Posted May 2018
I don’t know about y’all, but when I was in high school in the seventies, we had a lot of dances throughout the year. I couldn’t dance worth a darn (still can’t so I don’t even bother) so guys like me lived for the slow dance.
Pretty hard to screw those up, huh, guys?
Anywho, one of the favorite songs to slow dance to was Chicago’s “Colour My World”. The opening notes of that song had clod-hopping guys like me fist-pumping and anxiously looking for whomever we had a crush on to ask them for that dance.
Since then, I’ve loved following what this tremendously talented band over the years as they continued to crank out hit after hit after hit. It was also a personal thrill to have caught them in concert while on tour with Earth, Wind and Fire . . . but more about that, shortly.
After the launch of Boomerocity, I was privileged to interview one of the band’s co-founder, Robert Lamm (here) and, because of an upcoming show in my neck of the woods, I was recently afforded the opportunity to chat with another co-founder of the group: their iconic trombonist, James Pankow.
I called Jimmy at his home in the during a brisk winter day. At the beginning of our chat, Jimmy and I were engaging in small talk and he indicated that he lives in the Nashville area. He filled me in on the events leading up to that move and the quality of life he and his family are enjoying there.
“I relocated the family here almost eight years ago for a better life and, indeed, we found it. We escaped the L.A. area. It was not doable any longer. My children were approaching high school age and I did not like the idea of them growing up in a third world country. It was overcrowded and dangerous. I explored options and, actually, Nashville made a lot of sense – not only for a better quality of life; a simpler life; a more affordable life.
“I have a sister here with six kids and two brothers in the Atlanta area with seven kids. Our kids have extended family here. They didn’t have any of that on the west coast. So, it’s all good! I mean, there’s things we miss, you know? The perfect weather. The beach and all that stuff. But, hey, you know, there’s more to life than the environment and its perks. We can visit L.A. when we need to go back there. This is really a better life here, Randy, and I’m glad we chose to move out of that hell-hole.
“Los Angeles is getting more dangerous by the day. And, frankly, the whole Hollywood thing; the lack of morality; the materialism. I didn’t want my kids growing up with that ethic.
“So, here we are. Nashville has turned out to be a great place. We might not necessarily be here the rest of our lives, but the kids have spread their wings. They’re safe here. We don’t lock our doors. The schools are amazing and it’s all good, man!
“I’m getting my irons in the fire locally, here. I’m starting to meet people and hook up with local talent here in Nashville in terms of song writing and stuff like that.
“Chicago is so darn busy that as soon as I get something started, I have to put it on the back burner because I’m leaving, again. We were on the road nine months last year. The work ethic is insane! I mean, it’s good, you know? It’s amazing that, after fifty years, the demand is greater than ever. I guess the (Rock and Roll) Hall of Fame, the documentary movie that premiered on CNN. That stuff probably pumped the career even more.
“The band is just better than ever. The band is slamming. People are loving the shows. We’re doing sell-out business. We’re far from throwing in the towel!”
I chimed in that he made a wise choice in moving to Nashville and that he’s joined by a lot of other rockers there. I also mentioned – since he was commenting on Chicago’s perpetual sell-out business – seeing them with Earth, Wind and Fire in Atlanta a couple of years ago and how that concert blew me away.
“I came here before the secret was out and, now, it’s not just musicians coming in. I mean, there’s a hundred people a day coming to Nashville. It’s turned into one of the top destination cities. Frankly, now being a local, we’re getting a little concerned about the influx being more than the infrastructure can handle.
Everybody in Nashville is worried about the rural charm going away in favor of high-rise condos and fancy restaurants and all that stuff. But it’s still a great place and I don’t blame people for wanting to be here because they probably wanted the same things I wanted.
“Tennessee has a comfort to it. I guess that’s the best word: comfortable. I can do music here. I can raise my kids here. It’s centrally located, pretty much. It’s an hour and twenty minutes to Chicago. It’s a couple of hours to New York. When I was in L.A., man, it was flying across the country every time we went on the road. I’ve got family everywhere. I have a lot of brothers and sisters, so I wind up seeing everybody as I travel on the road. I get that done.
“But, yeah, the career is just leaping and bounding. That Earth, Wind and Fire show, man, I have to agree with you. We package with a lot of people. We’re going to be out – as a matter of fact – with REO Speedwagon together this summer. We went with them once before. I was a little apprehensive about that combination but, then, we went into rehearsals and, man, those guys are veteran rockers. They do it the old fashion way just like we do. Kevin Cronin is still playing his butt off and they put on a great show and it worked! So, we’re doing it again.
