Before Styx keyboardist/vocalist Lawrence Gowan joined the popular rock band in 1999, he had enjoyed great success in his Canadian homeland. As a solo artist he had scored several No. 1 charting albums and singles, including "Moonlight Desires," which featured Jon Anderson of Yes on backing vocals.
"I had several platinum and multi-platinum records in Canada over a 14-year career, but I didn't have an international deal," Gowan reports.
"It was in Britain that the idea dawned of joining a band. I was touring solo, opening shows for the Stranglers, and the same year I had been asked to record an original piece of mine with the BBC Orchestra at the opening of a Princess Diana memorial. My publicist told me there are so many bands that suddenly need new singers.
* Styx performs at 7:30 p.m. Friday in Castle Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. Tickets are $55, $65, $75, and $85 plus applicable fees, available from the MACC box office, 242-7469 or www.mauiarts.org. The band features Lawrence Gowan (from left), James JY Young, Tommy Shaw, Todd Sucherman, Ricky Phillips and Chuck Panozzo.
Photo courtesy of the Maui Arts & Cultural Center
* Kool & The Gang, featuring Dennis Thomas (from left), George Brown, Robert “Kool” Brown and Ronald Khalis Bayyan, perform at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in Castle Theater at the MACC. Tickets are $55, $65, $75, and $85, available from the MACC box office, 242-6350 or www.mauiart.org.
Photo courtesy of the Maui Arts & Cultural Center
"A few months later the phone rang and it was Tommy Shaw. We had done two shows before and he said, 'We need someone to play the piano and sing, and we think it's you.' I thought the stars are aligning and telling me to do something."
So was it a step up or down joining Styx?
"It was a wonderful step out of Canada," he responds laughing.
Had he been a fan?
"Yes, I was," he says. "I'm a fan of British progressive rock and outside of the U.K. Styx were the only band version of that who were really successful, because of albums like 'Grand Illusion' and 'Crystal Ball.' "
One of the most successful arena rock groups of all time, Styx took its name from Greek mythology. "It's the river you must cross in the afterlife," Gowan explains. "The first record deal the band signed, they were handed a list of 30 names and the one they hated the least was Styx."
Scoring classic hits like "Come Sail Away," "Lady," "Mr. Roboto," "Babe" and "Renegade," Styx was the first band in history to have four consecutive albums certified platinum. Forging a successful career blending arena rockers with power ballads, Styx acquired superstar status in 1977 with the release of "The Grand Illusion," featuring the smash single "Come Sail Away." "Pieces of Eight" followed up the charts fueled by the popularity of songs like "Renegade" and "Blue Collar Man." The band's third platinum album in a row, "Cornerstone," included the classic "Babe." Their fourth platinum seller, "Paradise Theatre," featured the hit singles "The Best of Times" and "Too Much Time on My Hands."
In 1984, not long after the release of the group's double live album, "Caught in the Act," Styx members Dennis DeYoung and Tommy Shaw announced plans to leave the band to pursue solo projects. At the close of the 1980s, the band reformed, but then subsequent years were marked by successive endings and reunions.
In 2003, Styx's CD "Cyclorama" marked Gowan's first studio album with the band. The recording included such special guests as Brian Wilson, actors Billy Bob Thornton and Jack Black and Kyle Gass of Tenacious D. Beach Boys founder Wilson sang backup on "Fooling Yourself."
"Our drummer, Todd Sucherman, played on Brian Wilson's new album, and his wife sings with Brian," Gowan explains. "As we were making the record at Capitol in LA, Todd asked him if he would be interested in being involved. It was pretty amazing to have him as a guest."
In the summer of 2004, Styx was invited to perform at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Festival. It was here they debuted their version of the Beatles' "I Am The Walrus." Its enthusiastic reception inspired the band to create the album "Big Bang Theory."
"That was the genesis of this album that was our version of a bunch of '60s songs which influenced us strongly," Gowan explains. "JY (Styx guitarist James Young) had heard me play 'I Am The Walrus' at sound checks and he said, 'Let's work up a version because it's a blues festival and someone has to play something a little different.' It went out on the radio and there were lots of requests for it."
On "Big Bang Theory," the band covered their favorite '60s gems such as The Who's "I Can See For Miles," Hendrix's "Manic Depression," the Lovin Spoonful's "Summer In The City" and CSN&Y's "Find The Cost Of Freedom."
"Tommy loved Blind Faith's 'Can't Find My Way Home,' I loved Procul Harem's 'Salty Dog,' and one that came out particularly well was a version of the Pretty Things' song 'Talkin' About The Good Times,' which was never heard much in North America," he says.
In the last few years, the band has divided time between touring on their own and heading out with combo packages. In 2007, they toured the U.K. with Deep Purple and Thin Lizzy, prompting a reviewer to note: "Styx was the revelation of the night. Purple were good, but the band of the night was Styx."Earlier this year, they toured the U.S. with Def Leppard and REO Speedwagon.
"People are more inclined to want to hear several bands of one genre and touring with other bands is a tremendous way to present ourselves," he says. "It's a nice variety and people get their money's worth. With Def Leppard, we've hit a tremendous kind of symbiotic relationship. We love watching their show and they seem to be fans of Styx."
