Neal Doughty was a 21-year-old student at University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, when he formed the band REO Speedwagon in 1967 with fellow student Alan Gratzer, a drummer.
Doughty didn’t end up graduating, where he majored in electrical engineering, but is the only remaining founding member of the popular band – which returns to Moline’s Vibrant Arena at The MARK on Sept. 6, in a triple bill with Styx and Loverboy.
“The band got so busy and I wasn’t able to fit classroom things into my schedule anymore,” he said in a Tuesday interview of his Illinois college days. “There were 10 or 20 bands in Champaign at the time, and we’re all working ‘cause there were just so many places to play,” Doughty, now 76, recalled. “There was a whole hotbed of music going on there.”
That same year in Chicago, DePaul University students Walt Parazaider (saxophone), James Pankow (trombone) and Lee Loughnane (trumpet) co-founded what would become Chicago – which played the Moline arena this past April.
Doughty also gave his band its unique name, in honor of a light, powerful truck.
“I learned that in a class about the history of transportation,” Doughty said. “It was it was a flatbed truck but they often outfitted it as a firetruck because it was the first truck that could go fast enough to and carry heavy duty, all the equipment, to be a fire engine.”
The REO was considered “a milestone in transportation history,” he said. “So I did at least learn something in college.”
They called it Speed Wagon because it could go fast while carrying a heavy load, he added. REO – the automotive manufacturer founded in 1905 – was named for its founder, Ransom E. Olds. It made a wide range of trucks and cars during its history.
Unrelenting drive, nonstop touring
The band’s unrelenting drive and nonstop touring – fronted by lead singer Kevin Cronin (who first joined in 1972, left and rejoined in 1976) led to platinum albums and radio staples.
REO’s big album “Hi Infidelity” (1980), which contained the massive hit singles “Keep On Loving You” and “Take It On the Run,” spent 15 weeks in the No. 1 slot and has since surpassed sales of 10 million units in the United States.
From 1977 to 1989, REO Speedwagon released nine consecutive albums all certified Platinum or higher, and all told has sold over 40 million albums around the globe.
Cronin and Doughty — with bandmates Bruce Hall (bass), Dave Amato (guitar), and Bryan Hitt (drums) — are still electrifying audiences worldwide in concert with fan favorites such as “Ridin’ The Storm Out,” “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” “Time For Me To Fly,” “Roll With The Changes,” and many more.
“We’re all still in top form. We’ve been taking good care of ourselves, very healthy and saving energy for the stage,” Doughty said Tuesday. Cronin himself is 70.
Like for most people, the height of COVID was tough for the band to be stuck at home, and Cronin released several music episodes online over the pandemic (“Songs & Stories From Camp Cronin”).
“I kind of sat around the house not knowing what to do,” Doughty said. Coming back on tour in 2021 was great.
“We came back at it with renewed energy. We had it done it so long and we really missed it,” he said. “We’re now in the fourth month of the tour and we’re still not tired of it yet. I feel like I’ll do this until I’m 95 years old.”
A music party with fellow supergroups
A proud Illinois band, REO has made it a common practice to tour with other pop/rock bands started in the state – Styx, Chicago and Cheap Trick. REO and Styx played the Moline arena in 2018.
In 1994, when many rock bands of their era had either broken up or were feeling like their days were numbered, the REO team came up with a co-headline tour concept that breathed new life into the world of touring.
The “Can’t Stop Rockin’” tour featured Fleetwood Mac, REO, and Pat Benatar and blazed the trail for the very popular co-headline tours that are seen nationwide today, according to a band release.
After the first time REO and Styx toured together, they released a live album (in September 2000) called “Arch Allies,” recorded in suburban St. Louis. In 2009, REO and Styx partnered to record the new single, “Can’t Stop Rockin’,” which was co-written by the two band’s frontmen, Cronin and Tommy Shaw.
