Part one of our interview with KANSAS guitarist Rich Williams
"There were more garage bands per capita in Topeka, Kansas than anywhere else in the world"
Photo courtesy of David Carstens
As America's preeminent progressive rock band embarks on its 50 landmark performances, MeTV had the privilege to interview KANSAS' Billy Greer and Richard Williams, bassist and guitar player, respectively. The "Another Fork in the Road" Tour celebrates 50 incredible years of indelible music, highlighting crowd favorites like "Carry On, Wayward Son," and "Dust in the Wind."
Richard Williams is a guitarist and a founding member of KANSAS. In part one of our interview, Rich walks us through how he fell in love with music, and some of his favorite places to play.
I was hoping that I could get you to talk a little about some of your favorite venues out on the road.
The Chicago Theatre, where we just played, is a great place to play. A lot of interesting stuff backstage. The place has been around forever. Just the autographs everywhere: Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, there are so many things back there. It’s just fun to walk around, it’s a beautiful venue and a great stage.
We have a show coming up at The [Fabulous] Fox Theatre in St. Louis, a very iconic place for us coming from the Midwest. It always meant something when you finally got in that building, and it’s a stunning room. Same with the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. We haven’t played there in… I couldn’t tell you how many years. Over thirty years. We’ve played a lot of places around there, but never down at the Fox in Atlanta. And once again, it’s a stunning building.
I enjoy a lot of outdoor shows, but a lot of them are very similar. A couple of them that stand out are… A-#1 would be Red Rocks. Such a cool place to play. There’s a place out in Washington called The Gorge, which is breathtaking. I’ve been to both, but haven’t been there in a while. I’d love to go back to Red Rocks, my sister lives nearby. I have family there, so I’d love to get back there one day to play.
Rich, I was wondering, have you ever played “Carry On, Wayward Son” on Guitar Hero?
I tried. I didn’t have the patience. I will say that… I had a next-door neighbor when I was living in Atlanta, who owned Doppler Studios, which was one of the main studios in Atlanta. Especially for jingles– they did work for Coca-Cola. A lot of the guys from pre-Atlanta, and during the Atlanta rhythm section were session players who did work there for advertising. So, one of the owners of it was my neighbor, and he wrote the theme for WKRP in Cincinnati. That was one of his claims to fame.
We [KANSAS] had some off times, and I got a new riding mower, so I was cutting the grass. I didn’t have that large of a lawn, and the neighbors are out of town, so I just went over there and cut theirs. My neighbor Tom Wells, he’s in the yard, we’re getting a little chatty, I say “I’m gonna cut your yard, I’m all gassed up.”
So I was cutting his yard, and he said “This is the weirdest thing. My son is downstairs playing ‘Wayward Son’ on Guitar Hero, and you– the guitar player– are mowing my lawn.”
If Guitar Hero had been around when you were a kid, do you think you still would’ve picked up the ukelele?
I probably would have. You know, the games that we had to play were like little puzzle boards, where you’d, like, move the little alphabet around. It wasn’t like there was a ton of electronic games to play. We actually played football, baseball, basketball. We played real games when I was a kid.
The ukulele was really an accident. Christmas was coming up, and I was at the age where I said “Mom, I’m not gonna buy Dad another tie for Christmas, or some pair of socks.” And he had mentioned to me that when he was young, he played the ukelele. So I saved up my money and went down to the music store to buy a ukulele. I thought he’d be all happy, but you know dads... He said “Hmmm, no thank you,” and set it down. He had no interest in picking up the ukelele.
But, he did show me a few things on it– just a few chords. I adapted pretty quickly to it. So I was playing the ukelele around the house. I had an aptitude for playing a string instrument. A neighbor across the street, I remember his dad had some kind of red sunburst thick-bodied hollow-body guitar. You could see it through the window, and that always just fascinated me. But you couldn’t even look at it. You couldn’t go near it.
But then the British Invasion happened – seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, just like everybody says. That was it. Suddenly, everybody you knew was playing an instrument of some sort. There was a garage band, in Topeka, on literally every block. Even in Look Magazine, they had an article that said there were more garage bands per capita in Topeka, Kansas than anywhere else in the world at that time. Everybody played an instrument. Some not for long, and some are still playing.
So I took a few lessons, the summer before my junior year in high school, and a couple of friends of mine– one already had a bass, he was a bass player, another was a good singer, and he had a Lowery organ in his living room. So we’d all get together in there, play like “House of the Rising Son,” and all that. We soon worked up, played a bunch of Kinks songs, and worked up a repertoire. We needed a drummer. I had met Phil Ehart at one of the local music stores, and I asked him to join the band. Phil and I have been playing together since– that was my first band, with Phil. That’s really what lit the candle, was the British Invasion. Kinda all I’ve ever done since. I tried college, and I’d go for a semester, then I’d join a band. I couldn’t do both, and I’d flunk out my second semester. Then the band would break up, and I’d go back to school, and then I’d join another band. I did that for a couple of years. Finally, I realized “I just want to play guitar.” I had no– you’re young and dumb, you’re not thinking of the future or Plan B. I didn’t really care. I just wanted to hang out with my friends and play music.
The only job I ever had was working at a liquor store for maybe six months while I was in college. Which is probably a contributing factor to my being an alcoholic. I quit drinking about sixteen years ago. It was the best thing I ever did.
Stay tuned for the continuation of MeTV's interviews as KANSAS looks back on 50 years of the band.