An Interview with Chicago’s James Pankow

by Josef Woodard

Chicago, the Windy City-born, L.A.-based horn pop band that
won’t die, spent decades dodging Santa Barbara on its touring map.
But lately, the band has become the veritable house band in town.
When Chicago stops at the Bowl on Saturday, on a double-header with
Huey Lewis and the News, it will be its fourth S.B. show in less
than two years.

The thing is, 39 years into it, this is one “nostalgia act” with
enough musical muscle and catalogue to make its live shows — even
on repeat visits — lively affairs. The hits keep coming, from the
sweet ditties we hear daily in grocery stores to the spunkier early
hits, and so does the thrill of real-time musicianship and
intricate arrangements. As of 2006, there’s a new twist, being
Chicago XXX, the band’s first new pop studio album in 15
years, with a single, “Feel,” faring nicely on the radio. Unlike
many veteran acts on the Boomer scene, Chicago is not going gently
into the sunset of the oldies jukebox circuit.

Trombonist James Pankow, a founding member and composer in the
band, spoke with me over the phone, with the confidence and also
humility of someone who knows his job and is happy for its career
track continuance. “It’s been quite a ride,” he said. “I’m pinching
myself every year. I’m amazed by a career that doesn’t seem to want
to tire out. I tire out, but the career doesn’t.”

Have there been periods of inactivity or maybe even
soul-searching in the band’s history?
Well, we haven’t
taken off a year. This is our 40th touring season and I haven’t had
a summer vacation in all those years. So it’s not like we’ve taken
so much time off that we had to look inward and examine this. We’ve
been too busy to do that. We’ve always been a journeyman type of
act, a road band. It’s that communion with a live audience that
remains the big pull here. People wonder, “How can you play
‘Saturday in the Park’ year after year and keep it fresh?” The
answer to that is that every night onstage, it’s a new set of
circumstances. It’s yet another audience. Without that, it would be
same old, same old. It works because of that adrenaline from a live

This is exciting music to hear live not only because of
the recognition factor with the hits, but also the sophistication
of the arrangements and playing. Do you intentionally work that
We do it the old-fashioned way, with musical
ability. It’s all about the music. We don’t go onstage with
pyrotechnics and dancers and lip-synching, like so much of the
current genre. It’s all about the music. It’s not about the theater
or the circus act, built around the lack of musicianship, which
describes so many acts today. Don’t get me wrong — there are a lot
of incredible artists who are still emerging. There have always
been good artists and bad artists, since we started. But I think
the genre we’re looking at today is so much about theater, and
marketing and packaging. It’s not the same business today as it was
when we emerged.

People may associate Chicago as a maker of “lite” pop
hits. But when you did emerge, the band was musically ambitious and
even a bit experimental, wouldn’t you say?
Yes. If you can
believe it, “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” was
“underground.” When we first arrived, AM radio wouldn’t touch our
stuff because it was too avant-garde. Of course now, it’s
mainstream, classic pop. But back in the early ’70s, radio didn’t
know how to deal with this music, because it was so different —
this brass-oriented rock and roll. Once “Make Me Smile” became a
hit song, songs that were released by Chicago Transit Authority and
didn’t go anywhere were re-released — and embraced — because they
got it. But it took commercial radio a year or so to catch up, to
digest what we were doing. That’s kind of funny. Back in those
days, the career was driven more than anything by college
audiences. We were, like, required listening on college campuses.
They had their underground FM stations that played whole sides of
records without interruption back then. That became a steamroller.
By virtue of necessity, radio had to take notice. We went from
being strictly underground FM to commercial mainstream radio with
the release of “Make Me Smile” in 1970.

The early hit “25 to 6 or 4” features one of the wildest
guitar solos ever on Top 40 radio, by the late, great Terry
Terry, rest in peace, was a brilliant innovator.
We’ll never know where we could have gone had he remained with us.
The good Lord took him too soon. He was one of the real driving
forces within the band, and took us into some very challenging
directions. We didn’t want to get too outside. We made the mistake
one year, I remember, of getting too complacent. At one point, we
were one of the biggest acts in the world and the streets were
paved with gold. Everything we touched had the Midas effect. With
so many albums on the charts and so many hits, suddenly we became
full of ourselves. We decided, “Hey, enough of this commercial
pabulum. Let’s do a show for us.” We went on the road and did all
of the obscure songs, the instrumental things, and more
experimental cuts from the albums. People in the audience started
scratching their heads, wondering, “What the hell is this? Is it
Weather Report or Chicago?”

Could this thing go on indefinitely? As far as
I can see, that appears to be the case. This music just seems to be
something that has taken on a life of its own, and it is
perpetuating this audience base. We keep being discovered by
younger people, who discover it through their older siblings or
their parents, and you’re looking out at a whole new generational
audience. It’s an enviable position for any artist. That’s why the
Stones are still working. Without an audience, frankly, there’s no
point. You can be the greatest thing since Swiss cheese and it
wouldn’t matter, because what’s the point? It’s the communion with
the audience that drives that. Without that, you’re punching

4•1•1 Chicago, with Huey Lewis and the News,
plays the Santa Barbara Bowl on Saturday, June 10, at 6:30 p.m. See


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