MID-MICHIGAN (WJRT) -
(07/30/14) - The Maestro of Rock cheated death time and time again. Wednesday, it finally caught up with him.
Dick Wagner, the legendary musician best known as guitarist and co-songwriter for Alice Cooper and Lou Reed, passed away in Scottsdale, Arizona Wednesday morning of respiratory failure. He had been in intensive care for the past two weeks after developing lung inflammation following a cardiac procedure to open an artery. He was 71.
Wagner, who spent much of his formative years in Saginaw, had suffered through many health issues in the past decade. In 2007 he arrived at a hospital near his home in Arizona DOA after having a massive heart attack and stroke. He was revived and spent two weeks in a coma. When he woke, his left arm was paralyzed. Wagner told ABC12 in an interview earlier this year that after surviving this episode, his outlook on life changed dramatically.
"I've been through a lot of health issues and it either kills you or makes you stronger in the end. When I came out of my illness, it dawned on me then in the recovery room that it was important to care more than I had in my life. You tend to see only your own life and you forget sometimes that other people are suffering. And while you're suffering you come to that realization. It made a difference in me as a person," he said.
Over the next few years, he fought through several other medical setbacks and recovered enough from the paralysis to start performing again in 2011. Since that time, he's visited Michigan on several occasions to perform, including shows at White's Bar in Saginaw, The State Theater in Bay City and the Clio Amphitheater last summer before his final concert last month at Owosso's Lebowsky Center.
While he was in Michigan, he also spent some time recording at Real II Reel Productions just outside of Fenton. Owner Marshall Block has worked with Wagner closely since the early '90s, but their relationship goes back much further than that.
"I'll always remember the first time I saw The Frost at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit. With blue lights and West Amps, I thought to myself, 'This must be what it was like to hear The Beatles the first time.' They just had an incredible band back then," he said.
Block says even after hundreds of recording sessions together over the past two decades, that feeling never left him.
"I was always awe struck by his brilliance. And for him to work with me, I was just blown away, it was just the best of the best. In my profession, it's like a slow climb, and you don't look back too often. But with Dick it was, I'd look over my shoulder and it was like I was on Mt. Everest."
While Marshall, and many others who had the pleasure to witness the Maestro of Rock up close, were starstruck, Block says wagner was far from your typical rock star.
"He had this incredible talent, and he was so competitive, and yet non-pretentious. He ruled the stage with humility, and that's a real tough thing to do, and he was able to do it. You know how some rock stars are hearty and arrogant and never pay attention to their fans, he was the opposite," he said.
Wagner performed across Michigan from the mid-'60s into the early '70s with The Bossmen and The Frost. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame DJ Peter Cavanaugh worked closely with Dick during these years while promoting shows at venues like Sherwood Forest and Mt. Holly, along with working at WTAC.
"I first got to know Dick when I arrived at WTAC in 1964, a full half-century ago. He was already on the charts with the Bossmen at the time -- Saginaw's premiere Rock & Roll band. Subsequently, through the years, I took great pleasure in watching Dick's ascent to the highest rungs of the Rock & Roll ladder," he said.
Peter C. says Wagner is leaving behind much more than just music for the world to remember him by.
"His book, "Not only Women Bleed" is one of the finest first-hand, eye-witness, no-holds barred accounts of rock music from the inside looking out that I've ever read. And "Rock & Roll Music" by The Frost remains the finest anthem ever composed in saluting the music Dick loved most. Dick was an extraordinary musician, gifted visionary and outstanding professional, who leaves an unmatched musical legacy in Michigan, American and world-wide culture," he said.
Wagner left Michigan for New York in 1972 after The Frost disbanded and got his big break, teaming up with guitarist Steve Hunter to play on Lou Reed's 1973 album Berlin. Wagner then served as musical director for the subsequent Rock N Roll Animal Tour and reshaped many of Reed's Velvet Underground classics, which turned into the Rock N Roll Animal live album.
Hunter then joined Wagner in going back to his roots, officially joining fellow Michigander Alice Cooper's band in 1974 (although he had played guitar on several songs earlier in Cooper's career) where he would remain as guitarist, co-writer and band leader for the next decade.
Cooper says in a statement that there have been very few people he's enjoyed working with in his career as much as he enjoyed working 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," Cooper statement says. "Dick Wagner and I shared as many laughs as we did hit records. He was one of a kind. He is irreplaceable. His brand of playing and writing is not seen anymore."
Steve Hunter echoed that sentiment on a Facebook post this afternoon.
"We had a thing when we played together like none other I’ve experienced. It might be because, for the most part, I think we were opposites. But I think that’s what helped us play so well together. We hardly ever had to work anything out...we just did it and it was always right. It was truly a phenomenon," he wrote.
Wagner also played guitar on and wrote songs throughout his more than half a century in the music business for everyone from KISS, Aerosmith, Hall & Oates, Peter Gabriel and produced Flint native Mark Farner's first solo album.
That wasn't the first, or last time, the two legendary Mid-Michigan musicians teamed up. Farner had played with The Bossmen for a short time in the mid-'60s. Mark tells us he can't put into words how much he learned from Wagner.
"He was special to me because he was my teacher." Mark told us over the phone before a concert in Huntington, West Virginia tonight. "Yeah, he's the maestro for sure, but he was my personal teacher. So I have a strong fondness for him and reverence for the impact that he had on my life as a guitar player and songwriter and human being," he said.
The relationship between them continued all the way to this past winter, when they joined forces on the Border City Music Project documentary, and for a benefit song for St. Jude Children's Hospital that Farner says he'll never forget.
"When the kids were singin', he had all those kids and was instructing them. You could just see the love in that guy towards those children. And that's what's reflected in his music and that's what we'll always remember about Dick Wagner," he said.
Block says as difficult as this day is, he's glad he had to chance to see his old friend recover from the setbacks and return to playing and performing again.
"It's just, to watch him play guitar and record him, and just see his brilliance in action, it's just amazing," he said. "And he came back from such devastation after the stroke. To see him slowly come back at the end, it was just phenomenal. He was at the top of his game, if you're gonna go out, he went out on the top of the game for sure."