If the definition of a professional singer pays off, Styx frontman Tommy Shaw has been one since he was five years old.
“I remember when I was just a bighead kid sitting on the back porch,” Shaw said.
It was 1958 in Prattville, and little Tommy had a knack for remembering radio tunes.
“My grandfather, who was retired, had this job where he went around the newspaper machines and made every penny out of them,” Shaw said. “He was walking by and I was going out with my brother on the porch swing. He gave me pennies for singing little pieces of songs.
At 67, the payout is little more than a nickel for Shaw these days, and his music is still flowing. In nearly 50 years since Styx signed their first recording contract in 1972, the band have released 42 albums (17 studio, 9 live and 16 compilation).
In addition to Shaw’s vocals and guitar, Styx’s current lineup includes James “JY” Young (vocals, guitars), Lawrence Gowan (vocals and famous rotary keyboard), Todd Sucherman (drums) and Ricky Phillips (bass) , as well as an occasional appearance by original bassist Chuck Panozzo.
Earlier this summer, the multi-platinum rockers released The Same Stardust EP for Record Store Day on June 12. Less than a week later, Styx released a full new album “Crash of the Crown”, with recordings made at Shaw’s home studio in Nashville. .
“We were able to keep writing and playing new music, and making it sound like Styx and be like Styx, because it’s Styx,” Shaw said. “We know who we are. “
Shaw hasn’t forgotten who he is, either.
“I am proud to be from Montgomery. This is where I learned to be a musician, ”said Shaw.
The youngest of four children, Shaw was born in Montgomery on September 11, 1953. At the age of two, his parents Dalton and Mildred Shaw moved to Prattville for the next decade.
“Prattville is where I first got my hands on a guitar,” Shaw said. His parents gave it to him when he was seven. Five years later, they returned to Montgomery.
“A lot of parents don’t like rock and roll… but we’ve always encouraged it,” Shaw’s mother told The Advertiser in 1977.
The Montgomery drivers may not have caught sight of him until the mid-1960s as they drove past his house, but they were the audience Shaw honed his guitar art on.
“I got my amplifier out on the Madison Avenue porch and was playing in traffic,” Shaw said.
At 14, Shaw and four friends formed his first group, The Vagabonds. While a student at Lee High School, he performed with Jabbo Stokes & The Jive Rockets.
Years later, he teamed up with another group of guys from Montgomery in the Harvest group, just before joining Styx.
“Montgomery is where I met all of my musician friends,” Shaw said. “It was a great place to grow up.
It’s also a great place to come home.
Shaw said one of his favorite visits to Montgomery was in 2008, when he was inducted into the Alabama Music All of Fame. Her mother was still alive and was able to attend.
“My mom was a good southerner,” Shaw said. “She has always been optimistic about the future, no matter what. She always said that next year would be a better year. She believed in it. I used to think, “You don’t know,” but she was right. Things get different, and sometimes different, it’s just better.
Another thing Shaw feels very connected to in Montgomery is a 104-year-old downtown restaurant known for its hot dogs, chili sauce, and attracting music icons like Hank Williams and Elvis Presley.
“Chris’ Hot Dogs is awesome. I’ve been going since I was a little kid and had to crawl to get on the seat,” Shaw said. “My mom was there until the last days of her life. .
Speaking to the announcer in 2017, Styx’s teammate Gowan said he knew how connected Shaw felt to Montgomery through the personal stories he had heard.
“It’s obviously a huge part of who he is,” Gowan said. “It’s something that we celebrate when we have the chance to play there.”
There are no Alabama stops for Styx this time around, although their nationwide tour will land nearby on August 5 in Clearwater, Fla. (Ruth Eckerd Hall), August 6 in Augusta, Ga (The Bell Auditorium). ) and August 8 in LaGrange, Georgia (Sweetland Amphitheater). The tour will conclude next year with a show on January 6 in Nashville, Tennessee (Rhyman Auditorium) and on February 14 on a Rock Legends cruise from Orlando, Florida.
Their most recent show in Montgomery was in 2017 at the Montgomery Performing Arts Center, where one of Shaw’s signed guitars greets guests entering the theater.
“I hope we will play again soon at MPAC. Love this place, ”Shaw said.
