James "JY" Young Interview: Styx Guitarist on the Origin of the Band's Name
Image attributed to Marc Parker
Born November 14, 1949, in Chicago, Illinois, James Young is best known for playing lead guitar and singing in the rock band Styx. He was nicknamed by Styx members and longtime fans as “JY." From 1977 to 1981, the group released four consecutive albums that have been certified multi-platinum, The Grand Illusion, Pieces of Eight, Cornerstone and Paradise Theater, and Styx became one of the biggest bands in the country.
Styx developed from a band named TW4 in Chicago which featured twin brothers Chuck and John Panozzo, Dennis DeYoung, Young and John Curulewski. Soon after securing a recording contract in 1972, the group changed its name to Styx. The current members of Styx are Chuck Panozzo, Young, Tommy Shaw, Todd Sucherman, Lawrence Gowan, Ricky Phillips and Will Evankovich.
"We became popular with the name, so there was no point in changing it. No devil worshippers here. We believe in a supreme being."
Crash of the Crown, which came out in June 2021, is the 17th studio album and the first new album released by the band since 2017’s The Mission.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Styx is currently on tour, and the pandemic is still going on. How was it decided that the band would go out this year?
James "JY" Young: Well, we kind of look at our manager for guidance. I’m fully vaccinated. For my own self, I don’t fear the virus. I’ve done a lot of medical reading about it, so I know how to protect my immune system and strengthen it, taking supplements, avoiding alcohol, things like that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I assume each concert venue implements safety protocols?
James "JY" Young: Every place we go, they’ve got a little different thing, and as things seem to change daily, if not hourly, with the mindset about this whole thing, I wear a mask in public. My wife is an invalid, so the last thing I want to do is bring home something like that to her.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You know, I should mention that you and I share the same birthday, November 14.
James "JY" Young: How about that! Scorpios.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes, and you’re just a few years older (laughs). Let’s talk about how Crash of the Crown came to be.
James "JY" Young: Well, actually, during the pandemic, we all kind of stayed close to home. Tommy has a favorite collaborator outside of the band to write with, Will Evankovich. Will is credited some some stuff on The Mission. He’s credited with producing this record and kind of co-engineering it and whatever. So Tommy and Will just got busy writing, and I was asked to put some vocals and guitar on it, and the thing was pretty much written by those guys along with Lawrence Gowan. I think those are the three credited writers.
This is the first time I’ve basically had no writing credit on a Styx record, I think. At my age, I don’t feel like I have anything to prove anymore. I’m still capable in a big way of doing what I do on stage. But in terms of sitting down and writing, I’m doing much less of that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Less of writing the lyrics and the music?
James "JY" Young: Styx signed the first recording contract on February 22, 1972. So in about six months from now, it’ll be the 50thanniversary of Styx signing the recording contract on the date 2/22/22. I’ve been writing and singing and playing guitar since I was 14 years old. However, I started playing the piano at age five. But there’s musical talent in the family. My aunt’s a church organist, my dad was a great play by ear pianist when he was alive. I’ve been blessed with musical gifts, and I guess maybe that makes me a little lazier, I don’t know. But I’m a musician. You expect us to be lazy.
Recording artists can’t afford to be lazy because they have to write and record. I played and sang my parts and made some suggestions. But those guys wrote it. So precisely what they were after with Crash of the Crown? What does that mean? Nobody’s really given me an answer from their standpoint. I think sometimes things are better left to interpretation. Keep them a little bit vague and keep the people guessing. Keep them wondering and guessing. The obvious thing is that the album’s about our former president, but I don’t think it’s directed toward him either. It’s just sort of a comment on the rise and fall of anyone, famous and not famous.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You, Tommy and Lawrence all sing lead on the title song, and that is a first in Styx history. What did you think about that?
James "JY" Young: It’s the only really lead vocal I have on the record. If you’re familiar with the song “Snowblind,” I’m the guy that sings the low parts. There’s just a certain mystique and power to the low singing voice. In fact, there’s not that much in rock and roll. Like in “Snowblind,” they said, “Hey, let’s apply that here,” and I said, “Okay. I’ll do this.”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: It turned out great.
James "JY" Young: Yeah, it did.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You can also hear a Queen influence on the album.
