An Interview with Rich Williams of Kansas
Known as the “Guitar Player’s Guitarist,” Rich Williams has been with the band Kansas, an iconic American rock group, since 1973. He has traveled across the country for over 40 years performing and has no plans of stopping anytime soon. Prior to forming Kansas, he was a member of White Clover, which included several members of the current band today.
Prior to forming the band Kansas, you and several other members were a part of a group called White Clover. Can you explain the transition from White Clover to Kansas, and how the latter’s formation came about?
White Clover was a band that went through several mutations, and as people went off to a real job or back to school, I became one of the last men standing. There had been a previous version of Kansas that Phil Ehart and Dave Hope had been in before. Phil went to England, and I went back to college. It didn’t work out for him there, and all I did was play cards in college, so he called me and said let’s get the band back together. He wanted to get this guy Steve Walsh from St. Louis, MO singing, and we were trying to get this violin player, Robby Steinhardt, from Lawrence, KS because we were reforming the band with a new lineup. Dave and I were in the same band at the time, so it was kind of like a lot of people hopping in and out of the same band. With that version of White Clover, us five, we started writing material. We made a demo tape, and we sent that to Donald Kirshner, and we got an offer on a record deal from him. Meanwhile, the band Kerry Livgren had been in kind of folded. We said, “Kerry, we’ve got a record deal, why don’t you join this band?” Kerry had a lot of songs written, and we needed material. Kerry joined, and we didn’t want to be called White Clover anymore because we didn’t care for the name. Dave was the one who originally came up with the name Kansas because he had been in a band called the Kansas Blues Band. Dave suggested, “Why don’t we just use the name Kansas?” Finally, that worked for us, so we just assumed that name once we got a record deal.
Of the albums Kansas has recorded, which would you say is your favorite or most memorable?
I think the most fun album is the last one you recorded, so right now it’s Prelude Implicit. It was probably the most genuine group effort of any album I’ve ever been involved with. Our albums had traditionally been written by either Kerry or Steve. With neither of them involved, we had to go within to create the record. We put our nose to the grindstone. The goal was not to be something new but to be as quintessential to Kansas as possible in the style of music and the variety of music within the album so it wasn’t just one flat-line thing. Lyrical content, the album cover, everything about it again was not to recreate Kansas, but to really be as quintessential to Kansas as we could. That’s what the record company wanted, and they gave us the freedom to do that. That was the goal, and that’s what we accomplished. That’s the freshest thing. We’ve got an album coming out on November 3 which is Leftoverture Live & Beyond, and that is the tour we are doing right now, which is also the 40th anniversary of the Leftoverture tour. The new album is 19 songs from the previous tour and is coming out November 3. I am excited for that to come out.
You’re known as the “Guitar Player’s Guitarist.” Who were some of your early influences that helped shape your specific style of playing?
When I first started playing the guitar, we were playing just covers of the music of the day. Topeka was a pretty soulful town. So much of the music played in all the local bands was Motown. The guitar was more of an accompanying thing at the time, kind of a rhythmic, chunky little stabbing. What really changed me was the British Invasion. I was bitten by the guitar bug. Then John Mayall came out with the Blues Breakers’ album with Eric Clapton. That record was really a big turnaround for me. I was familiar with American Blues, but I wasn’t really a big fan of the guitar sounds; it sounded a little bit twangy. But also here is Eric Clapton playing through a Marshall and Les Paul, and it was just a real raw sound. It was up in the mix and in your face like a saxophone solo. Suddenly, I’m hearing the guitar as its own unique voice within the framework of the music, encompassing so much of the sound. The Blues Breakers’ album with Eric Clapton was very much so a big influence for me. Breaking it down, there was also The Yardbirds. Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page were in that band. I can’t think of one band with three guitar players that influenced all music to follow more than the Yardbirds. My favorite of all time would probably be Jeff Beck.
You have been traveling on the road for over 40 years now. Being a part of an internationally recognized music group, have you dealt with any issues that come with the intense time demand of performing year-round?
