50 years in the making.
Legendary rockers Kansas announced Monday their plans to celebrate their 50th anniversary with a massive tour of the United States.
Founding member Rich Williams couldn't contain his excitement during a recent interview with Sinclair Broadcast Group as he says this is the ultimate celebration of Kansas' 50 year history.
Of course, we never imagined when we started out we'd be playing so long," Williams said. "I'm experiencing some parallel thoughts. It seems like a very long time ago but also it seems like yesterday. It is an odd sensation. I mean there was no master plan for Kansas. We just went about our day and stayed the course and it got us here. 50 years later. Very surreal.
Current lead singer Ronnie Platt, who joined the band in 2014 following the retirement of original lead singer/keyboardist Steve Walsh, talked of the band's rich history and the mountain of songs they have to choose from when it comes to putting together a setlist to celebrate half a century of Kansas.
I’m incredibly excited about the 50th Anniversary Tour,” Platt said. “I tell people I’m not allowed to create a setlist, because it would be five hours long. There are so many songs I want to perform live. I think fans will be excited not only to hear our hits and fan favorites spanning 50 years of Kansas, but also some songs that haven’t been performed live in decades.
The 50th anniversary tour, which will hit 50 select cities, kicks off on June 2 at Benedum Center for the Performing Arts in Pittsburgh and continues through early 2024.
Williams can trace his musical family tree to a band called White Clover in New Orleans with drummer Phil Ehart in the early days when he says he was trying to find out what road his life and career would take.
"I had joined White Clover in 1969 and we were doing covers and also writing our own material in New Orleans," he said. "I was testing the waters to see if I could actually pursue music as a career. But I ended coming back to Topeka and went back to school. That lasted about a semester and I was ready to get back into a band. About that time, Phil came back from England and I got back with a new version of White Clover in what would later become Kansas."
With all the band members from the Midwest, they didn't strive to play to sell out arenas and filling their heads with multiplatinum dreams. Williams said that was the farthest thing from the truth.
Back in the old days, our goal was to release an album and play the big halls and ballrooms that were around in the Midwest," he said. "We weren't setting out to make a platinum album or playing Madison Square Garden. We didn't even think like that back then. We never imagined anything beyond that. We weren't dreaming about playing on the American stage or the world stage. That was a dream too far to even have.
But what they did know is that they needed to write their own songs if they were going to set themselves apart and hopefully get a record deal. In the first batches of songs written was about to change the band's future in a major way.
"We made some demos of songs we had written and one of those songs was 'Can I Tell You,' which ended up on Don Kirshner's desk," he said. "And it was a miracle that he actually listened to the tape and really liked that song. And that got us our record deal. Right after we got record deal, we asked Kerry Livgren to join the band and that really rounded out the songwriting aspect and his great guitar playing."
Back in the 1970s, Don Kirshner was one of the major players in the music business. He made his name back in the 1960s as co-owner of Aldon Music that saw a plethora of songwriters in the Brill Building era that featured Carol King, Neal Sedaka, Paul Simon and Neil Diamond, among others. He would later form the Kirshner record label, which eventually signed Kansas on the strength of that demo tape and the song "Can I Tell You."
His Don Kirshner's "Rock Concert" was a fixture on American television from the early 1970s until 1981 where he showcased popular bands of the day, include The Eagles, KISS, Rush, Foghat, The Ramones and Kansas, who made their television debut on the show.
After adding Livgren, lead singer Steve Walsh, bass player Dave Hope and violinist Robby Steinhardt, the classic Kansas lineup was complete and they headed to New York to record their first album, which Williams says was a chore in itself, but Kirshner was supportive through the whole process.
"On the first album, we were trying to find out who we were as a band. Stylistically, it was all over the map," he said. "I mean Don Kirshner is our benefactor. If he hadn't discovered that song on his desk, we wouldn't have ever been discovered. But after we were signed, he saw something in us and was very patient with the band as we were honing our sound and maturing as musicians."
Williams said finding the right sound that showcased all the proficient players in the band was high on their list and they took the lessons that they learned by listening to their favorite bands to take the right musical steps forward.
We didn't want to follow a trend. We wanted to be uniquely ourselves," he said. "Bands that we grew up on like Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels and all the progressive rock bands coming out of England showed us to throw out the box. There are no rules so we just did what came naturally to us. That culminated in the making of our sound.
In today's musical landscape, bands are expected to come out selling millions of copies with their first album. There is no room for learning on the job or development. That is exactly what Kirshner allowed Kansas to do as sales of their first three albums were slow, but the record executive was known for having an ear for music and saw something special in the Midwest band.
"The first album came out was respectable, but I doubt it paid for itself when it was first released," he said. "'Song for America' came out and was received well but not a lot of album sales. But Don stuck with us. He believed in us."
Kirshner would be rewarded for his sticking with the band when their fourth album "Leftoverture," which would go on to sell five million copies on the strength of their smash hit "Carry On Wayward Son."
When 'Leftoverture' came out, Don was so proud of us," Williams said. "But nobody would do that today. No record executive would let you go four albums before you hit it big. I mean Don left us alone and that was the best thing he could have done for us. I mean Don was always looking for a hit, but he was also patient with us. And it paid off. You don't see that in today's music business. I mean if that album hadn't of gone through the roof, I doubt we would have got a fifth album. That may have been the end of Kansas, but instead, that album really opened the door for us.
