From the moment they started playing music together half a century ago in Topeka, Kansas were always a square peg in a round hole. They were founded in the capital city of the state after which they were named, and their sound represented a colourful, boogie-laden twist on themes formulated by the English art-rock set, often defying those complexities with radio-friendly hooks and the violin of the classically trained Robby Steinhardt.
But while the popular AOR bands of the era dressed like peacocks, none of the members of Kansas displayed pin-up potential. Some were bulky, others skinny, some had enormous tumbleweed coiffures, and one didn’t even bother changing out of his work overalls. And yet when they plugged in and played, Kansas had something truly remarkable.
Mountains of drugs, rampant egos and rock’n’roll excess were not what derailed Kansas. Their classic line-up was torn apart by religion. At the height of the group’s success, guitarist and chief songwriter Kerry Livgren broke away to form the Christian rock band A.D. along with bassist Dave Hope, who later became a fully ordained Anglican minister.
And yet barring a miniscule break during the mid-1980s Kansas sailed onwards, notching eight gold and three six-times-platinum albums (Leftoverture, Point Of Know Return and The Best Of Kansas), and the million-selling double live album Two For The Show.
Featuring the talents of some 24 different members, Kansas have carved out a 50-year career. Here we present that remarkable story, told in their own words (see over the page for the cast list).
Phil Ehart: Drummer and co-founder, still with the band.
Rich Williams: Guitarist and co-founder, still with the band.
Billy Greer: Bassist, 1985 to the present.
Ronnie Platt: Singer, 2014 to present.
Kerry Livgren: Guitarist, keyboard player and songwriter. Original member, served 1970–1972, 1973–1983, 1990–1991 and 1999–2000.
Steve Walsh: Singer and co-founder, 1973–1981 and 1985–2014.
Dave Hope: Bassist and co-founder, 1970–1971, 1973–1983 and 1990.
Steve Morse: Guitarist, 1985 to 1991.
Phil Ehart: Four of us had gone to high school together, but from the very beginning, three things made Kansas unique: the songs written by Kerry [Livgren], the vocals of Steve Walsh, and Robby Steinhardt’s violin.
Kerry Livgren: Located in Topeka, we were isolated from both coasts, stuck in the middle of the United States, and somehow found ourselves making this incredible music. We had no idea where it came from.
Rich Williams: We had begun in different bands, playing bars and high-school proms before leaving our teens behind and starting to write our own material. What kept the original six guys together was the desire of a career in music. None of us wanted to get a real job. We were following the likes of Yes, King Crimson and those bands that were throwing the rule book away. Singing about cars and girls was not for us. But as far as goals were concerned, we dreamt of nothing more than writing and recording an album.
Ehart: There was no master plan for success, and if Don Kirshner [the entrepreneur behind The Monkees and other acts] had not discovered us via the demo tape that we sent him, I’m certain we would not be having this conversation.
Livgren: Don Kirshner had a record label that was distributed by CBS. He wanted to bring us to New York City to work at the famous Record Plant, which was about as good as it could get for a young band like us. Beers flowed that night, and everything flowed. It was the beginning of a lifelong dream.
Ehart: Suddenly we were on tour in arenas with bands like Queen, The Eagles and The Kinks.
Livgren: One of the gigs with The Kinks, which took place in Arizona, was on a revolving stage. Rich Williams was disorientated and stepped off into the audience. We got to the dressing room, but Rich was still walking around in the crowd holding his guitar, with the house lights up.
Nobody knew it yet, but Kansas’ deal with Kirshner (who died in 2011) was heavily weighted in the latter’s favour. “Signing the contract without reading it, we sold our souls,” Williams sighs. “It wasn’t till our fifth album that we could renegotiate. Until then we received a measly twenty-five cents a record, split eight ways with our management.”
Kansas’s self-titled debut album, released in 1974, sold a credible 100,000 copies but reached only No.174 in the US chart. The following year’s Song For America did much better, reaching No.57. However, fortunes regressed when Masque (also ’74) stalled at No.70.
All that changed in 1976. Buoyed by the success of its smash hit single Carry On Wayward Son, fourth album Leftoverture rocketed Kansas into the superstar bracket, and became the true masterpiece of their catalogue.
With Steve Walsh suffering from writer’s block, the album also pushed Livgren into the role of chief songwriter. It was Livgren who wrote Wayward Son, although, like so many fortuitous events in rock history, he almost did it too late.
