Neal Doughty missed the hell out of REO Speedwagon, and he can’t wait to bring the band to Clearwater next week

The longest continuous lineup of the band is at Ruth Eckerd Hall on July 21.

click to enlarge Neal Doughty of REO Speedwagon, which plays Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Florida on July 21, 2021. - DARB02 AT ENGLISH WIKIPEDIA, CC BY-SA 3.0 , VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Darb02 at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Neal Doughty of REO Speedwagon, which plays Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Florida on July 21, 2021.

It’s gotten to the point where a good chunk of classic rock groups that still tour and record have evolved into original member-approved tribute bands. But unless you’re a total stickler, nobody seems to care about who’s onstage, but rather about what they’re playing. When the 2021 lineup of Boston—where guitarist Tom Scholz is the last original man standing, rips into “More Than A Feeling,” most fans head-bang and don’t stop to think about how singer Brad Delp and drummer Sib Hashian have both passed into the next world.

REO Speedwagon
Wednesday, July 21. 8 p.m. $53.25 & up.
Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 N McMullen Booth Rd., Clearwater
rutheckerdhall.com

REO Speedwagon has been lucky, though. Its 50-year run has seen some lineup changes, but if you’re talking about the band in its heyday (aka the Hi Infidelity era), a good 60% of the members still perform with the band. Lead singer Kevin Cronin, bassist Bruce Hall, and keyboard maestro Neal Doughty—a founding member of REO Speedwagon—still get along swimmingly. Needless to say, they missed the heck out of each other during the pandemic.

In a phone interview with Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, Doughty reminisced about his newfound joy in band rehearsals, his love for science, and a very special award that the band behind “Time For Me To Fly” was recently awarded. Read a full, unabridged version of our chat down below.

Hey Neal, how are you doing?

I'm fine, I'm fine. We’re having some intense rehearsals out here in Los Angeles, to make sure we remember how to do everything. I mean, that was a long time off!

Well, it must be good to be back with the band.

Oh yeah, yeah, it's gonna be great. I mean, we don't all live in the same town anymore. We kind of live all over the country, and the only way we've seen each other this last year was on Zoom, just so we remembered what each other looked like. And when we got here Monday for rehearsals, it was like, you know—it was like yesterday that we were all together, so it all came right back, and so did most of the songs.

Well that's great that you guys have been so tight after so many years, even though you've had very slight lineup changes since then.

Well, this lineup has been together 30 years, so technically, a couple of the guys didn't play on all the records back in the day, but it is the longest continuous lineup of the band and after all that time, we get pretty tight, both musically and personally. And of course, we're always happy to get down to Florida. Our good buddy, Robin Zander lives down in that area!

He is a great guy. I've seen him a couple of times.

Yeah, we have toured with Cheap Trick for longer than most people have been alive, and they're just the greatest guys. They’re among our best friends in the business, easily. So hopefully—maybe Robin will show up at our concert. He’s done it before.

So, you're going to be at Ruth Eckerd Hall next month, and that's a pretty intimate venue for a rock band like REO Speedwagon. So—speaking of Cheap Trick, and having toured with them so many times in amphitheaters and arenas—do you prefer the smaller, intimate setting, or do you like the vibrance of an arena, or a big amphitheater?

You know, we started out as a bar band, so the intimate places are still what's deep in our blood. We’ve played places smaller than Ruth Eckerd, although it’s a beautiful, beautiful venue. And we must have been there 10 times by now. And so that intimate setting is still something that we really enjoy. But there's a lot to be said for a big outdoor show where you can't even see the end of where the crowd stops, and that's a totally different type of thrill, really, just to see that many people that showed up for a rock concert, especially after this last year. We were hoping that people would come back, and so far, most of our shows are selling out, so it looks like they're ready and definitely so are we, believe me. 

These rehearsals—I used to think “well, rehearsals, that's really the worst part, that's not really fun.” But this last week and then all into next week, we’ve literally been having fun at rehearsals. So, that's how much we missed doing it, and I think the first month or so that we're back on the road—to quote a Bruce Hall song that we will be singing, we're just going to be like little kids, I think. We have so much energy right now, I mean, basically—my job has been watching television for the last year. And *chuckles* fortunately I'm still married. That's how good of friends my wife and I are—I haven't literally driven her out of the country or anything! And we're just gonna be so glad to be back at it. And, you know, like I say, the earlier part of touring is just going to be so much fun. I think the audience is going to see that we're just having a great time.

This tour celebrates the 40th anniversary of Hi Infidelity—which was actually last year—so it's more like the 41st. But anyway, what can we expect from this tour?

