Talking Chicago With Lee Loughnane

Trumpet player Lee Loughnane talks with Pollstar about the band’s 40-plus years of making fans smile.

Formed in 1967, Chicago broke the rules when its first album – Chicago Transit Authority – arrived on the scene as a double-record set, something unheard of in 1969 for a debut album.

The band’s next studio three albums were also double sets and the band quickly established a tradition of numbering its albums with Roman numerals – Chicago III, Chicago V, Chicago VI, Chicago VII and so on. While the band’s second album was self-titled, fans often refer to it as Chicago II. The band’s fourth album was also its first live release, a four-disc set called Chicago At Carnegie Hall.

Chicago has seen its share of personnel changes over the years. These days the band consists of founding members Loughnane, keyboardist Robert Lamm, trombonist James Pankow and Walt Parazaider on sax, flute and woodwinds. They are joined by bassist/vocalist Jason Scheff, guitarist Keith Howland, Tris Imboden on drums and keyboardist Lou Pardini.

The band’s latest effort, the Blu-ray / DVD Chicago In Chicago features the group in its hometown performing before a sold-out audience at the Windy City’s Charter One Pavilion.

And, like the encore depicted on Chicago In Chicago, the band is spending this summer touring with The Doobie Brothers.

Talking about subjects ranging from the group’s early days to the present, Loughnane paints today’s Chicago as a lean and powerful touring and recording band in charge of its own destiny.

Photo: Jason Moore
Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham, N.C.

40-plus years of Chicago. What keeps you going these days?

It’s still the music. We enjoy playing the music and that’s front and center the first thing we think of. It’s harder and harder to travel every place we go. We literally get paid for traveling rather than playing.

What’s your touring setup? What moves you from city to city?

We have buses. The buses have a front lounge, a little kitchenette, a sleep area and a back lounge. We can watch movies, regular TV as long as it stays in. Go around the corner, you lose the TV signal. They’re very comfortable.

You have several writers in the band. How does Chicago music come into this world? Does one person bring a song to the rest of the band or does it begin as a seed with everyone contributing?

Usually the songwriter has the seed himself and tries to develop that to a point of making it a demo to the point where you can make sense to the rest of the band with it. As you record it, have the other guys contribute their ideas. Sort of a group effort, most times, and the songwriter usually has the last word.

The capability of recording techniques has grown to where it’s unlimited tracks, you can put as much or as little as you want in a song. If something you’re recording doesn’t move the track forward and make it better, then erase it. Just don’t clutter it with stuff. If it doesn’t move it, get it out of there.

How’s touring with The Doobie Brothers working out?

Oh, it’s been great. We’ve played with them, I think twice, before. It’s great seeing the guys again. They’re very easy to work along with and to play together with. They come out and play an hour set, then break. Chicago plays about an hour set and then both bands get up on stage and do encores together. We do three of their songs; they do three of our songs. It’s pretty cool.

What are some of the songs Chicago and The Doobie Brothers are playing together?

We’re playing “Rockin’ Down The Highway,” “Listen To The Music” … and with Chicago we’re doing “Does Anybody Know What Time It Is” and “25 Or 6 To 4.

Photo: James Wood
(click on photo for complete image)

Chicago has logged countless miles touring. Any memorable road stories?

I try to wipe most of that stuff from my mind. You get on the bus, you have some food, you watch a movie, you move to the next place. Unless you get in an accident, it’s not that memorable.

We were on the road with The Beach Boys and we were playing the show in a racetrack. The promoter was cautioned to put the stage up at the top, at the upper-most part of the racetrack in case it rained. And he went, “Oh, it’s not going to rain.”

So he puts it down on the low end and a tornado came through. It filled up the bottom of the [track] with water. We were playing on stage when the storm came blowing in. The Beach Boys had finished already and were looking up from their trailers, going, “Get off the stage! Get these guys off the stage!”

We just got off when the front speaker, one of the stage-left speakers fell into the audience. As it was falling in, one of the audience members decided to cut across right in front of the speakers. It barely missed hitting the kid. … Our drums were crushed. Thank goodness the drummer wasn’t still playing them. That was in the ’80s in Nebraska – the “Nebraska Disasta.” Those were the T-shirts – “We Survived The Nebraska Disasta.”

