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REO Speedwagon shows have been, not surprisingly, emotional affairs since longtime guitarist Gary Richrath's death on Sunday. But the group has also found a certain kind of joy in memorializing the man whose playing, writing and production defined most of REO's hits during the '70s and '80s.
"Everybody feels like Gary is back in the band," frontman Kevin Cronin tells Billboard in his first public comments since he shared the news of Richrath's death on his Facebook page. "It's a weird feeling, but it's like he's in our thoughts and in our minds more now than he's been for years. It's ironic and it's sad, but it's also joyful. All the good memories of him and all the music... As much sadness as Gary's death has brought, the energy in our concerts since his death has been on a different level, and his spirit and his energy has actually had an energizing effect on us. It lifts us up and it lets us pay tribute to him every night. That's pretty much the best part of the day for me right now."
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Cronin adds that REO will be "dedicating every show we do for the foreseeable future, probably forever, to Gary. Every song we play, Gary's all over it for me; we either wrote it together, produced it together, rehearsed it together, arranged it together, fought over parts that we played. So every song that comes by, as I'm singing it I'm also seeing him in my mind, feeling those stories about Gary."
It was Richrath, in fact, who discovered Cronin playing in Chicago clubs and recruited him to be the group's second singer in 1972. "He saw something in me at the age of 19 that no one else saw, and he believed in me and he invited me to join the band, and the next thing I knew I was in Nashville recording the REO Speedwagon T.W.O. record," Cronin remembers. "So I owe Gary a lot, and I learned pretty much everything I know about being in a rock 'n' roll band from Gary Richrath. He was like the big brother I never had."
Though Richrath's departure from REO in 1989 was somewhat acrimonious, Cronin says the two had a chance to make peace with each other during three meetings in 2013, including the December 4 Rock to the Rescue benefit concert for tornado victims in Bloomington, Ill., when Richrath joined REO to play "Ridin' the Storm Out."
"We did have that cathartic moment that a lot of times people don't get the chance to have," Cronin says. "I'm extremely lucky that happened, because I can't imagine how I would feel now having all that still inside me and not having it expressed -- and the same for Gary, knowing he had a lot inside him. So we both got that chance, and we were straight with each other when he passed away. And that's a blessing right there."
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Cronin adds that he had not completely ruled out some sort of reunion of REO's heyday lineup, including keyboardist Neal Doughty and Bruce Hall, who are still with the band, and original drummer Alan Gratzer, who occasionally makes guest appearances. "There was always a glimmer of hope in the back of all our minds that at some point the five of us would go out and do three weeks of shows, just in the Midwest or something, the cities that embraced us back in those early days," Cronin says. "It takes nothing away from the band now, but there was always that fantasy or that hope it would happen. But when a person passes away, a lot of hope goes with them."
Cronin has been paying tribute to Richrath with a short acoustic set at the start of REO's shows since his death. The group has also put "Golden Country" back into the setlist, and Cronin is planning on adding Richrath's autobiographical "Son of a Poor Man" as well. "It's been a roller coaster. One minute I'm OK, the next minute I'm sitting there with tears in my eyes," Cronin notes. "I'm trying to put most of my energy into thinking about all the fun we had, 'cause we had a lot of fun. Gary was a fun guy, and the five of us together was a fun group. And Gary and I were in the eye of the hurricane, especially in [the Hi-Infidelity era of] '81, '82, when things were just unbelievable. There was no one closer to it than Gary and I, and nobody was as close to him as I was. You write songs together. You produce records together. It's a pretty intimate situation."
Richrath, who had moved back to his native Illinois in recent years, is survived by his wife, Justine, two sons and a brother. No cause of death has been revealed, but Cronin says Richrath's wife told him that he had abdominal surgery a few days before his death and was in the hospital at the time. A private memorial service will take place soon in Peoria, which Cronin says the band will attend.
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