10 Questions For Tommy Shaw of Styx, Damn Yankees
Goldmine Magazine Chester, VT. July 7, 2007
Guitarist/singer/songwriter and Mobile, Alabama–native Tommy Shaw is most widely known for his work with the Chicago–based, classic rock band Styx. After joining the band in 1976, Shaw played a major roll in the band reaching legendary status with the multi–platinum selling albums The Grand Illusion, Pieces Of Eight, Cornerstone and Paradise Theatre.
Photo by Jeanne Shaw
Shaw was also a driving force behind the early 90’s “super group” Damn Yankees, which also featured Detroit–guitar legend Ted Nugent and Night Ranger bassist Jack Blades. Damn Yankees would release two platinum–selling albums of their own, which would produce a number of radio hits including “Coming Of Age”, “Come Again” and “High Enough”.
Shaw has also released four solo albums along the way, and currently leads a re–vamped version of Styx with original member James “JY” Young. In between Styx–related activities, Shaw has recently reunited with Blades and will be releasing a CD of new material in March under the name Shaw/Blades, titled Influence.
JEM: You recently reunited with Jack Blades to release your first disc together since 1995. The new CD called Influence, feature covers by classic artists like The Mamas & Papas, Buffalo Springfield and Steely Dan. How did you go about choosing what songs to cover?
Tommy Shaw: It began when Jack was working on his solo album a couple of years ago and he asked me to sing on his recording of Spirit’s “Nature’s Way.” Not long after that I recorded a two song demo – “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield and “I Am A Rock” by Simon and Garfunkel–and sent them to Jack to see what he thought about them. We began compiling lists and before long we went to our good friend, John D. Kalodner, who had a couple of suggestions.
JEM: A couple years ago you also recorded a CD of cover songs with Styx called Big Bang Theory, which I thought was just fantastic. Is Influence a sort of off–shoot of the Big Bang concept? What is the flavor of the forthcoming covers?
TS: Actually “Influence” was finished before STYX recorded Big Bang Theory. The Styx CD was a result of our performance at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival where we played some covers rather than repeating our set which we’d just played for fans a couple of weeks before at a separate Styx concert in that area. Our live version of “I Am The Walrus” started getting so much radio air play that our label suggested the idea of a whole collection of covers. On “Influence,” we have for the most part stayed true to the feel and the arrangements of the original tracks, updating them here and there.
JEM: Do you plan on touring to support Influence, and if so, what territory will you cover or what type of venues will you target?
TS: We are currently routing a 20-city tour, which will cross the country starting in mid-March. It will be Jack and me performing acoustically, in venues that are under 1000 seats, such as B.B. King’s in New York City.
JEM: You are originally from Alabama. How did you find your way to Chicago, and then first come in contact with Styx? Did they really see you playing at the bar in a bowling alley?
TS: I left Alabama when I was 19, heading first to Nashville at the invitation of legendary agent Bobby “Smitty” Smith, who had heard about me through one of the many places I had played in Alabama. While in Nashville, I went to see a band at the Electric Circus in Printer’s alley. They were an unbelievable seven-piece hard-rocking band with horns who just were the best live band I’d ever seen. Somehow, with the help of my pal Brian O’Malley, I ended up being the eighth member of this band called Smoke Ring, which eventually became MS Funk.
The Styx connection came at a gig in Chicago in a club called “Rush Up”, where Styx’s tour manager Jim Vose introduced himself to me a year or so before I got the call from Styx.
JEM: Your first two albums with Styx, 1976's Crystal Ball and 1977's Grand Illusion brought immediate national success for the band, however I feel your song writing abilities and rock sensibilities reached a higher level with 1978's Pieces Of Eight. How do you view that album today, and am I off–base in feeling that it was some sort of breakthrough of Tommy Shaw's talent?
TS: Crystal Ball was my freshman album, which will always be a sentimental favorite of mine. It was the band’s sixth album and they had a method in the studio which I merged into and established myself there.
After touring behind Crystal Ball we saw our lives changing as we became more famous and popular, which led to the group consciousness of Grand Illusion. The shows got bigger and louder, and our reputation as a live concert act kept growing, and I would have to say that not just for me but for us as a band, Pieces of Eight was the pinnacle of that Styx era.
JEM: How did you hook up with Ted Nugent and Jack Blades in forming Damn Yankees. Were you already friends with Nugent from your touring days with Styx in the 70's?
TS: I had met Ted and run into him over the years on the road and had always admired him as an artist, and I’d met Jack briefly at the American Music Awards when we were both presenters. Jack was already working with Michael Cartellone in New York in a solo band when we put Damn Yankees together there in 1989.
JEM: Was it a challenge to create a guitar chemistry in the studio or onstage with such a “strong” personality as Nugent?
TS: One thing that cannot be said of Damn Yankees is that there was any challenge to putting it together. James Young and I had been trying to put Styx back together for years and could never get everyone to sit down in one place and talk it over. Damn Yankees took all of perhaps one phone call per man and one sit down at a Ray’s Pizza in New York City and it was a done deal. Working with Ted was a treat, because each of our styles seemed to compliment the other instantly. It’s the least amount of rehearsing I have ever done in a band. We didn’t like it and we didn’t need it.
JEM: Can you tell us something to describe what kind of musician and person John Panozzo was? (Styx original drummer who passed away in 2001) I know all the old Styx fans out there truly miss him.
TS: John was larger than life. He was the funniest musician I’ve ever been in a band with. His comedic view of life kept our spirits up whenever we were discouraged. The ongoing relationship between him and his twin brother Chuck (Styx’s original bass player) was a never-ending barrel of laughs. But it was behind the drum kit where Johnny was all business. He was a hard hitter. His drums literally roared.
JEM: Seeing as though MTV doesn't play music videos anymore, I love watching the old–school videos on VH-1 Classic. How did you hook up with them for the release of your up coming CD?
TS: The reason Influence was not released for so long was that we knew it was not the kind of record that we could expect much heat from in the conventional sense, say with an established major label. When we learned of VH1 Classic’s new label, we felt like we’d found an outlet that had the resources to reach the fans who would appreciate this record.
JEM: Name a musician whom you admire, and would like to collaborate with.
TS: I’d like to sit down with Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and be to him what he was to Woody Guthrie.