James "JY" Young
The Cal Ripken, Jr. of Styx

by Willie G. Moseley

There is probably not a better description of Chicago-area guitarist James Young than "the Cal Ripken, Jr. of Styx." The tall, blonde fretmeister was a founder of the band that's been through more than one triumph and tragedy in its history, and was amenable to going on-the-record with VG about his personal chronology, and the band's.

Young and Styx's other guitarist, Tommy Shaw (VG, May/June '99) began trading licks in that band in the mid 1970s, and when Young called VG from his home in the Chicago area, he was taking a break from Styx's ambitious summer tour with Bad Company, Billy Squier, and newcomer Joe Stark.

Vintage Guitar: Technically, you're the only original member of the band who is on tour now; the new live album notes that original bassist Chuck Panozzo will be making what would be perceived as guest appearances.

James Young: He's kind of on a leave of absence, but he saw how much fun we're having, so he said he'd come to some of the big shows and sit in on a few things. But he didn't want to be a day-to-day guy. I'm the only Styx member to have performed on every album and at every show. I'm the Cal Ripken, Jr. of Styx (chuckles).

Presumably, you're originally from the Chicago area.

I grew up on the South Side and went to high school with Jimmy Reed's son, although I never really had a conversation with him. The school was probably about half white and half black, although it became less white as I was there. We'd play our "white man rock and roll" stuff - this was from '63 to '67; we'd do things by the Kingsmen and surf bands. I was aware of the stuff Jimmy's son was playing, but I was finally influenced by Jimi Hendrix.

One of my family members forced me to start piano at age five; my dad played basically by ear, but my sister is a brilliant sightreader. I bought a bunch of Jimmy Smith organ records to listen to, and when I was 14, one of my uncles purchased a classical guitar. When I opened up the case and smelled it and touched it, it was...


Intoxicating... I was really taken with it. One of my younger brothers bought a single-pickup, hollowbody Gibson with no cutaway. Ultimately, I played that guitar about eight hours a day; my brother hardly ever had a chance. Later, we bought two other guitars; a Supro, and I needed a solid-body, so I got a Fender Duo-Sonic that someone had painted Candy Apple metalflake turquoise.

My brother ultimately decided to play bass; by that time I had become the guitar player in our bands, but eventually, my brother became a much better acoustic player than I was. (He) passed away recently, and I remember how he used to like to sing a Bad Company song called "Ready for Love." Well, we're out with Bad Company now, and they do that song onstage, so it reminds me of my brother every night. It's a wonderful thing.

After the Duo-Sonic, I had to have a Strat because of Hendrix, and I played that for years, although I used a Les Paul on occasion.

Styx has always been perceived as a two-guitar band rather than a band with a lead guitarist and a rhythm guitarist.

Yeah; in the early days with John Curulewski, he was a more skilled acoustic player than I was, but electric leads were kind of my specialty in that situation; I would pretend I was Johnny Winter or Ritchie Blackmore (chuckles).

When Styx formed, was there any melding of musical styles, based on previous experiences?

The Panozzo brothers and Dennis DeYoung had a band called TW4 that played cover songs, and they were very vocal-oriented. They originally called themselves the Tradewinds, but there was a resonance with TW4 with a television show in the ’60s called “That Was The Week That Was,” also known as “TW3.” They were ready to get a recording contract when I joined; they were missing an element, and I was that element - I was sort of cutting-edge and they were sort of mainstream, if you will. The band I had didn’t work much, but we had high artistic ideals and covered a lot of obscure album tracks. We’d also take regular pop tunes and rearrange them to give them a heavier rock treatment.

How does some of the earlier material from Wooden Nickel (label) albums come across to you now? Do things like "Krakatoa" or "The Hallelujah Chorus" still hold up, or do they sound pretentious?

Well...(chuckles) to me, we were trying to find our identity, and there was probably a lot of meandering in those early days, trying to figure out what we were supposed to be. Curulewski had met the Panozzo brothers and Dennis in a college choral group, so that's where a lot of the vocal influences came from. "The Hallelujah Chorus" is a powerful, classical piece like they would've sung in such a group. And if you had an appreciation for classical music, it didn't seem unnatural for us to do something like that.

The big deal about it was that someone let us into an Episcopal church to record it. We ran cable about a block and a half from the church to the recording studio; Dennis played pipe organ on it.

How was Tommy Shaw recruited?