For the last 25 years or so, we’ve made a decision that if we want to keep doing this we have to keep it fun. For example, this is a perfect Kansas weekend. I’m in Corpus Christi, TX today. We came in last night, relaxed in the hotel. We have a show tonight, drive to Houston and play tomorrow, then I go home… and repeat. Our schedule is going to get a little busier. I get home Sunday, and then we drive to Chattanooga Tuesday from Atlanta. We then are flying to Kansas City Thursday and driving to Topeka. We play in Topeka Friday then drive to Sioux City, IA. We play there Saturday then go back home. We try to keep it on a weekend thing as much as possible, which keeps it fresh and fun. The bus days were awful. Some bands love being in a tour bus and going out on the road for months on end. More power to them, but that’s hell for me and the rest of the guys. That’s just not something we like to do. We call our bus years the “Dark Ages.” There’s just not a lot to remember. Buses are expensive. You can’t just turn the bus around and go home for the night. You’re stuck out there in the middle of nowhere constantly traveling. You also have to work more because you have to pay for your overhead. You’re playing Tuesday night in Thermopilos, WY for the opening of a bowling alley because you just have to pay for your overhead. You’re on the road for two months, and then you go home for 4 or 5 days. Then you go back on the road for three months and come home for a few days. You walk off the bus into the back of a venue, play a show, walk back onto the bus, drive all night… and repeat. You keep doing that for weeks on end. That’s a job in itself. What I do now is fun, and that part back then wasn’t.
Going back to your childhood, could you explain how you lost your eye?
Fourth of July between 7th and 8th grade, I had a fireworks accident and blew my eye right out of my head.
What made you decide to switch from a prosthetic eye to an eyepatch?
I needed a new prosthetic because I’d gotten it when I was younger and my head had grown a bit. It didn’t fit very well, and they kind of get worn out. There’s a coating on prosthetics and it was getting a little rough. It was uncomfortable, and they don’t track like a normal eye, so it was always looking forward while the other eye was moving around. It’s just kind of creepy. In a lot of photos and album shots and stage photos I always looked a little cockeyed. I’d be looking one way and the other would be staring blankly ahead. When I was having trouble with the eye, instead of getting a new one, I said screw it and decided to wear an eyepatch. I’ve worn it ever since.
How has the group’s dynamic changed since Steve Walsh left as lead singer? Do you feel Ronnie Platt has done a good job carrying on the legacy of the band as an adequate replacement for Walsh?
For several years, Steve wasn’t in to doing it anymore because he wasn’t enjoying it. It happens to the best of us; Dave and Kerry left some 30 years ago. They just didn’t want to do it anymore. Being out here performing is not any fun if you don’t like it. People leave for a lot of reasons. Steve wasn’t enjoying it, and he was having a lot of vocal issues. To perform three nights a week, sometimes less sometimes more, he wasn’t capable. Fairly suddenly he just said “I’m done.” We had a lot of shows contracted, and me and Phil were not done at all. Steve wanted his replacement on keyboard to be David Manion, and Dave was also my first choice. We’d known David for a long time because he’s been our lighting director for 25 years. David had also been an engineer on a lot of Steve’s solo projects and was the keyboardist in Billy Greer’s side project Seventh Key. David was already a part of the family, he knew the material and he is a tremendous keyboard player. He was Steve’s keyboard tech. That was a no-brainer, but then we had to replace Steve’s voice. About eight years ago we were playing the Moondance Jam in Minnesota, and there was a band playing named Shooting Star from Kansas City. I walked over to the stage to say hey, and their singer was up front, and he just had the audience in the palm of his hand. He was killing it. I thought to myself, “Who is this guy? They really have a great singer.” That singer was Ronnie Platt, and we became friends on Facebook, and he came to a couple Kansas shows when we were up in the Chicago area. When Steve retired, I thought to myself, “I need to get ahold of Ronnie Platt.” He contacted me on Facebook and said if we were looking to continue Kansas, he’d like to throw his hat in the ring. Phil and I went to YouTube and watched him sing a few of our songs. I’d seen Ronnie live and knew what he could do. He didn’t have an audition, he just had an interview with Phil and me because we just wanted to see what kind of guy he was. Is this someone we can be in the trenches with day in and day out? It was a personality test really. We spent the day telling band stories and getting to know each other; he passed the test, and we were back on the road about a month later. Since we had done Somewhere to Elsewhere in 2000, Steve had refused to write anything new. He wasn’t going to write, and he wasn’t going to record. Kerry was also not going to supply any more material for Kansas. We were in a drought where we wanted to record but people in the band were refusing. Now with the new lineup, we’ve got a bunch of new guys who are eager to work and are willing to play anything in the catalog. Now we have a bunch of guys who enjoy being out here and want to record again. Change is always hard. I’d been in the trenches with Steve for a long time, and you hate to see someone go. He went on his own terms, and we moved on. It was bittersweet at the time, but since then our career has taken off. We are playing more than we’ve ever played, and we are recording. I’ve never been busier in my life than I am right now. We are recording a new album in January, and the next two years are already scheduled. We are going to do the Point of Know Return 40th anniversary tour next year and it will continue into the following year. My next two years are booked.
Do you have any upcoming shows in Middle Georgia?
Yes. We are performing in Macon October 18 at the Macon City Auditorium.