Livgren: Back then I wrote maybe seventy per cent of each album, with Steve supplying the rest, and on the very first day of rehearsals Steve said that he had nothing – not a single song. I don’t relish that kind of pressure, but with hindsight it really brought out the best in me.
Ehart: We were packing up our stuff when Kerry walked in with his last-minute addition. For such a very, very special song, it barely made the record.
Livgren: I said: “Guys, maybe you should listen to this.” Eyebrows were raised and, of course, it changed everything for Kansas. It’s an autobiographical song. I’ve always been on a spiritual sojourn, looking for truth and meaning. It was a song of self-encouragement; I was telling myself to keep on looking and I would find what I sought.
For their next album, 1977’s Point Of Know Return (which actually peaked a place higher than its predecessor), Steve Walsh was relieved to rediscover his mojo, although it was Livgren who wrote another signature hit, the fragile ballad Dust In The Wind. By the time Leftoverture went gold (half a million copies) the band had repaid their debt to Kirshner Records forrecording and touring. But now, with royalties going to the songwriters, one guy was cashing in. And behind the scenes, jealousy began to brew.
Williams: The song that had got our record deal with Don Kirshner, Can I Tell You, was written by the five of us – without Kerry. When Kerry joined, we wanted his songwriting. It was important to us. With the first few albums we were like pirates out on the open sea; it was all for one and one for all. But money changes everything. The scales between the haves and the have nots began to tip.
Livgren: Suddenly we started to make some money, and we were all caught up in the excitement that it brought. I was still so naïve, it didn’t even occur to me that Steve might resent the success we received for an album he hadn’t written anything for.
Ehart: Kerry was just so prolific at that time, everyone just kept out of his way. We accepted everything he brought us because it was all so great. But yeah, lots of money was now coming in. People were saying how great we were, and some of us started to believe those things.
Williams: When the writers started receiving these huge cheques it became difficult for a bunch of young men full of piss and vinegar. All of us were working our butts off, so it was hard to accept. Some guys were buying cars, boats and houses, and I was still living in my Mom’s basement. The other regrettable side was that certain people started saying they didn’t want to work as hard or travel as much.
At around the same time, Livgren’s songs of ‘self-encouragement’ were developing into something more theology-based. Walsh resigned during the recording of Point Of Know Return, only to be talked around. Bassist Dave Hope found his solace in pharmaceuticals.
As the 70s ended, the sixth Kansas album, Monolith, didn’t fully reflect the depth of their inner turbulence. On tour, Livgren became a born-again Christian. Later on, Hope followed suit.
Ehart: There was a lot of unhappiness and stress behind the scenes. Kerry and Dave were off in their own little corner, others took drugs. It definitely wasn’t a fun band to be in at that time.
Livgren: When you’re in your early twenties and suddenly become famous, women literally chase after you, and it’s almost impossible not to give in to temptation. What began to change us was success. It was all very satisfying, but it also left an inner void. When your dream comes true, where do you go from there?
Dave Hope: My ‘born again’ experience was huge. We were between Chicago and St Louis when I felt the presence of God come down onto me. I wasn’t seeking anything, it just happened, and I couldn’t deny it. I was filled with an incredible love that dissolved my heart. I knew immediately that it was God because I’d never felt such tenderness before.
I’d been up all of the night before snorting coke and drinking, so I knew it wasn’t a drug high. I didn’t expect anybody to understand. Nobody raises an eyebrow in rock’n’roll circles if you’re drugged out of your mind, gay or sleeping with twenty-five people a night, but mention Christianity and you’re treated like a pariah.
Ehart: The band comprised a Catholic, a Baptist, a part-Jew, an agnostic and an atheist. Kerry’s religion was fine, but he wanted to make Kansas a sounding board for his beliefs. That sort of pontificating just didn’t sit comfortably with us, especially Steve, who had to sing the songs with conviction.
Ehart: Steve wasn’t crazy about the idea of quitting, but Kerry left him no choice. It was close to a mortal blow for us to suffer, him being the first domino to have fallen.
Kansas’s disappointing album Audio-Visions, in 1980, would be the last with Steve Walsh for six years. Having tested the waters via his solo album Schemer-Dreamer (recorded with various Kansas alumni and a guitarist named Steve Morse, more of whom later), the singer left and formed Streets.
