It's a moment that could easily go unnoticed amid the tension-building cacophony of Styx's current concert-opening intro chorus.
But discerning fans should take note when guitarist James "JY" Young stoically strolls to the center of a mostly darkened stage Wednesday night near the tail end of the introductory video sequence and purposefully points to the nether regions of the sold-out Covey Center. The gesture is Young's homage to Babe Ruth famously calling his shot in the 1932 World Series -- but the real historical accomplishment is that the moment will mark the first time the "Godfather of Styx," as fellow guitarist Tommy Shaw often refers to him, has stepped on a stage in Provo in nearly 39 years.
That fact would not necessarily be of import were it not for the somewhat umbilical relationship between the one-time Chicago-based rock band and the hub of Utah County specifically, and the Beehive State in general.
That's because before Styx went on to chart 14 Top 30 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 and sell millions of albums during a magical run in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the band had a hit tune in exactly three towns, with Provo being one of them. Not only that, but several years before they graced sold-out concert stages at arenas from coast to coast, flying between cities and showing up to gigs in limousines, the members of Styx traveled 1,300 miles in a rented motor home to play their first -- and only to date -- show in Provo proper.
Styx performed at a local venue called the Ice House on Dec. 1, 1973. It's not often that an eventual bona fide star act travels cross country to play in a little local concert hall in a place like Provo -- and Styx's Ice House appearance has lived on in local concert lore throughout the intervening years.
While Styx has not played in Provo since then, the band has been to just about every other corner of the state, from St. George to Logan and Wendover to neighboring Orem. In fact, it's a safe bet to say that Styx has played more different venues in Utah than any other national touring band.
It's no stretch to say that despite the band's worldwide travels and an extensive turnover in members between then and now -- Young and part-time bass player Chuck Panozzo are the only originals -- Provo still holds a soft spot in Styx history.
"Oh, tremendously," said Young in a recent phone interview. "I mean, the first time, I can even remember back in my teenage years when myself as a musician got recognized in any way shape or form, those things sort of stay with you. The band that I had with my brother that was sort of a precursor to Styx, all those things, every little milestone that we had, are the kind of things that you'll never forget. And particularly Utah, which just is a unique place unto itself for a variety of reasons, yeah, and the trips back and forth that were filled with drama -- all those things just kind of will always be with me."
In light of Styx's return to Provo on Wednesday, which just happens to also mark Young's 63rd birthday, we thought it would be enlightening to revisit the band's legendary Ice House concert and the events that led to it.
'Put Me On'
Styx's Utah connection was sown in 1973 at KEYY radio in Provo. The station was in an extremely popular period -- catering to the varied musical tastes of 25,000 students at Brigham Young University, who all came from different parts of the country.
According to Steve Thomas, then-program director, and his assistant Steve Hope, those were heady times at KEYY.
"We could not be a little, tiny radio station playing little, tiny music," said Thomas, 66, and now living in Taylorsville. "It had to be huge."
Thomas, who had previously fronted a band called The Todes, said he viewed KEYY as a progressive rock station, one that would play the Top 40 during daily drive times, but explore deeper album cuts in the evening hours.
"We'd focus on the good music," Thomas said, "and that's why we had our listeners."
These were the golden days of rock radio -- when deejays and program directors chose what music they would play from a wide-open palette. Not like today's carbon-copy playlists sent out to numerous stations in different markets from one corporate office.
First as music director and then assistant program director, it was Hope's job to sift through all the new releases sent by the record companies.
"I personally listened to literally everything that came in, just to see if there was something bubbling that no one was talking about that was a good song," said Hope, now 60 and living in a suburb of Phoenix.
One day he received a 45-rpm -- for the uninitiated, those are the smaller vinyl records that contained the released single on one side and a second tune on the "B" side -- from a record company he had never heard of. The label was Wooden Nickel, the band was Styx, and the song was "Lady."
"So I put it on and just within 10 seconds I thought, 'This is interesting,' " said Hope. "I let it play, let it play, and I thought, 'This is a smash hit!' And I took it off my turntable in the office and walked right into the control room and handed it to the deejay. ... I took it in and gave it to him and said, 'Don't ask any questions, just put it on your turntable and play it. Put it on the air.'
"They thought I had a good ear for a hit record, so simply on my word, that's what they did, [they] put it on. And we got instant phone calls from people saying, 'What was that song?' And so we put it in rotation immediately and started playing it, and it became one of the most requested and biggest songs over the next couple months at KEYY."
According to Thomas, another factor in the song becoming more of a regional hit was due to a recent change in how ratings were tabulated, which put Provo stations in direct competition with their Salt Lake City counterparts.
"Suddenly the radio stations in Salt Lake City were very concerned about what the radio stations in Provo were playing," Thomas said. "We started playing ['Lady'], then Salt Lake picked it up and they started playing it. And that made it a regional hit. It became a regional hit because of that factor."
