Singer/songwriter/keyboardist Dennis DeYoung is a founding member of Styx and the lead songwriter on a vast majority of the group’s hits. Since leaving the band, DeYoung has toured with his own group, and has also just released a new 2020 solo album, 26 East, Volume 1.
Spotlight Central recently caught up with DeYoung and talked with him about his years as a budding musician, his rise to fame with Styx, and his thoughts on his most recent musical project.
Spotlight Central: You were born in Chicago. Did you grow up in a musical family?
Dennis DeYoung: No — although where my dad grew up they had an old spinet piano, like so many homes in those days did. My dad was born in 1917 and he learned, miraculously, how to play by ear. He always played in the keys of C# and F#, using predominantly the black keys.
Spotlight Central: Two of the toughest keys to play in!
Dennis DeYoung: Yeah, and to watch it was a marvel; he could play “Begin the Beguine,” with both hands. But, you know, so much of life is timing, and I always say I was lucky by birth. My dad probably had innate musical skills that were never allowed to flourish because of the Depression. In those days, everybody had to quit high school at the age of 15 and go out and help their families provide for food and lodging.
And I don’t know if there were any musical skills on my mother’s side. While she was alive, she used to say that my talent came from God because he was making up for the fact that her parents were deaf. She was raised in a home where nobody spoke. Isn’t that fascinating?
Spotlight Central: It is! You’re one of the most notable keyboard players in rock, but it’s said you taught yourself how to play keyboard. Is that right?
Dennis DeYoung: I taught myself how to play piano, but I played the accordion and took lessons for seven years. When I was 13 years old, I stopped, but I took music lessons, and I can read music.
The keyboards on the piano and the accordion are virtually the same — it’s just that one’s vertical and one’s horizontal. It can take an incredible amount of patience to acclimate to that because accordion players never use both thumbs, so to be able extend one’s hand and turn it took a great deal of patience to do.
I am not a piano player — I’m not a pianist in any way — I’m just a guy who plays the piano to write songs and accompany himself when he’s singing. If you wanted me to sit down and play 45 minutes of piano without singing, I couldn’t do it, but if you wanted me to sit down and play two hours of accordion, I sure could.
Spotlight Central: Growing up, what kind of music did you listen to?
Dennis DeYoung: The music in my house was, essentially, Glenn Miller and the hit parade of the ’50s. My parents liked swing music. But music was not in any way, shape, or form, vital in our family.
One thing I do remember growing up, however, is my parents had a “gang,” I guess I would call it — a big group of friends that always got together — and there were like 25 or 26 of them. This went on for years, and whenever they got together, they’d sing in harmony! It was beautiful. They’d do “Down by the Old Mill Stream” and all the old songs, and everybody would sing together, like [sings “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad”] “Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah…” Remember that one? They did all that stuff, and it was beautiful.
So I can’t really say I had a big musical background. And the reason I played accordion was because a neighbor, Georgie Rozinski — a Polish kid who ultimately became my godfather when I was confirmed a Catholic — played accordion. He was about six or seven years older than me, he had an accordion, and he was right next door, so when he came over, he played that thing. You have to remember: the accordion was extremely popular in the ’50s. In those days, a guy could sit there and play accordion all by himself and could entertain you. It was like playing the piano today, you know? And my mom, who was Italian, was thrilled when I started playing the accordion. So I played it and I saw that it made my mom happy, and that’s what we want to do, right? We want to make our moms and dads happy.
Spotlight Central: Speaking of the accordion, you started a group that was, essentially, an accordion trio, which morphed into the band, Tradewinds, and then morphed again into the band, TW-4. Isn’t it true you wrote your first song, “So Long Now,” for TW-4?
Dennis DeYoung: Yeah, that’s the very first song I wrote. This was after The Beatles. Before The Beatles we didn’t play rock and roll, but in ’64, we saw those guys and — you know, The Beatles invented the modern rock band — so we saw them and said, “Yeah,” and that’s when I started writing songs. I think I wrote one or two songs, but I wasn’t a songwriter. I was basically a guy who imitated other people and played their music. That’s what TW-4 was.
