Almost all rock bands that had their heydays in the 1970s and ’80s, and are still around, have one thing in common: They’ve experienced a lot of turnover.
Chances are high that the original lead singer left long ago and the guy who replaced him is either impersonating the sound of a departed vocalist, or is defiantly not doing that.
REO Speedwagon, performing on July 31 at the Foellinger Theatre, has also experienced a lot of turnover. But a core group of three musicians, keyboardist Neal Doughty, bassist Bruce Hall, and lead vocalist Kevin Cronin, has remained the same since the late 1970s.
Calling in a Vocal Coach
In an interview with the Dodge City Daily Globe, Cronin said he thinks listeners can tell when songs are performed by the musicians who originated them.
“It does show up on stage,” he said. “There’s a special vibe there.”
The band is getting back on the road after being sidelined by the pandemic, and Cronin made use of that time in curious fashion: he worked with a vocal coach.
It seems strange that a rock singer who has achieved as much as Cronin has would seek out such help at this stage in his career, but he said the coach was able to teach him how to sing with less effort and yet with the same amount of power, if not more.
“I hear a difference now, it sounds more open,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “It’s changed singing for me. It’s more fun, I can let go more.”
REO Speedwagon formed at the University of Illinois Champaign in 1967. Cronin replaced original vocalist, Terry Luttrell, in 1972, quit in 1973, and returned to replace Michael Bryan Murphy in 1976.
Cronin said the name of the band came from a class Doughty took called History of Transportation.
“…the professor wrote on the [black] board, REO Speedwagon, and he was talking about how the first fire trucks that could actually get to the fire quicker than the horse-drawn buggy was the REO Speedwagon,” Cronin told Voice of America. “So, it looked good on the board, and it kind of makes sense, you know. It’s long-lasting, it’s hard-working, it moves pretty quick, and we kind of felt like, OK, that makes sense.”
The band had hits in the ’70s with “Ridin’ the Storm Out,” “Roll with the Changes,” and “Time for Me to Fly,” but megastardom didn’t come until the release of the album Hi Infidelity in 1980.
“Hi Infidelity was such a turning point in our lives that everything changed for us,” Cronin told the Los Angeles Daily News. “Back then, there was an innocence still in the band, and, the truth is, we were in a horrible place and just about to get dropped by our label — as always — so we just tried to make the best record we could while going through all this personal chaos.”
Cronin said that misery leads to the best songwriting, and the band sure was miserable before writing and recording that album.
“Before that record, we were all totally (expletive) up. We had toured so much and it just had taken its toll,” he said. “All of our relationships were in shambles and falling apart, and that was a common bond for all the band members. You know how guys are. We’re supposed to be tough, and there is never a need to talk about our problems. That was how we operated. I mean, there was also a lot of fun and a lot of laughs, but, until that point, none of us had really talked about the problems we were having.”
The success of Hi Infidelity was something that Cronin had dreamt about for a long time. Although in some ways, it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
“I had convinced myself that all we needed was a hit record and all my problems would just disappear,” Cronin told Fox 10 Phoenix. “So, when you get to the top of the mountain and suddenly all your problems don’t disappear, at least for me, I kinda went ... oh man, it took me to a pretty dark place.”
Cronin also said it took a few more years for the band to give up its hard-partying ways.
“It was about 1983 when we kind of decided that the after-show party was becoming more of the focus than the show itself, and that’s just not right,” Cronin said. “We kind of put the brakes on all the partying, to a certain degree, and things have been much better since then. We still have a good time, we still rock hard, but you know what? If you compared one of our concerts in 1981 to today, this band blows that band away.”
Healthier and All Around Better
Cronin believes the band is healthier, smarter, and all around better now than they’ve ever been.
“I don’t take anything for granted,” he said. “I mean, here I am, doing the same thing since I was 12, and people are still coming and still buying tickets — it’s amazing. If they ever stop doing that, I have to figure out something else to do, so that’s motivation for me to keep getting better and for us to keep raising our game every night.”
Cronin said REO fans aren’t just stoking nostalgia when they come to shows. They are seeking connection.
“It’s a tribal thing,” he told The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, Calif. “Human beings like to be connected to other human beings, and chances are you are among people who have experienced similar things that you have experienced.
“It can be the first few notes of the piano on ‘Keep on Loving You,’ or when I sing the first lines of ‘Take It on the Run’ — we can feel the buzz of anticipation,” Cronin said. “I call it the sound of 10,000 arm hairs standing up.”