For some time now I’ve felt that Gary Richrath has been largely overlooked by the rock guitar universe for the contributions he made to modern music. As a founding member of the band REO Speedwagon, he single-handedly took songs that otherwise should have been categorized as Adult Contemporary and gave them a gilded yet harder edge. His distinctive guitar sound transformed ballads like “Keep On Loving You” and provided them with a solid rock footing and just enough sonic effects to make even the toughest guy in your high school nod with approval. REO wasn’t as gritty as Van Halen, but they didn’t have to be. Gary Richrath gave REO Speedwagon a credibility that helped the band find their own place in rock radio’s most competitive moment – the 1980s. The thunderous opening he delivers to “Don’t Let Him Go” is an example of what I believe continues to make the band a summer tour favorite.
Gary left the band in 1989, (because of rumored personality conflicts), and embarked on a solo career, releasing only one record, 1992’s Only The Strong Survive. It was short-lived. Health issues and other personal challenges would ultimately stop short his steady touring schedule and cause him to pass in 2015 at the age of 65.
Now, Richrath Project 3:13 (RP3), a band birthed out of Gary’s departure from REO, has released a never-before-seen video. There you find Gary Richrath in the studio with band front man Michael Jahnz working on the song “Help Me Save Me From Myself.” RP3 began here with Gary Richrath bringing the song to Michael Jahnz and then teaching it to him. That session launched a collaboration that Jahnz now celebrates with L.A. Is Mine, a new record that features tracks with Gary Richrath, some of the only remaining, never-before-heard tracks written and performed by Gary. The record includes three new Gary Richrath songs with him on guitar, five new originals without him, and re-recorded versions of REO Speedwagon’s “Ridin’ the Storm Out” and “Son of A Poor Man” as bonus tracks.
We had the opportunity to speak with Michael Jahnz about what it was like working with Gary Richrath, and how this project has generated an overwhelming level of renewed interest in the music of one of the most popular people to ever hold a 1959 Gibson Les Paul in his hands.
Ray Chelstowski: For me, Gary Richrath really was REO Speedwagon.
Michael Jahnz: I was with Gary since late 1988. He was the sound of REO Speedwagon and I’ve said that through many interviews. Frankly, I can’t believe the amount of outreach I am getting regarding Gary Richrath at this time, because I think if more of that had happened even when we put out the Only Strong Survive [album] in 1992 things might have turned out differently for him. REO Speedwagon was his life. He was married several times, he had many friends and acquaintances, but the band was HIS band. When you take someone’s lifeline away sometimes, they die, and that’s pretty much what I saw happen to Gary. I couldn’t stand to see him deteriorate like he did [with substance abuse]. It was really sad.
RC: When he left REO Speedwagon the band seemed to make an intentional turn toward ballads.
MJ: When I met him in 1988, he was still at the top of his game in terms of both playing and writing. He wanted to go back to the mid-1970s sound that REO had when they really started pounding the pavement. That was Gary. He wanted to bring that rock edge back to REO, but he couldn’t because of Kevin (Cronin, REO lead singer) and what they were doing with ballads. So basically, he turned to me. He had heard me singing Ride The Storm Out and wanted to jam with me and the band I was with at the time. So, we did, which led him to ask: “would you do demos with me?’ I said, “Are you kidding? Just tell me where to go!” I mean, I was just a kid from Milwaukee who had been a long-time fan! So, I started doing demos with him, just providing background vocals on three songs that he had written for the upcoming REO album. Then he asked me to do lead vocals and asked if I had any original material. After that we began to work together like crazy. There had been some discussions about him working with another singer, but in the end, he thought my voice was too powerful to pass up.
RC: When you headed out on the road with Gary, REO was also touring, no?
MJ: In 1989 we started doing shows together and in 1990 we got booked for an entire tour. That helped us get serious about doing an album and we were shopped around to a couple different labels. Crescendo [Records] picked us up, we put out the album in ’92, but it didn’t really get promoted. That was unfortunate, because at that time there were so many loyal Gary [and] REO fans behind what we were doing. We also started to have a lot of issues with REO. They had a record out on Epic with the current line-up they have today. We would be playing a place and they’d be playing a place, and there would always be the issue of who gets to do what at which show. Or we’d play a smaller venue but sell out and they’d play a bigger venue and there wouldn’t be as many people there. It was a cat and mouse thing. We tried to work around their schedule, and it still didn’t work. In the end, I think the pressures of that got to Gary as well.
RC: When you were on tour did you play songs from the REO catalogue?
MJ: Well, Gary wouldn’t play any of Kevin’s songs. He just refused. We did all “Gary” songs. Then one night everyone in the band twisted his arm a bit because we wanted to play “Roll With The Changes,” a song Kevin had writing credits on. Other than that, we played all songs that Gary had written, and then new songs from [the] Only The Strong Survive [solo album]. We also threw a few songs in that were works in progress. Even without those hits [from REO that Gary didn’t write, we] delivered a 90-minute set that really cranked and we were playing all of the time. From little bars to bigger outdoor festivals.Michael Jahnz and Gary Richrath. Photo courtesy of Richrath Project 3:13.
RC: What’s the story behind the Richrath Project 3:13 name?
MJ: Richrath Project 3:13 is my band. I set up Project 3:13 years ago because Gary and I would always joke about the time [of] 3:13 AM, that for some reason, after 3:13 in the morning you have to put things down because it was time to call it a night. (laughs)
RC: How did the idea for this new record come about?
MJ: The idea came from having heard some of the duets that were produced with Nat King Cole and his daughter [Natalie Cole]. It was really cool how they blended two vocals from completely different eras together so well. So, I thought that since I had all of the master demos, if I could get his guitar digitized, it would be like he was playing right there in the studio with us, which is exactly what happened.
RC: Why release this now?
MJ: COVID is one of the things that held us back. Gary passed away in 2015 when I was working on my own stuff. Then I got a call from Crescendo Records and they asked if I’d be interested in putting together some tracks that had never been recorded. In 2019, the whole band flew out to Los Angeles. We did some shows and recorded about twelve new songs. We also began work on the songs that Gary and I had begun. Then in 2020 everything got cancelled, including our work with Crescendo. But I’m a fighter and decided that I wasn’t going to let this go. Ultimately [we] got asked to do the project through Dark Star Records. We went back to the studio and recorded much of the same stuff, and here it is.
RC: What condition were the demo tapes in?
MJ: An engineer that I work with took the 8-tracks that I had, which were in really good shape, and put them down to digital with Pro Tools. He made a few adjustments that made them sound great. As a band we recorded live like they did in the ’70s. Then we would play back the guitars through the headsets and anything that needed to be adjusted would be handled in the mix. It just sounds amazing having Gary’s guitar right there with us. Like I said, it was as if he actually was recording with us right there in the studio. And I was fortunate to record with him enough that I knew some of his techniques. I’m really proud of how it turned out and am really excited to have this music out there at a time, as I said, where interest in Gary Richrath seems to be at an all-time high.
Header image of Gary Richrath courtesy of Brad Magon.