James "JY" Young: We were certainly influenced by Queen. We were influenced by a lot of things that preceded us. Actually, Jimi Hendrix is probably the biggest influence on me. I’m old enough to see him live two weeks before Woodstock. I saw him at a festival in California in 1969. You weren’t born yet, were you?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I was all of 14 (laughs).
James "JY" Young: That’s right, 14. You were a hot young teenager (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: It’s interesting you chose a career in music when you had a degree in aerospace engineering.
James "JY" Young: Aerospace engineering. Yes. Well, I came from a genetically musical family. My dad could hear something and sit down and play it. We were all encouraged to pick up some kind of a band instrument and participate in all musical things in grade school and at the high school level. So music was a big part of my growing up. I come from a line of talented people or at least who were musically gifted. Mostly, they would put it to use like my aunt playing the church organ. My father came from Sweden, and they were strict protestants. They were getting away from those crazy wild Swedes coming over to Chicago, I guess.
When it came time to go to college, I told my parents that I just wanted to go out and play music once I graduated high school. My dad goes, “I saved money for all my kids to go to college and get a degree. Once you get your degree, you can do whatever you want.” So I went and got my degree. He wasn’t happy about what I chose, but ultimately, he was pleased with the success that I had.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What did you do before joining TW4?
James "JY" Young: Our band (Monterey Hand) played the first rock festival in Illinois the year after Woodstock. We played original music and got a standing ovation, but two of the guys had to go be Jehovah’s Witnesses after that day. They had already planned to do that. They just knew I’d be really mad at them if they didn’t play the show. But I didn’t hear about them leaving until after that show was complete.
One guy came from an Italian family. Actually, he was born in Italy, and his family was very superstitious. As we drove into the grounds, a lady just took her top off as we were driving by. Not that she was doing it for us, she was just getting into the spirit of that moment back in 1969 at Woodstock. But his jaw hit the floorboard. These guys had to go off and do their own thing.
I tried to put a band together with the two guys that were left, but it didn’t really work. Dennis and the Panozzo brothers were the Tradewinds, and they changed it to TW4 after there was a band from New York that had a hit song called “New York’s a Lonely Town,” and they were called the Tradewinds. They had national success, and put their stamp on that name. So the band became TW4, and I joined up with them and brought the song “Best Thing,” which Dennis helped me complete, and it became our first single. That’s also the song that got us our recording contract. We signed a recording contract in 1972 and started making records.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you come up with the name Styx?
James "JY" Young: Well, the record company was trying to get us to wear upside down crosses just to make us outrageous. But there were very strong Catholic upbringings for both Dennis and the Panozzo brothers. For me, I just looked at it as a joke, didn’t know about the devil. But there’s the good side and the bad side. Ultimately, the record company suggested the name, although I’ve never said that in print. I was very much into astronomy. I started the astronomy club in 7thgrade with another young man, and my parents used to tell us both that we were very much in outer space. That’s what led me into the aerospace engineering thing.
Almost everything, the planets and the objects in the sky are kind of named after things in Greek mythology. Venus, Mars and Jupiter are part of Greek mythology. So I said that Styx is just a river that ran through Hades. It’s just mythological. It’s not anti-Christian, as some try to make it out to be. So we went with it. We became popular with the name, so there was no point in changing it. No devil worshippers here. We believe in a supreme being.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: (laughs) Some people still believe that the band KISS stands for “Knights in Satan’s Service.”
James "JY" Young: No, Gene Simmons is just a very clever businessman. That’s all. Love that guy.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Were you and Tommy Shaw competitive when he joined the band?
James "JY" Young: Well, Tommy wasn’t there until the fifth record. He really had to come in and assert himself because I had been the lead guitar player until that point in time. Tommy certainly has lead guitar skills. There’s a whole lot of Nashville based country rocking bands that will have two guitar players. So we just decided on two-part harmony. He was a much better acoustic player than I was.
Tommy’s kind of like Eric Clapton when he’s playing lead guitar on this new record. I play like Hendrix. That’s kind of the difference between us. He’s got a little more melodic sense, and I’ve got more just hammering in people’s faces sense. It doesn’t have to be as musical if it’s dazzling them.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Are you pleased with the end result of Crash of the Crown?
