Take 5: Dick Wagner

Guitarist Dick Wagner would have celebrated his 80th birthday on December 14. He is best known as a longtime collaborator of Alice Cooper. Wagner excelled at producing, playing guitar, arranging and songwriting, and was a key component of Cooper’s success; most notably co-writing one of his biggest hits, “Only Women Bleed” (Billboard #12 in 1975). But the Iowa-born musician – who passed away in 2014 – has a long list of other impressive credits. Here are five notable tracks featuring Dick Wagner.

The Frost – “Jennie Lee” (1969) Frost Music Wagner’s first band, The Bossmen recorded six singles between 1964 and ‘67, achieving some local success in Michigan. But his next band, psychedelic foursome the Frost made a bigger impression, earning a reputation as one of Detroit’s best and hardest-rocking bands. Wagner wrote all of the songs on the band’s first LP (1969’s Frost Music), but “Jennie Lee” is the most well-known track.

Ursa Major – “Liberty and Justice” (1972) Wagner’s next group didn’t last long, but recorded one memorable self-titled album. The term “power ballad” wasn’t in use in 1972, but this tune is an exemplar of that style. Fun fact: an early lineup of Ursa Major featured Billy Joel on keyboards, but he was gone by the time the band entered the studio and does not appear on any of its recordings. The Wagner-penned “Liberty and Justice” was the album’s lone single.

Lou Reed – “Intro” (1974) The twin guitar attack of Wagner and Steve Hunter provided a thrilling instrumental introduction to Lou Reed’s concerts in 1973 as featured on the live album Rock N Roll Animal. “Intro” remains a highlight of the set even though Reed doesn’t appear on the track; the audience can be heard applauding as he walks on at the song’s end, launching into the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane.” Wagner is on your stereo’s right channel; Hunter’s on the left.

Aerosmith – “Train Kept a Rollin’” (1974) Tiny Bradshaw’s jump blues classic had found its way into the repertoires (and discographies) of many artists before Boston-based hard rockers Aerosmith cut their version. The 1951 single was covered by Johnny Burnette and his Rock & Roll Trio in 1956. The Yardbirds cut their version with Jeff Beck on lead guitar in 1965, and re-recorded it the next year – this time with Jimmy Page on guitar – for Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow-Up. Page added the song to the set list his next group, Led Zeppelin. For Aerosmith’s cover, Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter played the guitar parts. Released as a single, it failed to chart, but went on to become an audience favorite.

Kiss – “Beth” (1976) By 1976, Kiss was one of the most popular rock bands in the world. Their brand of hard rock found a huge following, most notably with teenage boys. But this atypical tune from the band’s fourth LP Destroyer – featuring vocals by drummer Peter Criss – earned the cartoonish costumed band a wider following. Originally released as a b-side of “Detroit Rock City,” this song soared to the #7 spot on the Billboard singles charts, making it the group’s most popular single ever. Other than Criss, none of the members of Kiss played on the session. And though he’s not credited on the record, Wagner plays acoustic guitar. After Criss was out of the band, new drummer Eric Carr replaced his vocals on the track for a greatest-hits release. This is the original recording.