The one thing people who were there can agree on is that they aren’t 100 percent sure on the details. It was, after all, almost 40 years ago.
But the consensus is that the performance by REO Speedwagon at a St. Francis Borgia High School dance back in fall 1972 was crowded, loud and fun.
Chris (Freitag) Feldmann was a senior that year. Now an employee at St. Francis Borgia Regional High School, she said the crowd that night knew they were part of something unusual and special.
“We’d had a couple of local bands that would play at our dances, and they were always good, but when you walked into this, you could tell it was a different caliber,” Feldmann recalled. “You could tell they were not a homegrown band.”
For starters, REO’s sound system was far superior to any used by other bands performing at the school, she said.
REO was an up-and-coming band in the early ’70s. Formed in 1967 and signed in 1971, they were known to kids around Washington. They had heard REO’s songs on the radio and when word spread that the group was coming to play at an SFB dance, teens lined up to be part of the experience.
George Wingbermuehle, now president of SFBRHS, was a first-year teacher at the school in 1972 and also served as a chaperone for the dance. He said the line to get into the dance went up the steps from the gym (back in 1972, SFBHS was located in the building now used as the grade school at Second and Cedar streets in downtown Washington), out the door, onto the sidewalk and around the block.
“It went all the way down Second Street almost to the park,” Wingbermuehle recalled, noting as one of the adult moderators there to keep the teens in check, he was “scared to death.”
“There were so many people... I remember being worried that we didn’t have enough chaperones,” he said.
“It wasn’t our usual crowd.”
The dance, Wingbermuehle believes, was sponsored by Student Council.
“A lot of people think it was homecoming because it was in the fall, but it wasn’t,” he said.
Although unusual by today’s standards, having a live band perform at a school dance was common at SFBHS in those days, said Wingbermuehle.
Back in 1997, the last time REO Speedwagon performed at the Washington Town and Country Fair, The Missourian spoke with Steve Shankmann of Contemporary Productions in St. Louis, who had booked REO to play at the SFBHS dance and who assisted with the band’s setup.
In that article, Shankmann noted that Contemporary Productions, a young company at the time, was booking all of the bands for area dances with local talent.
“The kids at Borgia decided they wanted to do something different,” Shankmann said. “They wanted something bigger — a national band.”
Now a legend in rock ’n’ roll history, REO will return to Washington next week when the band takes the main stage at the Washington Town and Country Fair Saturday night, Aug. 4. The show begins at 8:30 p.m.
This year’s Fair theme is “Making Memories,” but the REO concert may bring back some fond ones for more than a few.
Formed loosely in the late ’60s at college in Champaign, Ill., REO (famously named after a fire engine) was far more than your average frat-party band.
By the early ’70s the band’s unrelenting drive, nonstop touring and recording jump-started the burgeoning rock movement in the Midwest. It carved a path eventually followed by STYX, Kansas, Cheap Trick and more.
Platinum albums and freeform FM radio staples such as “Ridin’ the Storm Out” followed, setting the stage for 1980s explosive “Hi Infidelity.”
The band’s younger fans might not realize the sheer impact “Hi Infidelity” had on music and the culture of rock ’n’ roll. Its 9 million in sales was fueled by huge hit singles in “Keep On Loving You” and “Take It on the Run.”
High Infidelity spent months in the No. 1 slot, a feat simply unattainable in music today. The strong run continued with hits like “Can’t Fight This Feeling” up through the new “Can’t Stop Rockin’.”
Fronted by iconic vocalist Kevin Cronin since 1972, REO Speedwagon has for decades been a confounding blend of consistency and change.
The nine-times certified “Hi Infidelity” remains a high-water mark for rock bands.
Make all the “Ridin’ the Storm Out” or “Roll With the Changes” cracks you want, but that’s exactly what the band has done. REO Speedwagon has that Midwest work ethic.
The band has gone onstage and in the studio and done the work, year after year — dozens of albums, hundreds (thousands?) of concerts, infinite radio spins. The eyes have always been on the future and on the road — not a year has gone by where REO Speedwagon didn’t perform live, thrilling fans with hits like “Keep On Loving You” and “Can’t Fight This Feeling.”
And yes, they do roll with the changes. With the modern-day music industry disintegrating, the band members recorded “Find Your Own Way Home” in 2007 and put it out themselves through Walmart — and personally drove to radio stations across the country to get it heard.
Ultimately the album had more success than it would ever see with a record company.
Cronin (lead vocals, guitar, keyboards) has always cast an eye to the future, along with band-mates Bruce Hall (bass), Neal Doughty (keyboards), Dave Amato (lead guitar) and Bryan Hitt (drums). It wasn’t a surprise to Cronin to see the industry run aground.
“I think maybe the music industry needed to fall a little bit because it was getting bloated and there were just too many people putting out CDs with one or two good songs on them and eventually that’s gonna backfire,” Cronin says.
When the talk turns to benefit concerts the names that come to mind are George Harrison, U2 and Bob Geldof. REO has quietly done its share, from appearing at the Live Aid concert in 1985, to a benefit for port authority workers after 9/11 and recent MusiCares shows, along with a “Ridin’ The Storm Out” benefit concert that raised more than a half-million dollars for Iowa flood relief in 2008.
In what little downtime he has, Cronin stays busy with appearances on shows like “Politically Incorrect” with Bill Maher and his own writing on his blog at KevinCronin.com. He recently appeared on FOX-TV’s “Don’t Forget the Lyrics!”
Today it’s all about what it has always been — taking good care of the band’s legacy while keeping the focus on the future. That may be even more important these days, Cronin believes.
“The world is going through a weird phase, and everybody needs music now more than ever. We all need to join our friends, pool our resources, combine our energies, because there is power in people coming together,” he says.