Songwriter Interviews

James Pankow of Chicago

by Greg Prato

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Chicago released their first album in 1969. 45 years, five #1 albums and 50 trips to the Hot 100 later, the band is still touring with four original members: Robert Lamm, Lee Loughnane, Walter Parazaider and James Pankow. All four are versatile musicians who play a range of instruments. Pankow's bailiwick is the trombone, and he's also a key songwriter in the band - his compositions include "Make Me Smile," "Just You 'N' Me" and "(I've Been) Searchin' So Long."

Conveniently, Chicago titles their albums (most of them anyway) in sequential roman numerals, Super Bowl style. Their latest is Chicago XXXVI: Now, released in July, MMXIV.

Pankow spoke with us about the writing and recording of the album, and let us in on the stories behind several Chicago classics. He also had some pointed words for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which has shamefully omitted Chicago from their club.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Let's start off by talking about the new album, Now. Was it written and recorded entirely on the road?

James Pankow: Yes, actually. This latest album, XXXVI: Now, is titled appropriately, because it is where the band is evolution-wise. It is uncensored essentially, whereas in traditional historical recordings, record labels were able to mandate a genre or a certain song style that they felt was appropriate for radio and commercial exploitation.

That is not the case with this record. This is almost a bookend of the first album, Chicago Transit Authority, which was also raw and uncensored, because it basically embodied where the band was when we first started out.

The band was named the Chicago Transit Authority when their first album was released. A 2-LP set, it was a horn-heavy rocker with a jazz influence and a touch of political commentary, including a song Lamm and Pankow wrote about the Democratic National Convention (held in Chicago) called "Someday (August 29, 1968)."
It was what it was. It was not knowing any better and just doing the music that represented where the band was at that moment in time, and then needing two discs back in that day to embody that full spectrum of music because of the length and the nature of the songs.

Here we are all these years later with our 36th album, and again we are uncensored. This is exactly where the band is right now at this moment in terms of its evolution.

Evolution is a necessary process. I think any artist who wants to be current needs to evolve; who wants to be fresh, needs to evolve. You cannot rest on your laurels. That was then, that was there, this is now.

And this music is spontaneous. This was recorded on the road. This was possible because digital technology now has gotten to the point where we are completely mobile. We have what we call The Rig. It is digital technology, state of the art, as refined and complete as any system that we've ever used in a traditional studio, however it's now portable and we can record backstage, we can record onstage, in hotel rooms, on the bus. As we are traveling we can take ideas that happen and put them down immediately, so nothing is lost.

This is an opportunity that we were never able to take advantage of because of commitments that have kept us so, so busy. Now that we have this mobile technology, we can actually render songs as they happen in our heads, in our fingers, in our riffs. We can put this stuff down. So what you're listening to on this album is as spontaneous and fresh as anything, if not more than we've ever done.

And it's a joy to perform, because it's an immediate outlook to these inspirational moments. And we're actually doing some of this stuff in concert and the audience is responding to this just as they have over the years to traditional hits that have brought them to the table.

So the barometer we see is indicating that we've struck a chord once again with our audience. Being unreined and being uncensored has put us in a precarious place, because yes, we are unabridged, we are uncensored, but we don't want to go so far left that we lose this connection with the audience, who has validated with music reviews.

Songfacts: From the new album, what is the song "Love Lives On" about lyrically?

Pankow: Well, "Love Lives On," it's an intimate approach to not really the actual relationship, but to the meaning behind what the relationship has become. "Love Lives On" says to us that the feeling, the emotion of love transcends the physical embodiment of that feeling. The emotion of love goes far beyond this finite existence. After we pass to the next plane, if you will, this emotion continues and lives on.

When this body that has been my vehicle on this plane of existence no longer exists, this spirit of love will continue. And those that have been left behind will continue to have a connection with this emotion called love, because it lives on.

And so we're looking at not only the power of this emotion, but to the eternal aspect of it. Love is the essence of our soul, love is the essence of what we not only leave behind, but also what we continue to shine from this eternal aspect of who we are. And it lives beyond this finite plane that we live in at this moment.

Songfacts: And then to go back a ways, what about the song "Make Me Smile"?

Pankow: Well, relationships, if they're good, put a big smile on our faces. Love songs have always been a powerful ingredient in the song's process - the songwriting process has often taken writers to that place.

If you're a human being, you can relate to this: love is a very powerful thing. It motivates almost everything we do. So we write about it often in one form or another in our music. Not just Chicago, but all songwriters. Nine out of ten songs you listen to have something to do with that emotion, because it connects us to the world that connects us to people, and it connects us to greater things beyond this plane.

"Make Me Smile" is the evidence of the manifestation of love. Because the thought of this relationship puts a smile on my face.

On the studio version of "Make Me Smile," late Chicago guitarist Terry Kath handled lead vocal duties. But since Kath's passing (on January 23, 1978), several other Chicago members have sung the tune in concert - Bill Champlin, Robert Lamm, and Lou Pardini have all taken turns over the years.
Songfacts: And with the song "Colour My World," when you wrote it, did you have any idea that it would go on to be such a popular wedding song for so many people?