“We play like 75 minutes or 90 minutes and you got all day to kind of save up your energy,” Doughty said of the three-band lineup, touring now continuously since May. “We’re all very healthy now. All those nasty things that happened back in the ‘70s, most of the most bands have wised up about that.
“It’s like there are two kinds of bands — the ones that got smarter and are now really healthy and then there’s the ones that tried to keep going on the party mode and a lot of them aren’t even around anymore,” he said.
The audiences are selling out most of the tour dates, Doughty said.
“We’re approaching 15,000 people just about every night and you look out at that and you go, wow, bless their hearts,” he said. “They’re still showing up out there. So that will fill you with the energy, like nothing else.”
Despite the bands’ heyday in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, the crowds aren’t just the AARP set.
“Everybody was listening to their parents’ music and I’ll see a 9-year-old kid in the front row, singing the words to every song,” Doughty said.
With all three classic bands, the concerts end up being a long string of greatest hits — including “Turn Me Loose,” “Working for the Weekend,” “Lady,” “Come Sail Away,” “Renegade” and “Mr. Roboto.”
“With Styx and Loverboy, there’s a lot of uptempo stuff, but there’s also those big power ballads from the ‘80s, and it’s kind of a sing-along here with 15,000 people singing along,” he said. “That’ll keep you going — none of us are thinking about stopping it.”
Though Loverboy is the opening act, all the fans are usually pumped up in place for them, Doughty said.
“They’re so great and have so many songs and all three bands know each other and like each other,” he said, noting they’ve toured with Styx for 20 years now.
“It’s funny sometimes the very first band, you know, people are still kind of filing in to the show, but Loverboy is so popular that everybody gets there on time,” Doughty said. “That proves that everybody likes all three of the bands.”
Loverboy plays about 45 minutes and he said you forget how many big hits those guys have, crediting their lead singer.
“I mean, we’re often out there watching this show ‘cause they’re so full of life, you know, Mike Reno just having more fun than he should,” Doughty said.
Touring with other IL bands
REO also has toured with other huge Illinois-born bands, Chicago and Cheap Trick, as well as other tours with Pat Benatar and Def Leppard.
“They’re good buddies of ours too,” Doughty said of Cheap Trick, which started in Rockford in 1973. “Actually, my wife married me because I know Cheap Trick. It wasn’t because I was a big rock star, it’s ‘cause I knew Cheap Trick.”
It’s always special when they come back to play in the Land of Lincoln.
“I mean Illinois has really produced a lot of bands and there’s even an Illinois Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in Joliet, which we now are in,” Doughty said.
In the summer of 2018, REO Speedwagon and Chicago joined forces for a co-headlining tour of North America. The two hit-making bands rocked 30 cities along the run.
In July, the members of REO were voted the top musicians in Illinois history by participants in the “Illinois Top 200” project, a part of the state’s bicentennial celebration. The band played the bicentennial party in December.
The crowds this year have been hungry for live music again in arenas.
“When this tour started back in May, people were nuts,” Doughty said. “They hadn’t been to a big concert in over a year. When the whole live thing opened up again, it’s like people were seeing concerts for the first time in their life and the crowds were just — they still are — the crowds are just amazing.”
He is most well-known for playing the Hammond organ on the urgent, rocking REO hit “Roll With the Changes,” which never gets old.
“It’s not even a hard solo, and maybe that’s why it’s popular,” Doughty said. “I always say, the easier it is to play, the easier is the listen. Yeah, that’s kind of my claim to fame, so we’re still playing that song.”
“157 Riverside Avenue,” the oldest track still in the REO live set, owes a great deal to Neal’s virtuoso improvisation, the band bio says, noting on “Ridin The Storm Out” (1973), Doughty introduced the classic Minimoog synthesizer sound to REO’s lineup.
Neal also wrote “Sky Blues” from 1973, “One Lonely Night” from 1984 and “Variety Tonight” from 1987.
Tickets for the Moline Sept. 6 concert are $29.50 to $99.50, available at the arena box office (1201 River Drive, Moline), or HERE.