In these shaky economic times, folks seem particularly drawn to needing to take a break from the blues, and rock out. "Economically it couldn't be better because the seats are all full," he reports. "People look for things that make their lives feel better and they derive great benefit from a great musical experience. A great rock show does a lot."
And just like many classic rock acts Styx seems to be attracting a whole new younger generation of fans. "As the years go on they're multiplying," he concludes. "Every year I've been in the band, the percentage of audience under 30 surpasses the over 30s. It's unbelievable."
With sales of more than 70 million records worldwide, Kool & The Gang are one of the most influential funk bands still performing today. Their many hits include "Funky Stuff," "Jungle Boogie," "Hollywood Swinging," "Get Down On It," "Ladies' Night" and "Celebration."
The band's good-time music is so ubiquitous that, as one writer noted, still today attending a wedding, bar mitzvah or convention, you'll probably hear a Kool song.
"Oh yes," says band founder Robert "Kool" Bell.
"At weddings, bar mitzvahs, many fun occasions, you may hear 'Celebration,' 'Ladies Night,' 'Cherish' or 'Joanna' if the bride's name is Joanna."
Formed as a jazz group in 1964 by bassist Robert "Kool" Bell and his horn-playing brother, Ronald (now known by his Muslim name Khalis Bayyan), the group first charted with "Kool & the Gang," a horn-driven, instrumental dance track.
"The first name of the group was The Jazziacs," Bell explains. "Then it was changed to The Soul Town Band, then it became Kool & The Gang & The Flames, but at the time James Brown had the Famous Flames and we didn't want to have the same name, so we changed it to Kool & The Gang. Kool & The Gang was my nickname growing up in Jersey City. It was a nice hook using my name."
The band's commercial breakthrough came in 1973 with the album "Wild and Peaceful," which featured the hot singles "Funky Stuff," "Jungle Boogie" and "Hollywood Swinging." All three hit tracks were composed and recorded in one day as a response to their record label wanting them to record a new version of a song by African artist Manu Dibango.
"We were under pressure from our record company," Bell recalls. "They were looking for a hit and wanted to put us with the producer who produced Manu Dibango. We wanted to create new material, so we went in the studio and created those songs."
Three years later, Kool & The Gang released the hit album "Open Sesame." The title track was featured on one of the best-selling movie soundtracks of all time, "Saturday Night Fever," earning the band two Grammy Awards.
The band's irresistible fusion of jazz, funk and pop earned them massive popularity. During the 1980s, they placed more singles in the Top 40 than any other band.
In 1979 Kool & the Gang added lead vocalist James Taylor and producer Eumir Deodato, (who produced the group's next four platinum and gold albums), which led to a more pop-driven sound and to crossover singles like "Ladies' Night." Numerous hits followed, including the ballads "Joanna" and "Cherish," and the No. 1 hit, "Celebration."
This timeless "party" anthem was composed to promote global unity.
"Khalis wrote the song," says Bell. "One of his approaches to writing was the celebration of life and people coming together around the world. It reaches out for many occasions, like sporting events, the return of the (Iranian) hostages, and recently the Democratic National Convention and the GOP. That kind of song has a universal appeal. It's a blessing to have a song like that stand the test of time."
A studio wizard, Bell in the 1980s embraced cutting-edge computer technology of the time, leading a reporter in Musician magazine to dub him, "A funky jazz mad scientist, Coltrane meets Mr. Wizard, Soul Train meets micro-chip." He produced the double-platinum album "Emergency," and the gold "Forever," on which he played almost all the instruments.
In 2004, Kool & The Gang revisited their songbook with "Reloaded" re-interpreting their hits joined by an array of international artists from Youssou N'Dour and Lauryn Hill to Jamiroquai and Jimmy Cliff.
"The record company wanted to do a compilation of hits, but we didn't want to do the same old thing, because there are many compilations out there," he notes. "We wanted to do something different and re-record the songs with guest artists like Youssou N'Dour, Lauren Hill, Jamiroquai, Ashanti, Lisa Stansfield and Angie Stone."
In 2007, they released "Still Kool," the band's first studio recording in more than a decade. "The good news is that "Still Kool" finds this legendary band sounding relevant and very enjoyable in its fifth decade of existence," praised a Soultracks review."If the '80s brought a somewhat poppified version of Kool's '70s funk, 'Still Kool' brings a more mature sound that keeps the grooves tight but also allows the band to show more of its jazz roots."
The album featured a trio of songs from "America" to Marvin Gaye's "What's Happening Brother" and "It Is What It Is," that paid tribute to Gaye's socially conscious focus.
"Khalis wrote and arranged those songs," Bell says. "Marvin was such a socially conscious brother. He was speaking about those problems way back in the '60s and '70s. He had an influence on what we do."
"Still Kool's" opening track, "Dave," referenced the landmark movie "2001 A Space Odyssey." "It was inspired by the movie, Dave the astronaut and the computer HAL," says Bell. "At the end of the movie we see him being born again as a baby. Not sure what that means exactly, but it has to mean something divine. Dave means Divine Affirmations of Values and Excellence."
Heading to Maui after touring Europe for a concert on Wednesday Kool & The Gang then jet off for dates in Brazil.
"It's great to have fans all over the world," Bell concludes. "After 40 years to have many fans still with us and many new fans, who love what we do."
* Contact Jon Woodhouse at firstname.lastname@example.org.