Pankow: I had no idea. When I wrote "Colour My World," it's interesting in that I had been enamored with Johann Sebastian Bach. I still think that he is peerless in terms of his mathematical perfection in his music. After all, music is very mathematical. It's not only notes in a scale, which are numbered in terms of progression, but it is very mathematical. You put these beats and these rests together, and you count them. And when you get to the end of this progression of beats and rests, you have a mathematical entity which you call a song, which has a beginning and an end.

Bach approached his music both harmonically and rhythmically in such a way that everything lined up and everything was perfectly voiced. When we study music in school, in theory class or composition class, we study the relationships of voices to one another, which creates harmony, which is a group of voices that creates a chord, if you will, which is the simultaneous striking of this group of notes together, and that group of notes rings as what we call a chord.

Bach constructed chordal music in which the voices never conflicted with one another or were out of sync or rhythm. His music flowed and had a groove. Bach, who created this music over two centuries ago, had just as much energy and rhythmic drive as the popular artists of today. I mean, you take your hip hop, your funk, your jazz, your pop - and that's a colloquial term for exciting, rhythmic content - he cooked just as much as modern artists of today do all those years ago.

I listened to his music with great enthusiasm and curiosity to see if I could find out how he did it. I was enrapt in this process of deciphering Bach's methodology, and I couldn't really get to the bottom of it. I still listen to it with great respect and awe, because it's amazing how someone so many years ago, before all this technology, was able to craft such perfection. The man was obviously incredibly gifted.

I got sucked into this gift of Bach's and wound up experimenting with similar motion. We call this arpeggios, which are a series of notes that happen linearly in a step pattern, and notes of a scale and in sequence going from one G or scale, perhaps, to another, to another, to another. And I put a bunch of these arpeggios, these series of notes together as was inspired by listening to Bach, who did it so amazingly perfectly. And I came up with this little round, which we now call "Colour My World."

I titled it "Colour My World" because it affected a lyric that again mirrors the emotion of love. In this case, I used the emotion of love and description as a technicolor movie that takes places in my heart. It colors, it gives color and vivid definition to my life, like bringing this emotion to it.

And Bach's perfection influenced the music that influenced the expression of the emotion.

Does all that makes sense to you?

Songfacts: Yes. It does.

Pankow: It's all connected. And Johann Sebastian Bach was the influence of "Colour My World," which was a very simplistic, yet profound approach to a love song. It's only a minute and 50 seconds long. It's not as long as most songs of our genre are. As a matter of fact, a little interesting side note, Frank Sinatra, Ol' Blue Eyes himself, approached my camp, asking me if I would write another verse to "Colour My World," because he was very much interested in singing the song on a record. He wanted to record the song and do his rendition of it, but he felt it needed another verse for him to give it justice.

It took great pain and thought to consider that, because the song is what it is. And I considered adding a verse to it. After all, this was the great, legendary Frank Sinatra, and if I was going to modify anything that had been created by me for this band, it would have to be for a very, very special reason.

I wound up saying no. Because as much as I was thrilled to the bone by Mr. Sinatra asking me to do this because he wanted to perform the song, I felt that I was violating the purity, the essence of the song that represents a very, very intimate special moment to me in terms of its composition.

Putting a new verse in that song felt like sowing another limb on my child. It didn't ring right. So I did not acquiesce to the idea. I said no to Frank Sinatra's request, and to this day I still wonder if I did the right thing. [Laughing] There might be a Sinatra record with that song on it somewhere if I had said yes, and that would have been a great homage, to not only the song, but to the band. But we'll never know, will we?

Inexplicably, Chicago is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (neither is Deep Purple, Yes, or Stevie Ray Vaughan), which exposes their selection process as arbitrary and/or biased. Lately, even those who have been selected to their hallowed halls have slagged off the honor. Daryl Hall told us the induction ceremony was "An overlong evening of a lot of windbaggery." In our interview with Gene Simmons, he said of the Kiss induction, "Personally I did not care, because the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has become a sham. Back room politics."
Songfacts: Something I'm curious to get your thoughts on - are you surprised that Chicago has never been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

Pankow: We've never been inducted into the Hall of Fame because the Hall of Fame is not a legitimate enough institution to recognize the authenticity of too many artists. It has lost its validation by the mere fact that it has overlooked artists of great importance, and it has lauded artists of little significance instead.

I see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as perhaps a personal trophy case for the people at Rolling Stone rather than a true representation of an acknowledgement of artists that have truly done something so significant that it may very well be left behind long after their disappearance. Meaning that the music created by so many of these artists both inducted and yet to be inducted will be left behind for generations, because this music will far outlive the artists that produced it.

And perhaps Chicago may be one of those artists. I mean, right now realistically we're looking at mortality as an issue. We've been doing this 47 years, and we see no end in sight. But at some point, when do you say, "Man, I can't throw that fastball anymore. I can't go out for that pass anymore. My body won't allow it."

Look at The Stones, look at The Beach Boys, look at Bob Dylan, look at The Beatles, look at Chicago. You get to a point where you can't do it anymore or you can't do it believably anymore. You've got to hang the cleats up. We are finite beings. This is a very physical endeavor.