Bruce Springsteen is often mentioned as having opened for Chicago back in the day, but didn’t you have The Pointer Sisters supporting you before anyone had ever heard of them?

They came out of the clubs and they were really, really good. Like we did when [we had] the door opened to the business by Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and Jimi said, “Carry that on with other people,” because we didn’t know how to repay him for that. So that’s why we tried to do that. Seals & Croft was another one.

When seeing these acts open for you, did you ever think they would become headliners themselves?

Oh, yeah. They definitely had the stuff available in them to do it. The rest of the magic that makes somebody work in show business is always there and available to make it or make you fail, depending on what happens in the news, or the press or who you anger. It worked out for all of them. Obviously, The Boss has been The Boss for 50 years.

Chicago was also a part of the early amphitheatre circuit, playing a week every summer at Pine Knob located north of Detroit in Clarkston, Mich., now known as the DTE Energy Music Theatre.

We put Pine Knob on the map. The Nederlanders … we helped them get in the business and they’ve been grateful to us. That’s one of the things that keep you going from year-to-year; when a promoter knows how much you have helped them, they try to help you back. And you still have to sell tickets. They can’t go in the tank every year and still get you work.

Photo: Jason Moore
Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham, N.C.

Do you credit some of the band’s success to the relationships you’ve formed over the years?

I think so. They know they’re going to get a good show. … They know we’re going to show up and we’re going to play on time. If we have meet-and-greets backstage, that’s important to the show as well. We’ve learned how important every aspect of the business is. Taking a picture with somebody is very important.

Having toured all over the world, do you have any personal favorites in regards to venues?

I’m not necessarily talking about venues, but I like playing certain cities. Chicago and Boston are two of my favorites. Because when there is time off, time to relax a little bit, you can go out and walk in the park or go to a museum or zoo. There’s a lot of stuff to do. Besides the food that’s available.

But the venues, themselves? … We have built systems to make those venues sound better. They always have their little foibles where there are certain areas you just can’t fix. But we try to sound as good as we can in almost every seat in the house.

Chicago has released its share of live albums. Do you have a favorite?

Think Chicago in Chicago [that] we just did, that’s just come out in the last few months. That one came out really sonically because the systems have gotten better. We were able to sit back and mix it properly. HD filming turned out really good.

You recently released another live album – Chicago 34: Live In 75.

We didn’t actually have to record it because it was done in ’75. The technology wasn’t what it is today and weren’t able to go back and take anything a part and make it sound better or mess with it sonically one iota. It is what it is. You hear that raw energy that we had back in the ’70s when we were just running around playing music everywhere we could.

Back when you were essentially a collection of musicians talking about forming a band, did you ever dream you’d make it this far?

No way. There’s no way of looking this far ahead, first of all. Second of all, how many people, single artists or especially bands … to go on for this length of time, you have to pinch yourself. We know how to walk the tightrope of getting into harms way and getting out of it.

Can you tell us a little more about the business of Chicago. For example, does the band own its own master recordings?

The masters reverted to us in the ’90s. We formed Chicago Records and had a successful business at that time. Other than that, we found out how difficult a job it was to accomplish without the Internet’s help. So we put it up for sale and sold the masters, again, to Rhino / Warner Bros. They’ve had ownership of the original masters since the late ’90s. They’ve allowed us to cooperate with them to repackage and put bonus material in.

We still have control of our destiny so it’s been very rewarding all the way through. Other than that, now we have our website that we’ve built for the past two or three years, that we’ve made all-encompassing. If this had existed, we would never have had to sell our masters. We would have had a mechanism to get them out to the public and pretty much make all the money ourselves rather than have to share it with somebody who had a marketing system in place. The way of the world today is to figure out how to market your music, as it always has been. But now you can figure out how to do it yourself. The last two or three years we have built it [the website] to a one-stop shop.

We’re doing video, premium access, you can pay $11.88 per year and get all the videos that are available. We update it every month and put something new on the site. We also have a recording system that is traveling with us on the road. Within our schedule and travel and the lack of time we have off to write and record, we’re putting together brand new original material we can sell from the website. So we’re moving forward.

Photo: Jason Moore
Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham, N.C.

When looking at old images of Chicago’s early years and seeing you and the horn section stripped down to the waist, sweating under the lights and playing your hearts out, can you still relate to the 20-something Lee Loughnane in the photograph?

