A Chat With Neal Doughty Part II – REO Speedwagon’s Legendary Musician

A few weeks ago I shared with you Part I of a two part interview with legendary keyboardist, and original founding member of REO Speedwagon, Neal Doughty.  As REO rolls into town again this weekend, September 12, 2015 to the Seneca Allegany Casino in Salamanca, NY, it only seemed fitting to share the remainder of our conversation as a prelude to their upcoming show so that you could appreciate a backstory of their musical journey to today. Over a 48 year career, this group found a way to share their stories through their music, lyrics, and performances capturing the attention of generations of fans.

Before I pick up where I left off, let me recap for you a bit.  A lifelong fan of this group, I couldn’t help but gush a little as I spoke with Neal about their beginnings in Illinois at the University of Illinois, some of their earlier gigs when they started out, their work on albums, the progression in song writing from their earlier works to those songs that brought them the most attention during the 1980’s, as well as how they have managed all these years keeping audiences coming back, all while not killing each other on the road.

Touring non stop since their inception, Neal’s analogy of how they have developed into an  old married couple, seem spot on as these five men have gone through the highs and lows together for most of their adult lives, and have withstood all that the music industry has thrown their way while staying true to their sound.  You could say they’ve ridden “…The Storm Out”.  See what I did there?  Okay those REO Speedwagon fans will definitely get that pun.  Not familiar with the band yet, please take a moment to visit Part I if you haven’t had the opportunity to read it yet, then come back here so I can fill you in on where we left off of this amazing conversation Neal and I shared.


Kathy Stockbridge (KS): You have had the chance to do some pretty amazing gigs over the years. Talk to me a little about your time at “Live Aid”.

Neal Doughty (ND): That was kind of unreal almost because everybody was there. We played very early in the morning, which we weren’t used to anyways, just getting up that early made it surreal.  Then we get to the show, and back stage is every famous musician in the world walking around back there. People we idolized. It was so hectic too, because they were getting bands set up.  They had a revolving stage where there was never a break between bands.  We had our two hits songs ready to go, we climbed up on stage while it was still turned around away from the crowd, and they said “okay, as soon as the stage rotates into view, start playing”.  They had some technical glitches with the thing and as I began playing “Can’t Fight This Feeling”, nothing was coming out of the piano. So I stopped.  Come to find out it was coming out to the feed that was going on television but we weren’t hearing it. So you hear me start the intro to “Can’t Fight This Feeling” twice, because the first time I wasn’t hearing it at all. I looked over to our monitor guy and go “you ready?”, then I start playing it again, and then this time I could hear it. So if you watch that old tape from Live Aid you’ll see me play about 2 bars of “Can’t Fight This Feeling”, then stop and go “are you ready?”  The sound literally was not coming to the band at all.

KS:  That had to be the most amazing experience though just being there in front of that audience.

ND:  Oh yeah.  They were telling us there were about 1 billion people watching us on television. Then when I hit the first note of our biggest song, and nothing comes out…guess that shows whether it’s 1 billion or a crowd of 1 person, you never know when something will go wrong.  It’s actually scarier playing in front of a smaller crowd where you know people in the crowd.  When it’s 1 billion people and they are watching on tv, that’s not REAL from where you are sitting.  Of course, the 100,000 people sitting there live, well that made us a little nervous.  After a while, you feed off the nervousness though.  I usually play best when I’m really nervous.  Which doesn’t happen often any more. I’ve done this enough now, that I’m probably going to make it through the song.  We just recently played on Jimmy Kimmel with Imagine Dragons.  He does this band name mashup, where we were dubbed Imagine REO Speed Dragons.  That was “live” television, and in those situations you can fix something I believe up to one hour before it airs in New York, but we didn’t have to with this performance.

KS:  Wow, that had to be the best.  I just covered them and they are such an energetic band, that loves to play to their fans.  That had to be one hell of a mashup.

