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In Memory of John Panozzo, 1948-1996

Remembering the always upbeat founding Styx drummer, who passed away 20 years ago today on July 16, 1996.

by Mike Mettler

photo courtesy Jim Cahill

Drummer John Panozzo was a force of nature, as anyone who knew him personally or saw him play live can readily attest. He laid the foundation on every Styx album right up through 1990’s Edge of the Century, and he was poised to join the band’s classic lineup for the 1996 Return to Paradise reunion tour until he fell gravely ill and had to bow out. John passed away 20 years ago today on July 16, 1996. He was 47.

The RTP Tour ultimately soldiered on in tribute to John, with Todd Sucherman taking over the drum chair (where he still remains today, as vibrant a force in his own right). Styx guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw wrote the touching “Dear John” in Panozzo’s memory, which was included as a studio track on the mostly live 1997 release, Return to Paradise. (You can also find it on the 2004 double-disc compilation, Come Sail Away: The Styx Anthology.)

In a Styxworld exclusive to honor the anniversary of John’s passing and celebrate his continuing legacy, we asked three people closest to the man — his fraternal brother Chuck Panozzo (the twins were born 20 minutes apart on September 20, 1948), the aforementioned Tommy Shaw, and promotion guru Jim Cahill — to share their fondest memories of the always exuberant drummer. Dear John, we’ll see you someday again.

Chuck Panozzo (Styx founding bassist and John’s 20-minutes-older fraternal brother): I remember John’s enthusiasm for life! I’ve also posted some early pre-Styx pics and some from the height of our career to help put a band with a career that spans decades in perspective. I think I’ll quote JY [Styx co-founding guitarist/vocalist James “JY” Young]: “John was like Jackie Gleason and John Belushi — very physically funny.”

John could care less if you were the promoter or the guy who swept the floors — his only agenda was being the best drummer. That characteristic got him through the highs and lows of the entertainment world. The smile he had was genuine — and his love of Styx was too!

John was such a talented, quick-witted character. He made us laugh — a lot. He made me cry — a lot. He thought the guys who respected him just didn’t want him to be happy, but I now know that’s how the disease works. Tonight, his indomitable spirit will be onstage in all that platinum glory — a living testimony to the once young boy who started a band that became Styx.

I keep getting email from a collector asking for a pair of John’s drum sticks. One pair was buried with him, and the other will be buried with me. It will go full cycle.

Tommy Shaw (Styx guitarist/vocalist): John Panozzo was a force of nature. His unique drumming style was the foundation for all those early Styx records that became classics. Not only that, he was just a lot of fun!

There was a physical presence to John. (chuckles) He would not think twice about having a wrestling match, or him and Chuck getting into brotherly “fights” in the car, or whatever. He was a practical joker, and he always kept everyone’s spirits high, no matter what. You could count on John for some kind of crazy thing to make us all laugh.

We were all saddened by his untimely passing, but his music lives on — and that’s a great thing.

Jim Cahill (Styx promotion guru/coordinator, 1977–83): I remember first meeting John in Racine, Wisconsin in 1975 on a Rick Carr-promoted show at Racine Memorial Hall [on January 3, 1975]. We met at soundcheck, and I was thunderstruck at the sound John and Chuck were getting in that small venue. A huge arena sound spilled from the stage, and the band was loud as hell. He had this way-cool drum kit with crests and ropes hanging off it. It was quite striking and memorable.

From the moment I heard the lads play, I knew they had what it took to get to the top. Much of it was that “big-as-the-galaxy arena sound” — the big drums backing up all that prog-rock swagger. After that soundcheck, I was immediately taken by John’s sense of humor. He was the one-liner king of the group with a wiseguy, neighborhood, smart-alecky sense of humor.

I remember one thing specifically that still makes me laugh. When we first acquired our own chartered airplane, during takeoff, as the plane was pitched on the steep takeoff angle, John would dramatically leap out of his seat belt and hit the floor, making grand swimming motions on the steep climb — swimming uphill during the climb sequence. The entire plane would erupt in laughter. It just energized the whole touring party with a rowdy spirit. John loved that plane, and eventually spent less time with us in the back and more time in the co-pilot seat. John got a pilot’s license, and landed the tour plane on some stops on the ’81 Paradise Theatre Tour.

I remember another time at a Japanese Promotional Teleconference, John doing the SNL closed caption gag for the hearing impaired — essentially, the gag was yelling the answer he had just given to reporters. Again, not a dry eye in the house — an international laugh-fest on that one. The Japanese loved John.

One more vivid John memory: Cobo Arena, Detroit, 1978. During our historic 3-night record stand in Detroit’s legendary Cobo Arena on the Pieces Of Eight Tour, I remember the drum solo John played like it happened yesterday. Back in that era, the drum solo was a must do for arena acts, but this night in Detroit was something incredibly special. John began injecting his sense of humor into the solo with some personality — the whistle, the cowbell, quiet spots, thunder. I was standing at the soundboard for this gig, and there was just something different about hearing this loud rock & roll band at Cobo. I personally thought it was one of the best-sounding big rooms. I knew at the time I was hearing John take these solos to a whole new level, and that the “special something” that made rock bands into true legends was really happening to us — the “pinch me, I’m dreaming” moments — with John Panozzo leading the way.