Kevin Cronin: REO Speedwagon’s front man on playing live again post-pandemic (“1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast)
REO plays at the NC Azalea Festival on Friday, April 8 at Live Oak Bank Pavilion
WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Kevin Cronin will lead chart-topping rockers REO Speedwagon into Wilmington on Friday, April 8, as part of the concert series for the North Carolina Azalea Festival. Cronin has fronted the band since 1976, on their six top-40 albums, a pair of number one singles (Keep on Loving You, I Can’t Fight This Feeling) and twelve top-10 singles on the Billboard charts.
“We are re-energized, I can tell you that, after spending the better part of two years off the road,” Cronin said about REO getting back out to play live shows following the hiatus created by the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’re just glad to be back, and we’ve just noticed that people are just starving for live music. There’s just nothing like a live concert. You can’t reproduce it in any way. So, we’re psyched, man, we’re ready to go!”
REO has more than 50 tour dates already scheduled for 2022, which is Cronin’s 46th straight year as the lead singer for the band. The group will play alongside fellow veteran rockers Styx and Loverboy on many of the shows. Cronin is also finishing a book about his now 50-plus years-long career in rock and roll. He hasn’t lost the excitement of being out on stage and performing live.
“When I’m standing in the wings, and the house lights go down and the walk-on music starts, I get that rush of adrenaline and I get little butterflies,” the Illinois native says. “I’m as psyched to do it now as I ever have been, and in some ways even more so because of having I taken away for that time during COVID. One of the beautiful things about what I do, and one of the things I’m most grateful for, is that I’m still doing the same thing now as I was when I was 12 years old. Every time I walk out on stage with a guitar, there’s like a direct connection to that 12-year-old kid who saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show and was trying to learn how to play the guitar and trying to form those chords. My fingertips were aching, you know, I used to practice till they just about bled. So that part of me, it’s still there. I look in the mirror and I go, ‘Well I guess I’m not twenty anymore, but I still feel like I am!”
Cronin is actually in his second stint with REO. He joined shortly after the band released its’ debut record, R.E.O. Speedwagon in 1971. The group had formed in the Champaign, Illinois area with keyboardist Neal Doughty and drummer Alan Gratzer as the driving forces. Cronin replaced vocalist Terry Luttrell for 1972′s R.E.O./T.W.O. release, but then left after a disagreement with lead guitarist Gary Richrath.
“I think both of us were really driven, and I think that was part of what drew us to one another,” Cronin says about Richrath, who died in 2015. “There was always a level of competition between us, friendly competition, but it made both of us better. Then it got to a point where the competition became unhealthy, you know, so I think we needed to get away from each other for a while. I tried to make it as a solo artist. They tried to make it without me and neither worked. So when we got back together, there was a little bit more of a mutual respect and when you realize that you need somebody, it helps you to get past the rough patches.”
With Cronin back on board in 1976, REO started to hit its’ stride. The group’s reputation as a hard-rockin’ touring band was captured on 1977′s Live: You Get What You Play For release. The group’s seventh studio album, You Can Tune a Piano But You Can’t Tuna Fish, climbed inside the top-30 on the Billboard charts in 1978. Two singles from the record, Roll With The Changes and Time For Me To Fly remain fan favorites and concert staples to this day. But it was the release of Hi Infidelity in 1980 that made REO Speedwagon a household name. It went to the top of Billboard’s album chart, and has earned the coveted Diamond designation by the Recording Industry Association of America for selling more than ten million copies. Keep On Loving You became the band’s first #1 single, reaching platinum status, and the follow-up, Take It On The Run went to #5. Life as they knew it, changed for the band. Then the pressure began to follow-up that success.
“The pressure was big, and I personally wanted to wait after Hi Infidelity,” Cronin remembers. “My position was ‘Hey, guys, we’re in a position right now, where the next thing we do is going to be welcomed by the fans, by radio, you know. So let’s take our time and make sure that the next thing we do is, is really great, because we have this unbelievable opportunity’. That was kind of one train of thought. Then there was a train of thought like, ‘Hey, man, we’re hot. Let’s strike again, you know, before this thing cools off’. I did not take that position, but I was kind of outvoted, like 50 to one. So, the follow-up album Good Trouble was, was a tough one for me.”
Good Trouble peaked at #7 on the album chart and did reach RIAA Platinum status. The first single, Keep The Fire Burnin’ also peaked at #7 on the singles chart. But 1984′s Wheels Are Turning record took the band back to the top. The second single, Can’t Fight This Feeling, hit #1 on the singles chart, and reached RIAA Gold status. It propelled Wheels to double-Platinum and cemented REO Speedwagon’s popularity.
“That was, to me, the really important moment,” Cronin says. “Because having that second number one single, just was, anyone that thought REO Speedwagon was a one hit wonder, well, guess what? We weren’t!”
Richrath left the band in 1989 after the release of Life As We Know It, and Cronin had to get used to playing on-stage with someone new. The two had combined their talents on the band’s biggest hit songs. Dave Amato has handled the lead guitar duties for REO now for 33 years, and while Cronin praises Amato’s talents and says he’s used to Amato being to his left on-stage, the ride alongside Richrath from 1977-89 remains special.
“For the first couple years, I just expected he would be back any time now, it’s a temporary thing,” Cronin says about Richrath’s departure. “Then, little by little, you kind of go, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t think this is gonna happen’. It’s sad because the band has had such a resurgence. A lot of bands of our generation, of our ilk, stopped touring in the early 90s. But we kept going, and the resurgence that has happened for us is mind boggling and I wish Gary were here to experience it because he deserves it. It was a lot of his work that got us to the point where we could have this resurgence. But his spirit is with us every night. We still play a bunch of songs of his and I feel like he’s looking down at our concerts and wanting everyone to have a good time and enjoy the songs that he wrote.”
The lineup of Cronin, Amato, original band member Daughty, bass player Bruce Hall, who came aboard on the Tuna Fish album, and drummer Bryan Hitt, who joined at the same time Amato did, have toured together since 1989. That’s the lineup fans will see as REO Speedwagon gets back out on the road for fans in 2022.
I hope you enjoyed the conversation with Kevin Cronin as much as I did. I’ll see you at the show on April 8th.
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