A STYX STORY - Talking To James Young (Don Ward)

By: Don Ward
By: Don Ward

A chance to chat with a guitar hero.


You don't often get a chance to talk to someone you've admired for decades. When you do it's a real thrill. 

I had a chance to talk to James Young, founding member and guitarist for the classic rock giants Styx.  That was a thrill for me...and in a really cool twist, he told me about his own "thrilled to talk to someone" moment.  It was a phone interview done last week on the day JY and Styx were set to play at the Pikes Peak Center in Colorado Springs. Here's a shot of him on stage that night.

As fans we all know what it's like to watch and listen to our favorite musicians perform.  I wondered if JY and his band-mates enjoy performing as much as they seem to.  The answer to that is an emphatic "yes" from the seasoned Styx-man.

JY: Music has this incredible power to soothe, to calm, to inspire, to rev up and get excited and then in the best cases to heal illness and we are the stewards of this amazing power that comes from a higher place.

JY: Think of the favorite legal thing you've ever done and I get the chance to do it 100, 110, 120 nights a year and get out on that stage and just celebrate this great team of guys."

JY: We just have a great team of people that love what they do. This is like a traveling circus without the elephants. It's a phenomenal thing.

 Here he is with another long-time member of that long-traveling team, Tommy Shaw.

The two of them were the core of a band that has had huge success, especially in the 70's.  Few bands then were as big as Styx.  I asked JY if he was fully aware of just how big it was while he was living it.

JY: You know what?, Yes, and it paralyzed me. I mean we came from obscurity and "The Grand Illusion" was our 7th album and we had had one big hit song with "Lady" on the previous incarnation with Wooden Nickel records, our first four albums were there. The we got a chance to go over to A&M records and we were excited to be there. Then "The Grand Illusion"  finally took off and we were selling out arenas everywhere.

JY: How do you follow up when you go from selling 100-thousand records to 500-thousand to 5 million records, how do you, the follow-up's got to be really good. Fortunately my colleagues, co-writers in the band were not as paralyzed as I was by the whole thing, and, you know we put four triple-platinum albums in a row together which was an astounding thing that we were the first to do. So it was it was a heck of a ride. We sold out Busch Stadium in June or July of 1978. I mean we had, we hit some high spots there and then we couldn't get along and broke up for 13 years there in 1983.

DW: You're back now.

JY: Oh yeah!

They've been back for a long time with some different members, including Lawrence Gowan (left) handling keyboards and vocals.

One thing we fans often wonder as we listen to our favorite music...is whether or not the artists who created it spend any time listening to it themselves.

DW: Do you listen to your own stuff?

JY: Normally, no. But we just actually last year , in the fall, went out and performed "The Grand Illusion" album in its entirety for the first time ever in front of a live audience. And also the "Pieces of Eight" album in its entirety and we video taped that. There's going to be a DVD of that out, coming probably at the beginning of next year, when we finally get done post-producing it. For that reason I did go back and listen to every one of those songs in detail, which I hadn't done in probably 20 years.

So we've all got those DVD's to look forward to.  They will contain the classics..and I wondered what JY viewed as a classic Styx song, maybe the one piece that makes him the most proud.  Turns out he did have a favorite and he had a great story about just how it became what it became.

JY: Well the whole body of work is just incredible. The song "Renegade" that Tommy wrote but I like to think that I helped force the arrangement into the more rockin' song that it is. Because it was very Alan Parsons-esque, kind of brooding and mysterious and I said, "Man, I think we need a big arena rock song and I think this can be it".

JY: I just put these heavy guitars on there when Tommy was gone from the studio one day and everybody came back and said,"Wow, you know, that's great". So we lived with that, with me pushing it towards the rockier edge. I mean that song is..young people discover that song. We've had parents come tell us their 15-year-old son came to us and said he heard this song by this great new band. The song is "Renegade" by the his new band called Styx, and we go well, it's not exactly a new band!

As I mentioned it was a thrill for me to talk to JY and I wanted to know who he had met that made him nervous or humbled...and maybe who he'd still like to meet.  Turns out guitar players really do admire the other guitar players who inspired them.

JY: I met Eric Clapton for the first time last year at the Crossroads Festival in Chicago. He was in the room there but I was..I definitely wanted to meet him because I know he's aware of us and we had actually played at his Crossroads Festival in 2004, but I just, you know, he's a busy guy and I just didn't want to bother him. A buddy of mine who makes feature films went over and said, "I'll talk to him". So he talked to him and brought him over and we had a chance to talk. It was great because I really sort of...it was his "Crossroads" solo he played on the song "Crossroads" on the "Live at the Fillmore" album that I slowed down to half-speed and learned it note for note at slow speed to figure out how he played it.

JY: I said that and I told him, thank you for that. He said, "Well you know I made some mistakes in that solo."  So I go "What?" (laughter) He said, "I got off the beat, I got off the beat in a couple of spots." and I go, "Heck, I didn't notice, I still don't notice it, " so, it just shows you.

JY: Eric was, couldn't have been sweeter, couldn't have been greater. I mean he's raising millions of dollars every time he does one of those shows for charity for his rehab center down in the Caribbean. It was a great thrill of mine.

JY: I still want to meet Keith Richards.

Don't we all? Maybe some day there could be a "Styx and Stones" tour. 

No matter who they tour with, Styx will stay on the road.  I asked JY about future plans for the band and he told me there's no reason for Styx to stop.

 JY: I look at BB king and he's in his mid-80's and he's still out there playing the blues. He basically doesn't stand up any more because his diabetes has gotten to a point, but I think it's playing the shows that keeps him going. For all of us this is the fountain of youth so I don't see us ever stopping performing. It's too exhilarating it's too joyful, it's too wonderful it's too life re-affirming to stop.

As long as they'll keep playing, we the fans will keep watching them do it. There's something pretty joyful in the whole thing from the audience side of the stage too! 


After about 10 minutes on the phone I knew I had plenty of sound to use for a couple of quick stories previewing that night's concert on 11 News at 4 and 5:30.  I wrapped up the call by thanking JY for being so generous with his time.  I really enjoyed the conversation and I hoped he did too. Thanks to the folks who run the Pikes Peak Center, and who made the phone interview happen, I also had a chance to say hello to the band very quickly before the concert. That's me in the suit!

I very quickly told James, "I'm Don from the phone interview earlier today"  and shook his hand.  He said, "That was a great chat" and gave me a thumbs up as I walked away.  I guess he enjoyed it too!

The concert itself was amazing...if you're a Styx fan you already knew that.  The only down side was that I had to leave early, at about 9:20....to get back to work to do the newscast at 10!

You can hear the complete audio of the interview here. 


We'll talk again soon.

Don Ward


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