In The Styx With James “JY” Young

By Shawn Perry

James Young was the designated lead guitarist when Styx started in 1972. Over 50 years later, he’s still at it, dazzling audiences all over the country. Styx logs in, give or take, about 50 dates a year, and Young, or “JY” as he’s known, has always been the “tall guitar player” in the band, anchoring the pace and playing those signature leads. The musician, whose manner is calm, humble and sincere, tells me over the phone: “The audiences have been buying tickets and buying t-shirts and we’re showing up, doing what we love to do, which is play our music for them.”

At the time of our conversation, JY was in Salt Lake City, getting ready for another Styx show with Foreigner and John Waite on the Renegades & Juke Box Heroes tour, which began on June 11 and runs through August 28. Young clearly understands it’s a solid, compatible package, confirming to me that it is “classic rock for the masses and, that’s what Styx has been about for the last 20, 30 years.”

The guitarist remembers playing lots of shows with John Waite when the singer was in the Babys. Ironically, bassist Ricky Phillips, who joined Styx in 2003 and recently departed, was also in the Babys at the time. You’d think Styx would have crossed paths with Foreigner back then as well, but the two bands didn’t share a bill until 2005. The pairing happened more frequently after that. In 2011, they both played dates in Europe with Journey as the headliner. Styx and Foreigner then teamed up again in 2014 for the Soundtrack of Summer tour.

For the Renegades & Juke Box Heroes tour, things are a little different. For one, Foreigner now plays live without any original members (founding guitarist and leader Mick Jones putatively coaches the band from the sidelines). Without naming names, JY doesn’t mince words when he says it helps to have some original members of the band. Nevertheless, the show must go on.

Foreigner is also being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in October 2024 — an honor that has sheepishly eluded Styx, whom unlike many of their inducted contemporaries, continue to record new music as well as tour. It doesn’t seem to faze Young either way.

“It’d be a nice thing to have happen,” he says. “But it doesn’t keep me awake when I’ve just played in front of 15,000 people the night before and they’re going crazy. I’m glad somebody put it together and that we have a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But if we never get in there, it’s not going to be a problem for me.”

JY is more inclined to reflect on the massive success Styx has had, and how that’s been key to the group’s longevity. Though they had an early Top 10 hit with “Lady” in 1973, the real rewards came about with The Grand Illusion.

“That’s when we finally achieved headline status. The Grand Illusion sold seven million copies in 1977, and it was our seventh album. So, number seven is lucky for Styx,” the guitarist laughs.

Though it wasn’t easy to get there, Young believes the payoff has been worth it. “We were criticized from every angle you can think of in the very beginning. I mean, ‘Come Sail Away’ is huge, ‘Renegade’ is huge, ‘Mr. Roboto,’ whether you like it or not, is huge. It’s the only single of ours that’s sold a million copies. I was kind of against the song, but Dennis (DeYoung) pushed for it.”

We avoid touching on the topic of Dennis DeYoung, the band’s original keyboardist and main songwriter. Both Young and longtime Styx vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter Tommy Shaw have made it clear in numerous high-profile interviews that they’re not interested in working with DeYoung again. Even a one-off reunion isn’t going to happen, so I refrain from mentioning it.

Still, it bears further discussion with regards to the music. When 1983’s Kilroy Was Here, which features “Mr. Roboto,” came out, there was some contention between DeYoung and the other members of Styx about the direction of the band. It’s been widely speculated and pretty much confirmed that DeYoung wanted to turn Styx into a big production cabaret act, while everyone else simply wanted to rock, especially JY.

“I’m really like a hard rock guitar hero kind of guy,” he says, proudly adding that he saw Jimi Hendrix five times. Who can argue with that? I’m inclined to tell him that the best example of Styx’s hard rock side is a song he wrote called “Miss America.” He seems to agree.

“That’s us hard rocking at our peak. I think I finally nailed what role I play in the band. There’s other things before that show it, but that was me out in front with the lead vocal.”

The acerbic lyrics for “Miss America” are also a departure from the usual subject matter of Styx songs. That might have more to do with the group’s dalliance with progressive rock than hard rock.

“I was always into more that Ian Anderson, Jethro Tull bit of sarcasm about pop culture and what was going on in the world,” Young professes. “So, I had to tip my hat to Mr. Locomotive Breath.”

JY in Anaheim, 2024. Photo by Joe Schaeffer

While JY hasn’t written too many songs in recent years (“I’m a lazy writer,” he admits), he’s been tapped to sing songs on Styx’ last two studio albums — 2017’s The Mission and 2021’s Crash Of The Crown. Both were conceived and written by Shaw and producer-turned-band-member Will Evankovich. Young’s desire to “still be in the mix” resulted in him singing the title track on Crash Of The Crown. The song is now part of the band’s live set.

Will Styx record another album? Young can’t say, though he confirms: “Lawrence (Gowan) writes, Tommy writes, Will and Tommy write. I’ve got a few little scratch pad notes on some things that I think could be good songs.”

In the studio or on the road, JY believes the current lineup of Styx is a force to be reckon with. Gowan, who replaced DeYoung in 1999, has the formidable task of playing those signature keyboard parts and singing the songs DeYoung wrote and originally sang. Young is quick to point out that “Lawrence is more of a classically trained guy and on some level, he can play circles around Dennis.”

Gowan’s brother Terry was recruited to replace Ricky Phillips in early 2024, and he is fitting right in, according to JY. “The Gowan family is very, very talented. Together, they’re really great showmen and they bring a sense of fun to the whole thing.”

Styx also continue to have original Styx bassist Chuck Panozzo on board for a few numbers. “He’s definitely had health issues,” Young says. “Modern medicine is something he can afford being a member of Styx. I think he’s been taking pretty good care of himself, so God bless him.”

Then there’s drummer Todd Sucherman, who’s been with Styx since 1995 when he replaced original drummer John Panozzo, who passed away in 1996. Over the past three decades, Sucherman has amassed numerous accolades, awards, and top spots on best drummer lists. For JY, it’s as simple as declaring: “He is the best rock drummer out there.”

Young regards his and Shaw’s guitar playing as essential components in the band’s arsenal. “Tommy’s far more versatile than I am, but we both get recognized as having the goods to go out and play great solos.”

All in all, it’s obvious the group’s sole full-time founding member couldn’t be more pleased with where Styx is at in 2024. “We have home run hitters at every position is how I look at it — if you like baseball analogies. Everybody seems to be in balance and happy. Everybody’s smiling at each other after the shows are over. And that’s a very good sign.”

Before ending our call, I ask JY how much longer he sees Styx continuing. At press time, the group is booked through 2025. But then what? Even though he’s coming up on 75, the guitarist has no plans to stop.

“I’m healthy. Tommy Shaw is healthy and he is younger than I am. Todd is much younger than all of us. Lawrence and his brother are both vegetarians and they’re very health oriented. There’s no real great pressure on us to make another great record. Tommy loves to write and he is going be in there with Will and they’ll be working on something. Lawrence Gowan will probably be working on something because he is a pretty strong writer himself. And maybe even lazy me.”

And there’s always the concert stage, where Styx thrive. “I think there was probably close to 25,000 people watching us perform last night,” he says, pausing before adding, “That is a humbling thing.”

Styx, 2024. Photo by Jason Powell

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