When Dick Wagner performed at Callahan's Music Hall in Auburn Hills on June 27, he was "playing as well as he ever has" since returning to active touring, according to bandmate Ray Goodman.
And after a final show two days later on Owosso, Goodman adds that, "we were really looking forward to picking this up again in the fall." That, however, will not come to be.
Wagner -- a Michigan-raised guitarist, songwriter and bandleader whose credits include Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, Kiss, Aerosmithand many others -- died from respiratory failuare on Wednesday, July 30, at the age of 71 in a hospital in Phoenix, where he's resided since 2005. He'd battled health problems for years, including a near-fatal heart attack in 2007, and had contracted a lung infection following heart surgery early this month.
He was in a medically induced coma at the time of his death, but posted a Facebook message on July 21 saying "I can't wait to play for you all again one day soon," signed by "Dick'N THE ICU."
"Dick Wagner was the consummate gentleman axeman. (He) will be missed," Kiss' Gene Simmons said in a statement on Wednesday, noting that Wagner played the "blistering" guitar solo on the "Destroyer" track "Sweet Pain."
WCSX-FM air personality Doug Podell, who recruited Wagner to play at several local benefits in recent years, said that, "He was a great musician and a great man who was always there for Detroit to help out and lend a hand when needed. He will truly be missed."
Goodman, who played in the SRC and Detroit Wheels and has known Wagner since the late 60s, added that "he was such a unique talent. I consider him the best and brightest of my generation. He could write a song about anything. He had the gift, something he was innately born with -- along with his very quick, droll sense of humor, another thing I'm going to miss dearly."
Wagner was born in Iowa and grew up in Saginaw, where his first band, the Bossmen, garnered some national radio play for its single "Baby Boy." Its successor, The Frost, released three albums for Vanguard Records and had a minor hit with "Rock and Roll Music," and was part of a robust Michigan music scene that included the MC5, the Stooges, the Bob Seger System, the Rationals and others. Wagner relocated to New York City in 1972 to start the band Ursa Major, whose original ilneup included Billy Joel on keyboards.
Wagner's national breakthrough, came when he joined Reed's band for 1973's "Berlin" and the acclaimed subsequent live album "Rock N Roll Animal," forming a stunning guitar tandem with Steve Hunter. On Wednesday Hunter posted a Facebook note saying that, "We had a thing when we played together like none other I've ever experienced...We hardly ever had to work anything out. We just did it and it was always right. It was truly a phenomenon...The stuff we did together back in the 70s was really and truly magical."
"Berlin" producer Bob Ezrin brought Wagner (and Hunter) into the Alice Cooper fold for the "School's Out" album in 1972 and subsequently recruited Wagner to be part of Cooper's "Welcome to My Nightmare" band, both for the album and the tour. Wagner co-wrote six of that album's 11 tracks -- including the hit "Only Women Bleed" -- and remained a collaborator throughout the 70s and into the early 80s, reuniting for 2011's "Welcome 2 My Nightmare."
"Being a sideman was a definite choice I made," Wagner said in a recent interview. "I was going to pursue a solo career after The Frost. "I always wanted to kind of be out front, but at heart I'm kind of shy. Being a star is not a big thing to me. I wouldn't want to be Alice Cooper and go through life like he does." Wagner released his first, self-titled solo album in 1978 and was also a hired gun for Aerosmith (the studio version of , Peter Gabriel, Daryl Hall & John Oates, Burton Cummings, Grand Funk Railroad's Mark Farner and others. He also co-wrote songs for Nils Lofgren, Air Supply.
"He sang and played very well, which is obvious, but his songwriting ability was really good, and it was probably underestimated," said Scott Morgan of the Rationals, another friend of Wagner's since the mid-60s.
After his heart attack in 2007, which left him with a paralyzed left arm, Wagner rallied both physically and creatively, releasing a new album, "Full Meltdown," in 2009 and publishing his memoirs, "Not Only Women Bleed: Vignettes From the Heart of a Rock Musician," in 2012. He also wrote three songs for the documentary "Louder Than Love: The Grande Ballroom story, and was in the process of writing a concept album about a serial killer for Danish shock rocker Maryann Cotton. He was also active in charitable concerns and was named the first Artist Ambassador for Guitars For Vets as well as national spokesman for Hydrocephalus.org. He and his Desert Dreams Productions company created a video for a new, gospel-flavored version of "Only Women Bleed" to promote awareness of violence against women and children.
Wagner is survived by his sons Robert Wagner and Mark Schukmecht and daughter Jasmine Dreame Wagner. A memorial will be held in Michigan, according to his personal manager and Desert Dreams business partner Susan Michelson, but details have not yet been determined..
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