But the song, "Carry On Wayward Son," was a last-minute addition to a batch of songs that the band felt were enough for their new album. That is until they heard Kerry's latest composition.
"We were all rehearsing before we left for Louisiana to record 'Leftoverture' and we had enough material. We were all just ready to pack up and get down to the recording studio to record this album. But Kerry came in on the final day of rehearsal with one more song and the band really didn't want to work on another song. We were done with that process. But he laid out the riff and the verse and an idea for the middle and we thought this had a lot of possibilities."
Livgren told the Topeka High School Times back in 2019 that he felt pressure to deliver a hit.
I have a bad habit of writing our really big songs after we've finished the roster of songs that will be on an album," he said. "That's what happened with 'Carry On Wayward Son.' Don Kirshner remarked about this later that everything in that song is a hook. From the guitar riff to the melody, chorus and even the guitar solos were all hooks and really captures your attention. We actually learned that song in the studio. I guess I save the best ideas for last.
Williams said that while recording songs at the Studio in the Country in Louisiana, the band members realized just how special "Carry On Wayward Son" really was.
"We get down to the studio, which was out in the middle of a swamp, and when we were piecing the song together by laying down the different parts, we still didn't know what we had. I mean it didn't have the a cappella opening yet, but we thought why not try this. I remember an early Three Dog Night song called 'It's For You' using the stacked harmonies in the opening of the song and thought why not try that. But it wasn't until we were done with the record and we're listening to the rough mix of the album and it was at that moment that this album is going to be different. It was a game changer for us. And 'Carry On' was a big reason for that."
That dream about selling millions of albums and playing arenas like Madison Square Garden that Williams said was "a dream too far to even have" was now a reality. Almost as soon as "Carry On Wayward Son" was all over radio, Kansas was no longer the opening act, but was a headliner and selling out the big arenas.
"Carry On Wayward Son" would reach No. 11 on the Billboard charts and catapult "Leftoverture" to multiplatinum status, while becoming a mainstay in rock and classic rock stations to this day.
But the pressure to come up with the next hit was squarely on Livgren's shoulders. And yet again, it would be a song written in the 11th hour that would help the band's next album reach new heights.
Again, 'Dust in the Wind' was a last minute song," he told the Topeka High School Times. "It wasn't even really a song. It was an acoustic guitar figure that I developed to practice fingerpicking. My wife would keep walking by my music room and telling me that I needed to do something with that. I told her 'This isn't for Kansas.' Then one day I came up with the melody and the lyrics. And again, we had already put the album together, but I walked in the last day and played that song for the guys. This time, the whole band was sitting there with their mouths open asking me where has this song been.
The band was floored by the new song from Livgren, which was not indicative of Kansas' music to that point. "Dust in the Wind" has no drums and a very slow melodic song that would become Kansas' signature song.
That song and the title track propelled the band's fifth album "Point of No Return" to a four million seller and "Dust in the Wind" peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard charts and sell over 500,000 copies in its initial release back in 1977.
Livgren would call this time "the band's apex" as Kansas would see the classic lineup last just two more studio albums before singer Steve Walsh would leave the band. Singer John Elefante was brought in to replace Walsh and did a commendable job, recording two albums with the band that featured the hits "Play the Game Tonight" and "Fight Fire with Fire." But after recording "Perfect Lover" for the 1984 Best of Kansas album, Elefante and Livgren left the band.
Walsh, Ehart and Williams reformed Kansas with a new lineup and had a Top 20 hit with "All I Wanted" in 1986 off the album "Power" on their new label MCA. A second album - the Bob Ezrin produced "In the Spirit of Things" was received well by critics and fans, but got very little support by the new regime at MCA.
Williams said his experience working with Ezrin was a revelation as he didn't sugar coat his thoughts on the material they were working on or the direction he thought the band should be heading toward.
"The moment Bob Ezrin stepped into the room, you knew he was the boss," he said. "He came in and told us that there was a lot of crap here as far as the songs we had. He told us we had a lot of work to do. But I had so much fun working with Bob. I learned a lot from working with him. I mean he had worked with so many guitar players and he has some weird approaches to things. On the 'Bells of St. James,' I had no idea to do during the B part of the first section, so he blended these three different guitar parts into this amazing mixture that sounds amazing. I really love that record. I was so proud to be a part of it."
Kansas would go through numerous lineup changes and released five more albums, including the most recent studio album "The Absence of Presence."
But the band is pulling out all the stops when it comes to its 50th anniversary and the celebration of the history of Kansas.
And don't ask Williams about what's going to be a on the setlist. He's giving nothing away, but tells fans there will be plenty of surprises.
The script kind of writes itself," he said. "We've got the album representing our career with the tour supporting the album. Now, promoters have said they don't want one minute over two hours so you know what time you've got to work with. We've got fans that want to hear the hits that people know, so those songs are chiseled in stone. Now, there are songs that I've been wanting to do for a long time and this opens the door for that. I don't want to spoil the setlist for anybody just yet, but there are some songs that hardcore Kansas fans have been screaming for us to perform for 30 years and we're working on it now. We can't wait to start rehearsals and get on stage to perform for the fans. This is 50 years in the making.
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KANSAS 50th ANNIVERSARY TOUR – ANOTHER FORK IN THE ROAD CONFIRMED DATES