"Lady," which was included on the band's second album, the appropriately titled "Styx II," only became a hit in three markets on its initial release -- which was at least a starting point for the hard-working Chicago band.
"All of a sudden we hear we're getting airplay in Rapid City, South Dakota; Little Rock, Arkansas; and a place called Provo, Utah; which I'd never heard of before, and KEYY radio," said Young, noting that at that point in the band's career, "we didn't have a proper national booking agent, and we didn't have a lot of things organized about our career that major acts that were better represented had."
For that reason and others, it would take another year before "Lady" would connect with a national audience -- where it would eventually spend 17 weeks on the Billboard charts, topping out at No. 6 on March 6, 1975. It turns out Hope may have had something to do with that as well. But more on that later.
'Fanfare for the Common Man'
In 1973, Styx -- which featured Young (guitar/vocals) Panozzo (bass) Dennis DeYoung (keyboards/vocals), John Panozzo (Chuck's twin on drums) and John Curulewski (guitar/vocals) -- was well-known as a top-flight club act in its hometown of Chicago. According to Young, the band also ventured out into the surrounding regions for shows in the Midwest, but mostly stuck within a radius of 200 miles of the Windy City.
But with "Lady" blowing up among the college crowd in Provo, KEYY helped broker a deal late in the year that brought Styx to the previously unknown locale of Utah County for the Ice House performance.
The Ice House was located on 100 West between 200 and 300 North, in a venue across the street from the old Sears building (which is now RC Willey). Today, the Ice House structure is home to a laser tag facility, a taco shop and other small businesses.
Back in 1973, though, it was the place to go to see local live music.
"They were kind of known for bringing either up-and-coming bands ... or maybe a group that had a name at the time, like The Grass Roots or something like that, that was on the way out," said Hope. "The Ice House was such a happening place."
Styx booked a trio of concerts in as many days along the way, in places like Minot, N.D.; the aforementioned Rapid City; and Cheyenne, Wyo., before arriving in Provo.
A local band by the name of Max was the opening act for Styx's Ice House appearance.
"The unique thing about Max was that we did play original music," said Al Thomas, the band's drummer, and Steve Thomas's younger brother. "We played covers as well, but we could do a whole hour set of our own originals."
And what does he remember about Styx?
"We knew the minute we saw them that they were going big time," said Al Thomas, 65 of Provo. "They were fabulous performers. They played the 'William Tell Overture' when they started, with the stage blacked out, and it was awesome. At the very end, they just started right in and knocked everybody out. It was a great performance."
Todd Mitchell, 51 of Orem, who would later become a fixture in the Utah County band scene -- drumming for groups such as Paradox, The Critics and London Bridge -- attended the Styx show as a 13-year-old. He called the experience one of his "a-ha" musical moments.
"They were well-rehearsed. They were so musically tight. And the emotion with which they played was just throughout the whole building," said Mitchell, who especially singled out the band's prowess with harmonies, something that would later become a Styx trademark. "It was definitely one of those moments that I'll never forget. It's kind of a faded memory in terms of what happened, but I remember the emotion. I wasn't that far away from the stage, but it was big and loud in a great way. And when they played the song 'Lady,' everybody went nuts!"
With "Lady" being ahead of its time as one of the original power ballads, the crowd might not have been expecting just how hard of a rock band Styx was.
"I remember thinking, 'Boy, this is kind of a hard-core rock band," said Hope. "And I just remember that every song, including 'Lady,' they were phenomenal. They were every bit as good as the record. A lot of people when they go to concerts, they don't like the band straying off and doing things that they're not used to, if it wasn't part of the hit record on the radio -- but Styx was right on in everything that they were doing. It was pretty hard-core, I mean, it was pretty hard rock. I just remember it was loud and good."
Hope also said he remembers a rousing party in the band's hotel rooms at the Holiday Inn after the show -- but many of those details are understandably a little fuzzy.
Tapping into Young's memories of the time, he said Styx was most likely playing some of the best material from the band's first three albums -- such as "Mother Nature's Matinee," "22 Years," "Father Oh Say I" and "You Need Love" -- as well as some notable covers.
"Well, my guess is we probably still would have been playing some covers at that point in time," Young said. "We probably played a number of originals, but probably would have worked in something like 'Whole Lotta Love' and some of the covers that got a big reaction at that point in time, where people were amazed that those guys could sing as high as Robert Plant on that song, or what have you."
Other covers, said Young, would likely have included "Aimless Lady" by Grand Funk Railroad and a Sly and the Family Stone thing where DeYoung would do a feel-good, call-and-response rap with the audience.
Some of Young's most vivid memories revolve around the trip home -- which featured him and John Panozzo driving the rented motor home back to Chicago, after the other members had flown home. Making the trip more eventful was the fact that it came in the middle of the oil embargo. With an extra can of gas stowed away in the van, the pair set off for home.
