How Pittsburgh Helped Put the Rock Band Kansas on the Map

After a memorable debut here in 1974, Kansas chose Pittsburgh as the first stop on its 50th anniversary tour.
Kansas Band


The first song on Kansas’ self-titled debut album is “Can I Tell You.” It’s an odd song in the band’s canon because it has only one verse, no chorus and lots of jamming. It’s nothing like “Carry On Wayward Son,” “Dust in the Wind,” “Hold On,” “Fight Fire With Fire,” “Song for America” or any of the band’s better-known songs.

When legendary concert promoter Rich Engler first heard “Can I Tell You,” he believed Pittsburgh would love it.

“I went to the radio stations and I was all over the song ‘Can I Tell You,’” Engler says. “I got them to really jump on that song and made it into a big hit in Pittsburgh.”

When Engler booked Kansas to open for Queen on Kansas’ first national tour in 1974, Kansas was already known in the Steel City.

“When the album came out, it first broke out in the college market and in Pennsylvania,” says Kansas guitarist Rich Williams, one of two original members — the other being drummer Phil Ehart — still with the band. “We didn’t know any of this. You didn’t have the mass media of today to let you know what was going on.”

Kansas’ first show in Pittsburgh is now the stuff of legend. About an hour before the doors were to open at the old movie house then known as the Stanley Theatre — now the Benedum Center — Queen’s manager called Engler and said singer Freddie Mercury had had “a quarrel,” Engler did not say with whom, and the band would not appear that night.

Looking to make lemonade from lemons, Engler approached Kansas and the other band on the bill — Engler recalls it was Styx, Williams says it was REO Speedwagon — and asked them to play longer sets.

Engler had it set so that when his lieutenant, Ed Traversari, announced that Queen would not be appearing (an illness was said to be to blame) Kansas was already on stage and would start playing on a quick cue.

It didn’t take long for the crowd to forget about Queen.

“It was just a reception that we were not expecting,” Williams says. “We did not realize what a fan base we had already created in Pennsylvania, and in Pittsburgh. It was like the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, all of a sudden. It was just remarkable for us, and it was a very special moment early in our career. That forged a relationship with us and the city, and us and Rich Engler.”

Those relationships are still as strong as steel. Kansas chose Pittsburgh to be the first stop on its 50th anniversary tour, which kicks off June 2 at the Benedum.

After that unforgettable debut in Pittsburgh, Engler — who appears in the 2015 Kansas documentary DVD “Miracles Out of Nowhere” — brought Kansas back to the city regularly and booked them elsewhere in Pennsylvania and surrounding states.

Paul Leo of Apollo says he first saw Kansas in the 1970s at the Stanley, drawn to the band’s mix of straight-ahead rock, progressive rock and symphonic arrangements.

“I was 19, sitting two rows back in front of the original violinist, Robby [Steinhardt],” he says.

It was like he and Steinhardt were jamming together, says Leo, who is now a drummer for the contemporary Christian band Risen to Save and patterned his drumming style after Ehart’s.

“I can remember it like it was last night,” Leo says. “Been hardcore since.”

Kansas was soon headlining shows in Pittsburgh, including at the 16,000-seat Civic Arena. A highlight for the band, and Engler, was the two-night stand Kansas made at the arena on the 1979 “Monolith” tour. The band broke an attendance record set by Elvis Presley, Engler says.

Pittsburgh stayed with Kansas through many personnel changes, most notably after the departure of singer Steve Walsh, who was replaced by John Elefante; the return of Walsh; and when Ronnie Platt took over as lead singer after Walsh’s retirement.

No matter who leaves, Williams and Ehart — the latter of whom appears in “Behind the Stage Door,” the 2022 film based on Engler’s book of the same name — find replacements that maintain the same level of quality as those who have departed, Engler says.

“I think the audience really appreciates that, and they know they’re in store for a great evening,” Engler says.

Kansas played a 30th anniversary show in 2005 at the then-Chevrolet Amphitheatre at Station Square with original guitarist and keyboardist Kerry Livgren popping in for a few songs, and a 40th anniversary show that featured appearances by all of the original members — except for Steinhardt, who was ill — in 2013 at the Benedum.

“Now, it’s time for kicking off the 50th anniversary of Kansas tour,” Williams says. The tour coincides with the release of “Another Fork in the Road — 50 Years of Kansas,” a three-CD set featuring cuts from Kansas’ 16 studio albums, and a new version of “Can I Tell You.”

“What better place to start than the venue and the city that kind of gave us a start? That’s our relationship with Pittsburgh,” Williams says. “It’s going back, once again, to say thank you for everything that Pittsburgh has done for us.”

June 2
Benedum Center, Downtown

Categories: From the Magazine, Things To Do