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Checking in on the band Chicago

The band Chicago are being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and founding member Lee Loughnane checks in to tell Goldmine what time it is, so to speak.
The current lineup of Chicago (L to R): Tris Imboden, Wally Reyes, Jr., Jason Scheff, Keith Howland, Lee Loughnane, Walt Parazaider, Jimmy Pankow, Robert Lamm and Lou Pardini. Publicity photo.

The current lineup of Chicago (L to R): Tris Imboden, Wally Reyes, Jr., Jason Scheff, Keith Howland, Lee Loughnane, Walt Parazaider, Jimmy Pankow, Robert Lamm and Lou Pardini. Publicity photo.

By Carol Anne Szel
(from the January 2016 print edition; updated 02/16)

If you were around in the 1970s,then you know their music. You knew the lyrics. You couldn’t pass a radio station that wasn’t playing them. Now, more than 48 years after their formation, you still remember and relish in their tunes, which brought to the world the fusion of rock ‘n’ roll and jazz. They are the band Chicago. And they are being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“We’re excited about it,” says Chicago founding member Lee Loughnane. “You know, we hear about it once a year, and when we’re not nominated we sort of went about our business. We started thinking we might not get in.”

He goes on to say: “It’s an honor to see that our fans want us there. A lot of people have been of the perception that we’re already in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And when they find out we are not they are sort of appalled! We’ve done everything we could do to merit being in there, we just keep working. And thank God we get to keep doing that!”

Since their inception in ’67, the band went on to sell more than 100 million records, had five No. 1 albums and 11 No. 1 singles. An unbelievable 25 of their 36 albums have been certified platinum, and the band has a total of 47 gold and platinum awards. They are the first American rock band to chart Top 40 albums for six decades.

With four original band members, Robert Lamm (keyboards, guitars, vocals), Lee Loughnane (trumpet, vocals), James Pankow (trombone) and Walt Parazaider (saxophone, woodwinds), the band’s horn section remains the longest performing horn section in the music industry today — 48 years!

“I was going to college at DePaul, and Walter (Parazaider), Terry (Kath) and Danny (Seraphine) were playing in a band called the Missing Links. And I used to go and sit in with the Missing Links at their gigs. So when Walt decided to form another band, he just asked me if I wanted to be in it. It was 1967, February of 67,” Loughnane says.

The band’s songwriters — Robert Lamm (“Saturday in the Park,” “25 or 6 to 4,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”), Jimmy Pankow (“Make Me Smile,” “Colour My World,” “Just You ‘n’ Me”) and Lee Loughnane (“Call On Me,” “No Tell Lover”) — have written the music for many people’s lives, and they remain some of the most prolific songwriters of the music industry. The songs above represent just some of the band’s 21 Top 10 singles.

“Well I’m still doing some songwriting,” says Loughnane, “you know, I’m not a prolific songwriter but I’m still writing.”

Goldmine: You’ve sang on a couple tunes, do you wish you’d sing more?

Lee Loughnane: Well, now I sing “Colour My World” onstage. Because when we recorded a bunch of our original masters and we tried to re-create the masters to the note. Everything we did on our original masters we tried to to on our new ones. And the texture of my voice was closer to Terry’s than anyone else in the band. A couple of the other guys had sung “Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World” and I said, “Give me a shot, you’ll know within eight bars.” So I ended up singing “Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World” on what we called “The Nashville Sessions” (2013).

GM: How do you think having different vocalists has affected the band as a whole?

LL: I think it’s given us, like the horn section has given us, more variety, especially in live performance. And some guys are so good, you could listen to their voice all night long. You don’t mind hearing their voice because they’re just so prolific at what they do. We have some good vocalists in our band, and the variety that it brings to the show is priceless.

GM: Tell me about (involvement in) the HBO movie, “Clear History.” (2013). How did that come about?

LL: Well, Larry David called our management and asked us if we wanted to be in his movie. We said “Yeah!” But we had no idea that we would become a subplot in it. The rock ‘n’ roll, the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll part of the movie!

We had a great time on the set. The way Larry writes is pretty much on the spot. I mean, he’ll tell you the basic idea of the scene. He’ll start it at a basic level and then as you do it, it develops from there. And then when he and the director are satisfied, then they say ‘OK, we got it, let’s move on to the next scene.’ Like I said, we had no idea how much of a role we would have. It was a lot of fun.

GM: Back when you were called the Chicago Transit Authority, isn’t it true that the city of Chicago asked you to use another name?

LL: Yes. That was one of the reasons. Because it wasn’t the best image for them at the time. They said that they would push us out of advertising and everything. But I think they’d probably love to have that back about now!

But there were a couple of different reasons. People were thinking that there were three different bands. Chicago, CTA and Chicago Transit Authority. And when we released the “Chicago Transit Authority” album, we changed the name to Chicago in the liner notes and subsequent to that we were Chicago. And that’s why they put the roman numerals on the albums to differentiate one album from another. We had to do something because we called them all Chicago!

GM: And the band started out being more political in songs, correct?

LL: Well, Robert was writing more politically-oriented songs, that’s the way he was thinking at the time. But the band has always been a musical band. And we were experimenting with many different things. You know, we’re accused of not experimenting anymore, but I think all of our material is experimental. We are continuing on; we do a hundred shows a year on the average. But David Foster (record producer), when he came in, he says in retrospect he sees that he changed the course of the band and probably over-produced us. (laughs) But the songs are great, they work every night and it’s built us a new audience and got us on the radio again. He accomplished what he needed to do.

GM: Do you think the addition of horns to a rock band gave Chicago more of a universal appeal?

LL: I guess so, but I think the music is what gave us universal appeal. And the instrumentation was just something we brought to the game. And the way Jimmy (Pankow) wrote the brass parts brought brass into the forefront instead of as an accompaniment. We were more of a lead instrument. So that is definitely the thing that set us off from everybody else.

GM: And 100 million records sold. Does that blow your mind?

LL: Yes, it does actually. I mean, when we recorded the first album, when we started recording, we thought we’d have one album ... possibly two. Because that’s usually what happens. Maybe three albums. But 36? We didn’t think that!

GM: Chicago has toured every year since 1967 — they’ve never missed a year and will continue to go on the road in 2016, along with Earth, Wind & Fire. Do you ever get tired of touring?

LL: Of travel, oh yeah. Of playing, no. Playing music, I love it. The hardest thing is the travel and being away from your family.

GM: You never get enough Chicago. The fans just never get enough.

LL: That’s what keeps us around. It’s an attitude like that that keeps us around. GM


The band Chicago is already in the Goldmine Hall of Fame!