ND: They were the greatest guys to work with, with so much respect for us.  It was nice to have a band that hot, selling out the Forum tonight, at the peak of their career, wanting to be on tv with us.  We get there and they feel the same way, they were think how do we get to be on tv with them?  It was mutual respect from the minute we met each other. It went great.  We did “Roll With The Changes” and we changed the beginning of it to sound a little more like an Imagine Dragons song.  They have those jungle drums going…

KS:  Yes they are very percussion heavy in their sound, where you guys are very heavy guitar and keyboards.

ND:  We let them start the song with their big drums and then we went into “Roll With The Changes”.  It was very interesting.  Then we watched them play five songs on Kimmel’s outdoor stage, and they were just great. But it was so nice of a feeling for a relative new, very hot band, to be doing something with us on nationwide television, that I want to add we worked up that afternoon together.

KS:  You’re being very modest I must say.  You guys are legendary.

ND: I’ll accept that in the sense that yes, everybody’s heard of us. When you’re around this long…

KS:  You are a legendary band, highly respected, during the 70’s and 80’s you were “THE” band to see live.  So I do believe that Imagine Dragons probably grew up, like I did listening to you.

ND: Oh yes, they acted as though they were really impressed to be playing with us.  We sometimes forget, as we have become very down to earth about the whole thing. We feel lucky to still be doing this, we’re pretty nice guys, and actually we are pretty modest about the whole thing. We’ve just been doing it so long that when we walk out on stage and there are 10,000 people there we say “Bless their hearts, they are still showing up”.  It’s just so gratifying to feel that respect.  We’ve been together so long and people will still show up by the thousands to see us play.  It’s really a heartwarming feeling.  Then when you have the hottest band in the country meet you and their star struck…sometimes we just forget.  I’ve never thought of myself as some sort of rock star.  When I’m home, I’m building a roof on the patio.  People come over and see that I’m just a regular guy. Yep.  Regular guy that lucked into a GREAT job!!

KS:  So glad you did.

ND:  The first ten years, there were a lot of moments where I thought, I should have stayed in college.  Where I would be sitting on a rock by the ocean saying, “what have I done”? People would walk by and go, “are you okay buddy?”.  I would say, “yeah, I just think I screwed up my life, that’s all”.

KS:  In 2013, being from the Midwest myself, storms and tornadoes are unfortunately common place for the area, and due to the storms that devastated that area, you coordinated “Rock To The Rescue”.  Can you tell us a little about what that was all about?

ND:  That was an amazing experience where everybody we called to play this show said “heck yeah, I’ll be there”.  The storms happened very close to where Gary Richrath, our guitar player, grew up, in Peoria, Illinois.  Bruce, our bass player lives down in Florida and plays golf with Larry The Cable Guy, or Dan (his real name).  He is a really nice guy, who volunteered to MC the whole thing. Every band we called, and most of them were from Illinois, said yes it was amazing as we threw together things so fast.  Not only having Gary come up and play with us on a song or two our great friends from these Illinois based bands, like Styx and Survivor,  are great buddies.  Cheap Trick wanted to make it but they couldn’t do it due to their schedule, but they would have been there had things worked out as we had all hoped.  These are all bands that have been our friends for decades.  So to have them all in one building was amazing in itself.  Back stage was like a high school reunion catching up with each other.  Then having Dan go out there,  MC and telling jokes, while not charging us a penny. He actually does stuff like that all the time. His showing up made the show all fit together seamlessly with no confusion between bands.  It was old home week for a great cause.

We actually took the tour bus out to the neighborhood that was hit the worst and it was unbelievable.  It was as though you were looking at special effects in a movie scene.  As far as you could see, every house was down, furniture was in the trees, no leaves left on the trees, cars overturned and wrecked vehicles.  It was like a spectacular scene from a science fiction movie, only it was really there. You can’t imagine the power of nature until you visit a scene where nature has destroyed everything for miles. And there are people who are suppose to be living there.  You see a teddy bear lying in the gutter and you think, gosh that’s some childs teddy bear.  Their house isn’t even there any more, but their teddy bear is there.  So you think, someone has to help all these people. There is progress occurring already getting everything rebuilt, but it will take years before it goes back to the way it was.  Basically we raised half of a million dollars to help take care of the people during their transitional time.  You of course will not build a town with a half of million dollars, but for those whose houses blew down, you can give them some help.  That was the purpose of the fundraising.  We knew we couldn’t rebuild the town. Once again it was a heart warmer event as all your buddies from all the years just go “We’ll be there tomorrow”.

