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REO Speedwagon: You Can Tune a Piano, But Can You Tuna Fish? (1978)

Where we left off:
REO Speedwagon finally had a sales success with their 1977 live album, You Get What You Play For. But they lost their bass player, Gregg Philbin.

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REO Speedwagon, though now based out of Los Angeles, returned home to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois to find their new bassist. They had a pretty good idea of who they wanted, but they needed to make sure. So they went to a show at the one of their old regular venues, the Red Lion, and sat in with the Jesse Ross Band. That group featured their old friend Bruce Hall, who had co-written "Lost in a Dream" on the album of the same name. It was a covert audition.

Hall recalls that after the gig the REO guys didn't even ask him if he wanted to join, they just sent him a plane ticket to L.A. In the late 1960s Hall had been in a band called Feather Train with Gary Richrath before the latter begged his way into REO Speedwagon. "When Gary left Feather Train, he promised we'd work together again," Hall recalled in a 2015 interview, "and he made good on that promise."

With Hall on board the band recorded their seventh studio album, You Can Tune a Piano, But You Can't Tuna Fish, which was released in March 1978. Hoping to maintain the integrity of their new songs, Cronin and Richrath made a successful push to produce the album themselves. They were paired with engineer Paul Grupp, who'd worked on records by Linda Ronstadt, Pure Prairie League, and Boston.

A newfound confidence is evident immediately in the album's first two tracks, two REO classics that just missed the top 50 on the Billboard singles chart: "Roll with the Changes" and "Time For Me to Fly." The former is very much in the REO wheelhouse, a rocker built on Neal Doughty's rollicking piano and organ. But "Time For Me to Fly" was a whole new animal: Driven by an acoustic strum and a subtle synth backing, it's unlike any REO song that came before. A sad/empowering country ballad with Beach Boy-ish backing vocals, it's hard to believe now that this song wasn't a bigger hit at the time. The song actually dated from the time that Cronin was out of REO and attempting a Dan Fogelberg-ish solo career.

The rest of the album strikes a balance between the country-blues rock of old and a more polished pop sound. A lot of that polish comes from those stacked backing vocals, attributed in the liner notes to Cronin himself, along with the "Tuna-Ettes": Tom Kelly, Denny Henson, Denise McCall, and Angelle Trosclair. I couldn't find any info on McCall, but the other three came from the Irving Azoff orbit. Henson and Kelly were Illinois natives and members of a country rock quartet called Fool's Gold that once served as Dan Fogelberg's backing band and recorded two albums of their own in 1976 and 1977. Kelly especially has a fascinating story, and we'll be hearing more about him on subsequent album write-ups. Trosclair released one smooth jazz album - Angelle - in 1977 which featured Eagle Don Felder on guitar.

REO had an interesting history with backing vocals up to this point. They used gospel-style singers on their first albums, then transitioned to the band members providing backing. The mini choir approach plays a prominent part not only on "Time For Me to Fly" but also "Blazin' Your Own Trail Again," "Do You Know Where You Woman Is Tonight?," "Lucky For You," and "Sing to Me." The latter two songs have a bit of a harder edge that's measurably softened by all of those pretty harmonies.

There are also straight-up rockers. "Runnin' Blind" is a Richrath tune (co-written with his girlfriend / wife-to-be Debbie Mackron) featuring searing guitar work and a chorus that proclaims, "Change is comin' / No more runnin'."

There's also "The Unidentified Flying Tuna Trot" an instrumental sequel to REO's "Flying Turkey Trot." In addition to the similar titles, the songs share a riff, though this follow-up tune is less of a guitar workout than it is a spotlight for Neal Doughty's ivory-tickling (appropriate, given the album's title). It leads well into closer "Say You Love Me Or Say Goodnight," a stomping Cronin/Richrath co-write that gives the band plenty of room to stretch out and jam. In many ways it feels like a throwback to the band's early days, with the only new wrinkle being a couple of saxophone solos provided by Lon Price (a well-respected studio musician who also happened to have played on the Angelle album).

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You Can Tune a Piano... was the band's second unqualified success. Reaching their highest point on the charts yet, #29, and selling two million copies.

Before the recording of this album, Irving Azoff stepped away as the band's manager to devote more time to the Eagles (ironic, since they'd break up 3 years later). Azoff had kept REO alive and going through the lean years, and wasn't going to experience the full effect of the band's success. John Baruck, tour manager (and Azoff's college roommate) took over in his stead.

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