Spotlight Central: A cover band.
Dennis DeYoung: Totally. You had to be in a cover band in those days to make money. All the guitarists that joined our original trio of John and Chuck [Panozzo] and me — joined a band that had gigs. The three of us started playing weddings and anniversaries and parties, mostly for older people. We played music from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s out of a black book which they called a “fake book,” and that’s how we made a living. I was a born performer — as I like to think of myself — and we were very good at entertaining crowds. And, then, every guitar player wanted to join us because we had gigs — so, eventually, we morphed into a rock and roll cover band.
Spotlight Central: TW-4 ultimately became Styx, but before the group met with such large success, you worked as an elementary school music teacher. Were you an itinerant teacher — traveling around to different schools and working with lots of different kids — and what kind of music did you teach?
Dennis DeYoung: I was a district music teacher, and there were four schools in our district. They would divide the year up into quarters and, basically, I worked as a music appreciation teacher — I wasn’t the band director or the choral director — although I ended up doing some of that because I was responsible for things like the spring musical play, or whatever it was back then. But I was essentially teaching music from the Baroque period to the 20th Century — so it was really music history that I taught — and then when we got to the 20th century, I introduced the kids to rock and roll, but that wasn’t until the very end.
Spotlight Central: It’s great you were able to give the kids such a broad background in music history.
Dennis DeYoung: Well, I came up with my own lesson plans.
Spotlight Central: You developed your own curriculum?
Dennis DeYoung: Yeah, I did what I wanted to do, because — see, what happened was: when I was getting ready to graduate from college, my good friend, Randy, who had graduated a half-year earlier, was teaching in this school district. And Randy said, “Dennis, you should come and interview with the principal of my school. Our music teacher just got fired.” So I went to the interview and the principal hired me before I had even graduated! I said, “What do you want me to do?” and he said, “I want you to make the curriculum your own.” So I went in there and just made it up! I figured, my whole life, that’s all I ever did was make things up; I really didn’t know what I was doing. But I guess I ended up getting away with an awful lot, don’t you think?
Spotlight Central: Sure! And speaking of making things up, in 1972, you wrote your first big hit, “Lady,” for your wife, Suzanne, on a small Wurlitzer electric piano in your garage. Do you recall how the idea for that song came to you?
Dennis DeYoung: Not being a songwriter — although in 1970, when “J.Y.” [Young] joined the band, we started writing songs together — the only song I’d written by myself during that period was a song called “I’m Gonna Make You Feel It,” which got on Styx II. But other than that — and you probably know this — if you’re a slave to sheet music when you grow up, you don’t use your ear! As an accordion player, you don’t have to, because you’re always in tune, but you know, I have the worst ear — the worst ear ever.
Spotlight Central: We would never think that after seeing and hearing you sing and play.
Dennis DeYoung: Well, see how good of a faker I am? Listen, I know people who you can play a progression of chords for and they’ll tell you what chords you’re playing — I have guys in my band who could play that song after one or two listenings. Not me, though — no way! I’m pathetic. But I think that gave me the power of ignorance. If you hear a chord progression, and you recognize it immediately, when you go to write music, you may in some ways be encumbered by that, saying, “Oh, that’s that song!” But not me! I’m like just wandering around in the dark saying, “Oh, that sounds original!” — it could have been somebody else’s song, but for all I know, I don’t even know that!
But you know what I can do? If you play me a series of chords, my friend, I can sing four different melodies to them! And they’ll all be decent. I hear melody. Whenever there’s a chord — whatever chord progression you can play — in time, I can sing you a melody. I once thought everybody could do that, but they can’t.
Spotlight Central: No, they can’t! And speaking of melodies — for someone who doesn’t consider yourself that much of a songwriter — you managed to go on to write all these great hits for Styx: “Lady,” “Babe,” “Mr. Roboto,” “The Best of Times,” our own personal favorite, “Come Sail Away,” and many more. Given the fact that you don’t consider yourself a songwriter, do you have one you’re especially proud to have written?