Well, we always play quite a few songs from Hi Infidelity. But, we've added a couple that we don't always play. But we can't do nothing but Hi Infidelity, because there's crowd favorites from other records. So, we will play what were our hits, especially some of them from Hi Infidelity, but we also are going to play the ones that the audience expected from us. You know, “Roll With The Changes,” “Ridin’ The Storm Out,” and all those deeper cuts that over the years have become live favorites. So it'll always be a mix of both. And Hi Infidelity was only 38 minutes long. So, *chuckles* we couldn't get by with just that.

Shortest concert ever, right?

Yeah! Like, going back with vinyl, you couldn't put much more than that on vinyl, or— as it got towards the center, the quality would go way down. So, 40 minutes was kind of the sweet spot. Any longer and the vinyl just didn't do a very good job. Nowadays of course, you can make a record that's three hours long, as long as there's somebody that wants to listen to it.

I think I actually remember you saying a few years ago that in the event that REO Speedwagon records anything else new, it's probably going to be in a digital format or on CD or something like that to ensure that you get more time.

Right. Yeah, and well, maybe, I mean, we've done recordings of our live show. There's one that we did up in Minnesota, at that giant rock fest that used to be up there every year [Moondance Jam]. We got some good DVD-video of the entire concerts. But there haven't been new songs for quite awhile. I mean, now people are used to an à la carte version of what they're listening to. They may not want to listen to 60 minutes of the same band. So, we think in terms of one song at a time. 

Right now, we're not actively trying to go into the studio and make another record, and we may never do that. We may release one song on our own website for streaming, or put it on iTunes or something, and—we’re trying to get a song in a movie, now that movies are back in business. So that's, you know, we're not really…I think the world kinda has enough REO songs. Thanks to classic rock radio and all that stuff, the ‘70s and ‘80s just never went away. I live in Minneapolis, and you can't turn on the radio without hearing REO Speedwagon. So, we're doing fine without making people sit through a new song that they didn't really come to hear.

That's fair. So, I want to go back a little bit, before REO Speedwagon even came around. You played the trumpet when you were in high school, but when the Beatles came around, that was when you started to really get into playing piano. So when you were playing the trumpet, were you ever into artists like Miles Davis, or Chet Baker?

I was into Al Hirt, actually! *chuckles* New Orleans style, and you could kind of hear that New Orleans thing show up in my piano playing, too. But I was never in a jazz setting. I was mainly in the marching band, where we played good old John Philip Sousa at football games. And believe it or not, back in the earliest days of REO Speedwagon, I was playing keyboards and trumpet at the same time, which sounds harder than it is.

I was playing trumpet with my left hand, and your brain just does a mirror image, and somehow, it works. And keyboard with my right hand, because we were playing a lot of soul music. That was very big back when we first started, and we had to have some kind of brass on it. We even had at one point like, three guys playing trumpet. That was kind of a short section of our career but you know, we were playing “In The Midnight Hour” and stuff like that, and we loved it. But then, the end of my trumpet career: One night, we were in Chicago, we had gone there to listen to Joe Cocker in a very small venue. And when we came out, our van had been robbed. And you know, they couldn't take the big stuff like the B3 organ, but the trumpet and the guitars, you know—which is gone. 

That took us a while to recover, but I just took that as “I’m not playing that thing very much in the set anymore—to heck with it.” And it was all beat up by then anyway, so that was a sign that I was supposed to forget the trumpet and put all my energy into keyboards.

So this year is actually the 50th anniversary of the first album. Does it feel like 50 years? Do you have any plans to acknowledge that?

Oh! *chuckles* well, I mean, it’s funny, the last time I bought a house, you have to write your financial information, it says. I always write “self employed,” and “how much time at your current job?” 50 years! It's not many people that can say that!

I mean, it has been a long 50 years. Some people say, “Oh, life just goes by too fast,” but it seems like a really long time that I have been doing this, and I don't know why I'm not tired of it. If I was getting a little bit tired of the travel, this last year took care of that! I was coming out here to Los Angeles—this is the first time I've been on an airplane for over a year. And it wasn't that bad! And a lot of our travel—we will fly to the starting point of the tour, now that we're scattered around the country, and then get on a bus for however long that leg of the tour is. And of course, we end up sleeping all night on the bus, but then get to a hotel, and that's when I really get some good sleep. So, like I said, it's been so long, and I wonder, how could I have been on airplanes and buses for 50 years? But right as I almost got sick of it, there was this little break in the world. And now the world is back. So, we're going to take advantage of that. The time off probably did us good, I will say, because I don't remember the last time rehearsals have been this much fun.

Going back, before REO Speedwagon came around, you were a student in engineering at the University of Illinois. Is that a major that you still indulge yourself in outside of music?

