Dick Wagner, an animal of rock

By Sergio Ariza

When your name is Richard Wagner, it is understandable that you are good at music - and also that you should choose another name if you don't want to be confused with the creator of Ride of the Valkyries. But, even so, there are not many people to whom the name of Dick Wagner says something, even though he has been heard by millions of people without knowing that they were listening to him, because in the mid 70's he formed a mythical duo of session guitarists (and live) with Steve Hunter - appearing on legendary albums by Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, Kiss, Aerosmith and Peter Gabriel, in which his guitar was the protagonist even though, on many occasions, his name did not even appear in the credits.  


The curious thing is that in Wagner's case he could have triumphed on his own, as he was one of the fundamental names of the essential rock scene of the 60's in Detroit, where he shared the stage with bands like MC5, Iggy Pop's Stooges, Mitch Ryder's Detroit Wheels, the Amboy Dukes and
Bob Seger's early bands. On one of the most powerful scenes in the USA, Wagner was considered the best guitarist in the area, despite the presence of luminaries like Wayne Kramer and Ted Nugent. Fronting bands such as the Bossmen, The Frost and Ursa Major, Wagner spent the 60's rubbing shoulders with several top groups but did not achieve immortality until producer Bob Ezrin placed him and Steve Hunter at the front of Lou Reed and Alice Cooper's bands in the mid 70's, which led them to be considered the two most sought after session guitarists of the time.

Richard Allen Wagner
was born in the middle of World War II, on December 14, 1942, in Owoso, Michigan. When he was 10 years old he was fascinated by how his uncle played the guitar during the vacations, so he decided to pick it up and learn how to play it, but his whole family told him to put it back and that he was going to break it. Then in 1960, a band came to town called Eldorados and he went to see them with his girlfriend at the time; it was his first rock & roll concert, and he was dazzled by their two guitarists, playing two identical Les Paul Goldtops. It was his definitive revelation, he had to get a Les Paul and become a professional guitarist like the Eldorados, but his girlfriend didn't see it so clearly: "you'll never be as good as the Eldorados," she said. That spelled the end of their relationship and the beginning of his days as an obsessive guitarist, practicing ten hours a day and driving his family crazy. I that nobody will be surprised to find out that two years later Wagner was nothing less than the Eldorados’ lead guitarist...


Before that he had already formed his first band with which he opened for legends like Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison when they passed through his city; the latter even played Candy Man and Crying for him before they were released. After the Eldorados Wagner formed The Bossmen, which became one of the main groups in the Detroit area. The band had strong Beatles influences and Wagner acted as the main songwriter, penning their major regional hits, songs like Baby Boy and You're the Girl for Me.  

In 1968 he formed his best remembered band, The Frost, oriented to psychedelic rock - but close to hard rock. Wagner was the singer, main songwriter and lead guitarist of the band and his three studio albums are today seen as prized collector's items; mainly the first two, both from 1969: Frost Music and Rock and Roll Music. Songs like Jennie Lee already show that Wagner was a first-rate guitarist as well as a very accomplished songwriter. In Detroit the band were seen as rising stars, with songs like Mystery Man becoming big hits in the region, but their poor national distribution made them practically invisible in the rest of the territory.

In 1970 a festival was organized in Detroit with The Frost as headliner, Bob Seger System, SRC, Teegarden & Van Winkle and other Detroit groups like 3rd Power and Brownsville Station, but the most interesting group were some newcomers to the city, from California, with the curious name of Alice Cooper. Their singer was enthusiastic about Wagner, going so far as to say, despite having two good guitarists in his band, "we could use a guitarist like that...". Two years later The Frost ceased to exist and Alice Cooper was the most famous band in the USA, but in the end Vince Furnier got what he wanted.


But let's go back to Wagner's career, after the dissolution of The Frost, he tried again with the formation of Ursa Major, with whom he was again close to the gates of glory. In the first line-up he was accompanied by Ricky Mangone on drums and vocals, Greg Arama on bass and a young keyboard player named Billy Joel, with the latter ending up selling millions of records on his own. But Joel had to leave for personal reasons and they ended up as a Power Trio; recording a remarkable hard rock album that was named after the band and appeared in 1972. Despite the fact that songs as interesting as In My Darkest Hour, already gave a hint of the composer who ended up writing Only Women Bleed, the album once again went largely unnoticed.

