Named for the town from whence most of its original members came, Chicago is as much a rock and soul institution today as it was a hit-making machine in the swinging ‘70s and big ‘80s.
Formed in 1967 by horn players Jimmy Pankow (trombone), Walter Parazaider (sax, woodwinds), Lee Loughnane (trumpet), the windy city ensemble—then known as The Big Thing—gigged with aspiring songwriter Robert Lamm (keyboards), guitarist Terry Kath, drummer Danny Seraphine, and bassist Peter Cetera before cutting their Columbia debut Chicago Transit Authority with producer James William Guercio.
The double-LP spawned the hits “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” “Beginnings,” “Questions 67 & 68,” and Spencer Davis cover “I’m a Man.”
The band’s sound evolved over the ensuing decades, often influencing their contemporaries (and friendly brass-rock rivals in Earth, Wind & Fire and Average White Band) even as it reflected the changing times. Packed with virtuoso players and several capable lead vocalists, Chicago dabbled in jazz-funk, progressive rock, and even disco before becoming the undisputed kings of adult-contemporary cool.
The lineup morphed through the years, too, particularly in the guitar department (following Kath’s tragic 1978 death) but the roster never included any slackers. Lamm, Kath, and Cetera shared lead vocals and harmonized on early hits like “Saturday in the Park,” “25 or 6 to 4,” “Free,” “Call On Me,” and “Wishing You Were Here.” Cetera took the spotlight with ‘70s chart-busters “If You Leave Me Now” and “No-Tell Lover” and the David Foster ‘80s collaborations “Hard Habit to Break,” “You’re the Inspiration,” “Love Me Tomorrow,” and “Stay the Night.”
Not even Cetera’s departure could halt the band’s momentum. New bassist Jason Scheff and keyboard soul man Bill Champlin powered late ‘80s and early ‘90s radio anthems like “Will You Still Love Me?” “Look Away,” “You’re Not Alone,” and “What Kind of Man Would I Be” to the top of the Billboard charts as Chicago’s numerically-named albums moved from the teens into the twenties and their records took on the synth-laden sounds of the MTV era.
But some things haven’t changed since those “Old Days:” Eight multiplatinum albums, 23 gold records, and 21 Top Ten hits after its inception, Chicago is still selling out concert halls—and making new music (using state-of-the-art equipment). The four-man core (Panknow, Parazaider, Loughnane, Lamm) remains intact, guiding the group with veteran Scheff. Guitarist Keith Howland and drummer Tris Imboden have each logged a couple decades, too. Keyboardist Lou Pardini handles the tunes formerly driven by Champlin, while percussionist Walfredo Reyes Jr. fills the mix with his exotic drums.
Chicago returns to Ohio on August 19 for what promises to be another memorable show at the Hard Rock in Northfield Park. We enjoyed a lengthy phone chat with Pankow last month in advance of the casino date, getting the “Lowdown” on last year’s Chicago XXXVI: Now as well as his take on nearly a half-century of musical magic. Ever wonder how Pankow came up with the multi-part suite that includes “Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World?” Or how the band devised their album titles, iconic logo, and eye-catching artwork? Read on, true believer.
While the forty-minute conversation was a nice birthday treat for us, the Northfield show falls on the eve of the trombonist’s special day. So be ready to sing for your favorite “Street Player” at the Hard Rock on August 19th, pick up Chicago’s new Studio Albums box sets, and lend your voice to petitions to (finally) get the band inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at https://www.credomobilize.com/petitions/induct-chicago-into-the-rock-roll-hall-of-fame-1 .
CLEVELAND MUSIC EXAMINER: Hello, Mr. Pankow! Thanks for the call!
JIMMY PANKOW: What are you working on your birthday for [laughs]? You’re a dedicated man!
EXAMINER: Not a biggie. I worked the day job, so I can certainly take a call from one of my favorite bands!
JIMMY PANKOW: Well, you know, it’s great to talk to you too, Pete.
