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….
Posting has been light the last couple of weeks as I’ve been crunching towards some self-imposed deadlines on a number of personal fronts…should be back to speed within the next few days. Meanwhile, I wanted to at least give a quick comment on this years class of RRHOF inductees.
For lists of un-inducted artists who I feel are most worthy (i.e., most “overlooked” you can go HERE, HERE and HERE. (The “5” Royales–who were merely back-doored, decades after they should have been voted in, can now join Donna Summer (who had to die) and Linda Ronstadt (who had to get Parkinson’s) in being crossed off the list.)
Inducted as “Performers”:
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble: Worthy as keepers of the flame. I didn’t vote for them on my five-nominee (unofficial) ballot, but they were a close call and, if I weren’t so concerned about the Hall getting whiter by the minute (even the blues acts are white now), I might well have voted for them anyway.
The Paul Butterfield Blues Band: Fine band, but I haven’t understood the nominating committee’s love for them in the performing category (this was their fourth nomination). They would have been a perfect candidate for my proposed Contemporary Influence category (though, even there, one could ask why not John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, who came first in the white-boy blues parade and were an even bigger cultish deal? Granted, I’m not anxious to see Eric Clapton inducted a fourth time, but still!) On the plus side, Mike Bloomfield needed to be honored some way (just wish he hadn’t needed to take up a “performer” space). And, it’s truly great that Elvin Bishop–one of rock and roll’s great characters–is going in. The Elvin Bishop Band were headliners at the only true “rock concert” I ever attended (a local act called The Fat Chance Band and pre-fame .38 Special were the undercard). I got in free (I’ve never been keen on spending money for transitory events when there are so many recorded events to buy…including a lot of awesome recordings of live events!) and nearly got thrown out for not having a ticket. Other than that, I remember the smell of ganja, a couple of extremely beautiful girls who were dressed for the smokin’ seventies and looked bored out of their skulls (whether by their thuggish looking dates or the music I was, alas, never able to determine), a disco ball that lit up for the band’s big hit (“Fooled Around and Fell In Love”) and copious amounts of vomit, chicken bones and beer bottles strewn around the floor in the dressing room the next morning, (which the African-American cleaning crew at the Orlando-Seminole Jai Alai fronton was tasked with cleaning up–leaving me to wonder, then and now, if it is not out of such things that riots are made). For giving me all the “seventies” experience I really needed, Elvin Bishop, you are, eternally, the man!
Green Day: Can’t really say much. I kind of like Dookie, which is the only music of theirs I own. I don’t think they’ve been terribly harmful and, given when they came along, that’s saying something at least.
Bill Withers: The only inductee I voted for so, of course, I’m very happy to see him go in. I’ve only really gotten to know his music past the hits in the last year or so (an experience that began with what I posted here) and he’s both great and unique. If there’s a caveat, it’s that, in the great scheme of things, he’s not quite as worthy as War or Spinners, seventies’ contemporaries who remain among the Hall’s three or four most egregious oversights.
Joan Jett & the Blackhearts: Not long after I wrote my piece on this year’s nominees, linked above, in which I noted that I’ve always liked the idea of her better than her actual music, I caught her lengthy interview/performance on Guitar Center. Look, with what she had to put up with, she’s very, very worthy. I take it all back! Suzi Quatro and the Go-Go’s can wait! But, beyond that, she does something that’s almost unheard of post punk. When she plays rock and roll, she acts, looks and sounds like she’s having the time of her life. Good on her!
Lou Reed: No particular objection, except that he’s already in for his even more deserving work with the Velvet Underground. Excepting really monumental exceptions (like Michael Jackson and, maybe, Eric Clapton) why, oh why, does the Hall keep nominating people who are already in? Oh well. At least Sting didn’t make it.
Inducted for “Musical Excellence”:
Ringo Starr: I, too, love “It Don’t Come Easy.” Also his drumming for a band that, believe it or not, has already been inducted. But…Wh-a-a-a-?
Inducted as “Early Influence”:
The “5” Royales: If you’ve been following along here, you know how I feel about this one. They were a direct, key influence on James Brown, Eric Clapton, Steve Cropper and many, many others. More to the point, they were artists who could easily stand tall in that, or any, company. They should have been inducted years ago, and as performers. I’m glad to see them inducted some way at least. And they did have important records before 1955 so this isn’t the complete stretch that Wanda Jackson was (God bless Wanda and I’m glad she’s in, but naming her an “early influence” which is supposed to be saved for pre-rock giants, was ludicrous). But having the nominating committee put them in, after the voters rejected them several times, is a sad commentary on the process.
Anyway, here’s to the most cosmic records/performances by this year’s inductees:
“They started their set with Pat Benetar, Linda Ronstadt, Journey, .38 Special, Bonnie Raitt…[The singer] was incredible. She came out with this red spandex outfit and Joan Jett kind of hair and I was blown away by the talent in this little hole-in-the-wall bar.”
Music Exec John Alexander recounting a visit to a Carolina bar in the early eighties. The singer was future country star Patty Loveless, who turned out to be the finest American popular singer since Al Green and has always credited her years as a rock singer for forming a large part of her “traditional” style…I’ll have more to say about all this in the next week or so, but it’s never too early to post a Patty Loveless video or two! (Source: Country Weekly…thanks to the great PattyLoveless.net website for uncovering this little item.)