Oh mama! Tommy looks back on his five amazing decades in the band (and counting).

by Mike Mettler

photo by Jason Powell

The jig is up, the news is out, y’all — it was 40 years ago today, on December 12, 1975, that Tommy Shaw joined Styx. After a whirlwind audition process, Shaw got the nod to replace co-founding guitarist/vocalist John “JC” Curulewski, who departed the band on December 6, less than a week after the release of Equinox, Styx’s pivotal fifth album and its first on A&M Records, on December 1, 1975.

Just like that, in the wake of JC quitting, Styx had to cancel some tour dates, regroup in its hometown of Chicago, and instantly put out the clarion call for a replacement guitarist so they could get the show right back out on the road. Enter Tommy Shaw, who joined Styx on December 12 after the above-mentioned successful audition took place and played his first show with the band on December 16, 1975, at the Municipal Auditorium in Zanesville, Ohio.

In a Styxworld exclusive, Tommy recalls the circumstances leading up to his becoming a member of the band and what it feels like all these decade later to keep on rockin’ the paradise for Styx fans the world over night after night. Happy anniversary, Mr. Shaw! Here’s to many, many more.

Hard to believe it’s been 40 years since I was invited to join Styx. I’ve often heard the phrase “thoughts become things,” but this made me a believer. I’d had a great run with my old friends from my hometown of Montgomery, Alabama — we called our band Harvest — playing in the Bama Bowl bowling alley lounge called Kegler’s Cove. It was a beautiful antidote for the “Rock Band versus Disco” experience that the band I’d joined up with in Nashville several years earlier, MS Funk, had finally succumbed to.

It was a year after graduating from Robert E. Lee High School that I got a call from Nashville talent agent Bobby “Smitty” Smith to come up to Music City and be part of a band he was putting together — which didn’t work out, by the way. But while I was there, I met the seven-piece horn band MS Funk in a club where they were performing, and next thing I knew, we headed off for a 2-year road trip, eventually settling down in Chicago.

It was at “Rush Up” on Rush Street where Styx’s tour manager Jim Vose introduced himself to me. When Styx was looking to replace John Curulewski in December 1975, it was Jim who found me in Montgomery and persuaded me on the phone that this was an opportunity I should not pass up.

The thought had only recently popped into my head that, as much as I loved Harvest, I was still drawn to seeing what else was out there beyond my hometown. I didn’t realize that the hundreds of MS Funk gigs we’d played were about to bear fruit to those thoughts.

It happened so quickly because John had left suddenly, just days after the release of Equinox, and they had a national tour booked with the tickets already on sale. My biggest concern was leaving my Montgomery bandmates on such short notice. JY [Styx co-founding guitarist/vocalist James “JY” Young] told me that they’d give my friends a week’s pay to give them a chance to work a new person in. That made it an offer I couldn’t refuse!

I would say I had mixed emotions the day I joined Styx because I was having to say goodbye to this band I really loved to go on to do something I already knew was going to be bigger right from the very beginning. It was still kind of an unknown to me, because I would be moving back to Chicago — or at least working out of Chicago. One thing I knew was I was going to be moving out of Montgomery, and having to relocate somewhere else.

So there was all that to deal with, but there was also the excitement of having listened to all of those Styx songs that I was going to be playing, knowing that I was going to have just one day of rehearsal. Lots of mixed emotions, as I said.

They gave me the albums and the set list so I could learn everything; I think it was about 16 songs. I knew all of it was coming. It was already December, with all of the pressure that comes with it. That, on top of it all, made it a very interesting holiday season for me.

But it didn’t take long for it to become pure excitement, once I got packed and went up to Chicago. The clock started ticking. There was one day of rehearsal at SIR, where we basically just went through it. And I got it! And off we went.

So to be in Styx now, 40 years later — well, we’ve seen a lot of changes. The world has changed a lot and the music industry has changed a few times. But the band is still as resilient as ever, and it’s been flexible and adaptable throughout those changes.

I was just as excited to take the stage with this band last night as I was 40 years ago. It’s always a challenge to rise up to, night after night. That’s one thing I can say about Styx: It has never been an area of complacency when you walk on that stage. The attitude always is, “Dig down and give it everything you’ve got.”

I don’t know if there’s any other way to be a member of Styx. That’s just how it’s wired. It was then; it is now. There’s always this joy factor that’s part of Styx music in general, but that’s also part of Styx music being performed live. And I think that’s one reason the fans keep being a part of it, because we’re all in it together. So thanks for sharing 40 great years with me. The best is yet to come!