Canadian Native Had Successful Solo Career Long Before Styx Came A Calling
By: Jeff Walker, Entertainment Writer
Long before he took over as the lead singer for Styx, one of the most prominent and progressive bands in the rock n’ roll era, Lawrence Gowan had built a decent resume as a solo artist in his native Canada. A gifted pianist Gowan was born in Scotland, reared in Canada, graduating from Toronto’s famed Royal Conservatory of Music, in the mid 1970’s before embarking on a musical career.
A short lived gig with the group Rhinegold paved the way for him going out on his own in 1981. His debut release under his last name garnered rave reviews but it was his follow up album ‘Strange Animal’ and the single ‘A Criminal Mind’ that caught the attention of Canadian radio. ‘(You’re a) Strange Animal’, ‘Moonlight Desires’, ‘All The Lovers In The World’, and ‘When There’s Time (For Love)‘ would become Top 10 singles, carrying his success into the 1990’s earning Gowan numerous industry awards and nominations in Canada.
Gowan was living his dream of making music. “I had a platinum selling album and a platinum single. I had established a huge following in Canada, so life was pretty good for me.” Oddly with his success in Canada he never crossed over to the United States. “I was on a major label so I’m not certain why I didn’t get airplay here in America. The industry is sometimes confusing. There were a lot of artists in the 70’s, 80’s, & 90’s that you never heard here in the States.”
He adds, “Even then we’d hear bands from England that never got released in America. I had won some JUNO Awards (excellence in music handed out by the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences), so primarily life was good.”
Ironically Gowan was the opening act for Styx for two nights during their 1997 Canadian tour. His larger than life stage persona caught the eye of long time Styx guitarist Tommy Shaw. “I opened for them in 1997 for a couple of shows. What’s weird about it, I hadn’t opened for anyone in over 15 years when I did that gig with Styx at the Montreal Forum. Of course I was already well known in Canada and had a good following, so I’m sure that’s why the promoter put me on the bill.”
As they say the audience went wild. “The reaction from the crowd must have reached backstage because all of a sudden the bandmembers from Styx are alongside the stage. When I came off I can remember Tommy saying to me, ‘that’s the first time anyone who’s opened for us did two encores. I think we’ll be seeing you again in the futre.”
Two years later Gowan recalls that remark coming full circle after getting a call from Shaw. “At first I immediately assumed they wanted me to tour with them and open their shows in America. I imagined that would be a great way for audiences in the States to hear my music and maybe discover what I had been doing for the past 20 years. This is still before the internet boom and Youtube, so music fans here didn’t know who I was.” He had no idea they were looking to part ways with Styx founder Dennis DeYoung, and replace him in the band.
Although he was extended a golden ticket to the big time Gowan didn’t say yes on the spot. “It’s not like I held out for long, but I had to grasp the reality of it. They were asking me to become a member of the band and take on a key role in the band. I told Tommy I needed an hour to think about it. So right after we hung up I went and listened to ‘Grand Illusion’ and ‘Pieces of Eight’ to further immerse myself in the decision making process.”
Gowan knew it was meant to be. “Ultimately it was an offer I couldn’t turn down. I looked at it back then as I do now. It was the second chapter in my musical career. I had a good solo career and played music for a living and now I was afforded an opportunity to become a member of one of the greatest rock n’ roll bands of all time. Still to this day I feel honored to be a part of the band.”
There was the usual getting to know each other. “After I accepted Tommy’s offer I said we need to test this out. I went down to his place and JY (guitarist James Young) and the others we all got together to see how we would fit together. It’s amazing because we gelled right away. I had no reservations after we jammed together.”
Replacing DeYoung, one of the voices and faces of Styx was a bit daunting, especially right away. “There’s always a bit of controversy when you make a big change in a band, especially one that has had major success. No doubt there’s still some fans out there that are bothered by it. I never concerned myself with that.”
Gowan admits two areas concerned him most about becoming a vocalist and keyboard player with Styx. “The spirit of the band had to stay intact. The way we all reacted with each other and just the overall comraderie of the band. Secondly and just as important to me was the integrity of the songs. You’re talking about a band that has some of the most recognizable songs in the history of rock music, and the integrity and authenticity of the songs and the way they are delivered mean a lot to the fans.”
Now 64, Gowan was a fan of Styx, long before his solo career even took shape. “I remember when I was about 16 or 17 discovering Styx. I’ve always been into progressive rock, and being a keyboardist, bands that have a strong piano presence always caught my attention. I was into bands such as Genesis, ELP (Emerson Lake & Palmer), Queen, and Elton John. So when Styx hit I was drawn to them right away. I believe Styx actually gained more traction in Canada early on, with songs like ‘Suite Madame Blue’ and ‘Lorelei’.”
