Why John Curulewski Left Styx
Soon after Styx released their 1975 album Equinox, co-founding guitarist and singer John Curulewksi quit the band. Officially, the surprise move came about because he wanted to spend more time with his family, but as is often the case, the truth was more complex – and more predictable to some of his bandmates.
Equinox, Styx’s fifth album, was their first on a major label, and with the success of their 1973 single “Lady” – which had led directly to a contract with A&M – they were looking forward to building on their achievements. Instead, some of the members felt they wound up with a repeat of their experiences with a previous label.
“I remember JC being really happy with that album, and then saying, ‘You know, the same shit is going on with A&M as went on with Wooden Nickel,’” Curulewksi’s friend and former roadie Charlie Piper said in Sterling Whitaker’s 2007 book The Grand Delusion: The Unauthorized True Story of Styx. Curulewski told Piper: “We’re not getting pushed, we’re not getting promo, we’re not getting the good tour spots.” It seemed the heights achieved by Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive!, also released by A&M, made thing worse: “That was one of his things. … Frampton was getting the label attention and not Styx.”
Frontman Dennis DeYoung later told Classic Rock Revisited that he was also unhappy with how Equinox was backed. “Here’s what it did: It stopped in the charts in the 60s and it didn’t go gold. Originally it sold around 350,000,” he said. “It was, once again, a failure on the record company’s part … they dropped the ball on Equinox.” He even matched Curulewski’s thoughts regarding Frampton Comes Alive! “That affected the entire music business, because that album told record company executives that they could sell millions of albums to kids without the benefit of hit singles. In a sense, A&M, for us at that time, became a small record label with no distribution because Frampton was everywhere and Equinox got shoveled out the door.”
Curulewski, it seemed, had become used to living with an amount of tension around him. “He was always dissatisfied with everything,” Styx tour manager Jim Vose said. “He just was not a positive person, always unhappy. … Everyone got along with everybody except JC. He was the rebel. He was probably the weakest of the musicians, but he was still good, he was still capable. But he was the rebel. If there was a five-way vote, it was usually four to one and he would always take the losing position.”
He added that the feeling among bandmates had gotten to the point that no one else wanted to share a hotel room with Curulewski. “I always made sure that I got in with him to try to be a peacemaker and middle man,” Vose said. “He was a little more radical … a very creative person but had some different ideas. Nobody got along with him.”
Listen to Styx's ‘Lady’
Vose was there when DeYoung and Curulewski finally locked horns. The increasing authority with which the frontman conducted himself would cause its own problems in the band's future, but in 1975 it was already presenting itself in the way the material came together. After having been considered a key contributing writer, Curulewski had only one full credit and two co-credits on Equinox.
While the extent to which that was an issue remains unclear, all the issues came to a head following a difficult concert. “JC was sick," Vose recalled. "He had laryngitis and he wanted to cancel the show. ... I said, ‘You can’t cancel the show, it’s full, there’s 10,000 or 12,000 people. It’s a hall with a lot of echo anyway, so don’t worry about the sound too much.’ I came into the dressing room after the set and Dennis asked me, ‘Well, how was it? … I said, ‘They loved you out there.’ He turned around and walked up to JC and said, ‘I never want to go onstage with you again.’ Then JC, being the stubborn guy that he was, went, ‘Okay, then I quit.’”
Curulewski, witnesses said, threatened to quit on regular occasions, but this time his bandmates took him up on it. “I always feel bad about that,” Vose said. “I knew what had to be done, but I didn’t know it was going to happen that way. Dennis basically asked me what I thought, then turned around and said [to Curulewski], ‘Get out of here,’ and the others backed him. They didn’t have a choice in those days. Dennis always had the power.”
Derek Sutton, who was about to sign up as the band's manager, cited another reason. “One of the clinching factors for JC leaving was the fact that I insisted on being a partner in the enterprise,” he said. “He was not interested in having a partner. He wanted a hired gun as a manager. He just wanted to pay someone a salary.”
Listen to Styx's ‘Mother Dear’
As a result, when Sutton was presented with the difficulty of a lineup change, he offered the band a response they didn't expect. “They finally said, ‘Look, JC’s not going to be in the band anymore. Is that going to change your mind?’ I said, ‘No. We’ll replace him.’ They were very, very surprised at what they saw as a very flippant attitude, because replacing a major songwriter was not something that they thought was going to be easy. They did not understand that, from my point of view, they had not had any real success. The fact that they were making a sensible living was not indicative of where we could go, and I didn’t think we had anything to lose. Fresh blood at this stage was a really good idea.”
In 1981, guitarist James Young reflected that part of Curulewksi’s issues may have been a sense of inferiority. “John certainly was good, and he had a lot of really creative ideas,” he said, but added, “With John, most of the lead work kind of fell to me because I think he felt I was the stronger lead player.” Vose expressed similar thoughts: “He would argue, ‘No, no, I don’t want to do the song that way, I want to do it this way.’ He wasn't a real team player. I don’t know if he felt he had to do it that way because he wasn't as strong musically. That’s one of my theories.”
With a tour looming, Styx didn’t have long to find a replacement – but they settled on Tommy Shaw, who helped the band achieve the success many thought they were capable of. Curulewski died in 1988 at 37, after suffering an aneurysm. He had spent the last 13 years of his life as a guitar teacher in Chicago, where he sometimes returned to the stage with local bands.