Kansas

  • Prog rock band formed in 1973 from Topeka Kansas. The founding members from the 70s were Steve Walsh (lead and backing vocals, keyboards, percussion), Robbie Steinhardt (lead and backing vocals, violin, cello), Kerry Livgren (lead and rhythm guitar, keyboards, backing vocals), Rich Williams (rhythm and lead guitars, backing vocals), Dave Hope (bass guitar, backing vocals) and Phil Ehart (drums). All members contributed to songwriting, though Livgren and Walsh were the principal songwriters.
  • The band members all had previous roles with other Kansas-based rock groups. Livgren performed with a band called Reasons Why, which evolved into Saratoga, which merged with another band named White Clover, which included musicians Hope and Ehart. This group renamed themselves Kansas in 1970 (often referred to as Kansas I). Kansas I lasted a year, until Hope and Ehart left to reform White Clover. Livgren recruited new artists, and this group was referred to as Kansas II. Meanwhile, White Clover went on hiatus when Ehart moved to England to try to break into British rock. Unsuccessful in England, Ehart returned home and re-formed White Clover again, this time with Hope, Walsh, Williams and Steinhardt. In 1973, they recruited Livgren to join, and Kansas II was no more. They made a demo tape which was heard by a record company, and after a live performance, they were signed to a recording contract. At that time, they decided to name themselves Kansas.
  • The band had a distinctive sound, featuring boogie rock with symphonic elements, including Steinhardt’s violin and cello, and soaring harmony vocals. Their debut album was the self-titled Kansas, released in 1974. The following year, they released 2 albums – Song For America and Masque. While initially the albums were not big commercial successes, promotion from the record company and a heavy tour schedule slowly increased the band’s popularity.
  • Their breakthrough came with 1976’s Leftoverture album. Bias alert here – it is one of my all time favorite albums. It reached #5 on the Billboard 200 album chart and eventually was certified 4x platinum, driven by the opening song of the album, Carry On Wayward Son, which peaked at #11 on the Hot 100 chart. Yes…the critics complain that the album is boring and cheesy. I disagree – this critic feels that it is kick-ass art rock at its finest. Special call-out to Ehart’s fabulous drum work, virtuoso rock guitar work by Williams and Livgren, and the finest harmonies. And…who doesn’t love a prog rock song where the crescendo at the end features a gong (go listen to the song Miracles Out of Nowhere)? For more on this album, see my Vintage Vinyl post from March 11, 2018.
  • Their follow-up album in 1977 was Point of No Return. It was also a big success, certified 4x platinum and charting at #4 on the album chart. It included their best selling single, Dust In the Wind, which peaked at #6 on the Hot 100 chart. The song was more of a ballad than a rock song, though it retained the signature harmonies and violin solo that made it instantly recognizable as a Kansas song.
  • Kansas’ next album, Monolith, was less successful, and the single People of the South Wind sold modestly, reaching #23 on the Hot 100 chart in 1979. As the 80s began, creative tensions emerged in the band, in part due to Livgren’s commitment to born-again Christianity, which was reflected in his lyrics. Audio-Visions was released in 1980, with only 1 single, Hold On, barely reaching the top 40. Walsh left the band in 1981, replaced by John Elefante, and the group released Vinyl Confessions in 1982. The album was heavy on Christianity-based lyrics – the single Play the Game Tonight was a return to the top 40, peaking at #17 on the Hot 100 and at #4 on the Mainstream Rock chart. Steinhardt left the band in 1982, removing the signature violin sound from the next albums. After an album released in 1983, Livgren and Hope left.
  • The band went on hiatus in 1984, then reformed in 1985 with Ehart, Williams and Walsh. They released an album in 1986, and the single All I Wanted was their final top 40 song, peaking at #19 on the Hot 100 and #10 on the Mainstream Rock chart. Various iterations of the band continued to perform, with tours continuing today, and new albums were released in 1988, 1995, 1998, 2000, 2016 and 2020. Rich Williams and Phil Ehart continue to be active in the band.
  • When people debate about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Kansas is frequently mentioned as a snub. There are plenty of head scratchers in the HOF (heck, if Nine Inch Nails and The Notorious B.I.G. got in this year, why not Kansas?). Oh well – I’ll select them for the marksmusicmania hall of fame instead. Here is their signature song, Dust In the Wind. 

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