From MS Funk to Harvest to Styx and beyond
Shaw went to Nashville at age 19 and joined Smoke Ring, which would later rebrand itself as MS Funk, a big rock band with horns. Shaw learned the meaning of “starving artist” from them. The MS Funk years were much more rewarding in terms of experience than salary.
“We never made any money,” Shaw said. “We were always doubling down in the rooms. We were all skinny because we couldn’t afford to eat a lot.
Things got worse with the emergence of discos and clubs playing recorded music, which cut their concerts in half.
Around this time, a longtime friend, Eddie Wohlford, contacted Shaw about returning to Montgomery to join the Harvest group, which Shaw did in 1975.
“They already had the gig there,” Shaw said, referring to Montgomery’s famous Kegler’s Cove lounge at the Bama Lanes bowling alley on Atlanta Highway.
“It was a real gift because I got to come home,” Shaw said. “I didn’t come home with an award, but I came home with experience and songs.”
Along with Shaw (guitar) and Wohlford (keyboard), Harvest included Tommy Beavers (drums) and Jimbo Jones (bass). Their harmony transcended the stage.
“On September 14 (1975) we played that night,” Jones said. “After I finished playing, Tommy (Shaw) went with me to Jackson Hospital and waited with me until my first child was born around 3 a.m.”
Harvest had songs like “Reason To Believe”, “The Long Way”, “Bad Weather” and many others. They recorded many of them at Kegler’s Cove, and Jones said he was honored to be invited by Shaw to sing the lead role on Shaw’s song “Merry Go Round”.
Harvest’s music also included Shaw’s iconic “Crystal Ball,” which he would later bring to world fame with Styx.
“I took it in the afternoon and played (Harvest) my idea, and then we made a little recording of it,” Shaw said. “Instead of just one voice on the verses, we did it more like Crosby, Stills and Nash and sang the harmony on all the verses. It was really pretty.
Shaw clearly didn’t have a crystal ball, as he couldn’t see that he had already planted seeds for his musical future. Six months after joining Harvest, Shaw got a call from Styx’s tour director. They needed a guitarist who could sing. He had seen Shaw playing with MS Funk in Chicago and eventually found him bowling.
When Shaw got the job, Styx gained a big fan in Shaw’s mother, who told the announcer in 1977: “There is so much rock and roll where you can’t hear the words, but you can. hear the words in (Styx’s) music. ”
While Shaw is still with Styx today, the past 46 years have been a roller coaster and even saw the members of Styx go their separate ways for several years.
Shaw toured and recorded 7 albums with Styx between 1976 and 1984, before going solo with his debut album “Girls With Guns”. In 1989, Shaw joined Ted Nugent, Michael Cartellone and Jack Blades in the super group Damn Yankees. He also had a duet with Blades called Shaw Blades. Shaw returned to Styx to tour in the mid-1990s, while continuing to do solo, duo and Damn Yankees projects. His work with Styx has continued over the past two decades.
“Tommy is a true American soul man, a talented songwriter and wizard and one of the greatest guitarists of all time,” Nugent told the announcer in 2017. “We were obviously destined to create the song together. killer music by Damn Yankee. The man deserves me! “
This year feels like the 1970s for Shaw, as multigenerational fans know both old and new music and want to hear it live.
Something Shaw appreciates about Styx is that the group has a broad artistic license. Shaw said the live shows brought classic songs like “Crystal Ball,” “Fooling Yourself,” “Mister Roboto” and “Blue Collar Man,” as well as new concept album material like “The Mission” from 2017. and “Crash of the Couronne.”
Amidst his work on Styx and other projects, Shaw has returned a few times to reunite with his Harvest buddies, including an Auburn gig in 1978 after the band rebranded themselves as Harmony. In 1984, Shaw invited Wohlford and Jones to collaborate on a new album.
In 1995, Shaw told the announcer that he would like to return to Montgomery if he could live here and pursue his career. Although he did not quite return to his hometown, he found a place quite close.
After decades of living in California, Shaw and his wife Jeanne moved to Nashville in 2013 to the home formerly occupied by the late singer / songwriter Donna Summer. They fell in love with the city after working on Shaw’s album “The Great Divide”. Shaw said he also enjoys listening to the sounds of all of the city’s train tracks that have inspired greats like Hank Williams.
Contact reporter Shannon Heupel of Montgomery Advertiser at [email protected]