A Chat with Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon

A Chat with Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon

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Rock Cellar Magazine: What led to you splitting from the band in 1973 and what did it take to bring you back to the fold three years later?

Kevin Cronin: I was in a really tough spot back in ’73 because I was having trouble with my vocal chords. I’d never been in a band that played as loud as REO Speedwagon (laughs). I went to a voice doctor and he said, “You can’t talk for three weeks and you can’t sing for three months.” We were in rehearsal and getting ready to go to L.A. to make a record so I was like, “Aw man, what am I gonna do? If I tell the band what the doctor told me I’m afraid I’ll get kicked out of the band.”

So I just tried to save energy and not sing anytime unless I absolutely had to. But I never really told the guys about my vocal health. Not knowing that, they just thought that I was being a prima donna and had an attitude that I thought I was ‘too cool’ for school. Looking back on it I should have been upfront and told the guys what was going on with me. But I was afraid to tell the truth and I’ll tell you what: that was a big lesson. Telling the truth is always the best thing regardless of what the consequences might be. It ended up splitting up the band and the reasons weren’t clear to anybody.

But after a couple of years, the records they had made with Mike Murphy didn’t catch on. Murph is a great singer, a great R&B player and singer, but stylistically it never worked with the band. A group of people from the South Bend and Fort Wayne, Indiana put together a petition that they wanted me back and somehow got it to the band. I think the band was thinking that was an idea as well.

There was definitely something special about that R.E.O./T.W.O. record. My solo career wasn’t exactly tearing up the charts either so we realized in late 1975 that we really needed one another. Then we had to figure out a way to take this high energy rock band and find a way where my melodic, more folksy songs could work so we decided to give it another shot.

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Rock Cellar Magazine: What drives you to create?

Kevin Cronin: Well, it’s an attempt to figure things out. I think it’s about trying to understand my emotions and make sense of the world. When I’m writing songs its something that I don’t understand yet. That’s why a lot of times I’ll write the verses for a song and then five, ten years will go by before I write the chorus because the chorus is when I figure it out. I think a lot of my songs are that way, the verses are very emotional and the chorus goes, “Okay, here’s the way out of that.” That’s what drives me creatively, just trying to dig deeper into my own psyche and figure out why I’m so damn crazy. (laughs)

Rock Cellar Magazine: Who were your main inspirations as a frontman?

Kevin CroninThe first major tour that I did with the band was in 1972. We did about three weeks with Black Oak Arkansas. They had a lead singer named Jim Dandy and he was the son of a preacher. I used to sit on the side of the stage and watch those guys play every single night. I was just a young kid at the time and Jim took me under his wing. After the show there would always be a party up in their suite and he would end up sitting down with me and teaching me the ropes.

“Son, come on over here and I’ll gonna teach you some things.” He was always sharing his stories with me. He used to do a lot of talking between songs and he would always tell stories. He had that southern evangelist feel about him. I learned from him. There was also another band out of Chicago named Mason Proffit who I used to open for before I joined REO Speedwagon and they had a lead singer that was similar to Jim Dandy.

I’ve always liked the idea of being able to tell the audience a little bit about the story of the song or something about how the song was written, just something to get their attention. This is way before any of our songs were hits.

It was just my way of trying to keep the audience engaged and trying to connect with them and get as close to them as we could. It just kind of stuck with me. Some of the most fun I have in concert is telling stories, talking and interacting with the audience.

How competitive were REO with other fellow 70s area rock bands like Aerosmith, KISS, Styx, Nugent and others?

We learned a lot from every band that we toured with. We learned how to be and sometimes how not to be. We were soaking it up. In general we got along with pretty much everybody; even more so now I feel a real camaraderie with the bands that have survived and stood the test of time. It’s a spiritual connection with all those bands. It’s undeniable. We all made it and we’re all still doing it.

When Nirvana and Pearl Jam and all that amazing music invaded the world out of Seattle in the early ‘90s a lot of bands were scared off from them. But for me I thought it was great. I thought those bands were awesome. I learned something from them.

Talking to Dave Grohl years later he talked about how he learned something from us as well. That’s what music is, music is give and take and everyone who writes a song, everything they’ve ever heard in their life is in that song.

It’s just a different way of reshuffling the deck. The odds against your music ever being recorded or being played on the radio or every becoming a hit and standing the test of time, there’s an extremely small chance of that happening. Anyone who’s fortunate enough to have that happen to them, man, you better appreciate it. You better go out there every night that you’re on tour and you better appreciate every single person that’s out there in the audience because without them, you’re not there.

What’s the best live show you ever saw?

I was a huge Hollies, Byrds and Buffalo Springfield fan. I heard through the grapevine about Crosby, Stills & Nash and how one guy from each one of those bands was getting together. I didn’t know who was who. When Crosby, Stills & Nash’s first album came out I lost it; I couldn’t believe it. It’s pretty common knowledge that their second gig was at Woodstock.

But what a lot of people, don’t know is their first time was at the auditorium theater in Chicago and guess who came running down the aisle like an idiot trying to get closer to the stage and security had to bring him back to his seat two or three times during the concert? Me. I was in college at that time. Joni Mitchell opened for them. It was amazing night. Seeing all my rock heroes in one room at the same time was incredible. That was by far the greatest live show I’ve ever seen.

Away from music, what occupies your time?

Well, I’ve got three teenage kids at home and a beautiful wife so when I get off the road I really get that other side of life, the yang for the ying. I just try to spend time with my children. Unfortunately, touring as much as we do I end up missing certain things as a Dad that I wouldn’t choose to miss.

When I’m home I don’t miss anything. I spend as much time with them as I possibly can; shooting baskets with my boys—they both love basketball and I’ve just taught my daughter how to drive so just doing all that good stuff. I’m determined to become a golfer one of these days. It seems like such a nice release and it would just be good for my head. But I’m still working at it.

I like to hike, I live in southern California now and there’s hiking trails right down the street form my house. I can hike up there or bike ride up there as well. I like to get outdoors. I like to work out, believe it or not. I try to hit the gym every other day if I can, sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. But if I could I’d be in the gym every other day. I like to stay in shape and stay healthy. I like to read.

I’m reading the new Graham Nash book right now and I’m loving it.  He’s a good one. He used to be my neighbor back in the Eighties, just a sweet guy. Man, what a life he’s led; it’s pretty amazing.

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