Gowan had no clue he’d be fronting band for over two decades. “Oh god no! I had confidence in my ability to sing and play keyboards, but never imagined it would last this long. Initially I thought I’d have maybe five years with the guys. After that I started thinking in terms of six months.”
Gowan says being home for an extended during the pandemic was unusual. “In my 22 years with Styx we’ve never played less than 100 shows a year until last year. When that’s your norm year in and year out, it’s a sharp contrast when it comes to a halt. No shows. No travelling.” Gowan makes it more personal. “Even before my stint with Styx, I was touring with my own music. Honestly can’t recall when I spent four whole seasons in Toronto, not since I was in high school.”
How did Gowan fill his time during the un-expected hiatus. “I’m always trying to stay in shape. Spent time riding my bicycle, and hopefully eating healthy. But I’m a musician and a performer so I had to feed that side of me. I did live streams from my house, performing solo songs. I would do live streaming concerts for companies who couldn’t have conventions, but wanted entertainment.” He adds, ‘It was a really fun thing to do.”
With the pandemic appearing to subside, Styx hit the road this past June. Although he admits to missing the work he performed from home over the past 15 months, Gowan prefers to be back on tour with the band. “All it took was being on stage for a few minutes, in front of thousands of faces to make the difference. All the Zoom calls can’t make up for a live show.”
The one upside for Styx during the pandemic resulted in new music. In June of this year they released a brand new studio album ‘Crash of the Crown’. “The title track we started working on before the pandemic. Tommy and I, and Will (Evankovich) the producer got together in Nashville and were laying the groundwork. Then the pandemic hit. So we went in thinking we’ll get back together in six weeks when COVID dies down. Little did we know.”
Sadly the pandemic raged on. “So weeks became months. At some point we decided we have to record this new album while everything we have is still fresh in our minds. Even though there were restrictions, JY and Ricky (Phillips) were able to travel from California to Nashville to contribute in the studio.”
But not everyone could make it to the recording studio. “Fortunately Todd (Sucherman) has the biggest drum collection at his home, and I have an extensive amount of keyboards and synthesizers at my place. So Tommy, JY, Ricky, and Will our producer were in Nashville, and Todd recorded from Austin (Texas), and I did my part from Toronto. And somehow with modern technology we were able to record as though we were all together live. It was the ultimate virtual studio experience.” Long time bass guitarist Chuck Panozzo is credited on ‘Crash of the Crown’ as well.
How would Gowan describe Styx 17th studio album. “It’s kind of like a cataclysmic event.” Among the 15 tracks are songs titled ‘The Fight Of Our Lives’, ‘Save Us From Ourselves’, ‘Sound The Alarm’, and ‘Coming Out the Other Side’. “We didn’t necessarily go about writing songs that reflected what was happening in the world, but with the pandemic it played into our hand.” The album has been well received. “Our record label Universal got it. And it was number one for a week on a rock music chart. I think listeners can relate.”
With 15 easily recognizable rock n’ roll staples including ‘Come Sail Away’, ‘Renegade’, ‘Babe’, ‘Show Me The Way’, ‘Too Much Time On My Hands’, and ‘The Best of Times’ Styx have a juggernaut of songs for fans to enjoy. So the lingering question remains, ‘why aren’t they among the bands represented in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
As there is every year, fans petition to have certain bands inducted into the HOF. Lately there’s been a push by fans to have Styx added to the hall. Gowan jokingly replies, “First of all I’d have to ask JY and Tommy why they are slackers.” On a more serious note, “It would nice if it happened. Styx certainly deserve it. I’m not sure how that would look when it comes to the ceremony, but that’s not for me to decide, but the band definitely deserves it. Hopefully it will come about soon.”
Lawrence Gowan sees no foreseeable end to Styx. “Obviously it will end at some point, but as long as we’re healthy and the touring gods allow, we will be out on the road.” He does admit to seeing a generational change. “When I look out into the crowd, aside from the normal baby boomers who grew up with our music, I see a lot of fans 40 and under, so our music is reaching a new audience.” Amazingly Styx will celebrate their 50th year as a band in 2022.
Charleston SC fans of Styx will have their opportunity to see them live when they bring their world tour to the North Charleston Performing Arts Center on Saturday August 7th. As Gowan expressed, fans and music lovers are anxious to get back out and enjoy live music. In less than two months on tour Styx have played to near sellout if not sell out audiences. “We put on a hell of a show, and the songs are timeless.” What can fans expect. “All the songs they have become accustom to plus a few new tracks. We know how to rock, and fans are fully satisfied when they leave.”
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