Dennis DeYoung: No, not really. I’m pretty easy — you know? If you scratch my ear, I’ll follow you. If I do something and people like it, I’m in. You know what I mean?
Somebody just sent me a review of my new album — a friend of mine up in Canada, who’s a writer — and he was the first to go on record calling my latest album a “masterpiece.” I gotta tell you, throughout my career, I don’t think I’ve ever heard that word associated with anything I’ve ever done, in real time — but that word has shown up four or five times in the reviews I’ve seen.
So he sends me this thing, and I’m reading it, right? — and I’m thinking to myself, “Well, better late than never!” I haven’t been one to be fortunate enough to have people rave about my music in print for most of my career; it’s just been connected with the people who heard it — the regular people — so I said, “This guy writes a beautiful review,” and I think to myself, “Well, if you like me, I like you!” [Laughs] That’s it — there’s nothing more to it.
Spotlight Central: And speaking of your new album, 26 East, Volume 1, we understand the title comes from the address where you grew up in Chicago — 26 East 101st Place. You, pretty much, did everything on this album from writing and performing it to producing and mixing it, didn’t you?
Dennis DeYoung: Yes, but it’s not any different from my last album, 100 Years from Now. For folks who don’t know that one, they should go listen to it; if they like me, they’ll like that one.
When I was in Styx, from Equinox on, I was the central figure in the band during the recording process. On the records, it always said, “Produced by Styx,” and that would be true, except I was the most important element in that. I was the guy who, basically — through my leadership qualities — was trying to point the band in the direction I thought would be the best for us musically.
When we did Styx II, there were seven songs on the album — five of the songs were mine, “J.C.” [Curulewski] had two, and “J.Y.” [Young] had none, which is why I had him sing two of my songs. When I thought it was so roundly rejected by the audience — because it was a terrible stiff when it was first released — I thought they hated what I was doing. It was my first foray into being an actual songwriter, arranger, and thinker of music in terms of how to put out a record. And then when it was so horribly rejected, I spent the next two albums thinking people hated me — you know, it was like Sally Field, but the opposite, “They hate me. They really hate me.”
Working on the next two albums, I constantly thought about that. You know, you want success; you want people to like you. And then when “Lady” became a hit accidentally and Styx II went gold, I went “Aha! They do like this thing!”
That’s when I, kind of, took the leadership of the band, and so the mixing and the producing — believe me, the arranging and the playing of all those great Styx albums was a collaborative effort by all of us — ok? That was not me. That was us! But of the “us,” I might have been half of that, if you know what I mean. I was kind of saying, “OK, I think we can do this, I think we can do that,” trying to forge the sound of the band.
And when I thought about doing this album, 26 East — the new album — I didn’t want to do it. It took three years for my co-writer, Jim Peterik, to talk me into it, because I knew it was going to be too much work. These days, the reward for most people who do a rock album is zero, because rock and roll radio in this country is gone. You can’t reach people with new rock music, for the most part, in the United States. And I think that’s pretty much true across the globe, as well.
I’m happy to play “Come Sail Away” and “Renegade” for my audiences. The members of my audience are steeped in their adolescence, which is understandable. They want the music to remind them of what they believe are the happiest times of their lives — free of impossibilities, free of the chaos of the world.
And so, to make new music, I thought, was foolish, but Peterik talked me into it, and I’m glad he did. It allowed me to say goodbye to my audience. It allowed me to have one last go-round at what I’ve always done, and it turned out well for me. But, really, it’s a fool’s errand these days to try to make new music — you can’t reach the audience; it’s almost impossible.
Spotlight Central: Well, one of your new songs that reached us — through the Internet — is the one you just did with Julian Lennon, “To the Good Old Days,” which has this great Beatle-ish kind of feel to it.
Dennis DeYoung: Look, I’m gonna say this, and it’ll sound like I’m bragging, but I believe that back in 1981, that would have been a hit record. But we’re in a different era now, so as much as I like that song — as great as it is to me — to get the kind of traction you’d like to see nowadays is very difficult. Radio is just not geared for music like that anymore — it’s for pop stars, rap stars, and some country stars — sadly, rock music is dead to the media.
