Ray Goodman of the SRC and Detroit Wheels, who's known Wagner since the late '60s and has been his de facto band leader since 2011, told Billboard that "he was such a unique talent. I consider him the best and brightest of my generation. He could write a song about anything. He had the gift, something he was innately born with -- along with his very quick, droll sense of humor, another thing I'm going to miss dearly."
Wagner was born in Iowa and grew up in Saginaw, Mich., where his first band, the Bossmen, garnered some national radio play for its single "Baby Boy." Its successor, The Frost, released three albums for Vanguard Records and had a minor hit with "Rock and Roll Music" and was part of a robust Michigan music scene that included the MC5, the Stooges, the Bob Seger System, the Rationals and others. Wagner relocated to New York City in 1972 to start the band Ursa Major, whose original lineup included Billy Joel on keyboards.
Wagner's national breakthrough, came when he joined Reed's band for 1973's Berlin and the acclaimed subsequent live album Rock N Roll Animal, forming a stunning guitar tandem with Steve Hunter. On Wednesday, Hunter posted a Facebook note saying, "We had a thing when we played together like none other I've ever experienced. … We hardly ever had to work anything out. We just did it and it was always right. It was truly a phenomenon. ... The stuff we did together back in the '70s was really and truly magical."
Berlin producer Bob Ezrin brought Wagner (and Hunter) into the Alice Cooper fold for the School's Out album in 1972 and subsequently recruited Wagner to be part of Cooper's Welcome to My Nightmare band, both for the album and the tour. Wagner co-wrote six of that album's 11 tracks -- including the hit "Only Women Bleed" -- and remained a collaborator throughout the '70s and into the early '80s, reuniting for 2011's Welcome 2 My Nightmare.
"Being a sideman was a definite choice I made," Wagner said in a recent interview. "I was going to pursue a solo career after The Frost. I always wanted to kind of be out front, but at heart I'm kind of shy. Being a star is not a big thing to me. I wouldn't want to be Alice Cooper and go through life like he does." Wagner released his first, self-titled solo album in 1978 and was also a hired gun for Aerosmith (the studio version), Peter Gabriel, Daryl Hall & John Oates, Burton Cummings, Grand Funk Railroad's Mark Farner and others. He also co-wrote songs for Nils Lofgren and Air Supply.
"He sang and played very well, which is obvious, but his songwriting ability was really good, and it was probably underestimated," said Scott Morgan of the Rationals, another friend of Wagner's since the mid-'60s.
Wagner was felled by a near-fatal heart attack in 2007, spending two weeks in a coma and awakening with a paralyzed left arm. He battled other health issues but managed to recover both physically and creatively, releasing a new album, Full Meltdown, in 2009 and publishing his memoir, Not Only Women Bleed: Vignettes From the Heart of a Rock Musician, in 2012. He also wrote three songs for the documentary Louder Than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story and was in the process of writing a concept album about a serial killer for Danish shock rocker Maryann Cotton. He was active in charitable concerns and was named the first Artist Ambassador for Guitars for Vets, as well as national spokesman for Hydrocephalus.org. He and his Desert Dreams Productions company created a video for a new, gospel-flavored version of "Only Women Bleed" to promote awareness of violence against women and children.
Wagner played his final show on June 29 in Owosso, Mich., and Ray Goodman noted that, "He was playing the best he ever has since (returning in 2011). We were really looking forward to picking this up in the fall."
Wagner is survived by his sons, Robert Wagner and Mark Schuknecht, and daughter Jasmine Dreame Wagner. A memorial will be held in Michigan, according to his personal manager and Desert Dreams business partner Susan Michelson, but details have not yet been determined..