But his journey with Ursa Major gave him two contacts that would change his life forever. That band's record was produced by a young producer named Bob Ezrin who was blown away by Wagner's skill with his Les Paul TV Special hooked up to 100-watt heads and Marshall amps, and who was to bring Alice Cooper to fame. The other pivotal encounter in his career came when he shared the stage with a band that had among its ranks a guitarist he found totally incredible, Steve Hunter.   


Without a project, for the first time in more than a decade of career, Wagner got the call from Ezrin who invited him to play on Alice Cooper's album he was producing, School's Out, and there Wagner lent his guitar for the first time to the music of the band led by Vincent Furnier, recording the solo for My Stars.

It was the album that made them stars, reaching number two on the Billboard chart, but there was no mention of Wagner in the credits, although there was a generous paycheck and the beginning of a fruitful relationship. Later that year Wagner and Hunter joined forces for the first time in the studio to replace Glen Buxton on Billion Dollar Babies, who was becoming increasingly estranged from the band due to his drug problems. Their contributions were separate, however, and they did not play together. By the time of the recording of Muscle Of Love, Alice Cooper's last album as a band, Wagner was already the band's lead guitarist, despite the fact that the credits still named a totally absent Buxton.

But by this time Wagner and Hunter had already recorded with the man who would let them play together, Lou Reed. Ezrin was producing Berlin, the ex-Velvet Underground member's new album, and didn't hesitate to call Hunter and Wagner. The former carried more weight - Wagner just plays an acoustic guitar and provides backing vocals on Sad Song, but Reed was charmed by both and decided to take them along on his tour to present the album. Wagner’s telepathy with Hunter was totally natural, they didn't have to sit down and say what each was going to play, it seemed to flow instinctively. Reed himself, one of rock's biggest egos, would realize that his two guitarists were stealing his spotlight, as people were going crazy for them; mainly for a Hunter instrumental they played at the beginning of Sweet Jane, with Hunter playing the main melody and Wagner adding superb harmonies with his guitar; and when Reed's song came in, Wagner stepped up and delivered the best solos of his entire career.


The result can be heard in the mythical Rock'n'Roll Animal, an album that gave name to this pair who had not yet had their last word together. The Alice Cooper band had been disbanded and Ezrin had convinced his singer to hire these rock animals. Not only did Cooper hire them, but he also made Wagner his main songwriting partner, collaborating on more than half of the songs on what was to be Cooper’s first solo album, Welcome to My Nightmare, including what was to become his signature song, Only Women Bleed, a track from the days of The Frost to which Cooper added another lyric.

The album was a big hit, and their headlining tour took on legendary status, with Wagner and Hunter shining and Cooper giving them a lot of limelight. It was the highlight of Wagner's career, and he continued with Cooper for the rest of the decade. However, he did not forget his career as a session guitarist, recording great solos for mythical albums such as Kiss's Destroyer (the solos on Sweet Pain and Flaming Youth are his, as well as playing acoustic on Beth), Aerosmith's Get Your Wings (the solos of the second part of Train Kept a Rollin', those of the first part are by Steve Hunter; while Same Old Song and Dance are his) and Peter Gabriel's first album (where he shines on Here Comes the Flood), but always working in anonymity and without public recognition.


In 1978 he sought to continue his career on his own but his record company was not too interested in promoting him and, on top of that, the company decided to title the album with his real name, Richard Wagner, despite the opposition of Wagner himself. People were not ready for a rock & roll animal album by Richard Wagner...

With the golden age of rock passing Wagner fell into oblivion, even though Ringo Starr rescued him for his All Stars in 1990, and Cooper kept recording songs of his. In 2012 his more than interesting memoirs appeared, entitled Not Only Women Bleed, Vignettes from the Heart of a Rock Musician, but two years later, on July 30, 2014, the heart of this rock & roll animal stopped beating forever.

Many people still don't know his name, despite the fact that if you had to choose the best solos from the career of mythical names such as Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Kiss and Lou Reed, his name would appear very high up on all of them. There are many guitarists better known than Wagner and his friend Hunter, but very few who surpass them.   


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