sensitive ballad written by a musician to his wife to express his feelings about separation became the sole number one single for one of America's most popular heartland bands, Styx.
Named after the river which, according to Greek mythology, dead souls are ferried across to reach Hades, Styx originated in Chicago in 1963 as a group called the Tradewinds. Dennis DeYoung (vocals, keyboards), twin brothers Chuck (bass) and John (drums) Panozzo and their friend Tom Nardini played in local bars, until Nardini left and the three remaining members enrolled in Chicago State University. Fellow student John Curulewski (guitar) joined the group, now known as TW4. A year later, James Young (guitar) was added and the group name was officially changed to Styx.
Signed to the Wooden Nickel label in Chicago, Styx went to number six in early 1975 with "Lady." A year later they switched to A&M Records and Curulewski was replaced by a crowd-pleasing guitarist-singer from Montgomery, Alabama, named Tommy Shaw.
With sold-out concert tours and best-selling albums like Equinox, Crystal Ball, Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight, Styx eventually came to be voted America's favorite rock band in a Gallup poll -- with overwhelming support from teenage girls. The 1979 Cornerstone LP yielded the band's biggest hit. Breaking from Styx' usual pattern of slick, progressive rock was an emotional, DeYoung-penned ballad called "Babe."
He wrote it as a personal message to his wife. "Being on the road for six years puts a strain on a relationship," Dennis says. "I wanted to tell her how much I missed her when I was gone." DeYoung recorded a demo of the song with the Panozzos, on which he sang all the vocal parts in his distinctively high, powerful voice.
At the peak of their popularity, it would be a big gamble to release a straight ballad as a single. "Change is a scary thing for everyone," says DeYoung, adding that he takes his inspiration from the Beatles. "According to some people, you're either a rock and roll band, or you're not. And anybody who plays ballads was looked down upon by the radio establishment."
DeYoung finally convinced the other members of Styx they could have a hit with "Babe." So DeYoung et al went into the studio and tried to re-record the song. But no matter how hard they tried, they couldn't get it right. Instead they released the demo almost as is, adding only a guitar solo by Shaw.
"Babe" entered the Hot 100 at number 72 on October 6, 1979, and went to number one nine weeks later -- nearly one year after DeYoung first presented it to his wife.
Following "Babe," "Why Me" (number 26) and "Borrowed Time" (number 64) were disappointing chart records. In 1981 the group returned to the Top 10 with "The Best of Times" (number three) and "Too Much Time on My Hands" (number nine). Two years later, they landed in the Top 10 with "Mr. Roboto" (number three) and "Don't Let It End" (number six).
By the closing months of 1984, there were rumors of bad blood between DeYoung and Shaw, and both men recorded solo projects. Shaw told Dennis Hunt of the Los Angeles Times that Styx was "not alive but not dead either... in limbo, I guess." Although DeYoung hit the Top 10 with the title single from his solo album Desert Moon and Shaw scored a number 33 hit with "Girls with Guns" from his album of the same name, subsequent releases by the two were not as successful. In 1990, Shaw joined Ted Nugent's Damn Yankees, the most successful of a spate of late-Eighties corporate-rock groups that also included such bands as Bad English and The Firm.
In 1990, Styx reformed with guitarist/vocalist Glen Burtnik replacing Shaw. A single from their Edge of the Century comeback album that fall, "Show Me the Way," peaked at number three and became something of a theme song during the Gulf War. DeYoung appeared in a Broadway revival of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1995, and the band continues to record and perform, releasing the studio album Brave New World in 1999. The band was active in fundraising for the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America and in 2002 was honored with a remnant from one of the demolished World Trade Center towers for their efforts.
- Fred Bronson, The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, Billboard, 1988.
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