A Lifetime of Classic Rock with Kansas Guitarist Richard Williams

KansasWith a legendary career spanning more than four decades, Kansas has firmly established itself as one of America’s iconic classic rock bands. The band is currently comprised of original drummer Phil Ehart, keyboardist bassist/vocalist Billy Greer, keyboardist Tom Brislin, vocalist/ keyboardist Ronnie Platt, violinist/guitarist David Ragsdale, guitarist Zak Rizvi and original guitarist Richard Williams.

Ahead of their Caesars Windsor show on May 5, Richard, known for his stellar guitar work and an eye patch over his right eye, checked in with 519 from the road, in of all places, Salina, Kansas. This stop in his original home state brought out the memories, including the recording of the band’s debut album 45 years ago.

You’re actually in Kansas today. Are those Kansas namesake shows a little wilder and more special than other shows?

I don’t know if it’s wilder, that’s yet to be seen. These are my people and coming back here to play is always something special for all the obvious reasons. Playing in this state is like a homecoming for me,

I’ve been based out of Atlanta, Georgia for most of the time since the later 70s, but I still have friends here and I still come back whenever I can. My North Star is always here and my compass always leads me back here no matter where I live. Kansas will always be home.

It’s a really interesting time for you guys. There always seems to be an anniversary to look back on now. This year is your 45th for the first album, it’s the 40th for Monolith and you’re touring the 40th of Point Of Know Return. You know, you’ve had a great career when milestones like that keep coming.

That’s the truth. These last five years have been with another building process for us. It’s been going better than the last 20 or 30 years. It’s been a lot of fun to be in this band playing a lot of material we haven’t played in a very long time.

The Leftoverture 40th anniversary tour went so much better than anticipated. We planned on doing 15 shows, but we did over 80 for that particular show. That why we’re doing the Point Of Know Return 40th anniversary show. It started last year but is going through this year and it’s also going into next year. It’s just been booked a lot, but that’s not the only thing – we’re also doing just regular 90-minute shows too, which is what we’ll be doing up there.

It’s a really good time to be in Kansas with a lot going on. We’re working on new album to be released next year. We’re going to be recorded that throughout the summer this year.

It’s almost been 40 years since you guys sold out to Madison Square Garden – that must have been a thrill.

Well you would think, but we were on a progression. We’re opening for certain bands and then we finally broke the door down for our first album. The shows were gradually getting better and finally we were at the Garden. Our manager at the time, Budd Carr, was in the limousine on the way to the show and he was just beside himself. “I can’t believe Madison Square Garden sold-out, this is incredible”, we were like “whatever, anybody want to go do something to eat when we’re done.”

We were a bit naive when we were young. We were just so caught up in it that we didn’t really realize the milestones that we were crossing at the time – to look back on this, yeah, that’s really amazing. But we were a bit to green and immature to appreciate it at the time. Now, with 45 years on the road with this band, I can appreciate that moment very easily, but back then we were green didn’t know who we were really as individuals.

What do you remember recording that first album 45 years ago?

Not so much in the recording of it. In the studio it was always rush, rush, rush. We didn’t have a lot of time to record it, mix it and be done with it because everything was pushed along. We didn’t even use our own equipment. Oh, no, you never use those kinds of amps in the studio they told us. We didn’t know, so we kind of got pushed around a bit by the engineers and production team. But still it was all very exciting. We learned a lot after that.

As for the recording process, at that time we’ve never done that before, so we just didn’t know, but the atmosphere around the studio was some of the most memorable, because of all the other people that were. John Lennon had just been in the studio; B.J. Thomas was in one of the studios while we’re working there. There was a common area where you sit around where everybody would hang out. Rick Derringer was in there, he was producing a Johnny Winter album, and we talked with him and some of the guys from his band. The Alice Cooper guys were hanging around there and so you had this organic roundtable of these guys telling their experiences and we were brand new to all of this, so it was a great education

I remember that part of it a lot and I remember “the walk” from the studio back to our hotel. This is in New York City and that terrible time on 42nd Street where it was all drugs, hookers, and X-rated movie theaters. It was a terrible area at that time and we had to walk from the studio through that. Coming from Topeka, Kansas, to that, was two different worlds. But you’re young and invincible.

Do you think there are similarities to who you are now compared to the young guy when you were recording that first big album?

There are some similarities sure. I remember why I started doing this and that feeling is all still there. That feeling of wanting to be in a band and wanting to be with bunch of guys that want create things will always be there. I still love to go out on the road and perform.

Long before I even had an instrument, I came to the understanding that I wanted to do something just like this. It was very natural for me to do. This is just what I was made for – to be in a band with friends and make music. The wide-eyed wonder of it all is not there anymore after you’ve seen what’s behind the curtain enough times. You can’t look at the stage with the same wonder. I mean the first time you went to the circus as a little boy was something, but once you’ve been travelling with the circus for 30 years and working backstage shoveling elephant shit all day, you have a different perspective.

For me, I can’t ever be a civilian again; this is the only life I know. I enlisted into this life a long time ago and to go to a party with a bunch of people is so strange to me, because conversations are different and I don’t like talking about me. I guess it’s fascinating for them because life can become humdrum, but it’s not for me. I know people want to know everything, but I get tired of talking about it. That’s why other musicians really connect with each other because we all have the same story, it’s the same but different. It’s like with alcoholics anonymous you can go in there and everyone has the same story with a different twist and you get to have a good laugh about it. Being a musician in a band is very similar.

They say that the first album takes you a lifetime to make. Did it really feel like that?

I don’t really think so. Topeka, Kansas was not a big town, but everybody I knew played an instrument because of the British Invasion. When that happened, there suddenly was a garage band on every block and everybody wanted to be in a band, so that was kind of normal. I’ve played in other bands with Dave Hope, the original bass player for Kansas. The first band I was ever in was with Phil Ehart, who is still our drummer today.

For six months you would be in this band and then some of the same people would be in it and you would get some new guys and then some of these new guys would get with others. It was a constant evolution of people going in and out of different but similar bands. But as we got a little bit older, there’s kind of a weaning process where some people they were pretty good at what they did, but they really didn’t want to travel, so they liked that Holiday Inn gig on the weekends – that wasn’t for us.

By the time this bunch of guys got together, some of us had played in bands together, but the writing of that first album really occurred in a brief period before we record it. It wasn’t like we’d written for 20 years and finally got an offer. Before Kerry Livgren was in the band, we had recorded six songs on a tape and sent it to differential record companies. One of them landed on Don Kirshner’s desk, and he only heard one side of it – he never knew there was two sides to those reel to reel tapes, so because of that one song we wound up with the record deal. Then Kerry Livgren joined and we had a lot more material. Most of the stuff was pretty fresh, but you’re on the road touring, then they want another record and then another and it became quite the grind of touring, writing and recording. Every year something new would come out.

And it’s great to see you guys putting out new material because there’s a lot of bands and artists from the 70s that are doing a farewell tour now.

We’re not finished yet and you know how farewell tours go; just ask the Eagles. How many farewell tours have The Who had? It started back in the 80’s. I don’t put a lot of stock in farewell tours. It seems like a ploy to just raise the ticket prices. Give it about three years and if they don’t reappear, it might have been the farewell tour.

Kansas performs for the first time at Caesars Windsor on May 5 with a show of classic hits. For more about the concert, visit Caesars Windsor and for more about Kansas, visit the band’s website.

Photo: EMily-Butler-Photography