroyer before I could bring myself to go to sleep that night. 

I have obsessively followed KISS for the subsequent 38 years of my life. 

Thanks, Donna. 

Truthfully, blaming Donna is just a cop-out. You see, I had also convinced my parents to buy me another album earlier in that same year, Queen's News of the World. This album also featured a larger than life iconography, in the form of a large robot killing the members of Queen. The inner gatefold was an illustration of the same robot descending on the rest of the people in what would be Queen's audience, through a torn-out hole in the pavilion. I was utterly horrified, and I couldn't possibly look away, or stop listening. 

It turns out that toddler Matt was highly suggestible to bizarre imagery in music. 

More important to my formative musical philosophy, beyond the visual cues, was that each of these two bands featured multiple songwriters/vocalists, each contributing their own brand of songwriting and style to the mix. In Queen, Mercury's whimsical folly complemented the hard-edged crunch of May's power. Deacon's plaintive delivery and calculated structure mirrored the visceral spontaneity and emotional guts of Taylor's rage. In KISS, Stanley's Raspberries conjurings matched Simmons' summoned Beatles, and Frehley's distilled Hendrix counterbalanced Criss's Faces-by-way-of-Krupa. You get the idea. I became hooked on this formula of music, and I've responded to it in many other bands I've followed. 

I digress.

I'm writing this article because we lost someone big in the rock and roll community last week, but you didn't hear about it. 

We lost Gary Richrath. 

Gary Richrath was the lead guitarist and one of the primary songwriting forces in REO Speedwagon during the first 20 years of their professional career. He was a blistering player that had a knack for songwriting and often played by instinct, probably a much more important trait than anything anyone ever got with a formal education in music. In the formative years of the band, he was the glue that held it all together, often while the band barely made ends meet on their live reputation, largely built on Richrath's prowess. He wrote their biggest early hit, "Ridin' the Storm Out," while the group itself rode the storm out of three lead vocalists in three consecutive albums.   

Eventually, the band settled on Kevin Cronin in front, and never looked back after that lineup finally clicked. Ironically, the band had already hired Cronin for their sophomore slump of an effort dubiously titled R.E.O./T.W.O., and immediately fired him after realizing what they needed in a lead vocalist resembled an extra in the film Dazed and Confused, rather than the Least Photogenic Guy In Rock History. It turned out they were wrong, and Richrath had the balls to admit this. He asked Cronin back after three more tepid albums (Side note: the studio version of "Ridin' the Storm Out" features Dazed and Confused on lead vocals, while the later, more popular live version features Cronin).  

I digress, again. 

You see, the above quote by our friend Derek Smalls has a rather large grain of truth to it, like most other things in the brilliant mockumentary by Rob Reiner. Tufnel and St. Hubbins complement each other in a way that creates undeniable chemistry, just as Simmons, Stanley, Criss and Frehley did, just as May, Mercury, Taylor and Deacon did. 

....and if Cronin, the talented pianist/guitarist/vocalist, was one of those visionaries of REO, the relatively unheralded, less remembered Gary Richrath was, in equal part, the other. Richrath was the fire, with the steely bite of his Les Paul cutting through any song, combining all the swagger of every '70s band put together in his effortless mastery of the fretboard and mercurial songwriting. Cronin, on the other hand, was the ice, the calculated pop songwriter who delivered melody in measure, carefully crafting arrangements and finding just the right blend of soft rock with pop sensibility to skyrocket the band into rock and roll's stratosphere. 

It was the combination of these two men together that guaranteed unparalleled success for REO. Although Cronin wrote many of the biggest pop hits of the day, including "Keep on Loving You," and "Don't Let Him Go," it was Richrath who matched him step for step with "Take It On The Run," and "In Your Letter." All four of these songs struck top 40 gold on Billboard's charts in 1981 as singles from the band's smash hit Hi Infidelity, an LP that went on to sell over 10 million copies and became the single best selling album of 1981. Not bad for a bunch of kids from Champaign and Peoria. 

Perhaps the most fitting and infamous tale of their partnership is in the details of the most famous song of these four, "Keep On Loving You." Hi Infidelity's recording marked a departure point for the band, one in which a definitively more pop approach would be incorporated in the songwriting over the band's previous pure hard rock leanings. Richrath was particularly resistant to this change, especially when Cronin brought in a last-minute piano ballad to add to the record. As Cronin played the track for the rest of the band, Richrath became increasingly agitated, especially as he stewed over the lack of room for his trademark tobacco-burst Les Paul. When it came time for him to track, he was riled up enough to turn the distortion all the way up on his amplifier, in order to emphasize his distaste, but also to make a point about the lack of room for his style within this new approach. 

Richrath plugged in. The tapes began to roll. He reached for the volume knob on his guitar....

....and as soon as the rest of the band heard the dirge-like guitar over the rest of the track, they knew they were hearing magic. This contrast of tone, this juxtaposition of gentle, delicate piano and a yearning lyric set to a maelstrom of distortion created a desperate longing.

The band immediately knew they had their hit single. 

REO had a few more hits after Hi Infidelity, but never quite reached those stratospheric heights again in album form. Cronin continued to push them into a pop direction, and a disillusioned Richrath eventually retired from the band in 1989. He made a few more appearances sporadically, taking solace in solo work where he could, but the last 25 years of his life were largely spent out of the limelight. REO became Cronin's band, and eventually they rested on the laurels of their previous legacy like so many other Classic Rock juggernauts. 

However, those magical years of fire & ice shouldn't be forgotten, and Gary shouldn't be forgotten either, and that's why I'm writing this. Gary was great; Gary was legendary. From the moment he plugged in, he was ferocious. Every time I hear the lead guitar work in "Roll With The Changes," a shiver goes down my spine, no matter how many times I've heard it before. Come to think of it, I think I'll dial it up again. 

Keep on Rollin', Gary. Rest in peace.