Details of his journey into Styx…and beyond
By Gary Graff
Aug. 19, 2016
Tommy Shaw picked up his first guitar — a four-string tenor — when he was nine years old, growing up in Montgomery, Ala. And he hasn’t looked back since. A rock ‘n’ roll prodigy in school, he became world famous 40 years ago when Styx came calling, and during his two stints with the band (he’s been a constant again since 1995) Shaw has been the driving force behind favorites such as “Crystal Ball,” “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man),” “Renegade,” “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights,)” “Too Much Time On My Hands” and many more.
Outside of Styx, he’s logged time in Damn Yankees (with Ted Nugent and Night Ranger’s Jack Blades) and in a duo with Blades, and he’s released five solo albums. He was inducted into the Alabama Hall of Fame in 2008, and he still loves holding a guitar as much as he did that fateful introduction day 53 years ago.
FGPO: So how did you wind up becoming a guitar player?
Shaw: It found me when I was nine years old. I had two older brothers, and one of their friends [had] like this little four-string tenor guitar, like the kind the Kingston Trio had, at our house, and I had my eye on it. As soon as everybody went to bed, I snuck in there and went out on the front porch, this little stoop, and taught myself how to play “Ghost Riders In The Sky,” ’cause that was what was popular at the time. And it was so easy to me; I was hooked at that moment. My brothers said they never saw me much after that.
FGPO: What did you gravitate to as influences?
Shaw: I learned a lot of Beatles songs. My first electric guitar was a Silvertone, a black-and-white; it was like a Danelectro, something they’d make for Sears. It had the amplifier built into the guitar case. I got one of those for my 11th birthday. I immediately wound up in a 4-H talent contest; it was in the junior high cafeteria, and I won a blue ribbon for that. There’s a picture of me; I look like one of the Blues Brothers in this black suit and little skinny tie, playing that guitar. And we played “I Saw Her Standing There.”
FGPO: Was the noise a big hit at home?
Shaw: I was the baby, and my mother was so glad I wasn’t going to be playing sports and getting roughed up and injured. She loved music, and she got this other little band of ours on a morning TV show. I was in sixth grade; We played “Pretty Woman” and dedicated it to my sixth grade teacher. I guess I was learning how to schmooze at an early age [laughs].
FGPO: Kind of like an early version of Van Halen’s “Hot For Teacher?”
Shaw: [laughs] Oh, no…She was just a really sweet teacher. She had a son who died from leukemia and I reminded her of him, so she had a special place in her heart for me, and when I started playing music she was just thrilled, because she was able to see what it might have been like for her son if he’d survived. She was just as sweet and supportive as she could be, and she would let me out of class to go into other classrooms and perform a song in the middle of their classes. That was awesome and I loved doing it. I remember walking back home with that guitar case in my hand. I thought I was really cool.
FGPO: It’s 40 years for you in Styx this year. Does it feel like 40 minutes? 400 years?
Shaw: It’s more like 40 minutes. Y’know, I look at some of these anniversaries, and I’m not really much of a sentimentalist, to be honest with you, ’cause there’s so much going on in the present. I don’t look back that much. I’ve always heard it’s alright to look at the past but it’s impolite to stare — That’s how I feel about it. But it is a little shocking to think how young I was when I joined the band, and how amazing it is that we created a lot of that music right around that era.
FGPO: How did you wind up in Styx?
Shaw: A year or two before that, their tour manager came to a gig I was doing with the band I was in at the time on Rush Street in Chicago. We were a big, three-part harmony rockin’ band. They had recorded Equinox. They had a brand new manager. They had a national tour booked, and then John Curulewski decided to drop out of it, and they didn’t want to have to cancel everything and then restart it. So [the tour manager] found me back in my home town of Montgomery, Ala., through directory assistance; I had no reason to keep my phone number unlisted, ’cause nobody knew me. I went up the very next day for an audition, and they sent me home with some Styx albums and said, “Learn these 13 songs, and we’re leaving on Monday.” It was that quick. We had one rehearsal and hit the road. There was no time to think; it’s: “We’re playing these songs, and here you go…” I was so young. All my senses were on fire. I was like: “I can fit in with this. I’ve played in bands with lots of other people. This is another band,” and it was easy for me to adapt to it.
FGPO: The Crystal Ball album came shortly after that, and it seemed like your contributions were welcomed right off the bat.
Shaw: Well, when you haven’t made albums you have your whole life’s worth of material at your disposal. So I didn’t think about it very much; I was just excited to be there and willing to throw in ideas. If you listen to Crystal Ball it really does sound like a transitional album for the band — in a very nice way, I thought. It’s a very classic-sounding thing, I think, and some things that were a little more on the edge of what they did.
FGPO: Were any of the songs you contributed material that you’d had around for awhile?
Shaw: There was one song called “Shooz” that didn’t sound very much like Styx, but it still kinda had a Chicago blues vibe to it. I had the first part of “Crystal Ball;” That was something I’d written when I was playing in the bowling alley lounge in Montgomery when they called me to audition. But they all said: “This is not a Styx song.” And I was thinking: “What does it take to make this a Styx song? It needs a big chorus.” So I fooled around with several different variations of choruses, and I would get the “nope, nope, nope,” and finally I came up with the most simple thing, and it was just repeating “Crystal Ball” and that’s the one that everybody said, “Yes, NOW it’s a Styx song…”
FGPO: Over the years, is there a definitive Styx guitar moment for you?
Shaw: Well, maybe “Blue Collar Man,” just as a rock song. “Crystal Ball” has got a solo I always loved to play; it’s one of those solos that, y’know, there’s a certainly sort of compositional solo on the record, and I stick with it to a degree, but I always like to go off script and go inside and play what I’m feeling at the time.
FGPO: What are the prospects of hearing some new Styx music soon?
Shaw: Well, it’s really hard to buckle down and do something like that with our touring schedule. We’re always messing around with new ideas, so I wouldn’t rule that out. We haven’t closed the door on that, but we don’t really have anything on the schedule, and there’s nothing finished. We do work on new stuff, it’s just we haven’t really set aside time to finishing anything. It’s difficult to do that because we play [live] so much and you have to have a balance. You have to have time when you’re not on the road and you’re not working on Styx, just to keep yourself sane and have a happy, balanced life. [Ed. note — Styx will release a new home video, Live At The Orleans Arena Las Vegas, on Sept. 2.]
FGPO: Styx has done a lot of summer tours with other bands — Def Leppard, Yes, REO Speedwagon. This year you’ve been doing your own thing, though. Is it a nice change?
Shaw: We’re having a good time this year, because we’re able to stretch out and play more extended sets, depending on where we are. There’s a lot of switching around of songs, and we’re playing songs we haven’t played in awhile, like “Snowblind,” and we have enough songs where we can kind of change it up night after night, which is a treat. When you’re on the package shows there’s only so many minutes that everybody can play, and we wind up playing an hour. It’s great ’cause you’re playing to 20,000 people almost every night, but you can’t do it all the time because your core fans want to hear deep tracks and more than just a one-hour set. So we’re really enjoying that this year.
FGPO: It’s been a few years now since the last solo album [2011’s The Great Divide]. Any plans for another one?
Shaw: I’ve been doing that for four years [laughs], and the deal with those is you put it out, and you have to go promote it. And right now I don’t want to put Styx on hold to go out and do a solo project. But, yes, there’s a lot of music that’s partially produced, and others that are just in demo form. I have a studio in my house, so I have access for getting ideas down. So, yeah, someday, but not right now.