Three key reasons why February 22 is one of the most important dates in Styx history: 1) The band sign their first recording contract 51 years ago on this day in 1972; 2) Kilroy Was Here turns 40; and 3) Damn Yankees turns 33. Happy Anniversary Year 51 to Styx, y’all!
Current band photos by Jason Powell
“To me, there is an arc to every artist’s career. First, you become known initially as a performer. And then you begin to establish yourself with new songs and new music. You may do a cover song here or there, but mostly you go with new material written by you or by others. That goes on for a while — and then you get signed.” — James “JY” Young
Hello friends! Today, we celebrate one of the most important dates in Styx history — namely, February 22. Three major milestones in the Styx universe all occurred on this most hallowed of dates, the very first and most important of which happened exactly 51 years ago to the day — so let’s tackle each of them chronologically, shall we?
IF I HAD A WOODEN NICKEL
First, and most important in the 2.22 trifecta, Styx signed their first official recording contract with the Chicago-based independent label Wooden Nickel Records 51 years ago today on February 22, 1972. The five co-founding members of Styx at the time of that most notable hometown Wooden Nickel label signing can all be seen in the vintage of-era photo seen at the very top of this column, from left to right: bassist Chuck Panozzo, drummer John Panozzo, guitarist/vocalist John “J.C.” Curulewski, keyboardist/vocalist Dennis DeYoung, and guitarist/vocalist James “JY” Young. And, as JY himself confirms, “Within 14 months of my joining the band, we had our first recording contract.”
From there, Styx proceeded to create their first four studio albums for Wooden Nickel — Styx (1972), Styx II (1973), The Serpent Is Rising (1973), and Man of Miracles (1974) — before joining the well-respected A&M Records roster with December 1975’s Equinox. In fact, JY and I actually began talking about how the band would celebrate their 50th anniversary in 2022 at least six years ago, and perhaps it was four or so summers ago when he gave me the following quite prescient prediction: “I keep coming back to the idea that early 2022 is the 50th anniversary of us signing our first recording agreement, so I imagine we’ll do something special for that when the time comes,” he theorized in the most perfect, JY-like way possible.
And, as we all saw quite handily all throughout 2022, Styx celebrated Year 50 in as many magical ways as possible. For starters, the band performed in Tallahassee, Florida, last February 22, and then they immediately followed up that gig the next night by doing another show in guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw’s hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, on February 23. A fantastic summer 2022 tour with Loverboy and REO Speedwagon oh-so-appropriately dubbed Live & UnZoomed followed soon enough comprised of 45 shows all told, and many other great gigs occurred throughout the balance of the year, including a swing in Western Canada with Nancy Wilson’s Heart in October. All told, Styx played 96 shows in 2022, and they show few signs of slowing down here in Year 51, a.k.a. 2023.
But for now, let’s get back to the beginning! Cementing the initial Wooden Nickel contract was a pivotal point in JY’s mind, for it legitimized the groundwork Styx had been laying down in the local clubs in Chicago they’d been playing in up to that moment. “To me, there is an arc to every artist’s career,” he explains. “First, you become known initially as a performer. And then there’s the arc of, if you’re a writer, will you write your own stuff? If so, then you begin to establish yourself with new songs and new music. You may do a cover song here or there, but mostly you go with new material written by you or by others. That goes on for a while — and then you get signed.”
Besides perfecting the art of live performance, Styx was ultimately able to master the recording aspect of their career as well, especially once the aforementioned guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw joined the band when he replaced J.C. in December 1975, a mere two weeks after Equinox had been released. “At that point, we had three very distinct writing styles and writers, and it was the middle ground where we all collaborated where there was magic,” JY recounts. “That said, every career seems to have an initial creative phase like we did. Our first one started in ’72, and ran through ’83.”
If anything, that first decade of existence vaulted Styx indelibly into the pantheon of great American rock bands who continue to have an enduring impact on a truly international scale — though perhaps nobody could have predicted back then we’d still be talking about it all to such a degree 51 years later. That said, JY’s co-founding compadre in arms, bassist Chuck Panozzo, was quite eager to try Year 50 on for size — as well as Year 51, which we’ll get to in a moment.
Chuck and I spent a good amount of time talking about that very golden idea while we sat together on a black leather couch in the dressing room he was sharing with JY and Tommy at The Pearl at The Palms in Las Vegas back on January 20, 2019, just a few hours before the band performed the entirety of June 2017’s The Mission for the very first time in front of a live audience. (Interestingly enough, Chuck and I had a similar deep-dive conversation on that very same couch at The Palms almost exactly a year later to the day on January 19, 2020 — but that remains a story for another time.)
