by Mike Mettler, resident Styxologist
Crystal Ball, Styx’s sixth studio album and the first to feature Tommy Shaw on guitar and vocals, was released 44 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 No. 66 on the Pop Albums chart, and “Mademoiselle” (with lead vocals from Shaw) reached No. 36 on the Pop Singles chart. Crystal Ball has long been certified as Gold by the RIAA (which translates to sales of over 500,000 copies), but considering how long ago that particular certification was done (i.e., in the pre-CD and pre-digital-download era!), it’s much more than likely to have surpassed the million-selling mark at this point (and perhaps even well over 2 or even 3 million, for that matter, so we demand a recertification!).
“We knew right away Tommy was a superstar,” says original co-founding Styx bassist Chuck Panozzo about Shaw, his longtime stage and studio compatriot. “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.”
Tommy had been recruited to replace original Styx guitarist/vocalist John “J.C.” Curulewski once the tour to support the band’s fifth album, Equinox, got underway in December 1975 (the month it was released). As recording commenced for the band’s next album in 1976, Shaw reached back to his days in MS Funk to emerge with key elements for songs like the quite apropos uplifting album opener “Put Me On” and the “Crystal Ball” title track itself — the latter of which, as he notes, “was a song I was playing in my $200-a-week bowling alley gig back in Montgomery, Alabama. It came to me pretty much all at once one time when I was visiting my mama at home.”
During his spoken-word intro to “Crystal Ball” at many of Styx’s most recent live shows in the moment that occurs right before he strums the song’s iconic opening notes on his acoustic guitar, Tommy affirms that he brought the track with him when he traveled up to Chicago for his band audition.
Co-founding guitarist/vocalist James “JY” Young, who was instrumental in helping Shaw and the band collectively “Styxify” the title track, understands the song’s deep resonance to this very day. “I have a lot of people come up to me and say ‘Crystal Ball’ is their favorite Styx song. It seems to have an added layer of importance today with all of the uncertainty in the world, especially with people who are searching for deeper meaning in their own lives,” observes the always-on-point Godfather of Styx.
As such, “Crystal Ball” remains an important fixture of the band’s longer, two-part live sets. Tommy has also seen to resurrecting some of the lyrics that were edited out of the recorded version, which now serve as the song’s live acoustic coda.
You can see an example of just how Tommy adds those long-lost lyrics back in during his solo performance of “Crystal Ball” with the Contemporary Youth Orchestra (CYO) on the Sing for the Day! Blu-ray/DVD release, which was recorded in Cleveland back on May 27, 2016. Sing for the Day!, which is also available on CD and via digital platforms, was released by Eagle Rock Entertainment on June 29, 2018.
One lifelong fan of “Crystal Ball” is Loverboy lead singer Mike Reno. “It’s one of my favorite songs,” Reno readily admits. “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.”
Elsewhere on the album, 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 “This Old Man,” a poignant tribute to DeYoung’s father.
Meanwhile, the beginning of Side 2 gets ushered in with “Shooz,” a catchy finger-snapper of a song featuring some Southern-flare slide guitar courtesy of Alabama native Shaw, as counterbalanced by JY’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."
Incidentally, 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 together on “Man in the Wilderness” and “Radio Silence” during most of Styx’s live sets in recent years. In the meantime, please enjoy the many aural gifts Crystal Ball continues to offer. There are so many things I need to know. . .