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With a little help from some friends, Styx has it covered

Sunday, May 1, 2005

By Steve Metsch
Staff writer

Driving in Chicago's South Loop last year, Styx guitarist James "JY" Young found himself in front of a famous address.

It was 2120 S. Michigan Ave., site of the Chess Records studio where blues greats Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Buddy Guy, Chuck Berry and others recorded music. The place was so legendary that British blues fans such as the Rolling Stones and Yardbirds traveled to record there in the 1960s.

The musical history was not lost on Young, who grew up on Chicago's South Side and now lives in the western suburbs. His band, Styx, got its start in Chicago back in 1970.

"I noticed, and shame on me for not knowing this, that it's now the home of Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven Foundation," Young said.

The foundation raises money to promote and support the blues. Styx decided not only to record one of the songs for its new CD, "Big Bang Theory," there, but also to donate a portion of the CD's profits to the foundation.

"I felt it was time, as a band, for us to give something back to the city of Chicago. And I convinced everybody else in the band that we should go record there," Young said.

Young recruited Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Johnnie Johnson, Berry's former piano player, to play piano on a new version of "Blue Collar Man," which the band first recorded in 1978. It was fortunate timing Johnson died on April 13 at the age of 80.

"We were honored that he agreed to perform with us," Young said. "He's seen so much. This guy played with Chuck Berry."

Also joining in was Koko Taylor, known as Chicago's "Queen of the Blues" and a friend of Dixon's widow, Marie. Taylor sang backup vocals to lead singer and guitarist Tommy Shaw.

The new "Blue Collar Man @ 2120" has a "swampy, blues feel," Young said, "with more emotion of the lament of someone who has lost his job and is trying to find one."

"Big Bang Theory," which will hit stores May 10, includes 13 cover versions of other bands' songs.

The Who's "I Can See for Miles," the Lovin' Spoonful's "Summer in the City," Jimi Hendrix's "Manic Depression," and Jethro Tull's "Locomotive Breath" are in the mix, as is a version of the Beatles' "I Am the Walrus."

"I never would have had the chutzpah to think that we should ever record something like (a Beatles song)," Young said with a laugh.

But Styx's version of "I Am the Walrus," recorded at a concert in Lincoln City, Ore., last September, leads off the CD. It should the song, produced as a single, was No. 2 on the classic radio charts in 2004.

Young credits Greg Solk, vice president of programming for Bonneville Radio in Chicago, for that success. Bonneville owns three local stations, including classic rock WDRV-FM (97.1), on which Styx is a staple.

"(Styx) played an incredible version of the song last year in a show at the Vic (Theater), and the crowd went crazy," Solk said. "I told the band that if they recorded it, I'd put it on the radio. They looked at me as if I were nuts, maybe I am, but the listeners responded."

Young was floored by Solk's offer.

"That happens virtually never in this day and age," Young said. "It's like 'Lady,' back in 1974, when we walked into WLS Radio to promote our fourth album and Bob Sirott said he really liked the song and was going to play it every day."

The constant play made "Lady" the band's first hit and ignited a career that included four consecutive triple platinum albums, each selling more than 3 million copies, in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

For "Big Bang Theory," band members chose songs special to them. That's why Young sings lead on "Locomotive Breath" and "Manic Depression."

"I wouldn't have believed it if you had told me a year ago that we'd be recording an album of other people's music. Why would we do that? But then, I wouldn't have expected our cover of 'I Am the Walrus' to hit No. 2 on the charts," Young said.

Re-recording classics is dangerous, he acknowledged, because some fans don't like their favorite songs touched.

"I've seen other people pay tribute to other artists and, many times, I've felt that the large majority of covers don't measure up to the original," he said. "Our collective goal was to have everything measure up, if not exceed the originals. It's tough."

"Blue Collar Man @ 2120" was the only song recorded at Chess. The others were recorded at studios around the country.

Young hopes longtime fans find the results intriguing.

They will hear Young and Shaw trade guitar licks on the Allman Brothers' "One Way Out." And Styx's harmony shines on "Find the Cost of Freedom," a Crosby, Stills & Nash song.

"Harmony has always been known as one of our signature things. The blend is unique," Young said.

Young promised Dixon's widow that he'd record Dixon's "It Don't Make Sense (You Can't Make Peace)."

"That song was near and dear to his heart. He felt that music has an incredible power to heal, and I believe it does," Young said.

The album is the 15th released by various incarnations of Styx, which saw its first wave of popularity dwindle in the mid-1980s. Dennis DeYoung, the band's original founder, singer and keyboardist, was still with the group then.

A bitter breakup ensued in the 1990s. While DeYoung played a huge role in the band's success, with songs such as "Lady," "Come Sail Away," and "Grand Illusion," he also steered his bandmates toward more theatrical productions they did not care for, with the campy "Kilroy Was Here" tour of the early 1980s prime example.

"One man's dream, and everyone else's nightmare," said Young, who has not spoken with DeYoung since June 1999.

But Styx prevails.

The band will perform in England, Germany, Sweden, Belgium and Holland in June.

"It's our first visit to England in over 20 years," Young said. "Last time, our timing was off. We got there when it was all about punk and new wave."

He sees his band as filling a need for anyone turned off by the "negative message" of rap lyrics.

"I knew that if we waited long enough, the pendulum would swing back to our territory," Young said.

Styx will play at WDRV's fourth birthday concert May 25 at the Rosemont Theatre. The radio station bought all 4,400 tickets and will distribute them to randomly selected listeners who register at More than 16,000 fans already have registered.

"You'd be surprised at how many kids you'll see at Styx shows these days," " Solk said. "It happens all the time high school kids who discover the Beatles or the Doors or Credence Clearwater Revival."

The concert will feature cover versions and Styx songs.

"We signed our first record contract in 1972. Now, 33 and one-third years later, here comes the 'Big Bang Theory,' " Young said. "We've profoundly affected a couple of generations. I'm amazed."

Steve Metsch may be reached at or (708) 633-5996.


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