Behind the Song: REO Speedwagon, “Keep on Loving You”

The 1980s were the decade of the “power ballad,” that obligatory love song with a screaming guitar solo that was recorded by practically every band with a hairdresser – Journey, Whitesnake, Poison, and the list goes on. Whether they actually deserve it or not, the band that most often seems to get the credit for creating this phenomenon – particularly among American bands – are “the boys who made the noise from Illinois,” REO Speedwagon, with their 1980 hit “Keep on Loving You.” 

REO is suddenly on the charts again, thanks to an appearance on the Netflix crime drama Ozark in an episode that namechecks REO frontman and songwriter Kevin Cronin, called “Kevin Cronin Was Here.” A live interview with Cronin was hopefully going to be in the works for early May before a Las Vegas show, but with those plans scrapped by the COVID-19 pandemic, Cronin told the story of “Keep on Loving You” to American Songwriter via e-mail.   

“I believe every song is a miracle. That said, sometimes you find yourself writing something that feels extra special. ‘Keep on Loving You’ came to me in the middle of the night. I woke up with that simple piano intro in my head, stumbled into my little home studio, and sat down at my old red Wurlitzer electric piano. The verses came in about 20 minutes, in pretty much their finished form.”

“The following afternoon, I commandeered the piano at an REO rehearsal session. We were working up songs for what would become the Hi Infidelity album. I sat and played those verses over and over, hoping a chorus would show itself. When I fell upon the simple I-IV-V chord pattern, a melody and lyric appeared as if by magic.”

“Up until that point the band had been totally uninterested in what I was playing, but when Gary Richrath heard the chorus, he plugged one of his vintage Les Pauls into a Marshall double-stack, and cranked up the volume. He may have been simply trying to drown me out, but I leapt up from the piano bench. That powerful rock edge was exactly what the song needed to fully express the song’s message.”

As far as being as power ballad pioneer, Cronin doesn’t necessarily want to take full credit. But he can’t completely deny it either. “I can’t say who did it first. All I know is our record went to number one on the Billboard charts, and put REO Speedwagon on the map. That likely got the attention of other rock bands who were having difficulty getting their records played on Top 40 radio. ‘Keep on Loving You’ is often credited with being the first ‘power ballad,’ but I suspect there were others before it. But none come to mind at the moment.”

Cronin’s Chicago accent was at the fore on this tune, especially when he sang the line When I said that I loved you, I meant that I love you foreverrrr. “That foreverrrr was actually me channeling Danny Fogelberg,” he said. “Dan and REO were both managed by Irving Azoff, who would go on to rule the world. We were making REO/TWO at CBS Studios in Nashville, and Fogelberg was recording his first album down the street at Norbert Putnam’s Quadraphonic Studio. I would sneak in and listen as Dan was cutting tracks with Norbert and his band of Nashville cats. I love that first Fogelberg album, and still play it often.”

Cronin said he never could have predicted what that song would do for the band, which had already released five albums with Cronin out front. “When you first write a song, you have no idea where that song will go. I had no idea that ‘Keep on Loving You’ would take us on such a wild ride. I still remember it as that heartfelt little song I wrote in the middle of a long night, which came to life the next afternoon. It was truly a miracle.”

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Photo by: BCMom on Flickr.

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  1. I’m not sure that a power ballad has to be a love song, so one of the first was actually Let It Be. A slow song about hope that leads into a screaming guitar solo – sounds like a power ballad to me. Of course the Beatles were the first to do a lot of different things.

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