Chicago wasn't the conventional rock band trying to break into the music scene. They didn't stick to the format of four guys playing three chords in the three minutes of time typically allotted to recordings. This crazy bunch of guys had this crazy idea about creating a crazy new sound. They knew once all the right pieces of the puzzle were assembled, the rest would just fall into place — and they were right. They broke with tradition to create musical magic that continues more than 52 years later.
These guys established themselves as a "rock band with horns," sporting multiple players, who wrote, arranged and played their own music, and created so many songs they consistently recorded double albums — talk about a marketing nightmare.
But this group was strong in its belief that people wanted more from their rock music, they wanted a bigger sound with more layers and they held strong to that. In the process, they made history. They created sophisticated music for a sophisticated audience, first appealing to the college campus crowd in the 1970s. Yet they gave the world so much more — music that has transcended time and fads.
Chicago Transit Authority was formed in 1967 and found almost immediate success with their signature sound of solid rock songs augmented by the best horns in the business. Their enormously influential work helped pave the way for jazz-oriented rock.
The whole "Transit Authority" thing was later dropped and Chicago wracked up hits like "If You Leave Me Now," "Saturday In The Park," "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is," "Feelin' Stronger Every Day," "25 or 6 to 4," "Beginnings," "I'm A Man," "Hard To Say I'm Sorry," among many others.
Along the way the band became a bona fide institution of American music and that solid foundation created early on has sustained their extensive career. Chicago is celebrating 52 years and has recorded a new Christmas album to mark the occasion.
Chicago's lifetime achievements include two Grammy Awards (one is for Chicago's first album, Chicago Transit Authority, which was inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame in 2014); being founding artists of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, multiple American Music Awards, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016. Record sales top the 100 million mark, including 21 Top 10 singles, five consecutive No. 1 albums, 11 No. 1 singles and five gold singles, and 25 of their 36 albums have been certified platinum. The band has a total of 47 gold and platinum awards.
Chicago also is the first American rock band to chart Top 40 albums in six decades, and they came in at No. 13 in Billboard magazine's list of Top 100 artists of all time, the highest-charting American band.
The band currently includes founding members Robert Lamm (keyboard and vocals), Lee Loughnane (trumpet, and vocals), James Pankow (trombone, horn arranger, composer), Keith Howland (guitar, vocals); Lou Pardini (keyboards, vocals); Ray Herrmann (sax and flute); Wally Reyes, Jr. (drums); Neil Donell (lead vocals), Brett Simons (bass guitar) and Ramon "Ray" Yslas (percussion).
In 2017, Lamm and Pankow were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame for their contributions to the band's arsenal of biggest hits —"25 or 6 to 4," "Saturday In The Park," "Feelin' Stronger Every Day," "Make Me Smile," and more.
We talked with Robert Lamm via a phone interview about the band, their music and the show they bring to Harrah's Laughlin on Saturday, Sept. 21. Here is his take…
Sounds like you guys are still busy maintaining a brilliant career after 52 years. Are you celebrating it with this new Christmas album that's coming out in October?
The time has gone by rather quickly, I have to say. We're very pleased with the music that we arranged and a lot of original songs on that album, and it was a lot of fun recording. I think it enthused everybody in the band to think about the next album. So that's kind of been the key over the years, just staying busy, staying interested in music. Music is one of those things that continues to be a puzzling interest for us. It keep us intrigued enough to want to learn more. We're very lucky.
Everybody does Christmas albums recording the same Christmas songs, so to come up with original Christmas songs, that's a feat unto itself.
Yeah, and having already recorded a couple of Christmas albums — and after we recorded the most recent one a few years ago — I said, we have to stop doing this because there's not that many great Christmas songs to do. We're going to start repeating ourselves if we're not careful. It turned out well, because in the current lineup — which is a wonderful lineup. I feel it's the strongest lineup we've had, maybe since the original lineup. But we have a few more songwriters. Lou Pardini is a wonderful songwriter. Neil Donell, our new lead singer, is a wonderful songwriter. Jimmy's always great, Lee is always great, so we're pretty strong with songwriters.