Spotlight Central: Well, how can we put this? We’ve seen your live concerts. Live concerts can really bring people back in time, but in many cases, they can also enable artists to introduce new music, too — like the new music you currently have coming out. What are you doing now that you’re not able to do live concerts since they’re currently suspended?
Dennis DeYoung: You know, the odd thing is since concerts have been suspended, I’ve been forced to stay in my family room. And because fans on my Facebook page recently asked me to do a song from my house, I did “The Best of Times,” and I don’t know how it happened, but it caught fire! I didn’t do anything — and you can’t repeat it; it was lightning in a bottle — but over 1,100,000 people in the last four or five weeks have watched this video, and I just was like “What the hell?”
Spotlight Central: We saw it!
Dennis DeYoung: Yeah, well, how did it happen? You can’t duplicate that! I did another song, “Show Me the Way,” and there were about 100,000 or so views, and that’s really wonderful, but “Best of Times” really resonated with people. And let me be honest with you. The comments? “Best of Times” has over 8,000 comments which, for YouTube, is a lot in such a short period, because for “Renegade” — a song that’s been up there for 11 years — there are around 9000 comments.
Plus, what people are saying on there makes no sense to me! I see these sentences and I see my name in them, but I don’t know what my name is doing in there. They’ve attributed — how should I say this? They’ve put me on a pedestal that I couldn’t possibly have climbed up on my own.
Spotlight Central: Well, you have a tremendous fan base! We write a lot of stories about music, and we constantly talk to people who know music, and so many of them have specifically contacted us to say, “You’ve got to talk to Dennis DeYoung.”
Dennis DeYoung: [Laughs] Can you give me their names and their numbers? I’ve got to get to know them!
Spotlight Central: Sure — but first, we have one last question for you: We know you’re scheduled to perform a live concert on October 17 at MPAC in Morristown, NJ. Is there anything you’d like to say about coming out and playing for all the folks who can’t wait to see you perform live again?
Dennis DeYoung: I tell everybody that my new tour manager is the CDC. I’m just like everybody else. Nobody’s goin’ nowhere ‘til we’re all sure that it’s safe. I could show up there in October and there could be 20 people in the audience, because the rest of them are scared to show up. This is something where — you know, everyone says, “We’re all in this together?” — well, we all know that’s horse shit; some people have it a lot worse than others.
That said, we are all in this in that we are all susceptible to the virus. So I’m like all the other musicians and promotors and everybody else in the music business who’ve had their jobs come to a screeching halt. Everyone has said that these big concerts — and sporting events, too — will be the last things to come back. So if you’re planning to come see me in October or November, all I can say is: Keep your eyes and your ears open, because events will dictate what happens — not my willingness or my desire to play. I’m powerless over it.
Spotlight Central: You want to be out there doing it.
Dennis DeYoung: Sure! And, you know, I released this new record, and not being able to tour is disappointing. But really, what’s a mother to do? Moms can’t fix this. This is just a clear reminder that no matter how much we try to delude ourselves, the reality of our existence is that we, as human beings, are finite. We know this. We are all just these heaps of meat held together by string hurtling through the universe — we’re the bracioles of the universe — that’s what we are.
Spotlight Central: But at least we have the music to keep us going!
Dennis DeYoung: That’s right — and that’s why we love it! It makes us feel good. It connects us like no other art form — none! Take your favorite book. You can listen to your favorite song 100 times, right? Of course you can! But I dare you to read your favorite book 100 times, or watch your favorite movie 100 times, or look at the Mona Lisa 100 times? — [laughs] If you do, you’ll say, “She still looks the same!” — but every time you listen to music, it transports you.
To learn more about Dennis DeYoung, please go to dennisdeyoung.com. For information on Dennis DeYoung’s concert -- now rescheduled for March 5, 2021 at Morristown, NJ’s MPAC — please click on mayoarts.org.
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