The "rock 'n' roll and horns" sound of Chicago will fill the Osterhout Concert Theater at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 28. The band features original members Robert Lamm (top); Lee Loughnane (second row, left); Walter Parazaider and James Pankow (both in front row, center).
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For the past 45 years, Chicago trumpeter Lee Loughnane has looked to his right and seen two familiar faces onstage next to him: saxophonist Walter Parazaider and trombonist James Pankow. He also can look over his shoulder and see the fourth original member of the band: Robert Lamm on the keyboards.
“We still love playing the songs and that’s what we see every time we look around the stage,” Loughnane said. “Everybody is into it. Nobody is mailing it in – not that you’re capable of doing that with these songs anyway! It’s fun doing what we do. We try our best to make it perfect each night.”
Loughnane, Lamm, Parazaider and Pankow are the heart and soul of one of the most successful — and longest-running — musical acts of the rock ‘n’ roll era. Chicago, which now also features longtime singer/bass player Jason Scheff, guitarist Keith Howland, drummer Tris Imboden and keyboardist Lou Pardini, will bring its decades of hits to the Anderson Center’s Osterhout Concert Theater at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 28. Lawn tickets ($30) are still available at 607-777-ARTS or http://www2.binghamton.edu/anderson-center/.
Loughnane admitted that even though the band usually performs a 1-hour, 50-minute show, it’s challenging to put together a set list from a career that has spanned more than 30 albums and 50 Top 100 singles.
“It’s hard to leave some songs out, but amazingly we’ve been able to put it together enough to the point where the show works every night,” said Loughnane, whose trumpet is prominently featured on classic songs such “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is,” “Beginnings” and “Baby, What A Big Surprise.” “That’s the important thing. To try to please the audience and ourselves is always a tightrope that we’re walking.”
Loughnane, 65, said playing the hits continues to be exciting.
“I don’t get tired of playing these songs,” he said. “If I did, I shouldn’t be doing this for a living anymore. The songs are interesting musically and the audience likes them. It’s a combination that works.”
One song that Loughnane especially enjoys playing is “Beginnings,” a Top 10 record for the band in 1971.
“It’s a little big-band arrangement that Robert (Lamm) actually wrote,” he said of the concert favorite. “Normally, you would think that Jimmy (Pankow) did the arrangements, but Robert wrote this one and ‘Saturday in the Park.’ On ‘Beginnings,’ Jimmy and I get to have a solo section.”
Another part of the live show is the opportunity for an audience member to “Sing with Chicago.” An online auction is held leading up to each performance and fans can bid to get two premium tickets, meet the band members and later come onstage to sing the group’s first No. 1 single, “If You Leave Me Now.” All proceeds directly benefit the American Cancer Society’s fight against breast cancer. More information on the auction, which ends Saturday, Aug. 25, for the Binghamton University concert, can be found at http://www.cancer.org/singwithchicago.
“The impetus behind this is to raise money for — and to wipe out — breast cancer,” Loughnane said. “The highest bidder gets to come backstage, talk, take some pictures and then come out and sing with us. Some of these people have had breast cancer and it’s in remission. Some come up and are singing for someone who has passed away. When they get onstage with us, they have the greatest time. It’s amazing. They feel that fear, the adrenalin kicks in and the lights hit them in the face. Every audience loves them, no matter how good or bad they are.”
Loughnane, Lamm, Parazaider and Pankow formed the group in 1967 with three other musician friends from the Windy City: guitarist Terry Kath, bassist Peter Cetera and drummer Danny Seraphine. Originally called The Big Thing, the septet headed to Los Angeles and became Chicago Transfer Authority (the name was soon shortened to Chicago). Released in 1969, the group’s self-titled debut was a groundbreaking double album that combined horns, rock guitars and Latin percussion in long and involved songs featuring the distinctive lead vocals of Kath, Lamm and Cetera.
Despite the innovations of the record, “Chicago Transit Authority” and the band were not overnight success stories, Loughnane said.
“The first record came out, but Top 40 radio wouldn’t play it because we hadn’t had a hit yet,” he said. “It was a Catch-22 situation. So we kept playing the college circuit across the country, which built our following. College radio was getting big and they played the entire album — all of the songs and no editing.
“It became an underground hit in America and Europe,” he said of the album that spent 171 weeks on the Billboard charts. “We recorded the second album and “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon” was one side of the record. There was interest in “Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World” and they became hits. Then we went back and re-released songs from the first album like “Beginnings” and “Time.” They became hits, too. After that, the door was open.”
Chicago certainly stepped through the door: Hits such as “25 or 6 to 4,” “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” “Just You and Me,” “Old Days,” “Wishing You Were Here” and the Loughnane-penned “Call on Me” followed and the band had five straight No. 1 albums from 1972-76.
But Chicago had to deal with its share of adversity. Kath, one of the most underrated guitarists in rock history, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in January 1978. Cetera left the band for a solo career in 1985, after emerging as a front man on hits such as “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” “You’re the Inspiration” and “Stay the Night.” The band bounced back each time, first in 1978 with hits such as “Alive Again” and in 1986 with “Will You Still Love Me?” a Top 5 record sung by Scheff.
