by Mike Mettler
Crystal Ball, Styx’s sixth studio album and the first to feature Tommy Shaw on guitar and vocals, was released 41 years ago today on October 1, 1976. Recorded at Paragon Studios in Chicago and produced by Styx with assistance from Barry Mraz, Crystal Ball reached #66 on the Pop Albums chart, and “Mademoiselle” (with lead vocals from Shaw) reached #36 on the Pop Singles chart. Crystal Ball has been certified as Gold by the RIAA (with sales of over 500,000), but considering how long ago that certification was done (i.e., in the pre-CD era!), it’s very likely to be well over the million-selling mark at this point.
“We knew right away Tommy was a superstar,” says original Styx bassist Chuck Panozzo. “His songwriting, playing, and singing on Crystal Ball immediately elevated the band. And,” Chuck adds with a laugh, “he’s a pretty decent-looking guy too.”
Shaw had been recruited to replace original Styx guitarist/vocalist John “J.C.” Curulewski once the tour to support Equinox got underway in December 1975. As recording commenced for the new album in 1976, Shaw reached back to his days in MS Funk to emerge with key elements for songs like the quite apropos album opener “Put Me On” and the title track, which, as he notes, “was a song I was playing in the bowling alley back in Montgomery, Alabama.” During his spoken-word intro to the song on some of the band’s more recent live shows, including many of this past summer’s United We Rock tour dates, Tommy has shared a more detailed account of writing the song after visiting his mom at home while she was preparing “Southern leftovers.”
As such, “Crystal Ball” remains a fixture of the band’s live set to this day, and Tommy even resurrected some of the lyrics that were edited out of the recorded version of the song during last year’s solo performance with the Contemporary Youth Orchestra (CYO) in Cleveland back on May 27, 2016. (The filmed version of that show has since aired on AXS TV a few times here in 2017 already, and a Blu-ray/DVD release is expected to follow at some point, most likely early next year.)
One lifelong fan of “Crystal Ball” is Loverboy lead singer Mike Reno. “It’s one of my favorite songs,” Reno confirms. “That song is a total inspiration to me. When I was living in Calgary and playing in a bar band, I was hoping I could be like Styx someday and write songs that good myself. And now I’m proud to call Tommy my friend.”
Dennis DeYoung masterfully performed French composer Claude Debussy’s impressionistic 1890 instrumental “Clair de Lune” (which translates to “moonlight,” and was inspired by French poet Paul Verlaine’s 1869 poem of the same name) on piano as the intro to the album’s final heartfelt track on Side 2, “Ballerina,” which immediately followed the poignant tribute to DeYoung’s father, “This Old Man.”
At the beginning of Side 2 came “Shooz,” featuring some Southern-flare slide guitar courtesy of the band’s Alabama native, counterbalanced by co-founding guitarist/vocalist James “JY” Young’s patented Hendrixian fire. “I think they were only going to let me have one of those moments on the album,” chuckles Tommy. Adds JY, “I do love The Allman Brothers and I’m not sure if we did them justice, but that was our attempt to go there. Our style had already been established, but Tommy was known for doing that kind of stuff in the clubs. I actually hoped we could have moved the band more in that direction."
BTW, if you happen to like hearing that kind of Allman Brothers-inspired vibe, keep your ears peeled for whenever Tommy and JY play certain riffs in tandem on “Man in the Wilderness” and “Pieces of Eight” during Styx’s extended live sets.