By Laura Youngs
On February 15, 1967 in a small apartment in Chicago, IL six musicians made a gentleman’s agreement over a hand shake that they would try to make their new band “work”. Fifty years and 36 albums later the legendary group Chicago is still playing to sold out venues across the country. “And we’re still trying to make it work”, quipped trombone/horn arranger/songwriter James Pankow. Along with keyboardist/vocalist Robert Lamm, woodwinds Walter Parazaider and trumpet/songwriter Lee Loughnane , Pankow is one of the four remaining original members . Guitarist Terry Kath died tragically from a gun accident in 1978 and drummer Danny Seraphine parted ways with the group in 1990. Lead singer Peter Cetera also left the group in 1984 to pursue a successful solo career. None of these changes, however, have stopped this powerhouse rock group from moving forward. “We’ve never taken a year off”.
Pankow’s story is well documented after being in the spotlight for over half a century. He was raised in Chicago along with nine siblings. At the age of ten his parents took him to Musical Sign Up Night at St. Paul of the Cross grammar school so he could find an instrument to begin playing.
“All of the cool instruments were already taken”, he opined. But there was no line for the trombone. His parents and band director talked him into giving it a chance. That choice resulted in musical history. His father was a successful salesman and was key in encouraging the young Jimmy to “stick with it”. He would play his music collection for him and take him to the local clubs when the great players would come in to town. He earned a full music scholarship to Quincy University where he majored in Music Education and then transferred to De Paul University, Pankow was met Walter Parazaider who had an idea to form a rock group with a horn section. This definitely intrigued Pankow and that is how their story began. Aware of how openly he talks about the support his father gave him, I asked him if he lived to see his success. “Yes. Yes, he did”, Pankow says . “When the band left for Los Angeles in 1968 I loaded up my U-Haul and my parents were standing on the porch as I was getting ready to drive off. My mom was saying “Well, there he goes” and my dad told her “Don’t worry. He’ll be back in six months”. And he was right. I came back with a brand new car for them and played in Chicago Stadium in front of twenty thousand people!”
The move to Los Angeles was the beginning of their success. They were signed by Columbia Records and released a double album under the name Chicago Transit Authority which includes the hit songs “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” and “I’m a Man”. Soon after the band shortened their name to Chicago and quickly released Chicago II. It was this release that gave us arguably the most famous Chicago ballad, written by James Pankow, “Colour My World”. Along with the hit “Make Me Smile” these songs were part of the suite “Ballet for the Girl from Buchannon”. The suite was written by Pankow when he was only 22 years old. “I didn’t write it as a song, per se, but as an homage to classical composers. Taking my pop instincts with a classical style”. Radio stations at the time did not know how to label their music. Initially getting play on AM stations , the FM stations were more hesitant in giving the horn-laden rock group airplay. This all changed when nationally known radio DJ Don Steele heard their music. Songs from the groups initial album were just beginning to climb the charts. Pankow relates how he was driving in L.A. with the convertible top down and the radio on when he hears Don Steeles’ lead in to playing “Make Me Smile” , saying to pay attention because Chicago is destined to become a #1 band. “That’s when I knew we had made it”, he tells me. “I didn’t even know you could edit out a song. I had never heard it on it’s own”. The suite yielded two top ten hits: “Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World”. It is now 34 albums later and they certainly did become a #1 band.
That handshake in 1967 has led to two American Music Awards, five Grammy Awards with ten Grammy nominations and in 2014 Chicago Transit Authority was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 1992 they were given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in 2016 they were inducted into the prestigious Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. On New Years Day of this year Chicago’s award-winning documentary, Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago premiered on CNN and ranked #1 in the ratings among adults aged 25-54. There seem to be no stopping this iconic group. They have a full touring schedule this year which includes being joined by the Doobie Brothers this summer.
With 50 years of continuous touring you might think that Pankow might want to retire but there are no signs of this happening anytime soon. He loves performing and is appreciative of all the fans that have followed the music of Chicago for decades. “The songs represent special moments in peoples lives now and people come to the shows to see those memories performed live. You can see people look at each other when we start playing a song and you know they have a connection to it. Little did we know when we wrote this stuff that over the years it would stick to the wall and become a timeless fabric of peoples lives of all ages. It has become a phenomenom that we never imagined. It allows us to have a career as long as we can viably do this. We get up on that stage and we feel like we’re eighteen years old!” Well, I know that their music makes this groupie feel the same way!
Chicago will be playing at The Majestic Theater on March 31, 2017. You can see their full tour schedule by visiting www.chicagotheband.com
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