John became less happy in the framework of the group; we'd had the hit song "Lady," and Dennis was becoming the more dominant member at that point in time. I also think John wasn't happy on the road, so he decided to leave. We wanted to keep going, and Tommy was the second guy we auditioned. We'd heard great things about him, but we weren't sure if he could sing those high falsetto parts that John used to sing on songs like "Lady." The curious thing is that "Lady" was on Styx II, which was released in '73, but "Lady" didn't become a hit until late '74 into early '75. John left after we recorded Equinox.

We'd heard about Tommy from our tour manager, Jim Vose. He walked in for his audition and we put the needle down on side two of Equinox, onto my song "Midnight Ride," which was more on the testosterone/rockin' guitar side of the band rather than the melodic side. He was blown away 'cause he had no idea we could do that. I was wondering about whether or not we really needed two guitar players, but Tommy was a lot more talented than we ever knew, so we sort of developed a friendly rivalry and a wonderful friendship at the same time.

Is the interplay between you and Shaw one of the primary reasons the band went on to even bigger success?

It takes a lot of different things to make something successful. Tommy was talented, and was more broadly talented and more driven than John; he had a whole different slant on things. Stage-wise, Tommy was a dynamo; it was like "Hi, everybody! I'm here, and we're gonna kick some ass and have fun whether you like it or not!" In some respects, he started running circles around me, and kind of woke me up, as well.

What was your response to having Styx cited by critics as one of the big four of arena rock bands alongside REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, and Journey?

The critics have their own agenda. How did Bruce Springsteen get on the covers of national news magazines as the greatest thing in rock and roll? I think there there was an expose' in something like Esquire 10 years down the line, about how it was decided that he was going to be anointed as the next big thing.

We had the audacity to succeed without having a champion in the New York press. If you're something they've "discovered," then they're really championing their own egos. I understand that - it's human nature and I don't have a problem with it. Derek Sutton, who managed us starting in '75, through our greatest success, was very anti-press, because he compared music critics to film critics. People may not go see a film if someone says, "It's really a bad movie," but that doesn't mean it is a bad movie. But that's the power (critics) have. Whereas, with people who are criticizing music, music can be played on the radio, and everyone can hear it and judge for themselves. So many times, the critic doesn't play as much of a crucial role.

We got a good review of Crystal Ball in Rolling Stone, but when The Grand Illusion came out and succeeded in a huge way, they basically slammed us even though it sold three million copies and was a top 10 album for a long time. Would I rather have been Johnny Rotten and had my candle burn out so quickly? I could have been so cutting-edge I would have had nothing left. You have to be true to yourself. The criticism of rock music is a very subjective adventure, and the ultimate arbiter of taste is the fact that there are millions of people who love the music we play.

Over the years, you’ve primarily been seen onstage with a Stratocaster.

Yeah, but in the ’90s I was seen with a Kramer guitar with an upside-down headstock. I was very into G&Ls, and walked into a store to try out a few, and then the store owner put this Kramer Sustainer guitar in my hands; I think this was around the time the company went out of business. Obviously, Hendrix used a lot of feedback combined with a whammy bar, and this guitar had the Sustainiac circuit. Playing as loud as Ted Nugent onstage could destroy the sound of a vocal band like us, and could take away the control of the sound guy. With this sustainer circuit, I could play at a low level onstage, but still get the kind of reactivity that I wanted.

Tommy was on me last year, telling me I had to go back to a vintage guitar. I’ve owned a Firebird and Les Paul Junior for a long time, but I was a Strat guy because of Hendrix. I tried a guitar synthesizer for a little while, but they’re temperamental devices. The most recent incarnation of me on guitar includes a ’70s Strat and a couple of new Strats that have a locking trem and sustainer pickups. It works, and I’ve never sounded better.

What kept you busy when Styx split for the first time?

I did three solo records; one was with Jan Hammer in '86. Styx stopped working at the end of '83, and I formed my own company. The self-financed record with Jan was called City Slicker. I did a second one in the late '80s called Out On A Day Pass - Willie Wilcox, the drummer from Utopia, was on that one. In the early '90s, I actually put a band together and did club dates; we also opened for more noted bands. We did an album called Raised By Wolves.

When Styx opted to reunite, the new lineup included Glen Burtnik on guitar instead of Shaw. Burtnik plays bass in the most recent incarnation.

By the end of '86, Tommy was on the phone to me, trying to get the band back together. We tried getting Dennis' attention in a friendly way, but he resisted. Ultimately, Tommy got tired of waiting around, and committed to work with Ted Nugent... and if you commit to working with Ted, you have to take it pretty seriously (laughs)!

