Fifty years have seen the band Kansas travel a winding path that has included periods of major success, lulls in the band’s popularity, the arrivals and departures of multiple band members that have introduced different talents into the lineup and stretched the band’s sound into new territories, a long span of time where Kansas didn’t make new music and most recently, a return to making new albums.
Through it all, guitarist Richard Williams and drummer Phil Ehart have been the constants, the original members who have weathered the ups and downs and remain invested and excited about continuing to build on the considerable legacy of Kansas.
The life lesson 50 years of Kansas has taught Williams is simple and profound.
“If you follow your passion, it never turns out bad. You’ll at least be happy,” he said in a recent phone interview.
The roots for Kansas were planted in the bar scene of Topeka, Kansas, where the original members – Kerry Livgren (guitar/keyboards), Steve Walsh (vocalist/keyboards), Williams, Ehart, Robby Steinhardt (violin) and Dave Hope (bass) – came together after cycling through various local bands.
When Kansas arrived on the national scene with their 1974 self-titled album, the band had already carved out a distinctive sound that blended British progressive rock and heartland hard rock, with violin giving the music a unique instrumental twist.
“What we were doing was really just creating symphonic works. Instead of like a cello, violin and an oboe, we were doing it with violin, guitar and synthesizers,” Williams said.
The Kansas sound, though, didn’t catch on immediately. In fact, by early 1976, the band had released three albums and toured extensively with only modest success. There was real concern about how much longer the band’s label, Kirshner Records (owned by famous music producer/manager Don Kirshner), would continue to fund albums and touring.
Fortunately, Livgren, the main songwriter, was hitting a particularly prolific and creative period, and songs for the fourth album poured out. That fourth album became “Leftoverture,” and one of Livgren’s songs, “Carry On Wayward Son,” broke through in a big way, spurring the album to platinum-plus sales. The next album, “Point of Know Return,” was another blockbuster. With the gentle acoustic single “Dust in the Wind” becoming a huge hit single, Kansas solidified their place as arena headliners and one of rock’s most popular bands at the time.
But this success represented the beginning of the end for the original and classic lineup of Kansas. Williams explained how things started to change in a 2019 interview with this writer.
“With ‘Leftoverture,’ suddenly we’re actually seeing, that got us out of debt. When it went gold, that got us out of all of our previous debt with the record company,” he said. “All of a sudden we actually started seeing money. The songwriters were seeing money from record one. And so the songwriters were doing extremely well, and we started to make money on the road. Money started coming in, but disproportionately, not in a negative way. But some people were making a lot of money and some people were starting to do really well. So where (before “Leftoverture”) we were just all for all, one for one, a pirate ship out on the mighty sea, now some people are buying cars and houses and boats, and some people are hoping to soon be doing that. And also, some people don’t want to work as much. ‘I don’t want to work so hard this year.’ ‘Well, you got yours, but I haven’t got mine yet.’ People are getting married. None of these are necessarily bad things, but they change the internal workings of six guys pulling together.”
Walsh was the first to depart, exiting in 1981 to form his own band, Streets. John Elefante was chosen from a pool of some 200 applicants to replace Walsh, and Kansas had another successful album, “Vinyl Confessions,” in 1982. But after that album, Steinhardt quit, and then at the end of 1983, Hope and Livgren (who had both become born-again Christians) left Kansas to pursue projects that more represented their beliefs.
Kansas had essentially ended, although Williams looked at this period as being more like a sabbatical.
And sure enough, by 1985, Streets had folded and Ehart approached Walsh about restarting Kansas. Walsh brought along bassist Billy Greer from Streets. The final piece of the puzzle came together when Kansas approached guitarist Steve Morse, whose band, the Dixie Dregs, had recently split, about joining Kansas.
“He was a fan of Kansas. We were big fans of the Dregs,” Williams recalled. “So ‘Steve, what do you think?’ ‘Sure, that would be great.’ And boom, we had a band.”
That violin-less lineup made two albums and lasted until 1990, when Kansas accepted an offer to regroup the original lineup (minus Steinhardt) for a tour of Europe. The reunion with Livgren and Hope didn’t last, but the core of Walsh, Williams and Ehart remained, and they continued to lead Kansas through various lineup changes (including a reunion with Livgren for the 2000 album “Somewhere to Elsewhere”) right up until 2014, when Walsh retired.
Kansas, though, quickly regrouped, bringing on former Shooting Star singer/keyboardist Ronnie Platt to replace Walsh. And with Walsh, who didn’t want to make new Kansas albums, gone the band began writing and recording again, with a new catalyst in the process, Zak Rizvi, coming aboard, first as producer/songwriter, and before long, a full-fledged member of Kansas.
With Rizvi taking the lead in songwriting, Kansas released two albums, “The Prelude Implicit” in 2016 and “The Absence of Presence” in 2020, that recaptured much of the original sound and spirit of the band.
Today’s band members — Williams, Ehart, Greer, Platt, new violinist Joe Deninzon and keyboardist Tom Brislin – are working toward another new studio album and plan to record after wrapping up the 50thanniversary in 2024. Whether Rizvi will be involved is anyone’s guess.
“The last album, we finished it, mixed it and Zak was gone,” Williams said. “And we don’t really know why. We don’t. There has been little to no contact. And it’s sad. Zak was such an integral part, such a talented guy, and we love him. He’s such a great guy. It’s a question mark. The door is wide open for Zak at any time. And this new project, we would really love to have his musical ideas, concepts, input, in any way he wants to do it. And it’s quite possible it could happen. There’s no bad blood at all.”
For now, Kansas is back on the road, celebrating the band’s 50th anniversary with a new career-spanning box set, “Another Fork in the Road,” and playing shows that will be tailored to long-time fans familiar with more than the Kansas hits.
“We’ll pull from all of our previously recorded albums,” Williams said. “And that gives us opportunities, because that is the purpose of this, to dust off some songs we haven’t played in 45 years. So there’s a lot of excitement. I’ve been wanting to do a few of these songs for a very long time. And to get to go back and do them is going to be very exciting.”
And the guitarist is enjoying life in today’s rejuvenated Kansas and looking forward to what he hopes is a long and productive future for the group.
“With the new band came a new attitude. There’s no song in the catalog we’re unable to play. And if we all want to do it, we will. There’s no reason to not record. So we had that going for us,” Williams said. “We’re in a constant creative mode and we’re not handcuffed by any one person. Everybody is all in to do this.”
Kansas: Another fork in the road 50th anniversary tour is set to perform on Dec. 1 at the Johnny Mercer Theatre at 7:30pm. For more information, visit: https://www.savannahcivic.com/events.