Singers For Hire
At the apex of Styx's popularity in the 1970s and 1980s, many of the Chicago rockers' Top 10 hits came from a single songwriting source.
Not only did cofounder Dennis DeYoung pen such Styx hits as "Lady," "Babe," "Come Sail Away," and "Mr. Roboto," but his signature vocals played a considerable role in the band obtaining significant radio exposure and amassing catalog album sales of more than 17 million units.
Today, however, those attending a Styx concert won't be serenaded by DeYoung, who left the band after an acrimonious split in 1999, but by Lawrence Gowan, a Canadian vocalist/songwriter.
Just don't call Gowan a replacement singer.
"I would definitely balk at the term," says Gowan. "I'm into my 11th year, and we've played over 1,500 shows at this point. I joined this band not under the auspices of replacing anybody, but because they needed a new member. I've played more shows with the band than the former lineup."
In light of Gowan's addition, Styx has undergone a transformation and although some DeYoung songs are still performed, notably absent from the set list is "Babe." "Dennis made a very strong point of saying that's a song he wrote for his wife, so I feel that's his song and he should sing it," Gowan explains.
"It's so much more a true, classic rock band now," says Gowan of the new lineup, which includes cofounders Chuck Panozzo and James "J.Y." Young, veteran member Tommy Shaw and relative newcomers Ricky Phillips and Todd Sucherman.
If longtime fans are complaining about DeYoung's absence, they certainly aren't showing it at the box office: Styx is in the midst of a 2009 North American tour, playing everything from casinos and theaters to outdoor sheds and festivals. And in 2004, Styx, along with tourmates Journey and REO Speedwagon, grossed more than $17.2 million over 43 concert dates.
Speaking of Journey, the multi-platinum band now features Filipino lead vocalist Arnel Pineda, their third singer since Steve Perry departed in 1996. With Pineda fronting hits such as "Don't Stop Believin'," "Open Arms" and "Any Way You Want It," Journey emerged as one of Billboard's Top 20 moneymakers in 2008 raking in $44.8 million, just short of Taylor Swift but ahead of Billy Joel, Mary J. Blige and Kanye West. A new studio album, Revelation, debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 in June 2008.
Interestingly, Pineda says that one of the reasons he was hired was to ghost Perry's sound.
"We have to make sure the hard-core fans will be satisfied listening to the songs," said Pineda during an interview with the Marin Independent Journal. "They're so used to Steve Perry's voice, so we have to be really close to how Steve Perry has done it. That's the hardest part."
A number of bands have flourished in the wake of vocalist departures. After the tragic death of Bon Scott in 1980, Australian rockers AC/DC bounced back with Englishman Brian Johnson and scored the biggest-selling album of its career with Back In Black. British progressive rockers Genesis survived the post-Peter Gabriel doldrums with such platinum sellers as Duke, Abacab, Genesis, and Invisible Touch, thanks to the seamless integration of Phil Collins as lead singer.
And Van Halen lost no momentum when Sammy Hagar replaced the ostentatious David Lee Roth for 1986's 5150, and continued to sell millions of albums and fill stadiums throughout the world into the 1990s.
Whether the departure of a singer is amicable or acrimonious, vocalists are usually the biggest risk factor in determining whether a group can survive the adjustment.
"It really depends on the individual act," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of Pollstar magazine. "Some of them are surprisingly successful, especially when you consider that the lead singer may well have been the focal point of the band."
More recently, '90s rock act Alice In Chains forged ahead with new co-vocalist/guitarist William DuVall. The group has released its first new album following the death of original lead vocalist Layne Staley in 2002, Black Gives Way To Blue, which debuted this week at No. 5 on the Billboard 200. The re-emergence of Alice In Chains began with a series of concerts in 2006, all with the blessing of Staley's family. DuVall, a friend and collaborator of founding guitarist/vocalist Jerry Cantrell's for almost 10 years, was invited to participate and eventually found his place in the band.
"They lost a brother, but they gained a brother…. And I gained a new family," DuVall told the Associated Press. "I think when people see it and they see the truth in it, it presents a profound metaphor for how all of us can rise above tragedy if we choose to."
Whether it's nostalgia or the music that drives the fans' continued support in the face of these major personnel changes, Bongiovanni says there's one common element these acts deliver in order to thrive and survive.
"The ability to put on a good live show," he says. "That's really key — and provide a satisfying experience for their fans."
Gowan certainly feels that the live experience is largely responsible for Styx's continued success. "I think every single audience member has a different agenda, but if they have one thing in common, it would be that they want the concert to take them to a different place then they were when they walked into the door," says Gowan. "That's probably my best contribution to the band so far. We are such a live entity, and people are looking for a great concert experience, and we are able to provide them with that. I know we can deliver every night."
(Nick Krewen is a Toronto-based journalist who has written for The Toronto Star, TV Guide, Billboard, Country Music and was a consultant for the National Film Board's music industry documentary Dream Machine.)