After 55 years, James Pankow continues to make fans smile as one of the three co-founding members of Chicago, the legendary rock band with horns that returns April 19 to play the TaxSlayer Center, Moline, for the first time in six years.
“We are a working band, thank God. I will tell you that being out of work during the pandemic was brutal,” Pankow, the 74-year-old trombonist and primary songwriter, said in a Tuesday phone interview. “It was eternity. I mean, we’ve never taken more than a month or two off in 55 years.
“Now we’re dead in the water, with no work for a year and a half was very difficult,” he said. Fortunately, the 10-member band (founded in Chicago in 1967) made good use of the time off, to write and record a new album — their first complete record of original material in eight years, due out this June.
Chicago — which has toured 55 consecutive years — performed its last pre-COVID show March 14, 2020 at the Venetian in Las Vegas (the last concert in Vegas before the shutdown), and their first back was in June 2021, returning to sellout crowds.
“We’re going to roll the dice. We’re going to go on the road. Let’s see what happens,” Pankow recalled, noting many venues had low expectations, and wanted to reduce the band’s guaranteed payment. “And we feel very confident that we’re going to do good business. People are going to be so glad to get back to concerts, live music. It’s going to be great. And guess what?
“They were, we were selling out every show,” he said, noting the band has continued to sell out dates on its 2022 tour, starting in February. “People would wear the mask into the venue. And once they sat in their seat, they took it off, like the old days and it was great.”
Chicago was one of the first major artists to go back on tour in 2021, Pankow said. He got COVID that August, but recovered well, he said.
“We have a supporting cast that’s better than ever,” Pankow said. “The band is just smoking and the audience is having a great time because they’re getting the real deal. It is the records on steroids.
“Everything is really better than ever,” he added. “The band is the best, in my opinion, the best lineup we’ve ever had. The shows have been incredible. We’re having a great time and we look forward to bringing this ensemble into the future for as many years as we can.
“Fifty-five years for gosh sakes, it’s phenomenal. I mean, I still pinch myself,” Pankow said. “It’s been a journey that no one expected. In the beginning we were thinking, maybe we’ll be lucky to get one or two albums out. And 40 albums later, and we’re selling out venues.
“You look into the audience, you see people of all ages, from 15 to 70 and they’re all connecting with this music on their own level. Every artist dreams of creating a body of work and long after you’re gone, this music continues to be embraced by millions of people, and these songs have become a soundtrack in their lives.”
From Chicago to Quincy to a musical Chicago
A St. Louis native, Pankow grew up in suburban Chicago, influenced by his musician father, Wayne. He started playing trombone at St. Paul of the Cross Elementary School. Pankow earned a full music scholarship to Quincy College, where he studied bass trombone.
He transferred to DePaul University, Chicago, where he met Walter Parazaider, who recruited him to join a band, The Big Thing, which would become Chicago Transit Authority. Soon after the first album’s release, the band’s name was shortened to Chicago.
Pankow has penned many songs for Chicago, including the hits “Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World” (both from his suite Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon), “Just You ‘N’ Me,” “(I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long,” “Old Days,” “Alive Again,” and (with Peter Cetera) “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day.”
He also has scored most of Chicago’s brass arrangements. Although he’s not one of the band’s principal vocalists, he sang lead vocals for two Chicago songs: “You Are On My Mind” (from Chicago X, 1976) and “Till the End of Time” (Chicago XI, 1977).
Pankow isn’t upset that he doesn’t get to sing the huge hits that he wrote.
“There are there are better vocalists that can take that ball and run with it,” he said Tuesday. “The joy I get is creating it. When you’re writing a song, you know, it’s a very personal experience.”
“You bring the song to the band and it comes to life, because everybody adds their own magic to the song,” Pankow said. “Vocalists and instrumentalists and the music becomes a living thing. And then of course, if you’re lucky enough, you record the song and then it becomes something that is shared by millions. This experience that you had by yourself, in a room writing this, becomes a mantra for millions of people. It’s a very powerful thing.”
In addition to himself, the remaining original band members are Robert Lamm on keyboards and vocals and Lee Loughnane on trumpet and vocals. The band lineup also includes Wally Reyes, Jr. on drums, Tony Obrohta on guitar, Loren Gold on keyboards and vocals, Ray Herrmann on sax and flute, Neil Donell on vocals, Brett Simons on bass and Ramon “Ray” Yslas on percussion
Pankow said one of the outstanding new members is lead guitarist Obrohta. “He is amazing,” he said. “If you close your eyes, it’s like Terry Kath, it’s so right. We hand-pick people and they’re amazingly talented.”
Kath — an original member who sang lead on the classics “Make Me Smile,” “Colour My World” and did the indelible guitar solo in “25 or 6 to 4”– died from an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound at 31 in January 1978.
