45 Years Ago: Styx Finds Their Final Puzzle Piece in Tommy Shaw
The arrival of Tommy Shaw towards the end of 1975 helped change the fortunes of Styx, but their internal debate between the rock and ballad sides of the group remained.
Earlier that year, the band had broken through thanks to "Lady," a two-year old song from Styx II. Even though Styx had released a pair of albums since then, WLS, the most powerful rock station in their hometown of Chicago, had been playing it nightly during DJ John Landecker's show to give the local band greater exposure. WLS' national influence, as well as the song's propulsive, bolero-influenced second chorus, helped the tune reach No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The success of "Lady" attracted the major labels, and Styx left the small Wooden Nickel Records for A&M. But it also fueled a power struggle and an identity crisis within the band between singer-keyboard player Dennis DeYoung, who offered theatrical bombast and balladry, and guitarists John Curulewski and James “J.Y.” Young, who preferred straightforward hard rock.
Yet “Lady” was a DeYoung composition, written as a tribute to his wife Suzanne, and as such gave him more control over the direction of the band. In an interview for VH1’s Behind the Music, DeYoung said, “I always saw Styx as a democracy, and I was the president.”
“Dennis was becoming a much more dominant force in the band,” Young added, “and I think this made (John Curulewski) unhappy.”
Equinox, with DeYoung having a hand in six of its eight songs and Curulewski credited on only three, was the first album of the new contract, and Curulewski exited shortly after its release. The label as well as Styx’s new manager Derek Sutton knew live performances were crucial to retaining the gains made by the single. There were three requirements a replacement performer needed to have: good hair, reasonable guitar chops and the ability to sing the band’s signature high notes. Tour manager Jim Vose knew who might fit the criteria.
Enter Chicago transplant Tommy Shaw. Born in Montgomery, Ala., Shaw had left home shortly after graduating high school, ending up with the band MSFunk. He wasn't sure he wanted the job at first.
"In my mind Styx was just a local band that all the other bands hated, because they never schmoozed or hung out; they just had better gigs and made a lot more money, and nobody knew them... I'd never seen them, but I hated them anyway," he explained in UCR contributor Sterling Whitaker's book The Grand Delusion: The Unauthorized True Story of Styx.
Still, Shaw decided to give the audition a chance, with friends telling him he'd regret at leat not giving it a shot. "JY said 'Here's kinda where we're going,' and played 'Midnight Ride' from Equinox. I was speechless, stunned, because all I had heard was 'Lady' and 'You Need Love,' those were nice kinda pop songs, but not heavy songs."
Once Shaw showed what he could add vocally, it was obvious that a match had been made. "We saw down at the piano and they gave me the highest part to sing. I'd been used to signing quietly with [previous band] Harvest, and these guys were belting out like fog horns. I just blasted out a little bit myself, and the rest was history, because it sounded like what it sounded like."
Shaw had more than good hair and pin-up good looks. He also brought rock and roll energy to their previously somewhat static live show. "I saw him on stage and said, 'This is it. This kid is going to make the difference between a successful band and a mega band,'" Sutton said in The Grand Delusion. "He would not stand still, and therefore JY, who had always been the guitarist, was being forced to compete for spotlight, and Dennis was having to actually do more than just sit at the piano. So it sparked the entire band to be more performance-oriented."
Most crucially, Shaw could write a song with big hooks. His first album with Styx in 1976 was named after his “Crystal Ball," and Shaw added “Mademoiselle" and "Shooz." One year later, the follow-up, The Grand Illusion, broke through primarily on DeYoung’s “Come Sail Away” but Shaw held his own with "Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)."
The 1978 album Pieces of Eight found Shaw becoming a greater force within the band. "Renegade" and "Blue Collar Man" were the only major hits from the record. Shaw and Young’s assertion that Styx should focus intently on the rock side was temporarily proven right. But one year later, DeYoung would deliver the band’s biggest hit, “Babe,” which found its way onto Cornerstone.
“I wrote this song not…not for Styx. It was never intended to be a Styx song,” DeYoung said as part of the Behind the Vinyl video series presented by Canadian radio station Boom 99.7. “I wrote the song real quick. I called up John and Chuck Panozzo, the drummer and bassist (for the band). The guitar players were off on vacation. I said I had a demo, I was just going to give it to (Suzanne) on reel-to-reel (tape) for her birthday.”
The song was cut in a studio, again without Young and Shaw, but with DeYoung providing all the vocal parts. In DeYoung’s recounting, A&M Records executives heard the track and wanted it to be a part of Cornerstone.
Shaw said of the song, “It was unlike anything I had ever anticipated doing in Styx,” being a track that was AM/soft rock-friendly, nor was it something he desired to do. “I believe it began the slow division of the two camps (the rock vs. the pop) within Styx.”
According to DeYoung, there were attempts to re-record the song with the entire band, but it was never to his satisfaction. The song that made it to the album was in fact the birthday gift version with Shaw’s overdubbed guitar solo atop the instrumental bridge.
Emboldened by the success of “Babe,” Styx’s first No. 1 hit, DeYoung pushed for the follow-up single to be another ballad, “First Time.” Shaw and Young recoiled. “It was, like, no,” said Shaw. “You can’t do that, this can’t be who we become. The band was big enough already. We didn’t have to stretch out into Barry Manilow’s territory.” Shaw threatened to leave if the song was selected.
Things came to a head in a meeting between the band members and management wherein DeYoung claims he was fired from Styx. The separation lasted only eight weeks as the band could not find a replacement for DeYoung and relented. By the numbers, the decision was fortuitous, as 1981’s Paradise Theatre and 1983’s Kilroy Was Here continued to rack up hits and sales. However, the latter album confirmed Shaw and Young’s worst fears about where they thought Styx was heading.
The band broke up in 1984 but reformed for 1990’s Edge of the Century without Shaw, who found success with the supergroup Damn Yankees. Shaw would return for a reunion tour and live album, Return to Paradise (1997), but the old tensions remained. The band recorded one more album as a unit – 1999’s Brave New World – and after its disappointing reception, DeYoung left Styx.
As recently as March 2020, DeYoung was still holding out hope for one more reunion tour. IWe should do one last tour for the fans," he said. "Let’s go do 80 or 100 shows. Let’s put Moe, Larry and Curly back on the stage.” Shaw and Young, however, have repeatedly expressed an unwillingness to work with DeYoung again.
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