Styx singer Dennis DeYoung strikes out on his own

By  Conrad L. Stinnett

If anyone had suggested to Dennis DeYoung a few years ago that he would not only have a thriving solo career, but a #1 single, too, it would have been met with extreme skepticism. But the former Styx leader’s latest solo album, 100 Years from Now, has been a bona fide smash in Canada, as the title track climbed to #1 last year.

In addition to his success on Canadian charts, DeYoung finds himself a popular concert draw throughout North America.

“It feels like some surreal miracle,” said the singer. “To have a #1 single anywhere in the world, at my age, is just crazy.”

styx0425.jpgSuch success is a far cry from the position the now 60-year-old DeYoung found himself in earlier in the decade, when he parted ways with Styx, the band he co-founded and led since the early 1970s.
Despite the fact that he possesses one of rock’s most distinctive voices and that he’d written and sung such enduring classics as “Lady,” “Come Sail Away,” “Suite Madam Blue,” “Babe” and “Mr. Roboto,” DeYoung thought he’d come to the end of his music career. While he did solo projects during Styx’s hiatus in the ’80s, a full-time solo career was never in his plans.

“Sure, I had done solo albums in the past, but I never really was interested in a solo career,” he said. “I wanted to be in a band, and I did those albums while waiting for Tommy (Shaw) to come back to Styx. I hadn’t really toured as a solo act, nor put a lot of effort into having a career, and I really didn’t think I could pull it off.”

When promoter Tim Orchard asked him to perform Styx classics and selected solo tunes with an orchestra at Chicago’s Rosemont Horizon in 2000, DeYoung initially turned him down.

The successful show resulted in a live CD and DVD, Dennis DeYoung and the Music of Styx with Live Symphony Orchestra. The DVD was broadcast on PBS stations throughout the U.S., while music from the CD received some radio airplay. It also led to more concerts throughout the country, both with orchestra and the more stripped-down, rock-band-only shows.

While DeYoung’s “Music of Styx” shows proved popular in the U.S., his appeal in Canada was even stronger. He sold out 10 shows in Montreal in 2006, and his live album went triple platinum there.

“I know there was a poll there that listed “Suite Madam Blue” as the #3 top rock song of all time,” he said. “I also think an appearance I made on ‘Star Academy,’ which is the French-Canadian version of American Idol, where I did duets with four contestants… really clicked with a lot of people.”

These successes encouraged DeYoung to begin working on a new album, his first in nearly a decade. Unlike previous solo efforts, the songs on One Hundred Years from Now are more in line with the work he was known for in Styx — intricate vocal harmonies, melodies meeting blazing guitars, catchy synthesizer lines, the occasional acoustic guitar and some powerful singing.

“I think what we did in Styx together was pretty sacred and belonged to that name. I didn’t want to try and replicate that in any way, so I stayed away from doing those kinds of things that I felt may have made me unique” he said.

While fans of DeYoung’s slower material will enjoy ballads like “Breathe Again” and “I Believe in You,” the album also features up-tempo rockers like “This Time Next Year,” “Turn Off CNN,” “Rain” and the hard-rocking title track. The singer even ventures into blues territory with “Respect Me” and “I Don’t Believe in Anything.”

In addition to stylistic elements, the lyrics on 100 Years from Now also reflect such familiar DeYoung themes as celebrating love and his continuing commentaries on American life.

“I think one of the themes of my music is the importance of having someone to love, who loves you back, and how you can protect each other against the outside world,” says DeYoung.  “The other recurring theme is what you do when life hands you a bowl of manure. Life is going to hand you a fair share of tragedy, and there’s no way around it. In my songs, my characters are trying to figure out a way — as the song goes — to carry on. Of course, I’ve also taken on some big themes, like observations on American life, which crop up on The Grand Illusion and Paradise Theater.”

Continuing to evolve as an artist while avoiding re-hashing old hits can be a difficult challenge.

“People tell me that I really need another song like ‘Come Sail Away’ or ‘Lady’ and I say, ‘No kidding,’” he said. “The fact is that I already wrote those songs, and, at the time, I really didn’t deliberately set out to write them. I was just writing them. You can’t go back and try to recreate something you did before when you’re writing songs. They’re going to sound like what they are — a pale imitation of something you did before that was unique. ”

Before starting on his new album, DeYoung listened to recent works from other classic artists, in order to get a feel for the current work of his contemporaries.

“I must have listened to 25 or 30 CDs,” he said. “The only one I really liked was the new one by David Gilmour (On an Island). I liked it a lot. It actually inspired me. I mean, if you like Pink Floyd, then there it is, but the songs didn’t sound like he was trying to re-write ‘Wish You Were Here.’ That was really the kind of approach I wanted to take, as well.”
“My philosophy has always been that the song is king,” he explained. “From Day One in Styx, I always tried to impress that upon everybody. It was not to be about fashion or style, or even about a particular genre of music — hard rock, soft rock, polka, prog rock — call it what you like. To me, it was just all music, and it was all principally based in the song.” Creating new material is important to DeYoung for both artistic and commercial reasons.

“It really is the missing piece of the puzzle,” he said. “I’m creating new music and feel like I have something new to offer. I think a lot of artists may have done their best work when they were younger, in terms of being able to write good songs and perform them, but I still think I have something to say and the ability to do it.”

Still, the legacy of Styx remains. While he hasn’t been a member of Styx for the better part of a decade, DeYoung’s body of work and long tenure in the group assures that listeners will continue to associate him with his former band.

He still performs his hits in concert, and the demand for use of DeYoung-penned Styx songs in films (most recently, “Underdog”) and commercials continues to be high. And many of his songs are in Styx’s current set list. Is there a chance Dennis DeYoung will again work with Styx?

“I never wanted to not be in the band, and if were up to me, I’d still be in the band,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, the door is not only open, it’s never been closed.”

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