“Mortality is a reality and Terry was big, but what are you going to do?” Pankow said. “Are you going to hang up the cleats, or are you going to stretch the limits? Are you going to carry the torch and keep going as long as you can go? We decided to do the latter, and I’m sure wherever Terry is, I’m sure he’s delighted that we did that. All these 50-plus years would not have been possible if we didn’t make that decision.”
The first single, after Kath’s death, “Alive Again” came out in October 1978, from the “Hot Streets” album, symbolic of Chicago’s rebirth.
“It’s a kind of an anthem or a reflection of making that decision,” Pankow said of his song and continuing the band. “Do we want to hang up the gloves or do we want to come back and be better than ever? Hey man, we’re going to be better than ever. We’re alive again.”
Connecting with other superstars
Chicago’s 1978 connection with the Bee Gees came when they were both recording in studios in Miami at the same time – Chicago doing “Hot Streets” and the Brothers Gibb “Spirits Having Flown,” their follow-up to “Saturday Night Fever.”
“We meet there and we’re making coffee or whatever, and I got talking to Barry and next thing you know, they’re singing background vocals on ‘Little Miss Lovin’,” Pankow said, noting he got to play with Lee Loughnane and Walt Parazaider on the Bee Gees’ “Tragedy,” among other tracks.
That was similar to when Chicago recorded “Wishing You Were Here” in 1974, and the Beach Boys were at the same Colorado studio, so The Beach Boys‘ Al Jardine, Carl Wilson, and Dennis Wilson guested as backing vocalists.
Chicago went on tour several times with the Beach Boys and will reunite this summer with 79-year-old Brian Wilson as the opening act on tour.
Chicago and Brian Wilson, co-founder of the Beach Boys, with Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin, will tour together in 25 U.S. cities, starting June 7, including a July 24 date at the Hollywood Casino in Tinley Park, Ill.
Revisiting historic Carnegie Hall gig
It was a special thrill, in Pankow’s early 20s, to play a week at Carnegie Hall (the most famous stage in the world) in 1971. While the band released its fourth album, a four-LP set from that series of eight concerts in 1971, Chicago went way beyond that in a 50th anniversary edition, where recordings were cleaned up and remastered in 2021, released as a new 16-CD set.
Chicago became the first non-classical group to perform six nights in a row at Carnegie Hall, from April 5 to 10, 1971. The quadruple-LP reached #3 on the Billboard 200, was certified platinum, and is still the band’s best-selling live album.
Chicago founding member and trumpeter Lee Loughnane and engineer Tim Jessup spent nearly a year meticulously going through more than 40 tapes at Loughnane’s new studio in Arizona to remaster each concert.
“Chicago at Carnegie Hall Complete” – released last year — comes with a 28-page booklet with photos from the concerts, plus new liner notes with contributions by Loughnane; archivist Jeff Magid, writer/producer David Wild and comedy icon/Chicago fanatic Jimmy Pardo.
“It’s one of the most famous high temples of classical music, and here we are, a bunch of young, crazy kids playing rock ‘n’ roll,” Pankow recalled. “They loved it. I mean, they thought it was groundbreaking.”
Lamm and Pankow have become inductees of the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2017. These legendary songwriters wrote mega-hits such as “25 or 6 to 4,” “Saturday In The Park,” “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” “Make Me Smile,” and many others.
The International Trombone Association presented its 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award to Pankow. The Lifetime Achievement Award recognizes people who have distinguished themselves by their contributions to the trombone profession over a long career.
Chicago’s lifetime achievements include two Grammys, two American Music Awards, Founding Artists of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and a Chicago street dedicated in their honor.
Record sales top the 100-million mark, and include 21 Top 10 singles, 5 consecutive No. 1 albums, 11 No. 1 singles and 5 Gold singles. Twenty-five of their 37 albums have been certified platinum, and the band has a total of 48 gold and platinum awards.
From touring to teaching
On Monday, April 11, an off day, in Champaign, Ill., Pankow did a brass clinic for students at University of Illinois, where the department head is a trombonist.
“He said Jimmy, you have the time to come over and talk to the students? I said, are you kidding? I’d love to, it would be an honor,” he said.
Despite playing the same songs for 55 years, Pankow never gets bored or complacent on stage.
“How do you play ‘Saturday in the Park’ every night for 50 years and make it look fresh? Well, first off, it’s the feedback from an audience. It is amazing adrenaline, that approval from a crowd,” he said.
Pankow also appreciates the fact that the horn players are at the front of the stage, tremendously energetic, and are integral to the musical whole of the band.
“We’re a lead voice and the music — we’re not frosting on the cake,” he said. “That’s how I created this. I took the task of creating a unique approach to brass instruments.”
Chicago last played the QC on Oct. 2, 2019 at the Adler Theatre, Davenport. They also have played the Moline arena in 1994, 1996, 2004, 2011, and 2013. Tickets for the 7 p.m. April 19 show range from $39.50 to $99.50, available HERE.
For more information, visit the band website.