There wasn’t a lot of fanfare that happened when Lee Loughnane realized that 2017 marked the 50th anniversary of playing alongside Robert Lamm, Walter Parazaider and James Pankow in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame enshrined classic rock band Chicago.
Back in 1967, when those four, alongside Danny Seraphine and the late, great Terry Kath first got together, the band was known as The Big Thing and within a year had moved to California and landed a record deal with Columbia Records. Another big change happened that year: The Big Thing was re-dubbed Chicago Transit Authority, which was also the title of the band’s debut album in 1969, before shortening it to Chicago soon thereafter.
What followed was a remarkable string of horn-infused hits throughout the 1970s, including Does Anybody Really Know What Time It is?, Make Me Smile, Saturday In the Park, If You Leave Me Now, and the iconic 25 or 6 to 4. With the mellifluous Peter Cetera taking more creative control through the 1980s MTV era, the band scored a number of massive, more AOR-oriented hits – mostly ballads – like Hard to Say I’m Sorry, Hard Habit to Break, You’re the Inspiration, Look Away, and Will You Still Love Me. Twenty one of their singles reached the top 10, making Chicago one of the most prolific hit makers of their era.
The band had peaked commercially but continued to be a consistently popular – and very busy – draw on the concert circuit, something that continues to this day. In all, Chicago has released 25 studio albums (five of which topped the charts) and six live records, selling more than 100 million albums worldwide, including 40 million in the U.S. alone.
At present, the band is touring North America with The Doobie Brothers and will be making two stops in Canada – July 19, at the Budweiser Stage in Toronto, and Aug. 25 at the PNE in Vancouver. The evening before the Toronto show, the two bands are nearby at Darien Lake, NY.
Loughnane, Pankow (trombone, arranger, composer), Parazaider (woodwinds) and Lamm (keyboards, vocals, composer) are the last of the original members, but according to Loughnane, the band’s trumpet/flugelhorn player, they didn’t really dwell on the fact that they are moving into their sixth decade as friends and bandmates.
“We had been thinking about it for a long time but our attitude has pretty much been about moving forward. We really don’t have time to sit back and enjoy what we have done because we’re too busy still doing it. We’re focused on the next thing. We may have said, ‘wow 50 years, well let’s go out and have a great show tonight.’ We understand it and appreciate it, but we move on,” he said from his home in, where else, Chicago, where the band was taking a short break for the Fourth of July celebrations in the U.S.A.
“First of all, we know it’s special. It’s also highly unusual and in order to keep doing it at this high level you have to keep putting the work in. It takes every day of continual preparation to be able to lay it out there every night for 50 years. And I know for me personally, I love all aspects of this job: I love the preparation and the practice and keeping my body in shape. And I love the time I get to spend with my [13 year old] son when I am off the road, so I am loving every phase of my life right now.
“And I am not going to try to second guess why people come and go in this business and bands can’t always stay together. Maybe it’s because they stop enjoying some aspects of it. I know that because we are able to keep doing it, it makes me want to keep moving further and striving forward.”
The current lineup also features Tris Imboden, Keith Howland, Lou Pardini, Ray Herrmann, Walfredo Reyes Jr., and new vocalist/bassist Jeff Coffey, who replaced long-time member Jason Scheff last year.
Spending 50 years touring the world with three other people – all the long hauls on the tour bus, planes, hotels, sound checks, rehearsals and gigs – hasn’t been easy. But any many members of other long-tenured bands have opined that keeping a band together is very much along the same lines as keeping a marriage together.
“It is like a marriage, but thank God we don’t have to live in the same room because we would never have lasted this long. I think the secret is that we have the perspective and earned the mutual respect that comes from watching each other grow and learn about life together and experience the music and the world and people. It’s all encompassing, really, and worthy of continuing. So we’re shooting forward on the next 50,” Loughnane said.
But what does he think is the reason why Chicago can do more than 100 dates each year, including jaunts to the Far East, South Pacific, Europe and Australia, playing to crowds that are now hitting three generations old. For Loughnane, it’s the music itself that seems to transcend the decades.
“It is amazing how many younger people are coming to our shows. And they’re not just getting yanked there because their parents can’t figure out what to do with them. They actually want to be there, and not only that, but they’re often the ones up front singing along. It’s amazing that the music has resonated with so many different generations. When you’re writing a song, you’re hoping that anybody else besides you will like it, so to have this kind of popularity this much time since we started is incredible. And it’s really about the songs, more so that the individuals in the band,” he said.
“I think the parents were playing our stuff so the kids start hearing it that way and realize that, ‘oh that’s Chicago.’ And then many of them go back and discover the older stuff, because those who are parents of kids in their teens and 20s today were around for our 1980s era and even some of them may not be familiar with the 1970s hits. It’s kind of cool that we have been around long enough to have actual eras.
“And I think the younger people are gravitating more towards the 1970s stuff because it was more organic, more natural sounding. The music was interesting and lyrically people can relate to it because some of the simple things in life are talked about, and people understand that no matter what the generation. I really can’t explain why it continues to speak to people any more than I have, but I am sure happy that it does because it means I can keep doing it.”
Even though Chicago is firmly established as part of the firmament of American classic rock bands, with their songs still played often every day on radio stations around the world, the band’s legacy was reinforced with their election to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2016 alongside Cheap Trick, Deep Purple, rap super group NWA and Steve Miller.
“It was more exciting than I would have ever imagined it because we went 25 years to be nominated and once we were nominated and the induction came, we still didn’t believe it was going to happen. When it did, we just got behind it and enjoyed working with the production people at the show. It was a great experience during the show, and after the show. And it’s funny because the very next night we were on stage with Earth Wind and Fire again, doing another show on our tour. So, like the 50th, you enjoy the moment and then move on,” said Loughnane.
“Still, it’s something that can’t be taken away. We have that now and it’s a permanent part of our legacy. It never bothered us too much when people would say, ‘yes, but you’re not in the hall of fame,’ because we’ve kept working and working at a high level. But to finally get that recognition is sort of like getting the key to the private club – it’s pretty cool.
“It actually makes it sweeter that we waited so long and that it happened in our 49th year. You would have expected a band that had been around that long would be slowing down a little bit, and instead we were sort of sprinting uphill into the 50th year.”
Touring with the Doobie Brothers, a band that has been around nearly as long as Chicago is also a treat for Loughnane and the other long time members of his band.
“It’s fun because they know that we have had the same experiences that they have on the road. And we have both lasted beyond any of the possible negatives that could have happened to us – and even some of the negatives that did happen, we have outlasted them as well. So it’s great to be able to share some stories with each other and just enjoy the company of guys like the Doobies.”
For more information on Chicago, visit www.chicagotheband.com.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.