1967 in Champaign, Illinois
Core '80s Group Members:
- Kevin Cronin (born October 6, 1951 in Evanston, Illinois) - Lead vocals, primary songwriter, rhythm guitar, piano
- Gary Richrath (born October 18, 1949 in Peoria, Illinois) - Lead guitar, primary songwriter
- Neal Doughty (born July 29, 1946 in Evansville, Indiana) - Keyboards, founding member
- Alan Gratzer - Drums, founding member
- Bruce Hall - Bass guitar
Named for Oldsmobile founder Ransom E. Olds, the band started off as a college student cover band playing University of Illinois area bars. For the first decade or so of its existence, REO labored through personnel shifts as a rather commercially unsuccessful arena rock/hard rock band. Richrath joined in 1970, but Cronin did not become a permanent member until 1976, which is one reason it took so long for the group to settle upon a stable, commercially viable sound. Still, staple tunes from this era like "Ridin' the Storm Out" have remained concert favorites and exemplify the band's initial hard rock phase.
Cronin Embraces the Power Ballad:
1978's "Roll With the Changes" reflected a rising melodic sense for REO, but no one could have predicted or been prepared for the tremendous pop music appeal of 1980's eventually many-times-platinum release Hi Infidelity. The record would go on to become one of rock's all-time best-selling albums on the strength of four hit pop singles, including the chart-topping "Keep On Loving You" and the No. 5 "Take It on the Run." Though the latter song was Richrath's composition, clearly Cronin's influence was gaining a hold, as great success created pressure for more of the same.
REO Speedwagon More Than Rides the '80s Out:
Having settled on a successful formula, the group maintained its chart relevance throughout the rest of the decade, somehow thriving beyond the reach of new wave or pop metal fickleness. "Keep the Fire Burnin'" and "Can't Fight This Feeling" kept REO on the musical map through the first half of the '80s, capitalizing further on the public's thirst for lighter-igniting arena rock power ballads. But after 1987's rather flaccid "In My Dreams," the band clearly had begun waning, a truth that may have caused to some degree the rift between Cronin and Richrath that led to the latter's 1989 departure.
Lean Years & Then the Lure of Nostalgia:
Without Richrath, Cronin tried to soldier on as REO's leader into the '90s, but audiences initially paid little attention to any new music the band offered. So by the mid-'90s what was left of the band signed on as a signature act of the growing retro rock concert movement. By releasing several hits compilations and consistently going out on summer tours, Cronin, Doughty and Hall have kept the REO name alive for future generations. To date, no reconciliation with the dismissed Richrath has taken place and Gratzer's retirement remains in effect, but never say never to an eventual reunion of the core '80s REO lineup.