Anybody sufficiently steeped in classic rock has an idea about the riff of riffs. It’s not a riff anybody ever actually played, really, but a repeating motif that’s bound to bring a smile of recognition when some version of it bursts forth in the middle of a hardworking, seventies-era midwestern band’s live double or radio staple.
Even counting those who weren’t in hardworking midwestern bands, the job of defining that idea ultimately belonged to no more than a few dozen people. REO Speedwagon’s Gary Richrath, (born Peoria, Illinois, died Burlington, Illinois…what more need be said) came as close as anyone to being at the center of that definition.
The way the crit-illuminati always had it, it was a job most anybody could do, and the few who became famous were basically lottery winners. In reality the competition was cutthroat. All you had to do to work your way to a spot at the sop of the mountain, aspired to by thousands, was bring some level of imagination to basic Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry riffs, have a textbook knowledge of blues idioms, know how to build a power ballad with a few carefully chosen licks, and fire up an arena with a blistering solo composed of all of the above plus a little art rock flash.
If you were Gary Richrath, you might also throw in a signature tune now and then.
If Hi Infidelity‘s “Take It on the Run” was the only moment when REO Speedwagon came closer to defining the times than being defined by them, that’s one more moment than half the bands in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame can claim.
Richrath wrote it solo, which means he was responsible for one of the very few post seventies songs that hit me like a ton of bricks when it came on the radio not to mention a record that belongs on the short list for the greatest ever power ballad.
Notably, it’s not a personal showcase. The fantastic playing is entirely at the service of the song. Like always.
He was a guitar player in a rock and roll band and like other under-sung heroes, the Hollies’ Tony Hicks, say, or .38 Special’s Jeff Carlisi, all he ever did was exactly what every single song needed. No more, no less. He certainly wasn’t the only reason his band started out competing for Grand Funk undercards and ended up vying with first generation hip hop acts for spots in the MTV rotation. But it probably wasn’t entirely a coincidence that REO’s long run of hits ended when he left.
He passed away at 65 last week, cause of death unannounced.
But when a rock and roller passes at 65, we always know the cause. The candle burns bright. It burns at both ends. It gives a lot….
Almost as much as it costs…