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Former REO Speedwagon guitarist Gary Richrath dies at 65

Gary Richrath (center) reunites with REO Speedwagon in 2013, joining Bruce Hall (left) and Dave Amato at a 2013 concert in downstate Bloomington to raise money for Illinois tornado victims. | Lynn Wilson photo provided by the band

In the 1970s and 1980s, REO Speedwagon’s Gary Richrath was the epitome of a golden guitar god, right down to a crown of curls that seemed made for backlighting.

But REO Speedwagon was more than a hair band.

The group had a string of hits that combined bombast with ballad rock, including “Time for Me to Fly” and songs Mr. Richrath wrote or co-wrote: “Ridin’ the Storm Out,” “Keep on Lovin’ You,” “Say You Love Me or Say Goodnight,” and “Take it on the Run.”

Frontman Kevin Cronin announced the death of REO’s former lead guitarist, who was from the Peoria area, on the band’s Facebook page Sunday. Gary Richrath was 65.

“None of us would be where we are without him,” Cronin said in an interview Monday with the Chicago Sun-Times.

Mr. Richrath was under a doctor’s care when he died in Louisiana, where he and his wife, Justine, had been assisting her elderly mother, Cronin said.

When he first met Mr. Richrath in 1972, “He was a total rock star,” Cronin said.

Cronin was advertising through a Musicians Referral Service that he created. When Mr. Richrath contacted the service, Cronin said he pitched the “top singer songwriter in my vast stable” — Cronin himself. They met at Cronin’s Rogers Park apartment, pulled out their guitars and bonded over a mutual love of an obscure Elton John number, “Holiday Inn.”

Jeff Beck was Mr. Richrath’s idol, but his earliest guitar influence was his Uncle Leroy — “a country picker,” Cronin said.

His trademark soulfulness “came from his upbringing and that he always wanted to get the approval of his dad, and his dad was a tough character,” Cronin said.

“He had a pure sound. He didn’t use any effects on his guitar, even when all the wireless” equipment became popular, Cronin said. “That touch he had on the guitar, and the vibrato in his left hand, it was sensual. It was extremely soothing and at the same time, very, very strong.”

The group formed in 1967 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Speedwagon” was taken from a make of an old truck, and “REO” stood for Ransom Eli Olds, who designed the Oldsmobile.

Gary Richrath (left), formerly of REO Speedwagon.

When the founding members first went to see young Gary play, they liked his licks. “He had a rock star look and could really play the guitar,” keyboardist Neal Doughty told www.classicrockrevisited.com.

Mr. Richrath loved to play live. “When I play live, I rip my fingers up and I love it,” he said in 1987. “If we’re in the studio or rehearsing for too long, my fingers get all tender and I don’t play as loud.”

In a 1991 interview with the Sun-Times, Cronin said, “I was a melodic folk singer; Gary likes to turn up the guitar as loud as possible.”

Cronin recounted the origins of their hit, “Keep on Loving You,” for Guitar World.

“Everyone thought it was this sort of ‘wimpy’ piano ballad,” he said. “Then one day, Gary decided to plug his Les Paul into a double stack of Marshalls. He turned it up as loud and nasty as possible and started playing along with me trying to drown me out. But once I heard the way the song sounded with the sweet piano melody and the gnarly guitars, the lightbulb went off, and I said, ‘This is it!’ ”

Mr. Richrath was a prolific songwriter. “He would hole up in his home studio and just write and write,” Cronin said.

He and his Gibson Les Paul deserved kudos for the sound of REO’s hits, according to Guitar World.

Former REO Speedwagon lead guitarist Gary Richrath (left), frontman Kevin Cronin (foreground).

He spent nearly 20 years with the group before leaving around 1990 and relocating to California. The band replaced him with Ted Amato, who played with Ted Nugent. In 1992, Mr. Richrath released a solo LP, “Only the Strong Survive.”

In recent years, he returned to the Peoria area to be closer to his mother, Eunice, a hospital worker who died last year.

Mr. Richrath reunited with his former band in December 2013, when REO and Styx played a “Rock to the Rescue” benefit in Bloomington to raise funds for tornado victims. He tore into “Ridin’ the Storm Out.”

“I feel so sad,” Cronin said in the Facebook post announcing his death. “Gary was both a unique guitarist and songwriter, and the embodiment of the tough guy with a heart of gold. I learned most of what I know about being in a rock band from Gary Richrath.”

In addition to his wife, Mr. Richrath is survived by two sons, and a brother, Wade, in East Peoria. Another brother, Dennis, a worker at Caterpillar, died in 2013. Arrangements are pending.