REO Speedwagon: Speeding Back to the Top

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Who has led a more rock and roll life than the band REO Speedwagon? They dressed the part with the requisite big hair and walked the path trodden many times before by bands that started out in a small town, gained moderate success and then faded from the limelight. So what makes this band different? After many decades, they are still at it – they are still living the rock and roll life.
What’s In a Name?
REO Speedwagon named the band after a friend’s vehicle (a Chevy REO Oldsmobile station wagon) that they borrowed for free to haul their musical equipment between gigs. An REO Speedwagon is actually a flat bed truck and a fire truck manufactured by the REO (pronounced rio) Motor Company. The owner of the company, Mr. Ransom Eli Olds (hence R.E.O.), was the founder of the Oldsmobile and was the first to employ the use of the assembly line in the vehicle production industry. Speedwagon, the vehicle, was known for its durability – a trait that the Midwest band also took to heart.
Beginnings
The band was formed in 1967 by Neal Doughty and Alan Gratzer while they were still studying at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. Their initial line up consisted of Doughty on keyboards, Gratzer on drums, Mike Blair on bass and Joe Matt on guitars. Everybody did their share with the vocals with the exception of Doughty. They became a hit in the local campus bar scene singing cover versions and in time, they began to inject some of their original music into their set. Fortunately, these were well received by their growing Midwest audience and it only fuelled the band’s hunger for bigger and brighter success in the music industry. Even as early as this time, the band took exceptional liking to performing live where they were able to express their music directly to their fans. They often found themselves on the road and thereby effectively expanding their fan base.
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However, there were signs of restlessness and numerous changes in the band line up caused some degree of instability in the group. By the spring of 1968, Terry Lutrell took the reins as lead vocalist, Bob Crownover took the place of Joe Matt on guitars and Gregg Philbin replaced Mike Blair on bass. Joe McCabe played the saxophone for a brief period of time and eventually left when he switched to a different school, Southern Illinois University.
By the summer of 1969 up to the end of that year, the role of guitarist was filled in by Bill Fiorio. Afterwards, Steve Scorfina assumed the guitarist position after Fiorio left to pursue musical success with a different band and under a different name. Come the end of 1970, Gary Richrath replaced Scorfina and some kind of settling down occurred as the band soared to greater heights. This increase in popularity may be attributed to the arrival of Richrath who, along with his prodigious guitar playing skills, also brought with him his numerous original compositions – one of which was the Speedwagon staple hit “Ridin’ The Storm Out”.
You can see more of this article in our April 2016 issue of ModelsMania