It is a challenge presented to any singer brought in by an established rock ensemble to replace an equally established rock voice.
How do you make hits sung by another, more familiar vocalist — songs that helped catapult the band to stardom decades earlier — your own, while forging a viable artistic role in the present day?
That's what Canadian keyboardist and singer Lawrence Gowan faced when he joined the veteran arena-rock troupe Styx in 1999. His mission: to help the band move on after an acrimonious split with singer Dennis DeYoung, Styx's principal lead vocalist and the voice behind such career- defining radio hits as Lady, Babe and The Best of Times.
"About two years before they asked me to join, I played a couple of shows with them," said Gowan, who performs with Styx on Friday night at Rupp Arena. "Even then, the thought went through my head: 'You know, I would really fit into this band.' So when they called, I was only half-surprised for that reason. I mean, the preparation was already done for me to be in the band.
"They say luck is when preparation meets opportunity. This was a case of that."
Styx's history extends back to the early '70s with music that reflected a then-prevalent prog-rock climate, but it was the more broad-based pop the band recorded from 1976 to 1984 that solidified its reputation as a worldwide arena-rock favorite. Four albums —1976's Crystal Ball, 1977's Grand Illusion, 1978's Pieces of Eight and 1979's Cornerstone — were multi-platinum hits that drew on the personalities of three lead vocalists: James "J.Y." Young, Tommy Shaw and, most prominently, DeYoung.
Styx split in the mid-'80s but reformed at the dawn of the '90s. By 1999, though, tensions between DeYoung and the band intensified, leading to lawsuits and countersuits over the use of the Styx name. When the legal dust settled, Gowan was in the band.
"J.Y. and Tommy were asking me to bring what I have to the band and not to feel like I was simply replacing someone," Gowan said. "Nobody replaces anyone in a band. It's a new day; new members join and the band continues.
"On the first night we played together — it was in Branson, Mo., of all places — I didn't feel the slightest bit of trepidation at all. At the moment I drew that breath back to sing Grand Illusion, it kind of hit me. I was looking at a few thousand people and realizing, 'They have never heard this song sung by anyone else until now. They have never heard it done this way. Everything just culminated in that moment.
"So about halfway through the song, I looked out and saw hands were in the air. That's when I felt we were on the road to acceptance. I knew that we were building upon everything the band had accomplished in the past. So I guess I was starting out with a hell of a boost. It was just up to me to hold up my end. That's what I've been trying to do every night since."
Styx released an album of all-new material with Gowan in 2003 titled Cyclorama, but the band's newest recording projects revisit its esteemed pop and prog past in much the same way its concerts do.
For 2010's Regeneration: Volume 1, Styx re-cut six early hits along with one new composition (Difference in the World). On the just-released Regeneration: Volume 2, they re-cut nine more oldies including a pair of tunes that Shaw recorded with the early-'90s supergroup Damn Yankees.
Both albums presented Gowan with the same mission he faced when he first joined Styx: to bring his voice of the present to his band's recorded history of the past. This time, though, it was for posterity.
"It's a tricky thing when you are recording songs, some of which first came out over a quarter-century ago," he said. "The whole band tries to be as true to the original as we can yet uphold everything we have brought to those songs over the thousand-plus shows we've done since I joined — things that a whole new generation of fans have come to embrace.
"These are new recordings, but they become a bit of a forensic study, as well. You have to dust the music off and make sure you're not stepping on something that is really integral to the original charm of the song.
"That process should seem like it's an effortless endeavor. Hopefully, we've made it sound that way."