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Guitarist-singer Tommy Shaw struck gold in Styx audition

Updated January 17, 2020 - 1:40 pm

All Styx wanted from Tommy Shaw was to hit the high notes.

He hit them in 1975, and he hits them today.

Shaw and the enduring rock band play Pearl Concert Theater at 8 p.m. Sunday. This year, Styx marks the 40th anniversary of its platinum-selling “Grand Illusion” album. It is also Shaw’s 45th anniversary with the band.

He recalls getting “the call” for an audition in December 1975. A native of Montgomery, Ala., Shaw was not familiar with Styx’s prog-rock catalogue. But he had a reputation as a great guitarist, singer and songwriter.

Shaw had just left his band. A Styx rep found him simply by looking up his number in directory assistance. For this life-altering event, the able musician didn’t even take his guitar out of its case.

“It was kind of urgent for them to find somebody who could mainly sing those high parts,” Shaw said during a recent episode of “PodKats!” “You had to look the part, too. You had to fit in. Everything else was gravy. They said, ‘We’re going to sing “Lady,” and there is actually a high B up to a high E in it.

“I sang it, I hit it, and I’m still singing that high B and E. Everything we sing today is in the original key. It sounds better that way.”

Sunday’s show spans Styx nearly 50-year career, with Shaw onstage with James “JY” Young (vocals, guitars), Lawrence Gowan (vocals, keyboards), Todd Sucherman (drums) and Ricky Phillips (bass), with drop-ins from original bassist Chuck Panozzo.

Recent set lists have featured such classics as “Blue Collar Man,” “Renegade,” “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man),” “Too Much Time on My Hands,” “Come Sail Away,” “Mr. Roboto” and “Renegade.” The band has selected such deeper album cuts “Suite Madame Blue” and “Pieces of Eight”

Shaw lives in Nashville, where live music reigns supreme. It’s a town where you might run into a superstar at a music club. That happened with Shaw one night in August when Queen + Adam Lambert made a tour stop in the city. Shaw stopped in to the Station Inn, a well-known music haunt in what is known as The Gulch.

“It’s an old stomping ground for country and bluegrass bands,” Shaw said. “You walk in, and if you feel like they’ll bring you up and you can sing a song. I walked in there with my wife (Jeanne), I had just come off the road and I hadn’t been singing, and they asked me if I wanted to sing. I didn’t want to get up, but my wife said, ‘Get your ass up there!’ OK, I won’t turn that down.”

Just as Shaw was getting ready to sing, he spotted Queen’s legendary guitarist, Brian May, sitting the crowd.

“I looked over and I went, ‘Brian? What are you doing here?’ and they were playing in town the next night,” Shaw said. “So now I’m singing in front of Brian May and I don’t event know if I have a voice.”

Shaw sang the George Jones staple “She Thinks I Still Care.”

“These are the kind of things that happen in Nashville,” Shaw said. “I sang the song and I did OK with it.” Again, he passed the audition.

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His PodKats podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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