Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, March 29, 2001

The current incarnation of Chicago includes four of
the original band members. They play tonight a the
Waikiki Shell. Trombonist James Pankow is
third from the left.

Chicago’s Pankow
enthusiastic about life,
music and everything
but radio play

By Tim Ryan

"Chicago" trombonist James Pankow is as exuberant as he is opinionated about everything from child rearing, his second chance as a dad, the importance of music for kids, and the current state of rock 'n' roll.

Perhaps it's because of his 32 years as the lead "blower" in the most famous rock band with horns, but Pankow doesn't seem to take a breath during an hourlong telephone interview from his Calabasas, Calif., home where he lives with his second wife and 18-month-old son.

"I'm so lucky to have this second opportunity to be a hands-on father," Pankow says. "I'm more experienced, my priorities are different than the first time around, I appreciate those little miracles in my little son which I didn't see with my first two kids because I was so absorbed with my career.

"Now I have more time and the career no longer is my life, but a job. I never miss birthdays and holidays and important events in my kids' lives."

Pankow spends as much time talking about his family as he does about the band. His percussionist son is attending Boston's Berkley School of Music on a partial scholarship. His 14-year-old daughter is "going on 25 and no you're not wearing that out tonight."

"My boy apparently wants to follow in my footsteps, but it's nothing I pushed, believe me, since I know the ability to support a family on a musician's salary is not exactly huge."

Pankow says he's as surprised as anyone that Chicago has lasted 32 years. "We've outlasted some of the buildings we've played in," he said.

He adds that doesn't know if a Chicago could exist in today's music world. "There are so many one-hit wonders and acts designed for specific audiences and demographics. Where is the creativity in that? You have these suits who don't know any more about music than they do about the space shuttle deciding on music."

Though the group continues to enjoy worldwide popularity, Pankow is disillusioned by the state of radio play today.

"The other side to Chicago won't be acknowledged by commercial radio: the butt-kicking side, the up tempo, the sweat and pain of real musicianship. We do it the old-fashioned way; we have chops, no lip synch. No canned music. Eight guys who play their asses off."

Pankow clearly enjoys speaking his mind, publicists be damned. "All that 'N Sync and Britney Spears stuff is manufactured by entrepreneurs who just see big bucks and short- term success," Pankow said.' "It's teen-age theater designed to fill niches."

Chicago, on the other hand, has produced hit songs and albums for more than three decades. The band has earned 19 gold albums, 13 platinum, 12 Top 10s, and five No. 1s. Of their singles, 20 made the Top 10, five reaching No. 1. In all, Chicago has sold more than 120 million records. Not bad for a band that began around a North Side kitchen table in the Windy City with one goal in mind: to make music rooted in rock, pop, R&B, jazz and swing.

In 1967, the original Chicago members gathered at Walt Parazaider's apartment to commit themselves to the group. Each member had learned a variety of styles while playing for the many racial and ethnic groups that populate Chicago. This musical fusion struck the chord that became Chicago.

"We were a bunch of guys who rehearsed in a garage, working until something magical happened," Pankow said. "We made a gentleman's agreement to work. We stylized ourselves after soul acts, rhythm-and-blues acts using horn sounds. It was already being done by soul groups like Otis Redding, The Temptations, and Wilson Pickett."

They named their band The Big Thing, and hit the Midwest club circuit. Along the way, they raided a rival band for one of its members, Peter Cetera. In 1968, they began working with producer/manager Jim Guercio, who renamed them Chicago Transit Authority (soon simplified to Chicago), moved them to Los Angeles and signed them to Columbia Records.

"Chicago Transit Authority," their double-LP debut (1969), was an underground hit, its sales fueled by incessant touring. "Chicago II" (1970), another two-record set, contained their first two Top 10 hits, "Make Me Smile" and "25 or 6 to 4." A third double album, "Chicago III" (1971), consolidated their success, and they topped it with a four-disc live album, "Chicago At Carnegie Hall" (1971).

In 1997, Chicago celebrated its 30th anniversary with a hit single and best-selling tour. "The Heart of Chicago 1967 - 1997" featured 13 hits and two new songs, one produced by Lenny Kravitz, the other by composer James Newton Howard. The latter song, "Here In My Heart," co-written by Newton Howard and Glen Ballard, went all the way to No. 1 on the Adult Contemporary charts.

Pankow was one of nine children in a middle-class family where dad was an accomplished pianist but worked in advertising to support his family. After dinner dad and son would listen to Count Basie and Duke Ellington. Other nights, they'd go to cheeky Chicago jazz clubs to hear greats like Cannonball Adderley and Oscar Peterson.

"He knew I had this desire in me," Pankow said. "I was kicking the bottom out of the crib before I could walk whenever my parents put a record on."

He began playing trumpet at age 10, though drums, guitar or saxophone would have been "cooler" to his peers. But the lines to get into those classes were too long.

Pankow said music provides kids with self confidence and self expression. "Music is a craft you can enjoy all your life, whether as a career or strumming a guitar at a party for your friends. Music puts a smile on people's faces."

Chicago has played to kings, potentates and presidents, but the audience Pankow remembers most are tens of thousands of Marines just home from the Gulf War.

"I told them we had played all over the world but never to real heroes, and then we played the Marine Corp hymn," Pankow said. "Every marine stood up and threw their hat in the air and saluted us. God, did I cry."

Chicago logo

In concert: 7:30 tonight (no opening act)
Place: Waikiki Shell
Tickets: $25 and $50

Ticket winners

Winning essays in our contest asking for reader memories of historic events will appear Sunday in the Star-Bulletin. The winners received tickets to the Chicago concert.

The winners: Pete Cueva, Toni Davis, Ernest Enos, Dorothy Freitas, Clyde Gonsalves, Ine Higa, Robert Hinkley, Paul Lerman, Howard Me, Aurilio Padilla, Edwin Roseberry, Alice Secor, Dennis Smith and Elfrieda Tsukayama.

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