Trombonist James Pankow’s enthusiasm for his art exudes from his voice as he talks about 45 years with the much-loved band Chicago. “It’s all about the music,” he said. “Little did we know when we wrote this music that it would become timeless. You can tell each song has meaning for someone in the audience.”
Trombonist James Pankow’s enthusiasm for his art exudes from his voice as he talks about 45 years with the much-loved band Chicago.
“It’s all about the music,” he said. “Little did we know when we wrote this music that it would become timeless. You can tell each song has meaning for someone in the audience.”
Pankow is one of four founding band members. He has performed with Chicago since 1967. Besides playing trombone, he wrote some of Chicago’s biggest hits, including “Colour My World,” “Old Days,” “Make Me Smile,” “Just You ’N Me” and “I’ve Been Searchin’ So Long.”
The band is preparing for their annual summer tour with another well-loved American band, the Doobie Brothers.
Pankow said such “short bursts” of performing keep “our edge sharp” for the larger tour. He said despite the regularly steamy summer weather, the tours energize the band because of the “give and take” with the audience.
“You really become enraptured with the communion with the audience. That’s the cool thing. It’s the redemption for all the rest of it. It’s something that never gets tired,” he said, noting how gratified he and the other band members are for the support.
‘The staying power of our music’
The audience returns his accolades, clearly in love with Chicago’s melodic songs, each of which tell a story. Pankow said that’s how music used to be written, even into the 1990s — and it’s something he said is decidedly lacking in today’s music, much of which he called “a groove.”
“It’s rhythm with a few innocuous words. There’s nothing to sink your teeth into,” he said. “That’s part of the staying power of our music. We write songs that are identifiable.”
Pankow said Chicago’s catalog is filled with music that people can “understand, relate to and remember,” and it carries the group’s trademark sound. The music has struck a chord all over the world — Chicago continues to tour in Europe, Asia and Latin America.
Pankow said the songs are true Americana, written about things band members have experienced — growing up and living in the U.S., relationships and individual viewpoints on everything from personal relationships to politics.
Other reasons for Chicago’s longevity are the constant touring and staying visible.
Pankow said when people come to a Chicago show, they see one performed by seasoned veterans who know the music they recorded inside and out.
“We kick ass in a show,” he said, noting that band members provide visual entertainment as well as the music and work to involve the audience. “It’s one of the reasons we’re still doing this, and in my opinion, better than anybody. There’s no smoke and mirrors. I think it’s one of the reasons why we’re still doing a great business. We’re out there with our fans every year.”
Page 2 of 2 - ‘It’s a new world’
Pankow said the high-energy show also keeps him fit. He said blowing air into a trombone for two hours a show is the equivalent of running 15-20 miles.
“When you’re pumping air five nights a week, you really feel like you’ve gotten a workout. It’s the fountain of youth,” he said, laughing.
Over the years, in addition to performing its hits, Chicago has tied its sound to big band, Latin American and even holiday music, and it is now creating a strong presence on the Internet.
“The Internet is great. It’s global. It’s instant. That’s powerful,” Pankow said. And it’s the future. “The recording business as we knew it is over. Now, the artists become the record company.”
Pankow said that, using a multi-platform website, Chicago can bring music, merchandise and even films of the band on tour directly to fans.
“Any artist that wants to play ball has to do it that way. It’s a new world,” he said.
And it’s one that Chicago will continue to inhabit as long as the fans are there.
“Nobody has a crystal ball. We’re going to do this until it’s not believable anymore,” Pankow said. “The band is performing with more energy, more amazingly than ever. As long as the energy level is there, why not?”
Chicago’s starting lineup
Trombonist and songwriter James Pankow has been with Chicago since the group was founded in 1967 (first known as The Big Thing, and then as Chicago Transit Authority before the name was shortened to Chicago). He and founding members Robert Lamm on keyboards and vocals, Lee Loughnane on trumpet and Walt Parazaider on woodwinds continue to record and tour.
Did you know?
Chicago is the first American rock band to chart Top 40 albums in five different decades.
The group has sold more than 100 million recordings.
“If You Leave Me Now” earned the group a 1976 Grammy Award.
Twenty-one of Chicago’s singles have hit the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Look Away,” “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” and “If You Leave Me Now” hit No. 1.
The group supports several charitable causes, including the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation, which seeks a cure for the fatal children’s disease, Niemann-Pick Type C; Hannah & Friends, which works to improve the quality of life for children and adults with special needs; and the American Cancer Society.