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Members include Phil Ehart (born in 1951 in Kansas), drums; Dave Hope (born on October 7, 1949, in Kansas), bass; Kerry Livgren (born on September 18, 1949, in Topeka, KS), guitars, keyboards; Robby Steinhardt (born in 1951 in Michigan), violin, vocals; Steve Walsh (born in 1951 in St. Joseph, MO), keyboards, vocals; Rich Williams (born in 1951 in Kansas), guitar. Addresses: Record company--Epic Records, 550 Madison Ave., 22nd Fl., New York, NY 10022.

In the 1970s, Kansas emerged as one of the most successful rock acts in America with their fusion of hard-hitting Midwestern power guitars into ornate, violin-and-organ fueled arrangements that borrowed heavily from British progressive rock. In 1977 alone, two of their albums achieved platinum status, and their best-known track, "Carry on Wayward Son," was the most frequently played song on classic rock radio station play lists in 1997, 20 years after its debut. In 1978, British music writer Ian Birch described Kansas' signature sound in Melody Maker as full of "monolithic chord structures meshed with complex textures, dramatic harmonies, lengthy improvisations, spiritually swashbuckling lyrics and hard-core instrumental prowess. It will either turn your stomach or hook you from the first note."

Most of the original members of Kansas, all of whom were born between 1949 and 1951, knew one another from high school in Topeka. They had been playing in a series of bands since the late 1960s, but failed to achieve any real success on the Plains biker-bar circuit in their respective outfits. Kansas itself was formed from the remnants of two other bands led by Kerry Livgren and Phil Ehart. Livgren would become the main songwriter and was also responsible for the band's intricate guitar sound. Ehart, a drummer, recruited bassist Dave Hope, whom he knew from his days at West Topeka High, and the trio named themselves Kansas in 1970. Their sound drew heavily from Frank Zappa, who was then at the forefront of the American avant-garde rock scene, but it failed to catch on with local audiences. For a time, they played under a different name, White Clover, but had trouble retaining the rest of their lineup. In 1972, a frustrated Ehart moved to England for a few months and tried to break into the music business there. He was only offered country-and-western gigs, and so returned, dismayed, to Topeka. He reunited White Clover, and they soon decided to revert to their original name.

Hoodwinked Label

Other founding members of Kansas were guitarist Rich Williams, keyboard player Steve Walsh--who would write much of its future material with Livgren--and a violinist, Robby Steinhardt, whose father chaired the music department at the University of Kansas. Steinhardt had already spent time playing with orchestras in Europe, but was eager to experiment with his instrument in a rock band. The musicians knew, however, that their unique sound would not likely attract attention from hit-seeking record company executives, so they recorded a demo tape to send out that contained five standard rock songs. At the time, the band was broke and members were living on a dollar a day. "It was very lonely," Ehart recalled in an interview with Jon Pareles of Rolling Stone a few years later. "We were going to play this style of music and not compromise, even if we had to f***ing starve. We believed in Kansas more than anything--it was our life, our religion, our food. That was it, there was nothing else, zero."

The demo tape attracted the attention of Don Kirshner, host of a late-night live-music program that aired on NBC called Don Kirshner's Rock Concert. When the phone call came from New York, "It was like, 'We've been saved,'" Ehart recalled in the interview with Pareles. "'Somebody just threw us a rope.'"

Kirshner sent his assistant, Wally Gold, out to see the band, and to make a good impression, the band rented out Topeka's old opera house. They advertised a free concert with free beer, and the turnout was appropriately enthusiastic enough to impress Gold. He signed the band to Kirshner's label and became the producer of its first record, though his sole other credit as a producer had been for a Barbra Streisand album.

Kansas was released in 1974, and sold a modest 100,000 copies. Like all of the band's subsequent records, it featured lyrics that ventured into the metaphysical, while a heavy guitar sound and complex chord structures placed them firmly in the Jethro Tull/Emerson, Lake and Palmer camp. They began to win fans while working as the opening act for Queen, Bad Company, Foghat, and other mainstream rock bands. Walsh said at the time he was always assured of Kansas' potential as rock stars in their own right. "That's not ego, that's reality. If I wasn't completely convinced, this business would be much too big a hassle to mess around in," he told Patrick Snyder in Rolling Stone.

Turning Point in 1976

Kansas released two LPs for Kirshner in 1975, Song for America and Masque, and continued to tour heavily. A distribution deal with CBS Records helped both sell around 250,000, but it took several tries for their unique sound to emerge on vinyl, for the band members were seasoned professionals on stage but had little experience in the studio. Moreover, the records were usually made during brief breaks between lengthy tours. Finally, they decided to let their sound engineer, Jeff Glixman, serve as producer for Leftoverture, their 1976 release, and the combination of talents finally clicked. Buoyed by the success of its first single, "Carry on Wayward Son," Leftoverture quickly became their biggest success, reaching number five on the Billboard album charts and achieving platinum status in March of 1977.