Yeah. There was a lot more fear involved. I still just wanted to play, but I tried to hide in the midst of all the chaos. I have pretty much grown up in the business and learned how to project that music energy out to the audience. I’d never realize that the nervous energy you have before the show is actually a performance tool that you use.

Initially I drank it away and did drugs and all that stuff to get in the groove. … to prevent myself from being nervous. Once I got sober I realized that [it’s] the energy you use to perform with and it’s been a lot more comfortable since. It took me 20 years to get there. Some people don’t have that longevity. They learn how to use the energy or some people never figure out what it is. Unless you get up there and you are nervously excited about what you’re doing, and you project it out to the audience and they take that energy and throw it back to you, you don’t have much of a performance. It just sort of lays there. If somebody pays a lot of money [to see you] and they find themselves falling asleep, they’re apt not to come back the next year. They can sleep at home.

Was there ever a sense that Chicago was competing with other acts on the Top-40 charts?

Not between the musicians. In the press, that’s where all that tension was created. It was something to write about … because they have horns and we have horns, we’re competing with each other. But that wasn’t the reality. They were playing and we were playing. We were doing the best we could.

But didn’t critics compare the band to Blood, Sweat & Tears at one time?

The first [BS&T] album was produced by Al Kooper. He saw us play at The Whiskey and said, “That’s the band I want to do.” He went back to New York, wrote the music, hired the musicians, went into the studio and recorded the album. He was on staff at Columbia Records in New York and got their album out before ours was released. The struggles of trying to get a deal going, nobody wanted to buy us. They would come in and look at us and go, “Hey, you got no show.” They were looking for show business stuff rather than music.

Then Clive Davis saw and heard the merit in the music and put the deal together. We had an unprecedented double-record set because the songs were so long, to have it on one record, there would only have been three tunes. We had to stretch it out to two records.

Wasn’t that part of Chicago’s rep during the early days, that the band had so much music it needed to release double albums?

Exactly. It wasn’t just having the songs long to have them long. There was actually merit to having them [long]. Those sections were used for musical tools. One section would move into a horn ensemble then lead to a guitar solo and then maybe a vocal passage back into the line again. They definitely undulated themselves from the intro through the course of the songs to different movements, if you would. [“Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon”] took a whole side of a record.

A lot of other bands, when those things [long songs] became popular, they would just take long solos, 15-minute solos – rather than write a piece of music that went from one place to the next. And that became more of what they called the “album cuts” at the time. Everybody was doing it.

The thing that stopped it [double albums], it was a business decision, really. Because there weren’t as many songs on a record, because the solos were longer, the album cuts were longer, people started naming [parts of songs]. Instead of it being one long piece – “Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon” – it became seven different copyrights. “Make Me Smile,” “Colour My World” and other movements within that song, they all became songs in themselves and [we] were paid a royalty on each movement.

Then all of a sudden, instead of paying for unlimited copyrights, the [record] companies decided to pay only on 10 copyrights per album. That eliminated double-record sets and long songs. Then, you couldn’t name all the different movements. If you had to say something, you had to say it right now. You couldn’t wait five minutes to get to the point. You had to say it in the first 10 seconds to get people’s attention.

How do you describe the band today?

I think we still face the music business the way we did before. We still love playing music. Every time we get on the stage, we enjoy what it sounds like. We are fanatical about it sounding as good as possible. I think, without that available to us, there wouldn’t be much sense in being in this business.

Also, we are trying to move forward. As much as people try to say we’ve played out our time, as far [as] moving forward, musically, with new material, we’re trying to build that up now. And if somebody isn’t willing to pay for it, we’ll pay for it ourselves. We’ve found a cheaper way of recording that’s still world class, that eliminates the need for having to go into a … studio, and rent equipment. We own the equipment now and can record anywhere we want. We can make any room sound like a studio. We’re moving forward, baby. Watch out!

Photo: Henry Diltz

Upcoming dates for Chicago with The Doobie Brothers include Clarkston, Mich., at the DTE Energy Music Theatre Aug. 1; Burgettstown, Pa., at First Niagara Pavilion Aug. 2; Atlantic City at Borgata Hotel, Casino & Spa / Event Center Aug. 4; and Raleigh, N.C., at Time Warner Cable Music Pavilion Aug. 5. For more information, please visit