EXAMINER: Are you already on the road? I know you’re teaming up again with Earth, Wind & Fire before you circle back our way.
JIMMY PANKOW: Yes. We’re on the road. We’re always on the road! I’ve been a gypsy for forty-eight years! Right now we’re in Portland, Oregon. We’ve been doing little warm-up kinds of tours in smaller markets just to get the chops going and prepare for the summer with Earth, Wind & Fire. We’ve been all over the place. We were down in the south—in Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma. We’re in the west now. We took a trip across Canada, and we’ll work our way down into Colorado. Then we’ll take a little break, and then we start rehearsing in the Bay area.
EXAMINER: You’ve played with those guys plenty of times. You did a DVD with them, too—Live at the Greek Theatre.
JIMMY PANKOW: Yeah! This will be our fourth installment. It’s a heck of a show. They do a set, then we switch it and turn it around, and we do a set. Then they come back and join us for a finale with both bands, where we’re all together on stage. It’s got that trademark excitement, combining both artists together like that. We did it with REO Speedwagon last year, and we’re done that with The Doobie Brothers and Beach Boys. So we’ve kind of honed that to be a heckuva button on our show, when we play together with other acts. But the Earth, Wind / Chicago thing is very, very exciting. It’s full of amazing musicians and performers. They’re veterans, just like we are. So when you put those two bands together, it is amazing. So people are in for a great show. Unfortunately, I don’t see Cleveland on that double-bill. So I think Chicago—out of respect for the Cleveland area—decided to come through and do our own thing! So we’re gonna be seeing you guys at the Hard Rock Live on the nineteenth of August. And we’re looking forward to that!
EXAMINER: Right! The other big news is the latest album, NOW: XXXVI. I understand this album was a bit different for you guys—and that says a lot, given your longevity and prolific nature of your records. Can you talk a bit about how you made the album on-the-go, so to speak?
JIMMY PANKOW: Chicago XXXVI, if nothing else, is a real indication that we continue to evolve. That music is always coming, new songs being rendered all the time. We don’t rest on our laurels. The songs that have become classics and timeless, fabrics of peoples’ lives, are amazing. It’s been years of work and personal association with our audience—which we really appreciate, and are grateful for. But the new music is always important, because it’s a vehicle that expresses where we’ve been, and where we are currently. And yes, we have what we call ‘The Rig.’ All of this new technology has allowed us to minimize the gear that was required to make a state-of-the-art record. We’ve evolved the tools and software we use. We can record in places like on the bus, dressing rooms, hotel rooms. Anywhere we want! That allows us to lay songs down as they inspire us. It’s amazing, because it allows us to be so spontaneous. That’s been going on the last couple years, and last year we had enough new material that we made a record of it. Some of the new material in concert is getting a great response. The record business is over; the internet has changed the landscape drastically, as we all now. You don’t go to the record store to buy a CD anymore. You go online and download the songs. And people can make custom play lists anytime they want, and can get all the songs they love anytime they want, without having to buy an album for just the one or two songs that really stand out. So the new world is all downloading and internet. We have collections available on Amazon, and on our website at www.chicagotheband.com and now we’re reaching out to our fans—and the world—through the internet. It’s instantaneous and global. So they are advantages as well as disadvantages in being able to reach out to your audience directly through the web. Every artist is doing the same thing, because that’s what it is now. But we’re really proud of the new stuff. And you’re right in that it is different in terms of what we’ve done over the last half of our career, because it’s allowed us to go into creative areas that are exploratory and more musically challenging. Like we did in the very beginning, when radio was still young, and people were feeling things that were more existential, perhaps. A little more experimental, musically. And it’s been a lot of fun, because we have no censorship anymore. We can just let it fly! We can record just about anything that comes to mind. We can be completely free to record what we feel at the moment. And to be able to do it spontaneously as we travel allows the songwriting process to continue 24/7. So that’s an amazing creative outlet for the band. Everyone contributes! It’s fantastic. We’re remaining creative. Because if you don’t evolve, you stagnate. And this band continues to explore new musical avenues!