Rock critics, however, hated Kansas, and wrote disparagingly of them. "Their music hybridizes cornfed American shuffle riffs with the odd time signatures and quick changes of British progressive rock," explained Pareles in Rolling Stone, who described them as "a perfect target--too fancy for barroom rockers, too simple for die-hard progressives, too pretentious for most adults and too derivative for the critics." The British music press was even less kind. "The obvious broadside to fire at Kansas is that of pretension," wrote Birch in Melody Maker."The arrangements, and lyrics especially, are knee-deep in layers of ... chintzy grandeur. There are key words and themes like eyes, old men, blind men, childhood, the natural elements, endless questioning and a kind of patriotic zeal for the motherland."

At best, Kansas was faulted for a certain absence of soul in its music. "The band plays a brand of baroque rock in the tradition of King Crimson, Yes and ELO, filled with monumental chord structures overlaid with glittering textures," wrote Snyder in Rolling Stone. "The moving force here is precision--not emotion." At worst, Kansas's music was described as a passing pubescent phase. In the 1979 Rolling Stone article, Pareles quoted a top-secret survey of the band's fans that found its music "appeals to the twelve-to-fifteen-year-old teenager who finds himself or herself asking questions of universal import as part of his psychological development." The survey explained that a "Kansas" stage was the natural progression after a teenager's "Kiss" stage.

Stardom, Predictably Followed by Implosion

The band left Topeka for good when they relocated to Atlanta around 1977. But internal pressures, exacerbated by the slaughter in the press, took their toll. "Even today, we still don't quite fit in," Ehart said in the interview with Pareles. "People are behind us and really with us and everything, but some still can't figure out this group. It's still, 'What's the deal? They're American, but they don't play like Americans and don't act European either.' Nobody knows why it sounds that way." Walsh almost quit during the making of Point of Know Return, but the record fared even better than Leftoverture and firmly established the band in the annals of Seventies rock. It reached number four, and two singles, "Point of Know Return" and "Dust in the Wind" did extremely well. The latter, a morbid acoustic number, became one of the most popular youth-culture anthems of the era, perennially voted to serve as the graduation song for high school seniors and even serving as a requiem at funerals for tragic teen fatalities.

In 1978, Kansas released a live LP, Two for the Show, and continued to tour heavily. Live, their sound was impressive, as even Pareles conceded. He described it as "a hurtling steeplechase of grandiose riffs and high-powered choruses leaping past sudden breaks and rapid-fire interpolations.... The set is virtually relentless." The band's seventh record, Monolith, was the first one that they produced themselves, but its singles were not as memorable as the previous records' releases. Walsh made a solo album, Schemer-Dreamer, that came out at the end of that year, and Livgren followed with Seeds of Change in 1980. Walsh left the band in 1981, dissatisfied with the direction it had taken with its 1980 LP, Audio Visions. Like Monolith, Audio Visions went gold, but no hit singles emerged from it. John Elefante replaced Walsh on vocals and keyboards, and Kansas recorded Vinyl Confessions in 1982. One of its tracks, "Play the Game Tonight," reached the top twenty, but after dismal sales for 1983's Drastic Measures, the group officially disbanded.

Meanwhile, both Livgren and Hope had become born-again Christians with a band called AD, which, like Walsh's solo ensemble Streets, failed to lure fans. Ehart, Williams and Walsh reformed Kansas for its third incarnation in 1986, adding Steve Morse, a jazz-fusion guitarist. They recorded Powerthat same year, which yielded the group's last top twenty single, "All I Wanted." A 1988 release, In the Spirit of Things, sank, and seven years separated that record with Freaks of Nature. Livgren, still nominally a Kansas member, appeared on Somewhere to Elsewhere, a 2000 effort for their new Epic/Legacy label home. Greatest-hits compilations on CD have done surprisingly well. Fortune writer Jeff Gordinier reviewed The Best of Kansasin 1999, and noted that while some of the tracks seem "pretty silly--especially those Byzantine violin solos--it's shocking how many of the songs have aged well."

by Carol Brennan

Kansas's Career

Band formed as Kansas in Topeka, KS, 1970; changed name to White Clover, 1971; reformed as Kansas, 1972; signed with Kirshner Records and released self-titled debut, 1974; disbanded in 1983; regrouped, 1986.

Famous Works

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about 8 years ago

I grew up in Kansas and I know some of the former band members. I found this Biography to be one of the most balanced and succenct I have read. The band was a classic mix of creative and personal tension. Those tensions led to some real highs, as well as some real lows. Being a fan of the British bands they were often compared to I was, as a Kansan, quite proud of their accomplisments. To be so far physically and financially removed from the mainstream rock world while sporting the name of a decidedly uncool farm state, Kansas' success is really quite remarkable. There were times that I felt that the coastal based rock critics just did not want to acknowledge such a hard to categorize band. Re-listening to Kansas now and re-reading the critics reviews leads me to see both perspectives were valid. Kansas had some truely transcendent moments in their music. Yet at the same time it could be "soulless", as if each song was a new attempt to get the spaghetti to stick to the wall. A great deal of the band's bombastic nature was driven by the need to somehow attract the attention of far away crowds and critics. Playing more subtle compositions with the common themes of love/rejection or rebellion so common in early 70s music would hardly have caused anyone from the centers of musical power to cast an eye towards the plains. The irony of the formulaic Kirshner being the one who first paid attention to the band is rich.