What song did you contribute to this project, since you are a serious songwriter yourself?
One of the best songs I've written recently was a song I wrote for the coming album, the Chicago Christmas album. It's called "Because It's Christmastime." It's strangely evocative in a way of what I've experienced and I've viewed and what I've felt walking down Fifth Avenue in New York in the winter during the Christmas season. I tried to reflect all of that visually and into the lyrics and it just turned out so great. There are great vocals, there are wonderful horn parts, it's got a pretty good groove as well. We wanted this holiday album to be uplifting and more up-tempo and not so "ballady."
You guys were very prolific with the double albums back in the day, giving people more bang for their buck.
I think that we had a lot to say, even in our early 20s. But I think part of that was due to the fact our music, rock music, was evolving from the one-hit wonders into the type of music that allowed us to have longer pieces of music with more instrumental sections, and different genres within an album. That was what I think psychedelia and everything else allowed us a broader range of music that record companies and radio was willing to play.
You probably scared a lot of record labels in the beginning because of your particular philosophy. Did you really have that much faith in what you were doing, or were you guys just winging it and hoping for the best?
I think we were definitely learning by doing, but our producer and our management were encouraging us to be as original as possible because people wanted to hear something different. They didn't know what they wanted to hear, but they knew they wanted to hear something different, and we gave that to them.
Of all the awards and achievements is there one that means the most to you?
It's definitely the Songwriters Hall of Fame, because I'm a songwriter who writes music and also writes lyrics and I love doing both of them. But they're both very different creations and so it was very satisfying to get that award. That was a big deal for me and I know it was for Jimmy, because so much of what we do, so much of what we think about, and what we continue to think about, is composing music. I think I said in my acceptance speech that when I think of all the other great songwriters that I've listened to and enjoyed, and discovered over the years, I felt sure that I had no business being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. I was glad to be included.
What's the story behind "Saturday In The Park?"
That's an easy one. That was a song that was written while I was viewing some home movies that I had filmed. I used to travel with a little movie camera in the early years. So I was looking at an edited piece of film that showed two consecutive years where I spent time in New York walking through Central Park during the summer. I edited that down to a few minutes, I viewed it a few times and I wrote the lyrics to that song.
Do you remember where you were and what you were doing the first time you heard a Chicago song on the radio?
I was probably driving in my car somewhere in Southern California. I don't clearly remember it. The one clear memory I always think of though, is we were out on tour right after the first album came out and we were in Detroit. It was probably cold November and I left the hotel and I went out to look for something to eat. I walked into a café, just a little joint up the street, and as soon as I walked in somebody had already put a nickel or a quarter or a dime in the jukebox and "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" started playing. I've always been a low-profile guy so I just played it cool. I ordered soup and a sandwich, and let it play and when I was done I left.
Maya Angelou once said people won't remember what you said and they won't remember what you did, but they will remember how you made them feel. How do you want people to feel about Chicago's music?
Ms. Angelou's quotation is very perceptive and very accurate. It's gets to the heart of the matter, doesn't it? Music is a thing we sort of create intellectually but it does come from the heart, and it goes into the listener through the ears and into the brain, and then eventually into the heart. I've always felt that being a musician and being a songwriter is truly an honorable profession.
Talk about the show you're bringing to Harrah's Laughlin.
We always start with the first song from the first album, on Side One. We play that song, then take off from there, and the show is built to have a sort of beginning, middle and an end dynamically. So we do touch all the bases along the way given the limitations of time. Obviously, we've been doing this a while and we have a pretty good sense of what songs work in what places. It really is something — it's almost like a Rubix's Cube — you just have to get the right sequence and the right combination. We have really beautiful visual graphics as well. It's a nice show.