It’s been claimed that Sammy Hagar, future King’s X frontman Doug Pinnick and Jim Stafford (famous for the song Spiders & Snakes) were among those that auditioned to join Kansas, but in the end the band went with younger, untried blood in the form of Los Angeles native John Elefante. Another devout Christian, Elefante fronted Kansas for two albums: Vinyl Confessions and Drastic Measures. With Livgren relinquishing control, the band’s sound grew slicker and more AOR-based.
John Elefante: Prior to Kansas I was a complete unknown. Man, I was scared. Now I was filling the shoes of one of the greatest rock singers ever.
Livgren: Material-wise, Vinyl Confessions was fairly strong, but we weren’t sure who we wanted to be. With hindsight, John Elefante was very inexperienced, and in the endless search for the next single we departed more and more from what Kansas was originally about.
Elefante: The mystique of faceless bands was ending. Videos were becoming popular, and after we had a hit with my song Fight Fire With Fire, the record company pressurised us for those.
And with Kerry spending more time away from the band, I started to feel like I had been left holding the baby. That really bummed me out, because Iwanted to write with him. When Kerry took his songs away, a big part of the band left with him.
Ehart: We’d been trying for ages to persuade Robby [Steinhardt] to clean up. We told him that he needed to go away for a while. We didn’t see him again for sixteen years.
Livgren: The violin was gone, so was Steve [Walsh], I wasn’t even sure what Kansas was any more. I withdrew from the group.
Kerry Livgren and bassist Dave Hope left the band on New Year’s Eve 1983, and Elefante was out of the door not too far behind them. And although Kansas never officially split up, they effectively ground to a halt the following summer.
Hope: People were still offering me drugs, and girls were asking where the party was. I couldn’t be an alcoholic and work in a liquor store. Nobody’s that strong. I had a kid on the way and wanted to remain faithful to my wife.
Elefante: There were only three members left – myself, Rich and Phil. Dave had left, so had Kerry. There would have been more money had I stayed, but at the time it didn’t matter. I wanted to see what I could do on my own.
Livgren: Kansas had ceased to be an actual band and was two or three corporations instead. Because I wrote the songs, when I quit it was like trying to leave the army. It got very ugly.
Ehart: We didn’t even consider trying to replace Kerry and Dave. Elefante was also moving on, thatleft just myself and Rich. All the same, I still believed that there was life left in Kansas. Looking back, we needed that break.
Williams: It’s like being a baseball player. One year you’re at your peak, the next you’re going down the shitter. The best thing was that Phil and I realised change is always going to come, it can be brutal, but if you’re smart you plan ahead for it.
In fact it was a stroke of fortune that resurrected Kansas. Ehart had begun planning a reunion when he ran into Steve Morse of Dixie Dregs at a Robert Plant & The Honeydrippers concert. An exceptional guitarist, Morse had been voted best guitarist in the world by the readers of Guitar Player for five consecutive years (1982-86).
Along with a returning Steve Walsh, the arrival into Kansas of Morse and new bassist Billy Greer regenerated the band over two albums: 1986’s Power and 1988’s Bob Ezrin-produced In The Spirit Of Things.
Ehart: Steve [Morse] walked up to me during the gig’s intermission and said he wanted to audition for Kansas. I said there was no need to audition.
Steve Morse: I was a huge Kansas fan, and Steve Walsh had actually sung on a Dixie Dregs album, though he’d asked for anonymity. Believe me, nothing is more anonymous than appearing on a Dregs album!
Ehart: Stylistically, Steve’s joining was a big departure, but it was great from day one. We were shifting direction and gears, and every night we could still play Carry On Wayward Son and Dust In The Wind. And of course having Steve along brought us a lot of credibility.
Billy Greer: I remember going into the offices of MCA Records one day and everybody was far more interested in what Tiffany [who had five minutes of fame with her hit single I Think We’re Alone Now] was doing. The guys that signed us had long-since left the company.
Morse: I came from a group where I had almost total musical control, and MCA were making us record ballads. It was a tough call, because things like Musicatto [a progressive-flavoured instrumental from Power] were how I thought Kansas should’ve gone. I really enjoyed my time in Kansas, but eventually it had to come to an end. Fortunately, we had met as friends and we parted the same way.
The next Kansas album, Freaks Of Nature, which added violinist David Ragsdale, was released in 1995 via the small independent label Intersound. Amid the grunge explosion the record went almost unnoticed. But better times were ahead, and in ’97 Steinhardt re-joined the band.
