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Dennis DeYoung talks unlikely hits and robot masks before playing Styx hits with the Florida Orchestra

In the early 1960s, Dennis DeYoung was just a 14-year-old with an accordion and a mission: to make a few bucks with his friends performing at weddings around his Chicago neighborhood of Roseland. A TV show changed all that.

"It was the Beatles on Ed Sullivan," says DeYoung. "If you talk to any baby boomer guys in rock bands, I would believe 80 percent would tell the same story. It was an epiphany."

DeYoung retired his accordion for a set of keyboards and co-founded a band that would go on to achieve platinum sales success and fill stadiums with fans from the late '70s through mid '80s: Styx.

A battle over music direction coupled with health problems led to DeYoung's dismissal from the band in 1999. But he still performs the music of Styx for fans around the world, while his old bandmates continue on with a new lead singer.

On Friday, DeYoung will reprise syrupy power ballads such as Babe and Lady, the majestic anthem of Come Sail Away and even Mr. Roboto, a quirky nod to technology that even a few of his bandmates didn't quite get, at Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall. But this time, as an added bonus, the Florida Orchestra will join him for the evening.

It's a union that Lennon and McCartney would endorse.

"The music lends itself to orchestration," DeYoung says. "This is no condemnation of Chuck Berry, who I greatly admire. But Chuck Berry's music will not translate as well to orchestration because of its very three-chord rock 'n' roll nature. It is the music of the artists that are more pretentious, pompous or closer to the kind of big dramatic stylings that orchestras are good with."

The Florida Orchestra has staged other "rock shows" in recent years to honor groups such as Queen, Pink Floyd, the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. But this marks the first time they've performed with the actual artist.

Fans can expect all the Dennis DeYoung-penned hits on Friday, along with a few hits from his solo career and even a tune or two that were originally sung by other members of Styx, including the rousing Renegade and Blue Collar Man.

"I wanted to make the rock band the focus; the orchestra is the sixth member," he said. "I went one step further in incorporating actual pieces of classical music, trying to weave them within the confines and structures of the hit records that we had — which only pointed out clearly how absolutely c----- my songs were compared to Mozart."

His sharp sense of humor on display, DeYoung recently called the Times to talk about the upcoming show, the fate of his accordion and to share the story of a hit song that never was intended for release.

I saw a photo of you with your accordion on VH1's Behind the Music. Do you still have it?

It was in a flood. The accordion in that picture I still have but it's pretty moldy. It's packed away in storage somewhere. I can't really play it anymore. This isn't going to make the AP or anything, but there isn't that much call for accordion players anymore in rock music.

And yet it set you on the rock music path.

Here's the humiliation that it teaches you: You spend your life learning an instrument that becomes obsolete and almost something to be derided and made fun of. That will set you on a course to be an over-achiever.

In 1979, I learned every lyric to the Styx album Cornerstone, which has the epic ballad Babe on it. But I've read that it was the beginning of band discord over musical direction.

I just believed in 1979 that prog rock was finished. I just saw the handwriting on the wall. And I believed that if we continued in that direction, our career would be finished. So I kind of led the band to making Cornerstone, which is an album from my point of view which was not trying to be necessarily softer, but more natural.

I always felt you got too much blame, publicly anyway, for causing the rift.

What people fail to realize is that any album we did, really, 90 percent of it reflected the songs people brought in. If someone had brought in two great rock songs for Cornerstone . . . they would have been on that record. Babe was never supposed to be on that record. It was a song I wrote for my wife as a present, never intending for it to be a Styx song.

Babe almost never happened?

Babe was a demo. The demo became the hit record, including all the background vocals, which were done by me.

You know, for a songwriter who caught the rock bug from the Beatles, there's very little John or Paul in Styx songs.

Our music did not sound like the Beatles in any way, shape or form. I could never find it in myself to use those Beatles tricks in Styx records because they were sacred to me. But what they did always influenced my thinking. Here's what I always say to people: If I just brought you from another planet and set you down and you knew nothing about Styx, and I played three songs for you — I played Babe, Renegade and Mr. Roboto — what would you say those songs had in common?

Nothing.

Nothing! You're a fan of my vision, which was I wanted Styx to be the band that lots of different people could come to the same party in. You'd all meet at the same place. That was my dream for the band. It wasn't to be some one-trick pony. Styx in my mind was never intended to be one thing.

Since you mention Mr. Roboto, I have to ask: If you'd known what angst that song would bring to the band's members and some of its fans, would you do anything different?

[Long pause] . . . I'd have had that Roboto mask made larger, because it didn't sit right on my face.

To listen to an hourlong, edited version of the interview, along with music clips, go to tampabay.com/blogs/80s.

IF YOU GO

Florida Orchestra Symphonic Rock Concerts: Dennis DeYoung and the Music of Styx at 8 p.m. Friday at Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 N McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater. $45, $65 and $85. (727) 791-7400. Dennis DeYoung also performs at 8 p.m. Sunday at Hard Rock Live at Universal Orlando's CityWalk, 6050 Universal Blvd., Orlando.

THREE ESSENTIAL STYX SONGS

Dennis DeYoung will draw on his Styx career and solo catalog for Friday's show. Here are three songs by his old band that are must-listens.

THE GRAND ILLUSION: A bombastic progressive rock classic from 1977, this often serves a show opener. In interviews, DeYoung has said the song is about the struggle to overcome superficiality. "So if you think your life is complete confusion / 'cause your neighbor's got it made / Just remember that it's a grand illusion / And deep inside we're all the same."

LADY: As legend has it, this 1974 ballad marked the first time DeYoung played acoustic piano for Styx. Like Babe, it was written for his wife, Suzanne, who often travels with him on tour. It has been used more recently on TV shows including It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The Office.

MR. ROBOTO: Look for DeYoung to add a little dramatic flourish to his performance of this 1983 song, which tells the tale of fictional rocker Robert Kilroy, who is imprisoned for being a rock 'n' roll misfit. Kilroy escapes by disguising himself as a Roboto, a robotic Japanese prison guard. Parts of the song are sung in Japanese, including the catch phrase "Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto."

FANS AMONG THE PERFORMERS

Count John Shaw and Ginny Respess as two huge Styx fans who can't wait to see Dennis DeYoung in person. But unlike most of the audience, they'll have prime seats: Shaw is the principal percussionist for the Florida Orchestra and Respess is its acting principal second violin.

"This is the music from when I was in high school," Shaw said. "I do remember in high school marching band, we played Babe, which was funny. So it's come full circle."

Shaw says he has spent the last few weeks listening to Styx's material to prepare himself. DeYoung and the orchestra will get only a few hours to rehearse together Friday, though Shaw has been perusing the orchestra's parts on his own already. Will there be any surprises that night?

"Mr. Roboto looks interesting," he said. "We have to pull out a siren for that one."

Respess, 33, is more wary of Roboto — "That song scares me!" — but count on her to give it her all if DeYoung pulls out the 1978 hit Renegade.

"It's my go-to road-trip, clean-the-house song," she said. "From what I've heard, he has good orchestration arrangements. So using the orchestra will really add to the song instead of just sweetening it."

Steve Spears, Times staff writer

Dennis DeYoung talks unlikely hits and robot masks before playing Styx hits with the Florida Orchestra 02/22/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 22, 2012 11:32am]

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