“We were out with the Doobie’s last year. We’ve been out with Earth/Wind a half a dozen times. I have to agree: That is the most exciting performance I’ve ever experienced in all these years! When we’re up there together, two horn sections – I mean, it’s amazing! It’s a good fit, actually, when we’re together because they’re like the – well, they have their own thing, just like Chicago. They have their own identity. It’s kind of hip, R&B/Funk. But it’s their own, their own brand. You know it’s Earth, Wind and Fire when you hear it on the radio. Like Chicago.
“The musician line up in both bands is very similar. When we’re together on stage, it’s just low ‘Wow!’. It’s amazing! I’m up there watching the people with their jaws hanging open because it’s so powerful. They’re watching me with my jaw hanging open. Ha! Ha!”
When I commented how exhausting it was watching EWF’s Verdine White on stage with his incredible energy, Pankow added:
“He doesn’t stop for a second. I’m not exactly a static individual, either. I like to run around the stage. Of course, when we perform together, I’m, typically, right next to Verdine. So, my trombone winds up going into the shop every week because I try to stay out of the way of his bass neck! Ha! Ha!
“But, yeah, that guy – he’s my hero! He is Mr. Energy. There were nights where I was tired when I didn’t get a good night’s sleep and I show up at the gig and he just pump me up, man! Just being next to him energized me.
“We actually just finished a residency in Las Vegas at the Venetian and I noted that Earth/Wind is going to be coming up and doing a residency at the Venetian, as well, I think in May. They’re kinda following the same path as we are this year. Hopefully, we’ll run into each other on the road.”
When I asked Mr. Pankow what has changed the most and the least over the years of his career and business-wise, he shared:
“Well, you know, the one thing that has, thankfully, remained constant is a demand for this music. I said this at the Hall of Fame and I say it many nights on stage. What we do is really rewarding. As a songwriter and a performer, you create songs. It represents a personal moment, writing your thoughts down. It’s a catharsis. It’s therapy, really. It’s probably prevented me from jumping off the deep end. You vent when you write songs. It’s a great release and when you share those ideas – those songs – with an audience, that’s when the song takes on a life of its own; when a song lives and breathes because it’s the audience who embraces that music that makes it come alive. It validates it.
“I tell people all the time, ‘This wouldn’t matter – none of this would matter – Chicago; Earth, Wind and Fire – if people didn’t appreciate and enjoy and have a need to experience this. So, we’re very fortunate that we’ve had such a long career because of that. You could be the greatest artist since sliced bread but if nobody gave a damn, it wouldn’t matter. You couldn’t get arrested. If nobody cared, it would be meaningless.
“The fact is, people not only love this music, they keep wanting more. They want to come back and they want to re-live the moments in their lives that these songs represent. We get on stage and we look at an audience and we can see these people re-living whatever song is the song that is meaningful to them. We can see them making that connection – that emotional connection. These songs have become the fabric of their lives and they come to have that communion with the band. That’s what makes it magical. It’s that give and take with an audience. That has not changed. And, thank God it hasn’t because I’m still putting food on the table doing something I love, which is a real blessing, as I’m sure you understand.
“As we matured; as we become more experienced and more knowledgeable, we’ve become more in touch with the business. It is a business. There are P&L sheets. There are expenses out there. It’s a big business. You have lots of big trucks, buses. You have support crew of dozens of people who without you could not do a show and you have to take care of their travel and their expenses. The stage. The production. There’s a lot that goes into putting a show together and you have to keep a thumb on those expenses.
“We didn’t really care when we were kids. We had people doing the business for us, but things fell through the cracks and we didn’t know about it. So, we decided that it was important to have an idea of what was going on because it’s good business. It’s the right thing to do. It’s smart. So, as we’ve gotten older, we treated it more as a much as a business as entertainment.
“When we’re on that stage doing that show, there’s nothing else on our mind. I mean, a bomb could go off and we wouldn’t know it because when we’re on stage, the business, the day-to-day situations are not on our minds. We’re absorbed absolutely 100% in the moment; performing these songs and having a great time doing it, man! It’s like the first night every night because it’s a different audience. There’s certain songs that everybody wants to hear. There’s the requisite songs: ‘You’re The Inspiration’, ‘Saturday In The Park’, ’25 or 6 to 4’, ‘Color My World’; the usual suspects.
“But this year, we’re doing something that we’ve never done before. This year, we have kind of an experimental change, if you will. The second album, Chicago II, is being considered for the Lifetime Achievement Grammy and we video-taped the performance of the entire album on a soundstage in Chicago. It’ll be airing on public television networks around the country later this month. This album is arguably the template for all of the music that followed. I would venture to say that this album represents everything musical for Chicago. This is kind of the album that set the groove for all of the music to come.
“It’s a challenging piece of work. And, this year, we’re going to be doing a two-part show. The first set will be the performance of Chicago II from top to bottom . It’s a challenging record, musically. I dare say – I’m performing this stuff now forty-plus years later – I’m going, ‘Holy cow, man! We were twenty-year-old kids and we did this?’ I’m getting this moment of clarity.