“We always knew that we could write,” Loughnane said of the challenging times. “I don’t think any of us thought, ‘We have to do something different.’ We thought, ‘We have to do something as good or better than we’ve done before.’ With this band, one or more of us has always stepped up at times when we needed it.”
The band even had to overcome disco stigma when it released “Street Player,” a dance-happy and horn-heavy song from “Chicago 13” in 1979 that became the group’s only single to appear on the R&B charts.
“It was initially a nine-minute song at the end of the disco period,” Loughnane said. “Everyone was soon done with disco and started to burn records at Comiskey Park (in Chicago). And we were one of those that went into the pile, so we never played the song that much.”
Chicago rebounded in 1982 with producer David Foster and put out a new string of hits that featured vocals from Cetera, Scheff and former member Bill Champlin. The band received well-deserved redemption for “Street Player” in 1995, when a dance act called The Bucketheads took the song’s horns, rhythm and part of Cetera’s vocals to create “The Bomb (These Sounds Running Through My Mind).” It became one of the biggest dance songs of the decade in the United States and Europe.
“The last time we went to Europe, we decided to do an arrangement of their song and ours combined,” Loughnane said. “So that’s what we do (on tour) now.”
It has been more than six years since Chicago released its last album of original music, “Chicago XXX.” But the band is committed to getting new music out to fans, Loughnane said.
“We’re finding out that it’s very slow,” he said. “We are (touring) so much that by the time we get somewhere to record, we’re tired. It’s been a struggle to get some songs completed, but we’re still in the process. All I can say is: Be patient, it will get out there.”
Loughnane is also pleased with the band’s website, which has blogs, videos and even provides a premium access for diehard fans who want more from the band. For example, premium-access subscribers can purchase the 2009 “Chicago in Chicago” concert for a low price, Loughnane said.
“There’s lots of video clips through the years plus songs from various nights,” he said. “People are enjoying it and we’re hoping more people come aboard.”
Loughnane is particularly excited that the band is now able to sell its back catalog on the website. In time, this will provide fans the chance to buy some hard-to-find CDs, he said.
“I don’t see the third album anymore,” he said of “Chicago III.” “I don’t know if it’s even being manufactured!”
Forty-five years after The Big Thing formed, Loughnane has simple hopes for Chicago’s legacy.
“I hope people think of us as quality music,” he said. “We love playing, we love it sounding right and we love being as good as we possibly can be.”
Lee Loughnane: The singer and his songs
Best known as a trumpet player, Lee Loughnane has stepped up to the microphone in recent years and showcased his vocal abilities. He has sung lead vocals on a few songs over the band’s long career, but is now singing “Colour My World” live in concert and has handled the live lead on hits such as “Love Me Tomorrow” and “No Tell Lover.”
“I’ve always loved being an ensemble player,” he said. “I’m more of an ensemble player than I am a soloist. I’ve always loved singing in the group and doing background vocals, as well. Coming out for lead vocals has been a new thing for me. I’ve had to learn how to sing something, but not oversing it or undersing it. … When I get my chance it’s: Oh boy! Now you’ve got to come through, baby.”
As a band, all of Chicago’s members wrote hit singles. While most were written by Cetera, Lamm, Kath and Pankow, Loughnane contributed his share of memorable songs. Here are his thoughts about four of them:
“Call on Me” (From “Chicago VII” in 1974; No. 6 pop, No. 1 adult contemporary)
“I was at the end of my first marriage. I put the music together first and then wrote the lyrics. What I meant at the time was ‘I hope we can still be friends beyond this. Call on me in the future.’ And it became a hit my first time out of the box! It was very surprising. I brought it to the band and these were major songwriters. It was the seventh album and we already had a lot of hits under our belt. But they adapted and played the (bleep) out of it and it became a hit.”
“This Time” (From “Chicago XI” in 1977 and featuring lead vocals from Loughnane)
“It was fun writing that one. It really wasn’t deep: a song that said, ‘This time we’re going to make it. Nothing’s gonna stop us, baby!’
“No Tell Lover” (From “Hot Streets” in 1978; No. 14 pop, No. 5 adult contemporary)
“I had most of the song written when Peter (Cetera) started singing a melody bridge to go along with it. Danny (Seraphine) said he wanted to write some lyrics and that’s how it was born.”
“Window Dreamin’” (From “Chicago 13” in 1979; written with Walter Parazaider)
“Were there lyrics with that? I haven’t heard ‘Window Dreamin’’ in years! Oh wait! Peter sang that! (Loughnane hums melody) That song at one point was on the bubble of making the album. When I came in with the musical lick, it kind of pulled the song together and made it work. It goes in and out of major and minor mode. You never really know what key you are in.”
More on Chicago: Chris Kocher of pressconnects.com talks with original band member Robert Lamm.