"I think we got to Evanston, Wyoming, and realized we were going to run out [of gas]," said Young, "so we fashioned a road map into a funnel and poured whatever we had left into the tank, and managed to make it to a gas station somewhere. But that's a slice of American history as experienced by two members of Styx in the middle of the mountains, going, 'Are we out of our minds here? Why are we doing this kind of thing?' But we were young enough and bull-headed enough to say, 'We can do this.' "
Young said the extended road trip to Provo was viewed as a potential stepping stone early in the band's history.
"Well, there was great optimism, which lasted for a brief period of time," said Young with a laugh, "until we put out 'Serpent is Rising,' and then, really, nothing happened at all. I remember Dennis [DeYoung] saying to me at one point, 'Well, JY, we've seen our heyday.' And even for his sometimes pessimistic attitude, [I thought] 'It's a little early for that.' "
As Young intimated, the albums "The Serpent is Rising," released a couple months before the Ice House show, and "Man of Miracles" did nothing to build on the initial momentum of "Lady" -- but then again, the song had only been a hit in three smaller markets outside Chicago.
At various times throughout 1974, Hope said that a representative from Wooden Nickel kept calling, wanting KEYY to play "Lies," a song off Styx's fourth album.
"And I kept saying, 'Yeah, OK, we can support this, but if I were you, I would work "Lady" ' -- because it was just a regional hit," Hope said. "I said, 'If you really work this, this is something that could hit coast to coast and then spread from there.' "
According to Hope, this conversation kept happening over a period of months, and even continued when he moved to a Salt Lake radio station. Eventually, the rep confessed to Hope that there was somebody at a radio station in Florida that kept hammering home the same message about "Lady" being a sure-fire hit.
"Finally he called me back and said, 'OK, you win,' " said Hope. " 'There's you and some other guy in Florida. ... You guys are really bugging me about "Lady." ' And then he said something like, 'I think we're going to try and do that, and if we do, you've got a gold record.' And I remember that because I thought, 'Wow, that would be great to get a gold record for that!' And then the conversations just quit."
Several months later, now in 1975, Hope said he moved to Southern California, where he heard "Lady" all over the big stations in the area. The potential he recognized from the moment he laid ears on it at KEYY in Provo was finally being rewarded nationwide.
"Lady" was indeed a hit.
"I never heard from Wooden Nickel again," said Hope with a laugh, noting the label went out of business shortly thereafter and Styx moved on to fame and fortune with A&M Records. "I never got my gold record, and I was real sad about that."
'Come Sail Away'
Styx has gone through several personnel changes since the Ice House show. Curulewski and John Panozzo are dearly departed, passing away in 1988 and 1996 respectively, while DeYoung is simply departed.
Mainstay Tommy Shaw (guitar/vocals) replaced Curulewski at the end of 1975 and was an integral member throughout the band's ensuing chart-topping days.
The band's current lineup, which has been intact since 2003, includes Young, Shaw, Todd Sucherman (drums), Lawrence Gowan (keyboards/vocals), former Salt Lake resident Ricky Phillips (bass) and Chuck Panozzo, who due to health reasons only makes occasional appearances with the band.
Ever since "Lady," Utah has remained a Styx state throughout the band's sometimes tumultuous career -- a point Young is quick to acknowledge.
"Going back to the heyday, this is the thing I think stands out ... very few places were we able to sell out three arenas," said Young, who then ticked off a few major markets like Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, Dallas and Houston where the feat was achieved. "But Salt Lake City, on the 'Paradise Theatre' tour, we did three shows at the Salt Palace. And I know in recent times, you know, actually I think it was when we released 'Big Bang Theory' and they were tracking sales around the country, and Los Angeles and Chicago were neck and neck -- of course Los Angeles is bigger, so per capita, Chicago has always been our biggest, but the second-biggest per capita place for the sale of Styx music is Salt Lake City. It's, basically, 'Wow, all this is coming from that much less population base.' So something about our music caught on in 1973."
The connection makes Styx a near-perfect choice to headline this year's Mayor's Series on Wednesday night.
"The committee that selects the events in the Mayor's Series has discussed and suggested Styx for a couple years," said Paul Duerdon, general manager at the Covey Center -- which only sits a handful of blocks away from the site of the former Ice House. "The cards finally lined up and we were able to get them. We are very excited about having them back in Provo and having them perform in such an intimate hall."
The Steves tandem from KEYY still consider the breaking of "Lady" and setting up the Ice House show to be some of the high points of their careers.
"We were bringing big-time stuff into little Provo, trying to give these students a flavor of what they would be missing if they didn't have KEYY radio in their lives," said Steve Thomas. "Honestly, Utah Valley was -- talk about sterile. We did some good stuff at KEYY. We kicked some booty."
As for Hope, he said he and Thomas usually would sit down and discuss all the songs that would be played in the station's upcoming programs. But that didn't happen with the Styx debut.
" 'Lady,' I totally broke all the rules," said Hope. "I just walked in and put it on the air. I didn't get permission or anything. I just broke the rules."
As Young's show-opening gesture Wednesday might attest: Point taken.