“As we’ve talked about before, I plan on being here for the 50th year, and whatever comes after that,” Chuck reiterated while we both were concurrently bemused at what I can only describe as a ginormous brownie cake on a wide white plate on the table in front of us. “I remember Johnny [i.e., his late twin brother, John, who sadly passed away in 1996] and me playing together in that basement in Chicago like it was yesterday, and I felt him with me while we were rehearsing The Mission. I worked really hard to learn my parts so I wouldn’t let anybody down. I love standing out there and playing with my brothers in the band every night.”
I then told Chuck I was holding him to being fully involved as Year 50 officially commenced, and if his triumphant appearance with the band in Las Vegas during their annual residency at The Venetian and in Pompano Beach, Florida, on February 18, 2022 were any indication — the latter being deemed a “hometown gig,” as he referred to it on Instagram the following day — we’ll be seeing Chuck out on the boards with his bandmates for many more years to come.
Incidentally, Chuck and I touched base not long after the calendar turned to 2023, and he again reiterated his commitment to playing with Styx as long as he can. “We’re performing better than ever,” he told me right around the time the band was rehearsing for their annual Venetian run that took place over five nights that were spread across late January and early February. Eagle-eyes and ears will have duly observed Chuck newly joining the band onstage for a song he hadn’t performed with them very often, if not much at all, before that (and I won’t spoil it here for anyone who has yet to see it). “It’s a proud part of my legacy,” he explained.
Guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw, who came on up to Chicago from his bowling alley band gig in Montgomery, Alabama, in December 1975 to (as noted earlier) replace J.C. a scant few weeks after Equinox was released, told me just a few weeks ago while he was in Las Vegas for the Venetian residency, “I was always tight with the Panozzo brothers, and I’ve always been supportive of Chuck. Who doesn’t love Chuck Panozzo? He’s wise and experienced, and if you’ve ever spent any time with him, you realize just what an incredible person he is.” (Hear, hear!)
Tommy is also forever grateful for both sharing in and nurturing Styx’s ongoing legacy. “It’s been an amazing voyage. The music has stood the test of time, and it has grown over that time,” he marvels. “I wasn’t there for those first few years, but I have been here for well over 45 years. When we walk off the stage, we feel like, ‘Well, we’ve done it again.’ And that’s the thing that keeps us suiting up — writing new material, recording new material, releasing it, going out and promoting it, mixing it in with the classic songs, and figuring out ways to continue to tell the story. I can’t imagine ever not doing this. You know, it’s still really nice to be here. And to think it all started with John and Chuck Panozzo — without them, we would not be having this conversation.” (True that!)
Keyboardist/vocalist Lawrence Gowan, who joined Styx fulltime in 1999, recognizes the weight of the band’s long and storied history, night after night. “Styx celebrating 51 years is a momentous occasion, and I’m really proud and honored to be a part of this band’s legacy,” Lawrence says with much admiration. “It puts a big smile on my face to stand alongside JY, Chuck, Tommy, Todd, Ricky, Will, and all the musicians who’ve played a role in this group’s success since February 22, 1972. We are the culmination of the efforts of every member, past and present, and continue to hold ourselves up to that long-established high standard with each record we make, and every show we play. Now more than a half a century, and still rocking strong. Viva Styx!”
Drummer Todd Sucherman, who came aboard in 1995 to first record with the band and then joined the fold fulltime in 1996 when John Panozzo became too ill to perform on that year’s Return to Paradise Tour, echoes Lawrence’s sentiments with his own poignant commentary. “It’s great to be part of an organization that can have such an incredible milestone,” Todd observes. “I congratulate my musical brothers on this fantastic accomplishment, and I’m looking forward to playing many shows this year to celebrate the 51st anniversary!”
Bassist/vocalist Ricky Phillips, who joined the band fulltime in 2003, got right to the heart of the matter. “Why has Styx lasted for 50 years, now going on 51? Everybody in the band does their homework — and that’s a really great thing,” Ricky notes. “It’s probably the first band I’ve ever been in where people treat everything with great care and great respect. The love we all have for each other is a brotherhood, and it’s not just when we’re onstage. We all get along, beyond all those musical reasons why we play so well together. Tommy calls it ‘a good hang,’ and that’s what we do together whenever we’re not performing.”
Finally, Styx’s newest bandmember, guitarist/vocalist Will Evankovich, who himself came aboard fulltime during the summer of 2021, adds his own unique perspective from the POV of someone who was born a mere six weeks after the band’s first recording contract was signed in 1972. “What’s remarkable about it is in the way it’s evolved,” Will points out. “In fact, the band is more relevant than ever, and I think that’s a testimony to the people who are empowered in this band — Tommy Shaw and James Young, the guys who want to see a vital, creative band. It would be one thing if the music wasn’t up to the standard level of the old, great records in the Styx canon. Tommy is always keeping an eye on making sure the thread is that the music always sounds like Styx.”
