Phil Ehart, Dave Hope, and Kerry Livgren formed a band in 1970 in their hometown of Topeka, Kansas. The band had a number of names with a variety of other musicians aboard. Ehart was the drummer, Hope played bass, and Livgren played both guitar and keyboards and was a songwriter. Ehart and Hope switched bands to be part of an outfit called White Clover. They later added keyboardist and vocalist Steve Walsh, guitarist Rich Williams, and violinist Robbie Steinhardt. In 1973, they recruited Livgren back into the band and became the true Kansas.
Early Kansas showed signs of influence by some of the better-known prog bands of the late sixties and early 70s. Their music was heavily keyboard-driven with layered guitars which was reminiscent of groups like Yes and Argent. Walsh's vocal style was typical of mainstream rock groups but the complexity of the instrumentals definitely pushed the group into prog territory, especially when the writing was Livgren's. Robbie Steinhardt's violin work was actually very original - not so much a product of jazz or classical influence, but true rock and roll played on a violin.
Main Creative Force
While all the members did some writing, the band's most popular songs were written by Livgren or the combination of Livgren and Walsh. Walsh was a strong keyboard player but an even stronger rock vocalist. Still, it was the multi-instrumentalist and composer Kerry Livgren who has to be considered the strongest creative force in Kansas.
Most Likely To Be A Mainstream Rocker
Steve Walsh was, in many ways, the prototypical arena rock vocalist. One the one hand, he was a keyboard player which is an unusual position for a lead vocalist. At the same time, he was definitely a dominant personality onstage and even cut a very mainstream solo album so Steve Walsh is the most likely to have ever had a mainstream career away from the progressive stylings of Kansas.
First Hint of Prog Brilliance
The eponymous first album had some progressive sounding songs, but for the most part, it was mainstream rock and roll. There was even a cover of J. J. Cale's 'Bringin' It Back'. The kind of progressive composition and arrangement that would come to signify their sound really started to come into being on the 'Song For America' LP. That album contained only six songs including the title track. But it also contained the extraordinary 'Lamplight Symphony' and 'The Devil Game'. The album would be a blueprint for what Kansas would refine in the coming years.
Kansas fourth album, 'Leftoverture' was recorded in 1976. Steve Walsh had been suffering from writer's block and found himself unable to write new material for the album. As a result, the bulk of the songwriting responsibility fell to Kerry Livgren. On the one hand, the songs were not as musically complex or as thematically deep as those on 'Song for America' or 'Masque'. But in terms of quality songwriting and marketability, the album represented a new peak for Kansas. 'Carry On Wayward Son' proved to be a major AOR hit, rising to #11 on the Billboard singles chart while the album peaked at #5 on the album chart.
Influenced By Them
From the 90's on, any true progressive rock band was probably significantly influenced by Kansas. Livgren's dinstinct guitar style as well as his extraordinary songwriting would create a pattern emulated by dozens of bands in the 90's and into the 21st century. Listening to Dream Theater cover Kansas is eerie and makes the influence obvious.
The band has gone through a wide range of personnel changes over the years. Kerry Livgren became a born-again Christian in the late 70s and is still a musician and worship leader back in Topeka, Kansas. The core of the band - Ehart, Williams, and Walsh - have soldiered on with assorted combinations of other musicians. Livgren, Hope, and Steinhardt have performed with the band on occasion. They continue to tour, often in tandem with other arena rock giants of the 70s like Styx and Journey.
My Personal Take
I heard about Kansas from a high school debate rival named Lance Sprague who went to Topeka High. We were at a National Forensics League student congress event at the state capital when he pointed to the John Steuart Curry mural across the rotunda from us and said, "That'd make a hell of an album cover, wouldn't it?" I didn't know what he meant but he explained that some guys he knew had a band and they'd just gotten an album contract. That mural, the raging form of John Brown in the center, was to be the first album cover. From that second, I knew I had to buy this band's album. I have been a fan of Kansas ever since. They reunited with everyone except Robbie Steinhardt in 1991 and I got to see them with my friends, Kevin and Jan Angell, and their first two daughters along with my step-daughter. They sounded fantastic.