EXAMINER: Traditionally, you do most of the horn charts for the band. Was it harder to arrange the songs this time out, given that not everyone was necessarily present in the same room together?
JIMMY PANKOW: Well, it’s always been challenging, you know? Not to pat myself on the back, but I guess I just inherited the deal. I brought that to the band when the band started way back when. I created this approach to the brass section, the horn section, so that we would be a main character in the song. We would have a lead voice. We are very melodic writers. Lots of riffs and frosting on the cake! The Chicago brass is a main character in the song, and stands out as much as the vocal. So that if you take the brass out, you get these holes, because we create that main character in the song. It’s a really different approach, arranging-wise. I guess, from what I understand from hearing from fellow horn players around the world, it is identifiable because of its unique approach. And I use the same kind of approach the new stuff, but because we got a little more daring and more experimental, I did a few different wrinkles in the music and got a little more—oh, crazy, if you will. Because I had a chance to do that! I always like to test the limits. I don’t believe in being safe, you know? We wanted to maximize our creative potential. Also, people that wrote the songs are generally the ones who produce their own tracks. So we have multiple producers on this record. Each guy brought a song in and was allowed to use his own style to establish a direction to the song. In some places we had fun bringing in guest arrangers. A couple other guys who created arrangements for various songs. So I did not arrange every track on this record! So it was fun to invite other people to have a go at arranging. It’s not the same signature, not the same approach. And it’s evident in some places, and maybe that’s what you’re hearing. Some of the guests arrangements are not the way I’ve done things, historically, and you can hear the difference. And that’s not good or bad; it’s just different. So the new collection of songs has a lot different approaches. It’s always fun to experiment, and now that we don’t have a record label censoring the band or our song selection, we don’t have anyone saying, “We want another ‘Hard to Say I’m Sorry’ or another ‘You’re the Inspiration.’ And that was always the case when we recorded for Warner Bros. or Columbia, or whoever. You become identifiable by whatever ends up on the radio, and the label continues to want more of those songs so that you get more hits on the radio. But we don’t have that problem anymore! We can play what we want to play, and that makes it really fun!
EXAMINER: Again, given Chicago’s history, you’d think you guys would’ve seen it all. But now you’ve gone from recording a string of albums exclusively at Caribou in Colorado to tracking songs on hard drives while touring all over the place.
JIMMY PANKOW: Exactly! It used to be the classic approach to making records, where everybody got on an airplane and flew to a city, and all convened in the classic studio scenario, with the producer and the engineer and the whole nine yards. And it was all sanctioned by the label, and you’d follow the protocol dictated by the label. So those days are over! With this Rig, we’re free to create music right on the spot and go wherever we want to go, creatively. It’s awesome! We have nobody dictating what to do, and once you get songs recorded, you don’t even need to put a selection together. You can throw a song on the internet immediately and go, ‘Hey man, here’s our new song. Check it out!’ The internet is a whole new world now. You have music-lovers who can almost be a part of the band, through live-streaming. They can come backstage, or be part of a live podcast. They can come on the bus and into the dressing room. You can have writing sessions. The possibilities are limitless; it’s a whole new frontier! It’s an exciting time for just about every artist out there.
EXAMINER: I wanted to ask about one of my favorite songs, ‘Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon,’ which you wrote for the second album (aka Chicago or Chicago II). It’s a ten-minute song cycle with six or seven ‘movements’ built in—including ‘Make Me Smile’ and ‘Colour My World.’ Was it by consent that those bits were extracted from the larger piece, or was that something the record company did?
