With a few breaks, the River Styx might've been the East Coast's answer to the Chocolate Watchband -- and in a fairer reality, they'd have opened for the Rolling Stones or the Yardbirds, or at least the Pretty Things, had the latter ever toured the U.S. But they didn't get the breaks, so it's only in the '90s that anyone outside of Trenton, NJ has gotten to hear their music.
They didn't have everything going for them. The name wasn't ideal, especially when they lengthened it at the height of the psychedelic boom -- River Styx Blues Emporium stumbles off the tongue, and they came out of a part of the country, Trenton, N.J., hardly known for its major contributions to rock & roll. But the River Styx Blues Emporium (doesn't it sound like some made-up name for a rock & roll band on one of those mid-'60s Dragnet episodes?), known for most of its existence as simply the River Styx, did have a powerful and bold sound, and some considerable talent behind it.
The band originated in the area around Trenton, a city known mostly in music at that time for its soul and doo wop outfits. Like most of the relative handful of rock & roll bands in the area, the River Styx started out primarily as an instrumental group, doing Ventures-like material, but they proved to have a good singer in their ranks as well and added a few vocal numbers to their set. By 1966, Preston Harrison (bass, lead singer, harmonica), Tom Miller (lead guitar), Charlie Miller (rhythm guitar), and Jim Horner (drums) -- who were ages 15 to 16 when they first got together to play, had begun assimilating the more progressive blues-based sounds of the British Invasion, especially the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones, and the Animals.
The band made its way playing school dances, teen clubs, and the like, and found a small but loyal audience for their brand of rough-hewn, R&B-influenced rock & roll, which resembled the Pretty Things more than almost any other group. Based on their surviving records of the time, they had a powerful sound that must've been even more formidable on-stage, playing to an audience -- they seem to have understood the little nuances, of expression and tempo, that can make a song hold a crowd spellbound even as they're dancing to it.
It was a Battle of the Bands in Princeton, NJ that gave them a shot at national exposure, when they won an audition for Capitol Records during the summer of 1967, beating out local rivals like the Trees and the Null Set. The two songs they cut, "Holding for Me" and "Now, " were promising, and a contract was offered, but the group's hopes were dashed by their parents -- they were all under 18, and their families didn't want the members signing that young; by the time they were old enough a year later to deal with the contracts themselves, the label was no longer interested. A few locally released singles followed, but the River Styx had missed its best chance to break out of New Jersey. By 1968, they'd begun experimenting with new sounds and more exotic instruments, including recorders and electric autoharp, and even a few of their own devising for creating spaced-out sounds -- Tom Chapman came in on bass so that Preston Harrison could add more instruments to his repertoire. It was around this time that they changed their name to the River Styx Blues Emporium, a sort of declaration of their new psychedelic orientation. It didn't seem to add anything to their fortunes, and the band went on temporary hiatus late in 1968, as the members, some of whom were now married, began looking for regular jobs and trying to settle down.
They were back together in 1970 as the River Styx, and it was during this period that their prospects seemed to look up. With a new manager aggressively pushing them, the band began getting more gigs and even released a few more records locally. There wasn't enough success to sustain the group for more than a couple of years, however -- by 1972, the River Styx had called it a day, although Preston Harrison has remained in the music business for at least part of the three decades since.