James "JY" Young: I’m not the head writer in this band. Never really was. I was always the writing contributor. Certainly, I speak up in the arrangement and recording process because I have the education to understand the science behind all these gizmos that exist, what we can and can’t do. But some of these songs, of course, I like more than others. I don’t know. Overall, people love the record. You can make the argument that it sounds very derivative because it’s Styx three-part harmonies all over the place, and that’s very Stygian, if I may use that word. There’s room for cool guitar solos, and there’s room for lots of other things.
Of course, you know that John Panozzo passed away. His replacement, Todd Sucherman, who grew up listening to our music, was tremendously excited to be the drummer in Styx. That young man may be the best drummer on the planet depending on who you talk to, and his love of our music helps guide us through. So collectively, we just have an internal production team.
Then Tommy and Will collaborated on this new album, and Will is credited as producer and is now on stage with us as well. Nobody is bothered by the prog label, and Styx still has a big audience, certainly in live concert settings. Am I pleased with the outcome of Crash of the Crown? Every song on this record seems to be somebody’s favorite song. We’ve always appealed to varied tastes out there in the public.
Lawrence is an amazing addition to this band. I mean, Dennis DeYoung was a phenomenal singer, writer and pianist, but Lawrence is really a virtuoso on the piano and a great live showman. But in every song, there’s a little bit of compromise in terms of style and where we’re going with it. But I think they all seem to fit under the broadening umbrella of Styx music.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: And a new generation seems to be discovering the band also.
James "JY" Young: That would certainly be every artist’s hope to be able to continue to create until the good Lord takes you away (laughs). I don’t do social media. I think it’s the devil’s work in many ways. But I hear that there are three fan sties of females devoted to me. I’ve been married to the same woman for all these years. I mean, we got a recording contract, and she and I moved in together before we were married much to my parent’s chagrin. We got married six months later, and I’ve been married to this woman throughout this whole thing. She’s the love of my life. So it is what it is.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: That’s truly amazing, especially in the world of professional musicians who are on the road traveling several weeks out of the year.
James "JY" Young: Unfortunately, she got a rare illness which struck her down for a period of time. Then she had a stroke about 15 years ago, so she requires around the clock supervision. I’m the full caregiver when I’m there. We have a wonderful woman who comes in and does 40 hours a week. She’s the same age as my better half.
My sister was a quadriplegic, and she was helping to take care of my sister for a while. Then my sister passed, and the next year, my wife had the stroke. My mother called her up and said, “James needs you.” She and my wife are both Susies. They have bonded like sisters. My wife had a sister that passed away when she was a little bit younger, so she’s used to having a big sister around. The two of them get along famously, and they curse like sailors.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you think it’s a travesty that Styx has not yet been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?
James "JY" Young: I’ve had a chance to look behind the scenes at how things work for a lot of these award shows, and usually there are three or four people that are really pulling the strings. I think I’ve pissed off one of them really bad (laughs). So I don’t think we’re ever going to get in there. But I don’t care.
The thing I care about is when I get on stage, people are screaming and yelling, and they can see on social media or wherever that this band is beloved. I know we’re doing great stuff, and I know we put on great shows. I know that Tommy Shaw is a bleeping rock star, and I’m even a rock star myself.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I did read a few years ago that you were interested in acting.
James "JY" Young: Yeah, well, forget that. Musicians were finding their way into films, and I think the film industry embraced us for a while. But if you don’t have the acting chops and you can’t show emotion, it’s hard for people to know you as one character and love you as that character, then buy you as something completely different. My best friend in the world is a film director and producer, and he lived with me and my wife way back when. We all went to college at the same time in the 60s. But, nah. I don’t need to be an actor.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Is there anything else you’d like to say about Crash of the Crown or the tour?
James "JY" Young: I’d just say that we’re all very proud of this record. People have responded very positively to it. When you are creating something from scratch like a new recipe, and you’re serving it at dinner, everybody likes it or goes, “Blech!” It’s like that. When you’re making a record you still don’t know how people are going to receive it. I probably should not have used that crazy parallel. But the three-part harmonies have always been a great thing to a lot of bands going back to the Beatles, thank you, and even before that.
We have incredible musicians. Todd may be the best drummer on the planet. Some people think I’m the best lead guitarist on the planet. I don’t think so, but I’ll go out there and raise hell on that guitar. It’s what I do. Thank you Jimi Hendrix for teaching me how. Tommy Shaw is just a rock star. We’re having a great time doing what we’re doing, and we love doing it. I’m going to do it until the day I die.
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