I don't think Dennis would have ever come back if he'd succeeded as a solo artist, but he didn't. So when he finally did come back, Tommy was too busy with his other projects. We auditioned several people, and Glen became the replacement for Tommy.

Any comments about how the VH1 "Behind the Music" episode turned out?

I can't say that it's 100 percent accurate, but it's probably 98 percent accurate. They got a couple of things wrong or out of context, but by and large it's been a good thing for us; it sort of elevated our profile and made people aware of what's going on with this band. In the past, Dennis' pop songs were the pathway for the record company promotion staff to get our music on the radio, but if you live by the single, you can die by the single, as well.

And the term "power ballads" is applied to some Styx music, as well

No doubt. But the reality is that this is one rockin' band, and if you haven't seen the new incarnation, you're gonna be blown away when you do.

Wasn't Return to Paradise the best-selling CD for your label?

It's their only Gold CD to date, and our Return to Paradise concert video is their only Gold release on videotape and DVD.

The live double-CD effort with REO Speedwagon, Arch Allies, was an unusual concept - live discs from each band, and jam sessions with each other at the end of both.

I don't know that it's ever been done before, but it was a very successful tour, and it seemed like a good idea to chronicle it from both a sonic and video standpoint.

You produced the new World Tour 2001 album, with the exception of one song, which (singer/keyboardist) Lawrence Gowan produced.

I've played a role on every Styx album. I'm the only one in the band with a technical degree. I produced my solo records, as well; Jan and I co-produced the one we did together. But I've never produced other people; I just don't have the patience for it.

"A Criminal Mind," the Gowan-produced song, was recorded in Canada, and Gowan's Canadian.

It was Lawrence's "breakout" hit as a solo artist about 15 years ago in Canada; it was a number one hit there, but it never saw the light of day in the U.S. We said, "Our fans don't know this song, but Canadian fans of Lawrence will."

Regarding the aforementioned VH-1 special and the new incarnation of the band, you noted in that show that “With Dennis, it was ‘my way or the highway,’ and we chose the highway.” It was also noted therein that you felt like this new version of the band would show both fans and skeptics that Styx could be “a kick-ass rock and roll band.”

Well, we were that, before Dennis wrote “Babe” (chuckles). But by the time of The Grand Illusion and then Pieces of Eight, Tommy was coming into his own as a writer of popular Styx songs; “Blue Collar Man” and “Renegade” were his. As for Dennis, his karma ran over his dogma.

The point is, the production on the new live album will probably sound a bit rawer to some listeners who may be more familiar with more sonic frills.

I think it's got great energy and excitement. It's what the band is now, and it's what we want to be. We'd be crazy to present Styx in any other way.

A lot of veteran bands spent the summer on triple bills, including your presentation with Bad Company and Billy Squier. Other examples include Journey, Peter Frampton, and John Waite, as well as Nugent, Deep Purple, and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Well, modern radio probably isn't going to be giving much airplay to most of those bands. Journey has got a new record out, and it's doing okay, but I don't think it's flying out the door like some of the earlier stuff. From a concert promoter's standpoint, you're giving more value to your ticket price if you put two or three bands together.

And the guys in Bad Company, Billy Squier's band, and Joe Stark are great. Bad Company sounds true to itself with Dave Colwell (VG, January '97) playing guitar. I call Joe "the Cajun Sensation;" he's got a blues-based vibe going, but he's also got a sense of '80s pop... not a lot, but just enough to color his sound to where it's different from a Kenny Wayne (Shepard) or a Jonny Lang.

Tour plans after this summer?

My intention is that we're gonna play on all six continents before too long. We've never been to Australia, South Africa, Egypt, or Hong Kong. It's a global world like never before, so we've got some traveling to do. Eventually, we'll make a new studio record; we've got a bunch of new material already written.

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The album business may not be as lucrative for Styx as it once used to be, but the concert facet of their career as working musicians is going great guns, as their current touring situation confirms. The only member of the band not mentioned previously is drummer Todd Sucherman, who assists Messrs. Burtnik, Gowan, Shaw, and Young in continuing to present the music of Styx in a manner that still thrills millions of fans worldwide. This legendary band is indeed alive, well, and kickin' some serious butt onstage these days.


Thanks to Vintage Guitar Editor Ward Meeker for permission to reproduce excerpts from  this interview while it was still on the newsstands! 

Vintage Guitar magazine, December 2001
copyright ©2001 Vintage Guitar, Inc.

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