Tuesday, September 22, 2015

GARY RICHRATH: A Personal Tribute to a Rock Legend

A Personal Tribute
to a Rock Legend

As a teenage rock dude
from the Midwest, coming
of age during the late '70s
and early '80s, I had ONE
ultimate guitar hero...

Throughout the 1970s, little was quite as gloriously exhilarating for a die hard rock and roller than experiencing the mighty REO Speedwagon  commanding a concert stage in front of a packed arena. Led by the dynamic duo of frontman, Kevin Cronin and guitar-slinging "golden boy," Gary Richrath, the turbo-charged Illinois-based collective fired off a nightly arsenal of such hard-driving staples as "Golden Country," "Ridin' the Storm Out," "Keep Pushin'," "Roll with the Changes" and "Back on the Road Again." And to this day, REO's double platinum-selling 1977 breakout album, You Get What You Play For, remains one of rock's all-time finest live records.

Gary Richrath (center) with REO Speedwagon - cira 1977.
My parents weren't particularly big rock and roll fans. As a result, I was allowed to see only a handful of concerts prior to my turning 18. Hence, I relished the vivid first-hand accounts of the "cool" kids at school, describing their to-die-for experiences of seeing REO Speedwagon in concert — while I remained relegated to my 8-Track tape collection and merely imagining what it would be like to actually see Gary Richrath, live onstage.

The inner gatefold of REO's
1979 tour de force - Nine Lives.
After a ten-year grind, REO finally hit the mother lode in late 1980 with the multi platinum-selling, super-radio-friendly Hi Infidelity record. Seemingly overnight, my band suddenly had become the biggest combo on the planet, and at age 18, there was now NO WAY I was going to miss seeing them when they came to Florida in early 1981.

Although I didn't swallow my tongue in a much-expected seizure-like fashion when REO hit the stage in Lakeland on February 6, it was certainly a close call. In fact, I hadn't been that worked-up since witnessing Gene Simmons fly to the rafters of the same arena during the 1979 KISS tour. Simply put, my first REO Speedwagon concert experience delivered everything I'd hoped for — the monstrous production, a perfect set list, a flawless, high-energy performance — even the undeniable fragrance of top-shelf dope permeating the venue seemed magical.

But what I remember most vividly and fondly about that night was Gary Richrath. Dressed in black form-fitting stage pants with a fabulous poofy pink shirt, he punished the crap out of his trademark 1959 Les Paul for a solid 90 minutes. From the opening feedback of "Don't Let Him Go" through the final crashing chord of "157 Riverside Avenue," Richrath owned the stage — oozing his signature swagger. And it was beautiful to behold, man.

I was fortunate to see Gary Richrath perform with REO many times throughout the '80s  never leaving the arena disappointed. And due to my ever-constant zeal, I just knew there would always be a "next year." YIKES, don't look now, but here come the '90s!

For a variety of well-documented reasons, Richrath and his longtime colleagues parted company in 1989. But by 1990, the guitar veteran already had embarked on a U.S. club tour in support of the debut record from his new band, Richrath. At the time, my own band, Dead Serios, was a rather hot commodity on the Florida music scene, and I was delighted when an area promoter tapped us to open for Richrath in Melbourne, during the spring of '90.

The Richrath / Dead Serios show was a solid success — attracting approximately 500 fans to the Power Station nightclub. And it was completely surreal, to say the least, when Richrath himself approached me and my then-wife and offered us a little backstage love.

I may or may not have been enthusiastic about
opening for my hero, Gary Richrath, in 1990.
Later that night, after the crowd cleared out, the crew packed up and the club shut down, I sat at the bar with Richrath and my longtime compadre, Bryan Dumas, who happened to be the club's manager as well as a fellow REO die hard. There we were, just the three of us, privately slamming cocktails, swapping stories and cracking jokes. I remember Richrath confessing that he too shared my personal passion for the much-maligned 1982 REO album, Good Trouble. I also recall clearly his kindhearted sentiments for co-founding REO drummer, Alan Gratzer, while his comments regarding former songwriting partner, Kevin Cronin, were considerably less warm and fuzzy. But what I took away from that meeting, and have held on to for all these years, is that Richrath was a man who seemed genuinely hurt and saddened to now be estranged from his "family." This observation was further amplified when Richrath and I connected at another show later in the tour and I witnessed his unfiltered reaction to the video for REO's then-current single, "Live it Up," as it played on the dressing room TV.

As a fan who has been touched, moved and inspired by the music of Gary Richrath and REO Speedwagon for nearly four decades, I felt comforted to see so much of the "stuff" between him and the band seem to finally melt away as Richrath made numerous guest appearances at REO shows in recent years. And although I never was privileged to witness any of those new millennium reunions, Gary Richrath's musical legacy will remain fresh and live on forever in my heart as well as the hearts of millions of fans worldwide through the incredible body of work that he has left us — Cuz nobody talks with their gi-tar the way Gary does!

-Christopher Long
September 2015


October 18, 1949 -
September 13, 2015

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  1. Wow! I feel like I've just done the "Time Warp" -- again.
    Christopher's recollections of a late-stage Baby Boomer's entry into the world of rock concerts, focusing on the career of Gary Richrath and REO Speedwagon, really hits home. Unfortunately, it's a final tribute to a legend.
    Christopher and I grew up during the same time period and have many of the same fond memories related to the coming of age during the 1970s. In fact, I once lived in Lakeland, Florida, where he first witnessed the genius of Richrath.
    However, I'll never forget sitting in my high school buddy's room in Rockford, Illinois, as he attempted to learn Gary's riff on "Ridin' the Storm Out" by repeatedly listening to the record. That's how it was done in those days.
    Little did we know, but there were another few guys on the other side of town pulling together a band that would become known around the world as Cheap Trick.Those were the days.

  2. Awesome tribute to a rock legend! Thank you for posting this! Gary will always be loved and missed. I still can't believe that he is gone. You can tell that he was so hurt and angry just by the look in his eyes. So incredibly sad. I still get chills listening to him play. I cried when I found out that he passed. I always wanted to meet him, just never got that lucky.

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  4. Thank you for the tribute to the guitar hero and legend. Yes, you could see the hurt and anger in Gary's eyes in the many pictures that the web has out there. I too was a huge REO fan (mostly because of Gary) but I haven't listened to anything since Gary left. I still listen to the rock that they did from the 70's though. Wish I could have gotten a chance to meet him. Would have been a dream come true. RIP Gary...you are well loved and will always be missed. There is absolutely NO one who could shred a Les Paul like he did and make or sound soooo sweet!