To borrow a line or two from Styx’s most recent, and most excellent studio album, June 2021’s Crash of the Crown, “A new day is calling.” Happy anniversary year 51, y’all — and many, many happy returns!!
DOMO ARIGATO, Y’ALL
The second of our three 2.22 milestones occurred 40 years ago today on February 22, 1983, when Styx released Kilroy Was Here, their 11th studio album, on A&M Records, which also became the last studio album they’d release before taking an extended, decade-plus hiatus until they reunited in 1995 to first record an updated version of their very first hit from the Wooden Nickel era — duly redubbed as “Lady ’95” for their Greatest Hits compilation that was released that August — and then for the ensuing Return to Paradise Tour in 1996.
Kilroy Was Here spawned a large-scale concept-oriented tour of its own, went platinum, and reached No. 3 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart. Kilroy also graced us with two big hit singles: “Mr. Roboto,” which itself climbed to No. 3 (and begat a quite popular concept video), and “Don’t Let It End” made it to No. 6. (A third single, “High Time,” was only able to make it to No. 48.)
Since 1999, Styx had essentially shied away from performing practically any material from Kilroy Was Here, sans a few song excerpts here and there during the lengthy “Styx Medley” the band used to perform fairly regularly a decade-plus ago — but that all changed in a literal instant on May 30, 2018, when, at 10:38 p.m. Pacific time, they debuted a notable, muscularly recast “Mr. Roboto” as the first song of their traditional two-song encore at Five Point Ampitheatre in Irvine, California. This was the first full-band, full-song performance of “Mr. Roboto” onstage by Styx, well, ever, as the song was originally performed live in a purely solo fashion by Dennis DeYoung to a backing track on the 1983 Kilroy tour. An instant fan favorite, “Mr. Roboto” has since become a mainstay in the nightly encore, and it’s always followed by the band’s show-closing perma-classic, “Renegade.”
“For one thing, it was an idea whose time had come,” Tommy Shaw told me backstage that very afternoon in May 2018, just a few hours before Styx played it in front of the unsuspecting Five Point audience. “We’ve been working on it for a while, and we wanted to get it right. It was a lot harder to learn than I thought it would be. It’s a very original, unusual, unique track — and it’s not blues-based, either — but I have a feeling it will only get better from here. Know what? We’ll probably be playing it for a long time to come.” (As we all well know by now, Tommy’s not-so-secret prediction that day has since turned out to be 100 percent correct!)
Adds Chuck, “When Tommy first mentioned the idea of doing ‘Mr. Roboto,’ I thought it was a great idea. I said, ‘Why don’t we own it? We know the song is great.’ And I knew Lawrence would do a great job with it.” It’s perhaps a bit of an understatement to say Lawrence takes on the lead singing/performing role with unadulterated verve and panache by truly inhabiting the Roboto persona every night the song is performed. “Did I ever think I’d get a chance to do it?” he muses when I pose him the obvious question. “I was fine to do it all along — I really was. I think the character in the song is larger than life. I’ve found it to be pretty visceral.”
As he now enters his fifth year of playing “Mr. Roboto” in front of audiences, Gowan reiterates another key reason why he likes singing it — namely, that it reminds him so much of the same persona he inhabits in “A Criminal Mind,” his signature 1985 solo song that has since become an occasional Styx setlist favorite as well (especially when they perform either near or above the northern U.S. border). “I realized I like singing songs where the character has something they’re hiding,” he continues. “The ‘Roboto’ vocal is from the point of view of you’re hiding something and you’re going to reveal it to this audience, but, in fact, they’re really getting a look inside your brain — and I really like taking that point of view.” (You can also hear the Lawrence-led live version of “Mr. Roboto” on Side 2 of The Same Stardust EP that was released in June 2021 for Record Store Day, which has since become available on most major streaming platforms.)
As the song only keeps gaining more and more traction, other “Roboto” fans have made their voices known. “I heard it recently, and it was so interesting. It’s such an interesting thing,” Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen confided in me one day backstage before admitting, “I thought it was really hokey when I first heard it — but it sounded really great on the radio! What a great song!” (Domo arigato and himitsu o shiritai, as the lyrics go in Japanese. . .)