You know, I'm still a science nerd—which I’ve always been. I mean, I was reading Einstein when I was in high school, and I still do read books with all that crazy stuff. I tried to explain some of that stuff—relativity to my wife, who is a very smart woman that almost became a math teacher—then she switched to English, and taught high school English for 25 years. But when I started saying all this counterintuitive stuff about the way the universe seems to work, she’s just going “no, that's not possible.” And I go, “I know, it's not, but it's what the math is telling us.”

So, I'm still that engineering guy deep inside. And you know, a lot of keyboard players are like that, because so many keyboards—synthesizers especially, you have to be a little bit on the ball to program those things. And it's almost a different kind of musician that plays keyboards—kind of a mixture of music and science goes into it and, and a lot of keyboard players I know are just like that.

Yeah, I've seen you do videos and masterclasses where you talk about the techniques of, let’s say your Yamahas or your Korgs even.

Right. Yeah, I do all my own programming. I will usually start with a factory program that's sort of close, then go from there and adapt it to what the song is, and where I'm going to use it. But some guys don’t program their own sounds. I think most of the guys I know do that, but it's good to have a little bit of a, not necessarily a science background, but just a science-minded personality where the technical stuff is as much fun as playing the instrument.

So recently, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced their inductees for 2021, and REO Speedwagon has still not even been nominated. Does that irritate you?

Um, no. *laughs* Because—they kind of want you to think this, but the public doesn't have a huge amount of control over who gets into that Hall of Fame. You know, there's some public funding that goes into the process, but it has more to do with the amount of press that you've generated. Like, “Have you been on the cover of Rolling Stone?” I mean, if we ever do get it, I will consider it an honor. But to me, a greater honor is that our Hi Infidelity album just got the Diamond Award for selling 10 million copies. And that award is decided 100% by the public. There's nobody anywhere above the public that has to clear that. If they buy 10 million of your records, you get that award. So we've always been more of…I don't know, like a people’s band. We've never been on the cover of a major magazine, but all those people bought that record, and that means a lot. And it's a beautiful award that they give you—a diamond looking thing. And so that, to me—if that's the only major award we ever get, I will be fine. 

That's a pretty big one, congratulations. 

*laughs* Thanks! I mean, it took awhile. They had to figure out how to count streaming into those sales. And when they finally did, it was like, “Oh, this has been 10 million for quite a while. We just didn't know it." So yeah, that was really good. We went to New York and went to the roof at the Sony building, where you see all of Manhattan spread out before you, and that's where they did the presentation. That was really a good day. A very good day to remember.

Last question for you. You recently said that REO Speedwagon “got thrown in the ‘80s power ballad genre.” Are you comfortable with REO being remembered that way, or are you partial to your earlier works?

Well, there's a lot of cases where we aren’t remembered that way. I mean, without the big hit “Keep On Lovin’ You,” we probably wouldn’t still be working today. And so, those ‘80s hits—I don't mind being associated with that. First of all, I love ‘80s ballads, by every band that does them—which is most bands, and we're a mix of that and our live performance, which is more rock and roll, and our fans know that. I once said, “nobody likes us but the audience,” and that’s fine! That’s fine with me, and our audience knows what we do. They know that the big ballads are great to hear in a big concert setting, but the rest of the show is a little bit more rock and roll or deep cuts adventure going on.

We really only play for our particular fans, and they're the best ones in the world because they've kept us going for 40 years after Hi Infidelity! And, every night—I mean, we haven’t been onstage for over a year, but every night, we walk out there and we go, “Gosh, they still all show up, bless their hearts!” Because we haven't had a hit for them for all these years, but what they really like is what we do live. And it's just a very rewarding, emotional feeling to know that it's actual human beings that have kept you in business all this time.

Especially now with the world opening up. It’s actual people and not just people on a screen.

Yep. Absolutely, yes. I haven't been out of my house in a year—I'm surprised my wife didn’t kill me.

Hey, that's an accomplishment! 

Oh yeah, oh yeah! We still are perfectly happy. Of course, she was working. She works at this little high-end boutique where, as long as you were wearing a mask, you could come in there. So, she had a reason to get out of the house, along with—her daughter, my stepdaughter, had a baby, and so my wife is doing grandmother mode, and is over there two or three days a week to babysit. So, at least I think—I haven't seen him. I think there's a grandkid. Maybe it’s just an excuse to get out of the house, to get away from me, I don't know. *laughs* No, I've seen him, he really does exist. 

And so, at least one of us has had a life to keep going during this whole thing. And I got to catch up on HGTV, so not a bad life, so yeah. I needed the break from traveling, and she kept busy on her own, so we are still perfectly happy. 

UPDATED 07/16/21 2:40 p.m. Updated to show the interview with Neal Doughty not, Kevin Cronin.

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