By DENISE FLEISCHER
Reprinted from the Journal & Topics Newspapers
James Pankow is at home in Nashville. He recently gave away his daughter’s hand in marriage, He’s totally excited and has good reason to be. But now he is reflecting on his long career. For Pankow and his bandmates, the norm is over 100 shows a year on the road.
For 51 years, Pankow has been immersed in an amazing career with the band Chicago. As a founding member, trombonist, arranger and composer, he wrote many of their hit songs and created brass arrangements which became a signature of the band. Original Chicago band members include himself, Walt Parazaider (reeds, flute), Robert Lamm (keyboards, vocals), Lee Loughnane (trumpet, vocals), the late Terry Kath, (guitar, vocals), Peter Cetera (bass, vocals) and Danny Seraphine (drums). The band continues with the current generation of talented musicians who are determined to keep the spirit of Chicago alive.
Pankow grew up in Park Ridge and can still recall his mom having a chocolate soda at the Sugar Bowl in Des Plaines and how Fr. George Wiskirchen at Notre Dame High School in Niles kindled his passion for music. For four years, Pankow was a member of the Melodons, the high school jazz band, under the director of Fr. Wiskirchen, where for the first time, he experienced a form of music that really made a difference. While a senior, he auditioned with his trombone for a music scholarship at Quincy College in Quincy, IL.
“Fr. Wiskirchen hailed from Quincy and it was he who recommended that I audition for the scholarship,” explained Pankow. “I qualified for the scholarship with my horn, and it was so beneficial, being one of nine children and eliminating the burden of tuition from my parents.”
“I’ll always look back at my time at Notre Dame with Fr. Wiskirchen as a key springboard to this long career and where the seed was truly planted,” he added. “I’ll always be grateful for that experience.”
He entered college as a music education major, but in the course of that year, upper class students noted his ability on the trombone and suggested he focus on performing rather than teaching.
After his freshman year, he returned to Chicago and formed his own band and began to build a reputation and create an income stream.
He called Charlie Winking at Quincy and told him that he was not returning because he was becoming established in Chicago as a musician and a performer. Charlie understood.
He then enrolled at DePaul University in Chicago which allowed him to continue his studies as well as make money with his trombone.
While at DePaul, he met Walt Parazaider and Lee Loughnane. Parazaider was in another band with Kath and Seraphine. Parazaider became the conduit that introduced the idea of forming a rock band with horns.
He proposed the idea to Pankow and Loughnane, then proposed the idea to Lamm, who he met at a club in Chicago. They all met at Parazaider’s apartment and agreed to devote all their time and energy to making this idea a reality.
They hired an agent who gave them the name, “The Big Thing,” and began working the club circuit in Chicago and throughout the Midwest.
The year was 1967, and soul music, R&B and the Beatles were the Top 40, and they did covers of all of those hits in the nightclubs. Ultimately, they began to introduce their own music into the sets in the clubs, but because people only wanted Top 40, they began to get fired from one club after another.
It became obvious that club owners and their patrons had no interest in their original music. So they decided to go to Los Angeles, where the record companies were located and people might have a more open mind.
They became the house band at the Whisky A Go Go on the Sunset Strip where Jimi Hendrix happened to hear them and was so impressed, he hired them as the opening act on his national tour.
Their exposure at the Whisky also got them a record deal with Columbia Records, and in January of 1969, they went to New York and recorded their first album, Chicago Transit Authority.
The rest is history.
Current Chicago band members are Pankow, Lamm, Loughnane, Keith Howland, Lou Pardini, Ray Herrmann, Walfredo Reyes, Jr., Neil Donell, Brett Simons and Ramon Yslas.
The band is already filling up next year’s calendar, which is proving to be yet another busy touring season, once again selling out venues for many fans who still can’t get enough.
In terms of their long friendships within the band, Pankow remarked “We respect each other, and we treat life like a marriage, where communication and respect are key. We communicate constantly and evolve musically. We live two lives: the one that’s public and the one that’s private, and we try to keep a balance.”
Just the facts:
Chicago was inducted into the 2016 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This was their first nomination. They’ve been eligible since 1994. A long time coming!
Chicago’s first album, “Chicago Transit Authority,” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2014, and the band performed on the Grammy stage for the first time that year.
Robert Lamm and James Pankow have become inductees of the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2017. They wrote mega-hits such as, “25 or 6 to 4,” “Saturday In The Park,” “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” “Make Me Smile,” and many others.
Chicago’s newest record of new studio tracks, “NOW” CHICAGO XXXVI, was released on Frontiers Records. It includes 11 brand new songs, recorded on the road.
Chicago’s lifetime achievements include two Grammy Awards, two American Music Awards, Founding Artists of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a Chicago street dedicated in their honor, and keys to and proclamations from an impressive list of U.S. cities. Record sales top the 100,000,000 mark, and include 21 Top 10 singles, 5 consecutive Number One albums, 11 Number One singles and 5 Gold singles. 25 of their 36 albums have been certified platinum, and the band has a total of 47 gold and platinum awards.