Will Evankovich added yet another perspective to Kilroy and “Roboto” when he and I did the Zoom thing together during the 2022 holiday season. “I remember buying the Kilroy cassette at Wherehouse Music in 1983 — and I really liked that song,” Will recalled. “And I liked the band, of course, so I figured anything that was following [January 1981’s] Paradise Theatre was gonna be good. So, I’ve known that song since I was a wee lad, and you can’t blame any of the bands in 1983 for going the way of more keyboards and less electric guitars. I mean, everything had to change. It was a 20-something-year era of big rock guitars, and everyone was ready for a change to go into more of the keyboard sound. The problem was, it just went too far in that direction for a period of time — and then it didn’t really stand up as well as some of the other stuff did. But I think when you reintroduce some of the hard-rocking electric stuff into that style of production, it makes sense for how we’re playing ‘Mr. Roboto’ now.”
Interestingly enough, in January 2021, Tommy and I were discussing some of his favorite songs from Kilroy — and his renewed interest in revisiting them live. When I mentioned how much I personally love “Cold War,” a song that contains some of his most poignant, socially observational lyrics that continue to carry some serious weight to this very day of renewed international turmoil, Tommy replied with notable enthusiasm, “This band could totally play ‘Cold War’ live! In fact, I could hear us playing that one in my head just as you were saying that. And ‘Just Get Through This Night’ — wouldn’t that be something? We could also do ‘Haven’t We Been Here Before.’ Yeah, I love ‘Haven’t We Been Here Before.’ All we gotta do is keep waking up and put one foot in front of the other, and we’ll get there.”
(You’ll get no argument from these corners about such a great idea for live exploration, seeing how your trusty Styxologist would personally love to hear what Lawrence, Ricky, Todd, and Will could all do together with the arrangements of those particular songs — especially considering they weren’t on the original Kilroy album themselves.)
Naturally, I’ve consistently semi-joked with JY that he should revive his “Dr. Righteous” persona that’s oh-so-perfectly on display in the fan-favorite Kilroy track “Heavy Metal Poisoning.” JY has yet to send me out of the room whenever I’ve brought that thought up in conversation — and he’s even quoted a lyric or two from the song back to me in that vaunted character’s voice, to boot — so, hey, you never know! (“A toxic wasteland in your ear canal,” indeed. . .)
Finally, the third 2.22 milestone signpost is that, 33 years ago on February 22, 1990, Damn Yankees released their self-titled debut on Warner Bros. Records. As most of you know, the DY supergroup configuration consisted of our man guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw, Night Ranger bassist/vocalist Jack Blades, guitarist extraordinaire Ted Nugent, and drummer Michael Cartellone (the latter of whom has played drums with Lynyrd Skynyrd since 1999). Damn Yankees has long been certified double platinum, and it reached lucky No. 13 on the album charts. “High Enough” reached No. 3 on the singles charts, while “Come Again” reached No. 50, and “Coming of Age” got to No. 60.
A few choice Damn Yankees songs have made their way into many Styx sets over the years — including Tommy consistently singing a few verses of “Come Again” before going into “Crystal Ball” prior to Crash of the Crown’s “Sound the Alarm” entering into the setlist. Not only that, but both “Coming of Age” and “High Enough” were re-recorded by Styx for inclusion on their 2011 Regeneration Volume II CD. (And please take note — both tracks also happened to see some key production guidance from none other than, yep, Will Evankovich, who initially came into the picture at Jack Blades’ suggestion when Jack and Tommy began doing shows together as Shaw Blades in 2007, and they needed another guitarist and harmony vocal foil to join them onstage.)
“High Enough” even made a fully unplugged acoustic appearance during the blackout half of Styx’s show at the Sunset Center in Carmel, California, back on January 16, 2019. And, by now, you’ve certainly likely seen Tommy’s totally galvanized solo version of “Come Again” as performed in his home studio in Nashville in mid-2020, a performance that was a main fixture during some of the set breaks and/or post-show codas that became intrinsic parts of some of the entries in the band’s popular Styx Fix YouTube concert series in 2020.
“I’ve always been a fan of both Tommy Shaw and Styx, and we did very well with the Damn Yankees,” according to Ron Nevison, the man who produced both Damn Yankees and their August 1992 followup, Don’t Tread, when we conducted our Styxology interview in June 2016. “I liked all of the original demos for songs like ‘Come Again,’ and ‘Coming of Age,’ but I thought ‘High Enough’ was the coup de grace. After I heard ‘High Enough,’ I flipped out, and I told the label I wanted to do the album.” (And who could blame him?)
THE ENDURING POWER OF 2.22
At any rate, the perfectly harmonious date of 2.22 also dovetails quite nicely in parallel with the pivotal release date of Styx’s seminal seventh album, The Grand Illusion, on 7.7.77 — just like they planned it all along! In the meantime, while you’re letting the balance of this super calendrical symmetry sink in, let us one and all raise a collective glass to toast 51 years of Styx — a true next-step milestone in the history of our favorite rock band! Who knows what the next half-century-plus will bring?