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Guitarist Tommy Shaw joined melodic rock legends Styx in 1976 and in the early 1990's formed Damn Yankees with guitarist Ted Nugent.

Tommy talked to GRTR! US correspondent Joe Milliken about his collaboration with Jack Blades and the Styx album 'Influence' which made the Top 20 in Billboard's independent albums chart.

1. You have recently reunited with old friend Jack Blades, and will be releasing your first album together since 1995's Hallucination. The new album titled Influence, (on VH1 Classic Records) will feature covers of classics songs by such artists as The Mamas & Papas, Buffalo Springfield and Steely Dan. How did you go about choosing what songs to cover?

It began when Jack was working on his solo album a couple of years ago and he asked me to sing on his recording of Spirit's 'Nature's Way.' Not long after that I recorded a two song demo - 'For What It's Worth' by Buffalo Springfield and 'I Am A Rock' by Simon and Garfunkel - and sent them to Jack to see what he thought about cutting them just for fun.

This was the beginning of our list of songs. We began compiling lists on our own and together, and it wasn't long before we went to our good friend, John D. Kalodner, who had a couple of suggestions.

2. In 2005 you also recorded a CD of cover songs with Styx called Big Bang Theory, which I thought was fantastic. Is Influence a sort of off-shoot of the Big Bang idea? What is the flavor of the upcoming new covers?

Actually 'Influence' was finished before Styx recorded 'Big Bang Theory' was conceived. The Styx CD was a result of our performance at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival where we played some covers rather than repeating our set which we'd just played for fans a couple of weeks before at a separate Styx concert in that area.

Our live version of 'I Am The Walrus' started getting so much radio airplay that our label suggested the idea of a whole collection of covers.

On 'Influence,' we have for the most part stayed true to the feel and the arrangements of the original tracks, updating them here and there. There are a couple of songs where we took liberties and made them our own.

Jack Blades

Photo: Jeanne Shaw

3. Do you plan on touring to support Influence, and if so, what territory will you cover and what type of venues will you target?

We are currently routing a 20-city tour, which will cross the country from New York to California beginning in mid-March through mid-April. It will be Jack and me performing acoustically in venues under 1000 seats, like B.B. King's in NYC.

4. You are originally from Montgomery, Alabama. How did you first find your way to Chicago, and how did your first come in contact with Styx? Did they really see you playing at a bar in a bowling alley?

I left Montgomery when I was 19, heading first to Nashville at the invitation of legendary agent Bobby 'Smitty' Smith, who had heard about me from someone who'd seen me in one of the many places I'd played in Alabama.

While in Nashville, I went to see a band at the Electric Circus in Printer's alley. They were an unbelievable seven-piece hard-rocking band with horns who just were the best live band I'd ever seen.

Somehow, with the help of my pal Brian O'Malley, who'd made the trip to Nashville with me, I ended up being the 8th member of this band called Smoke Ring, which eventually became MS Funk. They also hired Brian to help with the gear.

The Styx connection happened at a gig in Chicago at a club on Rush Street called 'Rush Up' (because it was up on the third floor) where Styx's tour manager Jim Vose introduced himself to me a year or so before I got the call from Styx.

5. Each of your first two albums with Styx, 1976's Crystal Ball and then 1977's Grand Illusion brought immediate national success for the band, however I think your song writing abilities and rock sensibilities really broke through with 1978's Pieces Of Eight. (This writer's favorite Styx album) How do you view that album now, and am I off-base in feeling that it was some sort of breakthrough of Tommy Shaw's talent?

'Crystal Ball' was my freshman album, which will always be a sentimental favorite of mine.

It was the band's sixth album and they had a rhythm and method in the studio which I enthusiastically merged into and began to establish myself there.

After touring behind 'Crystal Ball,' we saw our lives changing as we became more famous and popular, which led to the group consciousness of 'Grand Illusion.'

The shows got bigger, brighter and louder. Our reputation as a live concert act kept growing and I would have to say that not just for me but for us as a band, 'Pieces of Eight' was the pinnacle of that Styx era.

6. How did you first hook up with Ted Nugent and Jack Blades to form Damn Yankees. Were you already friends with Nugent from the Styx touring days of the 70's?

I had met Ted and run into him over the years on the road and had always admired him as an artist.

I'd met Jack briefly at the American Music Awards when we were both presenters and was already working with Michael Cartellone in New York in a solo band when we put Damn Yankees together there in 1989.

Tommy Shaw

Photo: Lee Millward/GRTR!

7. Was it a challenge to create a guitar chemistry onstage (or in the studio for that matter) with such an outrageous personality as Mr. Nugent?

One thing that cannot be said of Damn Yankees is that there was any challenge to putting it together. James Young and I had been trying to put Styx back together for several years and could never get all the members to sit down in one place and talk it over.

Damn Yankees took all of perhaps one phone call per man and one sit down at a Ray's Pizza in NYC and it was a done deal.

Working with Ted was a treat, because each of our styles seemed to complement the other instantly. It's the least amount of rehearsing I have ever done in a band. We didn't like it and we didn't need it.

8. Can you tell us something to describe what kind of musician and person John Panozzo was? I know all the old Styx fans out there miss him.

John was larger than life. He was the funniest musician I've ever been in a band with. His comedic view of life kept our spirits up whenever we were discouraged.

The ongoing relationship between him and his twin brother Chuck was a never-ending barrel of laughs. But it was behind the kit where Johnny was all business. He was a hard hitter. His drums literally roared.

9. Seeing as thought MTV doesn't play videos anymore, I love watching the old-school videos on VH1 Classic. How did you hook up with them for the release of your up coming CD?

The reason 'Influence' was not released for so long was that we knew it was not the kind of record that we could expect much heat from in the conventional sense, say with an established major label. Not that we didn't try! But our friends who run these labels were straight with us and we all knew it would likely end up on the bottom of a pile of other CDs on radio programmers' desks and it would have been an exercise in futility.

When we learned of VH1 Classic's new label, it was the first time we felt like we'd found an outlet that had the resources to reach the fans who would appreciate this record, an audience who now probably watches more television than listens to music on the radio.

10. Name a musician whom you admire, and would like to collaborate with.

I'd like to sit down with Ramblin' Jack Elliot and be to him what he was to Woody Guthrie.

Interview © 2007 Joe Milliken. All rights reserved.

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