This job never gets boring, but then when something like that happens, it reaffirms that “man I’m never going to stop doing this”.  People even ask if we get tired of playing the same songs.  We say “Are you kidding me? Nobody gets to have this kind of life.

KS:  Well again I want to commend you on what you did for those folks.  The following year after this project you were once again out on the road together with the band Chicago.  Talk to me a little about that tour.

ND:  That’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had on stage.  Chicago and REO started the same year, in  Illinois, and until then we had never played together. Right when our band first started, their first album came out and it was a masterpiece.  While living in Los Angeles, Robert Lamm, who is a songwriter, keyboard player,  and one of the singers lived only two houses away from me.  We used to come over to each other house and we had still never played together.  We were neighbors thirty years ago and finally had a chance to play together recently.  The promoters were wondering if the two groups would be able to mesh up correctly, and it just turned out so well.  We each did our own shorter set, then we came out for an encore where we did three of each bands biggest hits with everybody on stage.

KS:  Wow that must have been so spectacular with the horns accompanying you on your songs too.

ND:  Someone asked me what it sounded like when REO and Chicago played together?  I said…like Chicago, (as he laughs).  Because those horns are such a distinctive part of their sound.  Playing “Keep On Lovin’ You” with a horn section or “Roll With The Changes” with all the horn mix playing…well by the second or third night of that tour I was laughing out loud on stage because it sounded so good. They are all great guys and and wonderful musicians and we had such respect for each other that we just hit it right off instantly and I really hope we get to do that again.  They felt the same, that we gotta do this again.  We don’t want to do it exactly the same the next year, so we’ll wait a few years but we definitely want to do that again.  Because that worked out way better than any of us thought.  I think every show was virtually a sell out.

KS:  I want to truly thank you Neal for doing this interview with NYSMusic.  As I mentioned to you before, I’ve been a huge fan for so many years, and this truly has been a highlight in my career.


 

As I basked in an afterglow of , “Wow, I just interviewed Neal Doughty, one of the founding members of the my favorite band of all time”.  If you were to ask me who was my favorite band of all time was, I would hands down say REO Speedwagon.  They represented so much more to me than just a musical group.  The immediately bring me back to my school days, with dear friends, and a place I hold dear to my heart, Illinois.  Their earlier music was compelling and audioritoially moving.  A huge keyboard lover, their keyboard solos paired with guitar riffs captured my heart and from “157 Riverside Avenue” to “Time For Me To Fly”, to “In Your Letter”, they had my complete and total attention and dedication for the moment I first heard them.

Written in 1968 by Kevin Cronin, “Ballad of Illinois Opry” would not be recorded until 1996 on their Building The Bridge album.  This song emulates everything special about REO Speedwagon; how they continue to pay homage to their Midwest roots, how they saw their dreams of one day being on the big stage and never lost focus of that dream, and of course that classic rock and roll sound of guitar solos, strong keyboards, and stellar vocals, that we all fell in love all those years ago while standing in a horrific Midwest storm cheering for them to return to the stage.

The humility this man possessed still today when talking about his career, totally touched my heart.  My favorite musicians are those that connect with their audience.  Whether it’s on stage…a gesture to a fan who wants a meet & greet, or how they engage the audience and their fans while performing.  Truly he didn’t think of himself as a superstar of any sort, and my clearly unprofessional means of gushing had to be apparent throughout the interview. And the fact he was touch and bewildered by reactions of others to him and his band mates was refreshing.  To me it was a sign he was in it for the music, not for the fame.  Fame came and stays because of the other. To him REO still was a group of friends from college in rural Champaign, Illinois just jamming and making the music they loved.

Ending our conversation as we could have continued to talk for a good long time past what we had, I was nervous and didn’t want to over stay my welcome. It was okay because I knew that although I didn’t get to cover one show here locally, I would be traveling to the beautiful Niagara Falls area to take in the show there, and once again relive all those wonderful moments I had shared with family, friends, and days gone by.