At the turn of the millennium, following a 17-year absence, Kerry Livgren also returned to Kansas – albeit temporarily. Livgren wrote all the material for 2000’s Somewhere To Elsewhere, on which Dave Hope doubled up on the bass alongside Greer.
Asked by Classic Rock about the possibility of him re-joining Kansas on a permanent basis, Livgren hedged: “I’ve learned not to answer that question. However you reply, you open a whole can of worms.”
And so the line-up featuring Walsh, Williams, Ehart, Greer and Ragsdale (who took over from Steinhardt in 2006) rolled onwards on the ‘greatest hits’ circuit. However, Steve Walsh’s voice was fading, and in 2014 he reached crisis point.
Ehart: It was difficult hearing one of the best singers in rock music losing his voice, his range and his confidence. But I was determined not to fire Steve, so we hung in there. We had a European tour coming up, and because I knew he wouldn’t be able to sing a lot of the more difficult songs, I crossed them from the set-list. He asked why, and when I explained, there was a long pause and Steve said: ‘I will send you my resignation today’. And so he graciously stepped down.
Williams: Until that point we had been taking a slow circle down the drain. But this was Steve Walsh. The idea [of his retirement] had to come from him.
Steve Walsh (in his resignation statement): Sometimes I had to pinch myself just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming that at my age [63 years old] I was still playing in a great band in front of great fans. Let me just say that it’s time for me to go, and yes, it makes me sad to have to admit that.
Elefante: After Steve left for the final time, we had a great meeting about me going back. Things went well, and it was great to give everybody a hug again. I don’t really know why it didn’t happen… it just didn’t.
Instead, Kansas brought in former Shooting Star singer Ronnie Platt. Over the course of two ecstatically received studio albums, The Prelude Implicit and The Absence Of Presence, this appointment – along with the integration of guitarist Zak Rizvi and more latterly former Meat Loaf and Yes keyboard player Tom Brislin – has allowed Kansas not just to survive but also to reinvent themselves.
Ronnie Platt: A friend had told me about the announcement of Steve’s retirement. On a total whim I contacted Rich Williams via Facebook, who remembered me from Shooting Star when our bands had played together. This was on a Wednesday, and less than a week later I had joined Kansas. Kansas has such an amazing library of music that I didn’t know that the job would involve writing songs, or that they would be making more studio records. So I had won the lottery once, now I was winning it a second time.
Ehart: Without the songwriting of Kerry or Steve Walsh, we had resigned ourselves, reluctantly, to being a so-called ‘heritage band’. Now with Zak and Ronnie we could do it all again. To me, The Absence Of Presence is one of the best albums this band has ever made. Zak decided to leave [in 2021], but it’s okay, we’ll find a way around that problem.
Williams: Phil and I have been doing this for a long time now and we’ve learned how to cultivate talent. We did it with Ronnie, Zak and Tom, and we’ll do it again with whoever replaces Zak. It’s about taking the next logical step for Kansas.
Ehart: We’re happy and grateful that Carry On Wayward Son was adopted by [cartoon series] South Park and has appeared in so many movie soundtracks [including The Legend Of Ron Burgundy, Family Guy and Happy Gilmore]. We laugh at ourselves just as much as any other band might, but we always ensure that those references are never derogatory.
Platt: During my eight and a half years with the band, the resurgence in popularity has been incredible. It’s great to see the original fans coming to see us again, knowing there’s new blood. But now they bring their children and, dare I say it, their grandchildren.
Williams: A fiftieth-anniversary tour takes place this year throughout America, and I can tell you that Kansas are going to record again. We’ve started piecing together a new album, which should hopefully come out by the end of 2024. We’re in communication with Kerry [Livgren], Dave [Hope] and Steve [Morse], it’s always friendly. Kerry caught covid a few months back but he’s fine now. After the stroke [in 2009], which affects his picking hand, he still can’t play guitar the way he once could, but he’s writing music.
And for this fiftieth-anniversary tour Kerry is welcome to come out and play a song with us. It’s the same for John Elefante and the rest… the more the merrier. If Kerry wants to submit a song for the next Kansas album, he’s very welcome. The doors are open, they’re not closed. We’ve done the first fifty years, let’s start something new.
Another Fork In The Road – 50 Years Of Kansas is available via Inside Out Music. Some of the quotes in this feature first appeared in a Kansas story in Classic Rock in 2005.