Although he was born in Iowa, Dick Wagner grew up in Saginaw, MI and became a Detroit music icon with his early bands The Bossmen and The Frost. These bands may not have enjoyed the national exposure of other Michigan bands (Grand Funk Railroad and Bob Seger for example), but Wagner himself is associated with a lot of music that made up the soundtrack of our lives long after his first Michigan bands broke up. Sadly, he passed away in July of 2014 having recently regained the guitar playing dexterity he lost due to a myriad of health problems beginning with a massive heart attack and stroke he suffered in 2007. To honor his memory, a veritable ‘who’s who’ of Michigan musicians gathered for a memorial concert on January 10, 2015 at the Fillmore in Detroit. It was more than fitting that they filmed performances of Wagner’s musical legacy for a DVD ( there are plenty of clips of the concert on the net and the DVD is also available at various outlets).
I had no clue who The Frost were when my Twig bass player Mike brought in the song Rock and Roll Music for us to learn. It happened to be the signature tune of another Marquette band (Ron Phillip’s Sweat Equity) and try as we might, we could not make our version sound as good as SE’s. We never did add it to our set list, but we did manage to do a decent version of another Frost song, Black Train. Mike had this running joke he liked to pull on me from time to time based on the picture of drummer Bob Rigg from the cover of the of the Frost album. It showed him staring into the camera dripping with sweat. I didn’t have shoulder length, curly black hair like Bob, but I certainly could sweat like him so Mike would introduce me as “our drummer, Bob Rigg” from time to time. He thought it was hilarious, but I often wondered if anyone else out there knew what he was talking about.
Dick Wagner was considered one of Michigan’s ‘guitar gods’ and he influenced many of the artists who were exposed to his music first in The Bossmen and later with The Frost. Grand Funk’s Mark Farner did a short stint with The Bossmen and credited Wagner with teaching him a PhD worth of chords and compositional skills. A young Vincent Furnier’s solo career (as Alice Cooper) owes as much to working with Wagner and guitarist Steve Hunter as he does to his own theatrical stage persona. It wasn’t exactly a straight path for Wagner from The Frost to Cooper’s Welcome to my Nightmare concept album, but it certainly was a journey.
Wagner relocated to New York in 1972 and formed a short lived band called Ursa Major. The band had a young keyboard player named Billy Joel (who left for personal reasons) and did open on tours for both Jeff Beck and Alice Cooper before breaking up. In 1973, Wagner was recruited by producer Bob Ezrin for Lou Reed‘s band along with Steve Hunter and they made major contributions to Reed’s Berlin and Rock and Roll Animal albums. Ezrin was also instrumental in hooking Wagner and Hunter up with Alice Cooper on some of his early solo work. Wagner became Cooper’s co-writer, guitarist, and bandleader in the period where the Welcome to my Nightmare shock rock-horror show template would be forged. This seems to have worked out pretty well for Cooper over the last forty years. Nightmare was released in 1975 and Cooper has never looked back (Wagner also contributed guitar work to Cooper’s recently released Welcome to my Nightmare II). This period culminated a very fertile decade for Wagner and further elevated his status as a creative musical genius. His contributions to more than 350 well known albums (including 35 that achieved gold and platinum status) has included work with Cooper as well as Kiss, Aerosmith, Lou Reed, The Frost, Peter Gabriel, Meat Loaf, Guns N’ Roses, Ringo Starr, Tina Turner, Etta James, Air Supply, Hall & Oates, Little Richard, Roy Orbison, Burton Cummings, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Lita Ford (to name a few).
A brief mention in a website biography for our old friend Al Jacquez (Measured Chaos, Savage Grace) about ‘touring with Dick Wagner’ sent me on an internet search to find out more. Sure enough, there was a YouTube clip of Al singing lead on Sweet Jane at an outdoor show in Windsor, Ontario with the Dick Wagner Band ( www.youtube.com/watch?v=O4F-TYbsVjU ). A little more digging and I found him signing back ground and lead vocals at the previously mentioned Dick Wagner Memorial Concert ( www.youtube.com/watch?v=WEp1CgCs4jk) which is also available on DVD from Wagner’s website (www.wagnermusic.com/ ) . I haven’t had time to chase Al down for any comments about touring with Wagner, but I will see what I can find out! RIP Dick Wagner. Maybe your face wasn’t that familiar, but we would be hard pressed to escape your music contributions from the past forty years!
Top Piece Video – Our Measured Chaos / Savage Grace buddy Al Jacquez performing with the Dick Wagner Band – you will have to zoom ahead to the 5 minute mark to catch Al singing but it is worth the wait!