When REO Speedwagon take the Foellinger stage next week, they bring decades of beloved hits to share. Their performances include the songs that made Hi Infidelity one of the biggest albums of the ’80s (“Keep on Lovin’ You,” “Take It on the Run,” and “Don’t Let Him Go”), as well as other well-worn classics like “Roll with the Changes” and “Can’t Fight This Feeling.” The hits have had fans enthusiastic about the band for nearly five decades. And (spoiler alert) REO has no plans to stop any time soon.
All of this success is old hat to the members of REO Speedwagon now, but it was far from a sure thing when keyboardist Neal Doughty co-founded the band in 1967. A native of Evansville, Doughty left Indiana with his family when he was 12, and his father accepted a better job in Illinois. Once graduated from high school, Doughty enrolled at the University of Illinois in Champaign, majoring in electrical engineering. As the band started getting more jobs, it became increasingly difficult for Doughty to continue his studies.
“It’s a very difficult curriculum, and once you start a rock band, it’s hard to make it to classes all the time,” Doughty said.
So when did he decide to abandon his studies in favor of a rock n’ roll life?
“Actually, the university helped me make that choice,” he laughed. “They basically told me to go to class or don’t ever come back. But we had developed a very large following in Indiana and Illinois, and I decided I wanted to see where this would go. I figured I could always go back to school if I needed to. There were a few times after we moved from Illinois to Los Angeles, and we saw how low on the food chain we were, that I wondered if I’d made a mistake. But by the time I was 30, I started to realize I probably wasn’t going back to school.”
Doughty’s academic pursuits do provide a tangible legacy, however.
“We were ready to start getting some jobs, so we had to put ads in the paper if we were playing a show at a fraternity or something,” Doughty said. “To do that, we needed to have a name for the band. At that time I was taking a course in the history of transportation which was required of engineering students, and I walked into class one day and up on the blackboard it said, ‘REO Speedwagon.’ I went back and suggested it to the guys, and they loved it right off the bat. It was the first high-speed, heavy-duty truck of its time, back in the 1920s. It was the first to be able to haul a heavy load and go at a decent speed, at least for the time. We liked how it sounded because rock n’ roll is high speed and heavy duty, too.”
By 1971 REO Speedwagon had a recording contract. By Doughty’s 30th birthday, when he began to realize the band had clearly won out over a career in engineering, the band had already released six albums and singer Kevin Cronin was now deeply ensconced as the band’s lead singer and songwriter, a position he continues to this day.
In 1978, they released You Can Tune a Piano, But You Can’t Tune a Fish, and in 1980, Hi Infidelity took them to new heights. With a catalog of favorites that have defined people’s lives, Doughty said the concerts don’t stray from the greatest-hits formula that keeps the crowds happy. And they still find ways to make it fun for themselves as well.
“We have high-tech monitors in our ears, and it’s high quality like a recording,” Doughty said. “We can hear what each other are doing in ways the audience may not be able to. So sometimes one of us will do something a little different, and the other guys will give you a smile because they heard it. But ultimately it’s the screaming of the crowd, having people cheering so loudly — that’s what keeps it from getting old.”
Like many classic rock bands, Doughty says they continue to tour for the joy of playing live — doing 80 to 90 shows a year — but the travel gets old, and that’s the part that makes it difficult.
“Yeah, the travel is pretty bad,” Doughty said. “Some guys can sleep on the bus, which helps them. We tend to travel at night, so after the show we drive all night to the next place, and we may not get to a real bed in a hotel until 6 a.m. For the guys who sleep on the bus, they do OK, but I have a hard time doing that. I tend to be in a permanent state of jet lag. I like to think that the time on stage I’d do for free, but you have to pay me for getting there.”
That time on stage not only fuels his fire, but Doughty still finds musical challenges in some of the songs that they band plays at every show.
“There’s a synthesizer solo in ‘Don’t Let Him Go’ that is awfully fast. I was a lot younger when we first recorded it, and I think we play it faster now than we used to. ‘Can’t Fight This Feeling’ is really all piano, and it was difficult when we were first working it out in the studio. It took me a week to get it how I wanted it, and now, 35 years later, I have to play it in concert every night, and I think I finally have it down.”
While they continue to perform shows on their own, like the upcoming one in Fort Wayne, they just came off a tour with Chicago and often play with Styx as well. Hanging out with friends makes the touring less grueling. But whatever the format, Doughty assures REO fans that there are no plans to stop in the foreseeable future.
“Right now we’re all healthy, and we’ve all adopted a much healthier lifestyle than we had in the ’80s. We’re all in good shape. I just had a complete check-up, and apparently I’m going to live to be 150. That might be a slight exaggeration, but my mother is 92, and the people in my family tend to live long lives. I think everybody in the band is ready to do this for as long as we can. So there are definitely no plans to retire.”