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Enjoy San Joaquin Valley Living

Half a Century with Chicago

Aug 25, 2017 11:00AM ● By Phil Reser

Hard Habit to Break

September 2017
Story by Phil Reser
Photos courtesy of Chicago

The rock group Chicago is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Its music, those horns, first came to life in the neighborhoods of the Windy City. That sound, a brassy kind of rock n’ roll, came from a group of college kids who would eventually name themselves after their city, and make their band and logo as famous as their songs.

They released their first rock album in 1969.

Today, the band has sold more than 100 million albums, scored 21 Top 10 singles and been inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

The band continues to perform and record with four of its original members: Robert Lamm, Lee Loughnane, Walter Parazaider and James Pankow.

“We were a bunch of guys who rehearsed in a garage, working until something magical happened,” says trombonist and composer, James Pankow. 

“We stylized ourselves after soul and rhythm and blues acts, using horn sounds. It was already being done by soul groups like Otis Redding, The Temptations and Wilson Pickett.”

In the beginning, they named the band The Big Thing, and hit the Midwest club circuit. 

After building up a huge following, they began working with producer/manager Jim Guercio, who renamed them Chicago Transit Authority, which was soon simplified to Chicago along with a physical move to Los Angeles and signing to Columbia Records. 

Pankow joined sax man Parazaider and trumpet great Lounghane, making Chicago “the first rock and roll band, with an indigenous horn section that was not frosting on the cake,” notes Pankow, who is in the Songwriters Hall of Fame along with former band member Peter Cetera and Lamm.

“It became my job to inherit the task of just how that approach could be done. Here I am crafting horn arrangements for this new idea: A rock-and-roll band with this lead horn section. I wrote these arrangements, approached our horn section as a melodic voice better than just shots or riffs.”

He began playing trombone at age 10, though drums, guitar or saxophone would have been cooler with him and his peers. But the lines to get into those music classes were too long. 

As his musical knowledge increased, Pankow begin to appreciate the great trombonists who were using the instrument in innovative ways. “J.J. Johnson made the trombone kick,” he says, referring to the influential jazz trombonist of what is known as the “post-swing” era. “When he came along, he gave the trombone a whole different quality and hipness.”

As great a trombonist as he has become as part of Chicago, Pankow’s major contribution to the band might be as a writer. His brass arrangements are legendary, and his compositions include the huge hits “Colour My World,” “Make Me Smile,” Just You ’n Me,” “Searching So Long,” “Old Days,” “Alive Again,” “Bad Advice” and “Show Me A Sign.”

One of the band’s most popular songs, “Colour My World,” never charted because it wasn’t released as a single. It was used as the B-side of “Make Me Smile” in April 1970, and as the B-side of “Beginnings” in June 1971.

”That composition was a small segment of a multi-movement piece on our second album which is basically a tribute to my first love. I had been listening to ‘Bach - the Brandenburg Concertos,’ and they had all these arpeggiated melodies. I sat at a piano and started messing around with these arpeggios. That cycle of arpeggios became the foundation of the song. I titled it ‘Colour My World’ because it affected a lyric that again mirrors the emotion of love. Love songs have always been a powerful ingredient in the songwriting process. If you’re a human being, you can relate to this: Love is a very powerful thing. It motivates almost everything we do. So we write about it often in one form or another in our music. Nine out of 10 songs you listen to have something to do with that emotion, because it connects us to the world that connects us to people, and it connects us to greater things beyond this plane.”

He adds, “The songwriting process can go on until we take our last breath, because that comes from the heart and the mind, and those things go on and on. But the performance of this music is not such an easy task, because it’s a bodily function, and the old bod, it wears out. You look back, Elvis Presley is gone, The Beatles are gone. I mean, how long can we do this? We’re going to do it as long as we can.”

Chicago • Friday, October 6

The Paul Paul Theater, Fresno