OTTUMWA — The story of how Rick Wills joined Foreigner involves Peter Frampton, a cautious bank teller, transatlantic flights and the chicken pox.
Wills knew about Foreigner back in 1979 and liked the band’s music. His wife was the one who pointed out their songs, and he had kept an eye on what they were doing. But joining the band wasn’t on his radar until a visit to New York.
Wills was already a co-writer on “Do You Feel Like We Do,” one of the biggest hits off one of the biggest albums of the 1970s. “Frampton Comes Alive” was a monster, selling eight million copies in the United States alone.
“I came to New York, really, to see how much money I was owed from the publisher of it, and it turned out it was a lot,” Wills said. “I went to the business manager … and said ‘I believe I’m owed some money.’ He said, ‘Oh, Rick, you sure are. You’re owed a lot of money.’”
Sales were so big the company was still trying to work out exactly what the totals were. But the manager cut a check right then and there for more than $35,000. Made out to cash.
“It really blew my mind at the time because I’d never had that much money,” said Wills.
Wills went to a bank to cash the check. The teller knew New York a little better than he did, though, and talked him out of walking out of the bank with tens of thousands of dollars in cash. Wills got a safety deposit box to keep it in instead.
He had heard Foreigner was looking for a bass player, and Wills got in touch with the band for a tryout. He could play “Hot Blooded,” “Cold As Ice,” and “Double Vision,” which were already hits, and drummer Dennis Elliott wanted to hire Wills on the spot. The rest of the band wanted to hear out the other candidates.
So Wills waited. It was a few weeks before he heard back, and his wife was still in London. So were Wills’ two children, who had come down with chicken pox. His wife wanted him back to help out.
“I said, ‘I just don’t want to leave New York at the moment because [of the tryout].’” He gave in, though, and flew home. “And the very next morning I get a phone call very early.”
Wills was back on a plane to join his new band, and Foreigner was about to hit new heights. Some of the hits came easy. Wills said “Waiting for a Girl Like You” came together in just a couple takes. Others, like “Juke Box Hero,” didn’t.
“I mean, ‘Juke Box Hero’ was just an anthem that we knew we had to make, but boy it took a village doing it, I tell you. It really did. It wasn’t easy; it was hard work,” he recalled.
Wills stayed with Foreigner until 1992. Elliott, who wanted Wills in the band at the tryout, was gone. The band had a new lead singer, too, and things just didn’t feel right to Wills. He left.
Everyone kept in touch, though. It wasn’t the stereotypical implosion of a rock band that leaves everyone hating everyone else. There were still ties there, still respect. The band continued and, when some of the classic members were asked back for shows, they were welcomed with open arms.
“All the guys in the current band are all, in my opinion, brilliant musicians, and they’re really nice people to work with,” Wills said. “So it’s a pleasure to be part of the thing again, to go out and join them on stage and play some songs together.
“It’s just part of the whole package I’ve lived through,” he said. “I’ve loved every minute.”
Foreigner plays at Bridge View Center at 7:30 p.m. March 18. Tickets are on sale now.