Kansas band members are, from left, Phil Ehart, Steve Walsh, Richard Williams, Billy Greer, and Dave Ragsdale.
It might rank as one of the most stylistically awkward rock bills in history, at least from a sartorial perspective:
Early Kansas, with their bib overalls, burly beards, and Midwestern sensibility, and Queen, the princes of glam, clad in tights and led by the outrageous antics of Freddie Mercury.
Richard Williams remembers it well and cherishes the memories, even though he’s not quite so crazy about remembering the events that led to the bands touring together in the ’70s. The Kansas guitarist who will play at the Yark Automotive Group 30th Annual Northwest Ohio Rib-Off presented by The Blade at the Lucas County Fairgrounds at 8 p.m. Saturday said the precursor to the Queen pairing was a stint opening for English rockers Mott the Hoople.
Mott leader Ian Hunter became a mentor for the “Kansas rednecks” as Williams put it, but the then unknown American band had been a last-minute replacement as opener on the tour when Queen had to bail out due to a band member’s illness.
Queen’s first album was a big success and when folks bought their tickets, they thought they’d be seeing the English band.
“So when the lights would go out and [the announcer said] ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Kansas’ everybody was there to see Queen, even more than Mott the Hoople,” Williams said in a phone interview.
“The shock on their faces was terrifying and in any moments of silence all you would hear is QUEEN!!!. I’ll hear that on my deathbed.”
A few years later, Kansas and Queen ended up as touring partners and Williams didn’t know what to expect.
“Musically we might have been progressive, but socially we were very Midwestern. Here’s the [Queen] ‘Sheer Heart Attack’ album and I’m thinking, ‘We’re going on the road with these guys? They’re sitting there in makeup and I’m thinking, ‘We’re just not going to get along.’
“We did 38 dates together and they were the nicest bunch of guys you’d ever want to meet. We had an absolute blast with them and we learned even more from them because their show was so spectacular.”
Williams said that is when Kansas — a progressive band that incorporates violin and synthesizers into their sound — began focusing on putting together a polished show that drew from what the band members learned from their English friends.
It helped to have songs that became massive hits — “Dust in the Wind,” “Point of No Return,” and “Carry On My Wayward Son” — that propelled the band to late ’70s headliner status. Their albums sold millions of copies and the band was ubiquitous on the radio at the time.
Williams is refreshingly candid about the band’s success, describing their biggest hit, "Dust in the Wind" as a happy accident.
He said band member Kerry Livgren came into the studio near the end of the rehearsals that would provide songs for the "Point of No Return" album with just a riff that was drawn from a guitar finger-picking exercise he used to practice.
“His wife kept saying, ‘That’s really pretty, you ought to do something with that’ and he thought ... we would never do it so he brought it in one day and was kind of mumbling the lyrics and me and Phil [Ehart] said right then and there, that’s going to be our next single. I heard it right away. Accidents.”
The band is on its 40th anniversary tour and has gone through a number of personnel changes. Only Williams and drummer Ehart remain from the original lineup and the current group includes Steve Walsh, Billy Greer, and Dave Ragsdale. Key members such as Livgren, Robby Steinhardt, and Steve Morse have moved on to other projects.
For his part, Williams can’t imagine doing anything else and he compared his duration with one band to his father’s decision to work for the same trucking company for decades
“I appreciate it always. What a wonderful life it’s been. Being in Kansas has given me the opportunity to never ... have had to work. This isn’t work. I know the difference between what I do and what work is.”
He said perhaps the biggest misconception about the band is that the members spent countless hours huddled together developing the concepts that led to such works as “Magnum Opus: Father Padilla Meets the Perfect Gnat/Howling At the Moon” from “Leftoverture.”
“[From fans] it’s just, ‘Gee, I wish I could be in that room, in that think tank when they were doing this or that,’ giving us so much more credit for all of that like we sat around and conceived of things. We just were some mutts from Kansas who kind of stuck with something and made it work.”
Kansas will play at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Rib-Off and the opening band will be Madison Rising. VIP tickets, which guarantee seating for Kansas, are $25 in advance and $30 at the gate the day of the show. VIP tickets can be purchased at the Stranahan Theater Box Office, by phone at 419-381-8851, or at etix.com. Tickets for the Rib-Off that day are $7 in advance and $10 at the gate. General admission tickets allow you to see the bands, but don’t include seating.
Contact Rod Lockwood at: email@example.com or 419-724-6159.