“Maybe there is a reason that we’ve lasted so long. This is amazing stuff, man! We didn’t know what it was when we were doing it. We didn’t see the forest for the trees. We were just a bunch of kids writing down and recording what we heard. We didn’t know the rules and we didn’t give a s***. But now that we’re performing this stuff back-to-back, it’s a daunting experience.
“I didn’t write any rests, man. The horns are non-stop. There’s a lot of very intricate instrumental work that most hit songs don’t necessarily include. It’s not hit after hit. Of course, ‘The Ballet” is part of this; ‘Make Me Smile’ and ‘Colour My World’, ’25 or 6 to 4’ is part of this, which is a rock and roll anthem.
“So, there are hit songs on that record. It’s a double album. Wow! You get to the end of this record and you know you did some work. We’re getting great responses. We did it in Vegas and we’ve done it on some of the tour dates that we’ve done up ‘til now. The spring is typically warm-up dates. We’re getting our chops ready and the production ready for the summer tour with REO.
“But, the folks in Knoxville as well as the rest of the tour will be hearing this album performed in its entirety. People – even the young fans – are amazed at the musicality. There are time changes. There are key signature changes. There are multiple vocalists. There are incredibly interesting moments, instrumentally, that don’t really happen for music that was written in the eighties and beyond because as the business evolved – you know, back in the day when this album was recorded – as well as the first album – I would venture to say the first three albums for sure – the fourth a live, four album box set at Carnegie Hall. It was a live performance.
“The seventies, particularly, were a renaissance. It was amazing for an artist to be around and to be fruitful and writing to the chop in those days because you could manifest songs that were not ‘hit singles’. You wrote what you heard in your head. It didn’t have a time limit. It didn’t have a hook, necessarily. It didn’t have the formula pop necessities that songs in the eighties and beyond had to have. Record companies wanted that brand song. They wanted that niche on the radio. So, you went in the studio and you made three or four-minute singles/songs. But, back then, man, you did whatever you wanted to do, and it was really fantastic for an artist because you had free reign to be creatively uncensored.
“So, to be able to perform this again, live, is really a trip because people are hearing the essence of what Chicago is, musically, without hit, hit, hit – three-minute little commercials; hit singles.
“However, the second set is an hour and fifteen-minute encore because it’s all of those hits. So, the first set is a listening set – it’s a journey for the audience and, then, the second set is all hit-bound. It’s all the songs that they hear on the radio and it’s the songs that they’ve embraced as part of their lives. The songs that they hum in the shower. It’s really a great time. It’s the first approach like this that we’ve ever done. And, so far, the reaction has been incredibly positive. So, we’re hoping that the folks in Knoxville are just as enthusiastic about this approach.
“So, they’re getting a little of everything. They’re getting the formative music that put this band on the map and they’re getting all the greatest hits. It’s a heck of an evening.
“We’re looking forward to taking this show on the road this year. Actually, we’re gonna be climbing all around the mid-south. We’re going to be doing Memphis and Chattanooga. We’re doing Nashville later in the summer with REO. It’s really great, now that I live here, it’s even more meaningful. We’re excited to be out, again. It’s the 51st year on the road. The band, like I said, is slamming. We have a couple of personnel changes. I was apprehensive, a bit, about the signature – the musical signature. But, man, I was delightfully surprised because things happen for a reason, apparently.
“Tris had some issues. He had to do his own thing. His personal life needed more attention. So, he parted company. And Walfredo Reyes – who is an amazing percussionist and who we discovered is an amazing drummer, as well – he moved over to the drum chair.
“And Jeff Coffey, who had replaced Jason Scheff, also had some personal commitments, hence, he had to depart. We replaced him with one of the most amazing voices in the business. Neil Donell is probably one of the top session singers, commercial legit studio vocalists in Toronto, Canada. He’s a celebrity in his own right up there. We ran into him for the last year/year and a half. Turned out he was a big fan. We invited him on stage to sing a song when we were in Toronto. When Jeff left, we reached out to him and he was thrilled with the invitation and he is now covering the tenor vocals.
“We have a bass player who is amazing as well as a very accomplished vocalist: Brett Simons, who was with Zak Brown for years as well as a studio bass player in L.A. and in Nashville. Young, good looking guy. Plays his butt off. Also plays upright bass the old fashion way.
“The band, now, is just – I mean, I just cross my heart, ‘Thank you, Jesus’ when I heard the band at rehearsal before we went to Vegas. We had the new line-up at rehearsal in L.A. I was so delighted to hear – not only was it great, it was better than ever.
“So, we have a great line-up with a whole new show. We’re looking forward to an amazing year!”
And the U.S. is looking forward to being a part of Chicago’s amazing year.
Keep up with all things Chicago by visiting ChicagoTheBand.com. Be sure to check out if and when this legendary, exciting band will be performing near you.