REO Speedwagon PhotoFORMED: Champaign, IL

Three bands were the undisputed arena rock kings of the early 80's - Styx, Journey, and REO Speedwagon - yet all weren't overnight success stories (in fact, each group began pursuing different musical styles originally - prog-rock, fusion, and straight ahead hard rock, respectively, before transforming slowly into chart-topping mainstream rockers). REO Speedwagon first formed in 1968, via a pair of University of Illinois students, keyboardist Neal Doughty and drummer Alan Gratzer. After graduation, the group signed on with then unknown manager Irving Azoff (who would later guide the careers of such multi-platinum acts as the Eagles and Steely Dan), which led to the outfit building a devoted following in the Midwest due to non-stop touring. By the early 70's, Doughty and Gratzer had welcomed aboard guitarist Gary Richrath, who would soon prove to be the group's sparkplug (and one of rock's more underrated players), in addition to bassist Gregg Philbin and singer Terry Luttrell. It was this line-up to be featured on the quintet's 1971 self-titled debut recording, for Epic Records.

The debut failed to break REO through to the mainstream, as the band's future was thrust into uncertainty shortly thereafter, when Luttrell left the band. Newcomer Kevin Cronin got the gig, who was a folk singer/guitarist beforehand, with little to no experience fronting a loud rock n' roll outfit. The Cronin-led line-up appeared to be headed in the right direction though, judging from 1972's 'REO 2,' but the other members grew impatient with their slow progress towards a commercial breakthrough, and gave Cronin his walking papers. Up next as REO's frontman was Mike Murphy, whose debut with the band, 1974's 'Ridin' the Storm Out,' was their first album to chart on Billboard, and spawned a concert standard with the rocking title track. Murphy stayed on board for a couple of more releases - 1974's 'Lost in a Dream' and 75's 'This Time We Mean It' - but neither managed to push REO to the next level.

Once more, a frontman change was required, and instead of searching for a fresh new face, REO welcomed back Cronin. The move paid off almost immediately, as REO found their niche by streamlining their sound, and focusing on melodic rockers aimed at radio, as well as power ballads aimed at teenage girls' hearts. 1976's 'REO' signaled the beginning of the veteran group's winning streak, as both 77's 'Live: You Get What You Play For' and 78's 'You Can Tune A Piano, But You Can't Tuna Fish' were REO's first to earn gold and platinum certification. Another live album, 'Live Again,' was also issued in 1978, followed up a year later by another gold-certified hit, 'Nine Lives.' Although REO was slowly inching their way to bigtime success, no one (not even the band) could have predicted the massive hit that their next album turned out to be, 'Hi Infidelity.' Issued at the tail end of 1980, it became one of 81's biggest albums - spawning one of the best known power ballads of all-time, "Keep on Loving You," as well as such popular rock radio hits as "Don't Let Him Go" and "Take it on the Run." 'Hi Infidelity' would eventually go on to sell more than 9 million copies - catapulting REO to arena headlining status.

REO Speedwagon continued to score further hit albums (1982's 'Good Trouble,' 84's 'Wheels are Turnin'') and singles ("Keep the Fire Burnin'," the #1 hit power ballad "Can't Fight this Feeling," etc.), but the hits dried up shortly thereafter. 1987's 'Life As We Know It' managed to go gold, but their fan's sudden disinterest coupled with turmoil between certain bandmembers led to the exit of both Richrath and Gratzer by the end of the decade. REO opted to solider on however, with replacement members Dave Amato (ex-Ted Nugent, guitar) and Bryan Hitt (ex-Wang Chung, drums) in tow, as their 1988 14-track compilation, 'The Hits,' proved to be a steady seller over the years. Further underappreciated studio releases followed, such as 1990's 'The Earth, A Small Man, His Dog and a Chicken' and 96's 'Building the Bridge.' With interest at an all-time low, REO was set to pack it up for good, until a sudden wave of renewed interest in classic rock bands of yesteryear began to sweep the U.S. during the late 90's, resulting in REO launching successful co-headlining tours alongside such acts as Styx, Fleetwood Mac, Pat Benatar, Foreigner, Peter Frampton, Journey, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Bad Company, among others.

The 90's saw the emergence of countless REO compilations, including such titles as 'The Second Decade of Rock n' Roll: 1981 to 1991,' 'Only the Strong Survive,' 'The Ballads,' and a specially priced 3 disc set of 'Live: You Get What You Play For,' 'You Can Tune a Piano, But You Can't Tuna Fish,' and 'Hi Infidelity.' Additionally, further in-concert releases cropped up - 'Live: Plus,' 'Extended Versions,' and a 2001 live set, 'Arch Allies: Live at Riverport,' split 50/50 between REO and touring mates Styx. In a 2001 episode of VH1's 'Behind the Music' series that focused on REO Speedwagon, Cronin and Richrath cleared up any misconceptions of ill will existing between either camp, and voiced approval of a possible reunion in the future. ~ Greg Prato, All Music Guide