Described as “the Maestro of Rock”, Dick Wagner played soaring lead guitar on several of the albums that defined the Seventies, most famously Lou Reed’s Rock’n’Roll Animal, the landmark live set that reinvented Velvet Underground’s art-rock for FM radio and the hard rock era. Like Reed’s shows at the time, the album kicked off with an extended introduction to “Sweet Jane”, featuring sublime, near-telepathic interplay between Wagner on the right channel and fellow guitarist Steve Hunter on the left, building up to hit the song’s signature riff just as the singer walked on stage to thunderous applause.
Recorded in December 1973, Animal also included tour de force versions of “Heroin” and “Rock’n’Roll” and reinvigorated Reed’s career after the relative failure of Berlin, the dark concept album also featuring Wagner, while the rest of the concert was issued as Lou Reed Live in 1975. By then, Wagner and Hunter had become the core of the group backing Alice Cooper as the shock rocker ditched his original band and went solo with the superlative concept album Welcome To My Nightmare and its groundbreaking stage show.
“I first saw Dick Wagner while he was playing with the Frost in Detroit. And I quickly filed him under ‘guitar players I’d like to steal’,” recalled Cooper of the musician who, with him, co-wrote the much recorded “Only Women Bleed”. The power ballad with a powerful message about marital abuse became a UK hit for Julie Covington in 1977 but in the US it inaugurated a rich vein of Top 20 tracks that documented Vincent Furnier’s struggle with alcoholism and his trials and tribulations as he came to terms with the Alice Cooper stage persona he had created.
“Dick Wagner and I shared as many laughs as we did hit records,” said Cooper. “Some of my biggest singles were ballads that I wrote with Dick Wagner. Most of Welcome To My Nightmare was written with Dick. There was just a magic in the way we wrote together. He was always able to find exactly the right chord to match perfectly with what I was doing.”
In fact, before co-writing most not only of Nightmare but also of Alice Cooper Goes To Hell, Lace And Whiskey and From The Inside between 1975 and 1978, Wagner had contributed to the previous albums School’s Out, Billion Dollar Babies and Muscle Of Love in a “ghost” capacity. “I got $90 a track, and established a long erm relationship with Alice and the producer Bob Ezrin,” said Wagner, who fulfilled the same role with Aerosmith, bolstering the cover of “Train Kept A-Rollin’” on their 1974 album Get Your Wings, and several tracks on the 1976 KISS album Destroyer.
Wagner wrote candidly about his supporting role in an entertaining 2012 memoir, Not Only Women Bleed: Vignettes From the Heart of a Rock Musician. “I never wanted stardom,” he said. “Whatever stardom I do have is strictly bestowed on me by people who like what I do.” His career also included contributions to Peter Gabriel’s eponymous 1977 solo debut and two albums by the actor and star of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Tim Curry, and compositions for Meat Loaf, Lita Ford and soft rockers Air Supply. In 1979 he co-wrote the beautiful Nils Lofgren ballad “Shine Silently”, a song that rang true for both supreme accompanists.
Born in Oelwein, Iowa, in 1942, he was one of nine children and grew up in Waterford and in the city of Saginaw, 90 minutes away from Detroit. He suffered from asthma but turned into a rowdy teenager until his father bought him an acoustic guitar, enabling him to develop the rudiments his uncle had demonstrated.
Within a year he was emulating Duane Eddy and backing visiting stars like Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison with his band The Invictas. However, the young Wagner couldn’t help but notice that his father was having a long-term affair, an issue that inspired the long genesis of “Only Women Bleed”.
In 1964 he formed The Bossmen, who built a following around Detroit and became known as the “Michigan Beatles” for their harmonies and a run of singles that were staples of local radio. His next band, the much heavier Frost, were regulars at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit but didn’t quite follow in the footsteps of the MC5 and the Stooges. Wagner then tried his luck in New York, where he formed Ursa Major, a short-lived power trio that briefly included Billy Joel, who quit before their sole album, now considered a classic, produced by Ezrin in 1972.
Ezrin paired him with Hunter. “We were opposites but I think that’s what helped us play so well together. We just did it and it was always right,” said Hunter. “We were at our best as a team when we were focusing on the material of artists like Lou Reed and Alice Cooper. ”
Wagner added an orchestral majesty to the albums he worked on. He served as band director for Reed and Cooper, and continued his songwriting partnership with Cooper until 2011’s Welcome 2 My Nightmare album. In 2002 he married for the third time, to Sandy Gutterman, his childhood sweetheart, after they reconnected on www.classmates.com.
Five years ago a stroke paralysed his left arm and he spent two weeks in a coma but he recovered enough to train himself to play guitar again. He died following a cardiac procedure.
Richard Allen Wagner, guitarist and songwriter; born Oelwein, Iowa 14 December 1942; married three times (one daughter, two sons, and one son deceased); died Scottsdale, Arizona 30 July 2014.