JIMMY PANKOW: That was pretty much…. Again, Pete, that was song-editing. The song-editing was at one point—back at the beginning—it was foreign to us. I created that ballet as a classical approach to that music. I created a multi-movement piece that was almost a whole side of an album. And it wasn’t until I was driving in my car in L.A. that I heard ‘Make Me Smile’ on the radio as a single. And it blew me away, because I was not aware that songs could be snipped out of record or out of a longer piece and stand on their own [laughs]. So I discovered song-editing after the fact, by being a listener! That’s a song from the ‘Ballet.’ It’s a movement, and lo and behold, it became a hit single for the band. And it was because Columbia Records and Jimmy Guercio—our producer—took it out of the ‘Ballet.’ So that was not my intent. My intent was to keep the ‘Ballet’ integral as a multi-movement piece, in the serious classic approach to what we do, you know? But yeah, it made me smile, and historically, it became a signature song for the band. And a lot of people who are not Chicago-philes are actually three movements of that larger piece called ‘Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon.’
EXAMINER: The thing about Chicago horns—especially on a number like the ‘Ballet’—is that they’re such an integral part of the music. My kids know, because I’ll play it in the car, and I’ll sing to the horn bits rather than the vocal.
JIMMY PANKOW: Yeah, you’re definitely a fan, because you know. It’s evident with those horns, they’re such a signature of the music. And they’re so melodic. They have a thing about them identifies the song. I mean [sings horn intro to ‘Just You ‘n Me’]. That opening intro with that horn melody, it identifies the song, rather than just being some background frosting on the cake. So yes, you’re absolutely right about that!
EXAMINER: Chicago’s lineup has changed a lot over the last forty-five years, but all three horn players are still in the fold. That’s remarkable!
JIMMY PANKOW: In February we celebrated forty-eight years. We’re heading for that half-century mark, you know? Get the iron lung, man [laughs]!
EXAMINER: You’ve swapped guitar players and keyboardists, but you’ve always had Robert Lamm and the horns.
JIMMY PANKOW: Yeah! The original nucleus of the band is intact, which is a rare thing after all these years. Not only that, but it maintains our basic signature—our brand, if you will.
EXAMINER: But really—and this is a big misconception a lot of folks have—is that you guys don’t change things that frequently, given the number of musicians in the group and your overall history. For example, Jason Scheff—who famously replaced Peter Cetera on bass—has been on board for thirty years. People still think of him as a ‘new guy,’ but in truth he’s put in twice as much time as Peter.
JIMMY PANKOW: That’s right! He’s still one of the ‘new guys,’ and he’s coming up on thirty years! And Keith Howland—our guitar player—has been in the band longer than Terry Kath was. So the current lineup has been intact—with the additional members—much longer than most acts are around. And the current lineup is the reason we have been intact. It’s just amazing. There’s no weak link. We are slamming! Everybody is a veteran musician. People come to a Chicago show, and they see veteran musicians playing their instruments very, very well. And we do this the old-fashioned way. No smoke and mirrors! These are talented people playing the songs just as they are on the record, note-for-note. You close your eyes, and it’s like you’re hearing the record on steroids. Because it comes through a state-of-the-art sound system that we carry with us. And it’s performed very, very well. And people will see and hear a show that is as good as it gets. And as long as we can be out there doing a performance on that level, we’re gonna keep doing it until we can’t do it anymore! And people keep coming to the shows because they want to hear these songs that represent special moments in their lives. You look into the crowd every night from the stage, and you can actually see people reminiscing. They’re listening and remembering what they were doing, where they were in their lives when they discovered this music. And what that music represents—those special times in their lives. And it happens on every level, with every generation. You look into the crowd, and you see people from 15 to 75, and they’re all plugging in to what this music means to them on their own level. So the songs are crossing the generations; we’re looking at three or four generations in every audience. It’s a phenomenon, Pete! Little did we know when we wrote this music over the years that it would become such timeless stuff, or that it will probably outlast the people who created it!
EXAMINER: Which is the most any musician can hope for, really.
JIMMY PANKOW: Exactly! It’s every writer’s dream to create something that becomes immortal. I mean, like Bach or Beethoven. Or Duke Ellington! It goes beyond mortality! It’s something my grandkids will be listening to, long after I’m planted, probably [laughs]!
