by Mike Mettler
photos by Kathy Francis
“That was amazing.” It’s a little after 4 p.m. on October 23, and original Styx bassist Chuck Panozzo is a happy man, having just completed a one-man soundcheck on the circular stage that’s the hallmark of the NYCB Theatre in Westbury, Long Island in New York. While the rest of the band was on the tour bus en route from their hotel to the venue, Chuck was testing out an instrument he hadn’t played in many, many years — namely, an Alembic bass that had just been returned to him by two very special and quite dedicated people.
“It’s a beautiful bass, but it’s very heavy,” observed Styx guitar tech Greg Mandleke, the man who had been charged in recent weeks with getting the Alembic up to Styx’s rigorous performance standards. “I’ll take good care of her, and I’ll bring her up to the dressing room in a bit after I’ve had a chance to get her more battle-ready.”
Standing on a ramp behind drummer Todd Sucherman’s live rig, Chuck was visibly brightened at the prospect of finally being able to play the Alembic later in the evening on “Renegade,” the final song in Styx’s encore. “I don’t know how I’m going to lift it once I get out there, but I’ll try,” he joked. “It’s been over 10 years since I last had it, and more than 30 years since I played it with the band. On every tour, fans want to see something different. Tonight, they’ll get to see something they haven’t seen for decades.”
So just how did this truly wonderful gear reunion happen? Much thanks and praise must go to John and Kathy Francis, two lifelong Styx fans who were the unyielding catalysts for getting the Alembics back in the hands of their rightful owner. In a Styxoworld exclusive, John — with great input and additional clarification from his better half, Kathy — tell us jointly how it all came to pass.
Mike Mettler: For the uninitiated, please share Chuck’s history with the Alembics.
John Francis: Back in the day, Chuck usually laid down the low-end foundation for Styx on his 1980 Alembic Series I bass. He had previously used his first, 1977-build Series 1 Alembic — bought straight off the rack from a music store — on the Pieces of Eight and Cornerstone albums and tours.
But at that point, Chuck wanted a custom bass. He went to the Alembic factory in Santa Rosa, California, where he was presented with a myriad of options. Chuck joked about how much deforestation he was probably responsible for based on the beautiful exotic woods that were available options at the time, such as the rare ebony facings on the front and back of the instrument. According to sources at Alembic, only four instruments were ever made with that option!
Couple that with a distinctive Scorpion cut body shape, an unusual Scorpion cut Omega, and Alembic’s complex active electronics, and you’ve got a very unique and beautiful instrument.
Mettler: What other musicians have used Alembics over the years?
Francis: Chuck was in decidedly good company with other bassists of the day, including the likes of John Entwistle of The Who, Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, John McVie of Fleetwood Mac, Mark King of Level 42, and the virtuoso musician most closely identified with Alembic basses, jazz bass legend Stanley Clarke.
Mettler: I know Chuck’s a fan of the Alembic’s LED feature.
Francis: One of the cool stories Chuck told us about this bass is the fretboard LEDs, which are inlaid in the side of the neck of the guitar. He explained that on the Paradise Theater tour, Styx opened the show with the band in total darkness, so he needed some sort of point of reference once he got out there onstage. Of course, these days, cool glow-in-the-dark paint and gaffer tape can be used to similar effect, but seeing those LED dots glow red in pitch black is certainly something to behold.
Anyhow, once he decided on the instrument specifications, Chuck waited over a year to get the bass. He recounted going to the NAMM show the following year, walking up to the booth and seeing his instrument there. He then reached for it, and the folks manning the booth said, “Hey, you can’t take that!” To which Chuck responded, “That’s mine!”
Chuck proceeded to use that bass almost exclusively on the latter part of the Cornerstone tour in 1980, as well as on the subsequent Paradise Theater and Kilroy Was Here albums and tours in 1981 and 1983.
Mettler: Tell me how you were able to retrieve the Alembics, and then get them back into Chuck’s possession.
Francis: When we learned, sadly, many years ago that these guitars were no longer in Chuck’s possession, we vowed that if we were ever given the opportunity, we would take on the mission to ensure that these basses did not end up getting “lost” in the world. We felt their special history, provenance, and pedigree had to be preserved.
Going as far back as March 2012, postings on the Internet began to surface, indicating that these guitars were “out there,” and possibly available for sale. For the next 4½ years, we pursued every lead in a concerted effort to make it happen. We knew we had to take the chance. We would just have to be tenacious as hell and figure it out as we went along.
After many twists and turns, ups and downs, and certainly a fair amount of disappointment and disillusionment, in May 2016, the planets suddenly aligned, and we were able to bring our mission to its fruition.
As Styx continued touring into the fall of 2016, we reached out to Chuck and told him we had something very special that we wanted to show him in person, and asked if it would be possible to meet before the Styx show in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania on September 24. Working with the band’s management, we were able to arrange this special “reunion” for Chuck before the show.
As fans, it was extremely moving to see Chuck reunited with his basses and being able to hold them again. His mind seemed to drift off to some darkened stage, to another place and time from the not-too-distant past. It was a very special moment, for both him and us.
Mettler: It must have felt quite rewarding to see Chuck with that bass onstage at the end of the night.
Francis: We sat through the show with bated breath until the very last song of the night, “Renegade.” Out came Chuck, and the bass, as glorious as ever, gleamed under the stage lights. Chuck beamed, the crowd pointed and cheered, and we cried. It was transcendent. Watching from the shadows of the 14th row that night, it was a poignant coda to a journey and adventure that seemed improbable. As the line goes in the Cornerstone song “Never Say Never,” Ne dis jamais jamais…
More of the story behind the return of Chuck's beloved Alembics can be found in this week's installment of Styxology, which is available to every Styx Lounge member. Click on JOIN to find out how you can join the club today!