EXAMINER: What are your favorite, say, three Chicago albums? And which songs do you most look forward to playing each night?
JIMMY PANKOW: Gosh! That’s a tough one. I love so much from just about every album. Again, we never would have believed that we would have legacy of thirty-six albums. Some of those include greatest hits packages, the Christmas albums, and the big band album—which was totally awesome to make. We got this great band. And Bill Watrous’ Manhattan Wildlife Refuge Big Band, that was the frosting on the cake with that. And that was a chance to—talk about horn players—it was a dream to take these classic songs of the ‘30s and ‘40s that was the pop music of our parents’ generation, and Chicago-ize it. It was a real kick. And then to work with some of the best studio horn players on the planet was an amazing experience. But I have to be honest with you: I think the first one, the first album—Chicago Transit Authority—will always have a special place in my heart. Because it represents the new baby. It represents the first time we stood in front of a microphone in Studio A in New York at Columbia Records, and we were a bunch of scared kids, knowing that this was going on tape forever, and that we better not play any clams! We better do this and play these things right [laughs]! I’ll always look back on that…. The first time is always remarkable, because it’s the beginning of who-know-what! It’s the beginning of a journey whose road you cannot see. We thought we might get an album or two done, get away with it, and be done. And here we are, are these years and all these albums later, going, ‘Man, wow! How did we do all this?’ This has been one hell of a ride! But that first album represents the beginning of all of it. And I have to say that I think the song ‘Beginnings’—written by Robert Lamm—is probably a song I look forward to most on stage. I have a solo in it, and I have a chance to stretch out in it. I love what the song says, I love the groove, and I love the fact that it represents…the beginning!
EXAMINER: Well, thank you so much for talking with me. Your show at the Hard Rock last year was one of my favorites, so I’m really looking forward to another helping.
JIMMY PANKOW: I have to tell you, it’s been a pleasure talking with you. First of all, I’m honored that you’d want to devote some of your time on your birthday to talking with me. Also, my hat off to you—you’re truly a student of the band, because you’ve asked questions that indicate that you really know the music, and that’s very flattering, and I thank you!
EXAMINER: Well, thanks! Yeah, I grew up on Chicago. And now I’m passing it on to my kids. And whether they like certain songs or not, they’ll get it by osmosis! My eleven-year old son will ask, ‘Is such-and-such Chicago song from the record with the chocolate bar, or the one with the cardinal, or the one the woodcut?’ He digs those album sleeves like I did.
JIMMY PANKOW: Way back when, we also decided to number the albums—stylize the albums as II, III, and so forth. And people ask, ‘Why the numbers?’ But really, what the meaning of a title? We put that logo on the albums, and it’s a trademark of the band. I’ve been hiding behind that Chicago logo for almost half a century! It speaks for itself. It’s a brand, like Coca-Cola. You see that logo on a marquee, and you know what it represents. It stands for the music that is created by this act. And we numbered the records—perhaps pompously in the beginning, thinking that was the approach that the classical artists used. Then, looking into the future, if a music-lover wanted to archive or search for Chicago music, they could merely refer to the numbers of albums instead of irrelevant titles. So here we are, thirty-six later! Thirty-six…and counting [laughs]!
EXAMINER: And feelin’ stronger every day.
JIMMY PANKOW: That’s right, man! We’re looking forward to rolling into Cleveland at Hard Rock Live. It’ll be a pleasure to be back and see all our friends in the Cleveland area. It’s another summer in the sun! And we’re having a ball!
Chicago. Wednesday, August 19, 2015 at Hard Rock Rocksino at Northfield Park (10777 Northfield Rd, Northfield, OH 44067). Doors 6:00pm / show at 7:30pm. 21 and over. Advance tickets online at http://tinyurl.com/puz52hx
Chicago—The Studio Albums Vol. 1 (1969-1978) and Vol. 2 (1978-2008) available at Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/poesfup