The writing process, the songwriting process can go on until we take our last breath, because that comes from the heart and the mind, and those things go on and on. But the performance of this music is not such an easy task, because it's a bodily function, and the old bod, it wears out. You look back, Elvis Presley is gone, The Beatles are gone. I mean, how long can we do this? We're going to do it as long as we can. I guess Mick Jagger would say the same thing. So would Brian Wilson. Two of his brothers are already gone. So are two of Paul's.

So how long can we do this? As long as we can. And we're enjoying every minute of it. But the Hall of Fame has yet to acknowledge not only Chicago, but other artists of significant value and importance to our culture. Why? I do not know. Perhaps that communicates that they really are not the real deal. And that's my question to them: If you're for real, why do these omissions exist? If you were the real deal, you would replace some of the artists that are exhibited in the Hall of Fame with artists that far outshine many of those artists. What's the deal with that? That takes away from your legitimacy.

That would be my question to Jann Wenner and to Rolling Stone: How can you take the risk of invalidating your institution by omitting some and including others, both of which are inappropriate? That would be my question to the people that run the Hall of Fame.

It's not so much why we are not in there, it's why are you doing this? It has for me taken away the importance of being inducted. What is so important to me to allow myself to be invited and then inducted into an institution that apparently is not authentic, because it has not proceeded in a way that authenticates the truly deserving artists of our time and in history, but yet it acknowledges our other artists that perhaps have not done things that are all that significant in the scheme of things.

So it's not about so much Chicago, the artist, it's about the Hall of Fame itself. Perhaps I'm being too philosophical about it, but I think we need to look at the Hall of Fame for that answer.

Songfacts: I think you have some very valid points. And I think that they should probably look more to fans in deciding who gets in.

Pankow: Really, I think the perception of the public is that Chicago is certainly in the Hall of Fame. And then they might go there and they're looking for an exhibit for the band and they don't see it. Then they start wondering, "What's the deal?" And then look at the Doobie Brothers, look at Neil Diamond. I mean, these acts are still working, just like we are, and selling hundreds of thousands of tickets every year. Did Strawberry Alarm Clock do that?

Hence my question. It doesn't really add up. And I think that I probably have to think twice or more before I said yes to an invitation to an institution that was off base to that large an extent.

I have heard from inside sources that we are not well liked by people in that circle. For whatever reasons, we have no idea. Perhaps something occurred long ago that caused a breach in our relationship with Rolling Stone, but I have no idea. But I know that our name has come up for consideration more than a few times over the years. I mean, how could it not? Whether you like Chicago's music or not, the fact remains that this act has become a legacy in pop music. We're not doing sellout shows 47 years later because people have nothing better to do; I am not on the road 6 to 7 months a year because I'm begging for work. I'm actually begging for time with my family because the band is so busy that our personal life is still an effort to cut out.

So why is this entity called Chicago not recognized as having done something - doing something - that's keeping us out here on the road and seeing sellout business every year. We have not taken one year off. Every year. Should there not be some recognition of that? Not for me, I don't need another tchotchke on my mantel. I don't need another feather in my cap. The sheer joy of being able to put food on the table, doing something I love so passionately and being able to share it with so many for all these years is the gift. That's the gift. That's more gift than anyone could ever ask for. I am truly blessed, as all of us in the band are.

So Hall of Fame or not, it's not really been a big deal. It's kind of a nonissue, frankly. But I agree with you.

Songfacts: I think you made some very good points.

Pankow: And behind the music, it's amazing what motivates a writer. Songwriting is a fleeting process. Do you write songs yourself, Greg?

Songfacts: I've never written a song that's been published or recorded or anything like that. But sometimes I strum my guitar a bit.

Pankow: Awesome. So you dabble and you have fun experimenting with manifesting ideas that run through your head. That's human expression. That's a powerful tool. We all have the power of speech. When you can go beyond that and put that power of speech to musical education, it really becomes even more powerful. And for your readers to get a sense of what inspires that is kind of cool. I mean, who would think that "Colour My World" was directly influenced by Johann Sebastian Bach? Stuff like that.

You can be sitting on the throne and this idea will hit you. It used to be, you'd run to the cassette player, and that was your demo. Now it's GarageBand or Pro Tools or Logic, because we have this technology. And frankly, people that really know absolutely nothing about music, they're making records because the tools are doing it for them.

If you could get them up there on a stage, you could see if they can do it live. "Uh oh. Hey, we have problems here. We have to call Mission Control."

October 2, 2014.
For more Chicago, check out chicagotheband.com.

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Comments: 25

  • Lorrie from TexasI have a question... I went to their concert recently in Texas. They had a song towards the end of the show that is a political song apparently, since they had several U.S. Presidents shown. My questions are: what is the song name and what is the meaning behind this song? Also, why did they not show our current U.S President as well? Confusing!
  • Al Piskorski, Ndhs 64 from Arlington Heights, IlI, too, remember Jim Pankow from the early, early years at Notre Dame HS. After graduating, I still saw the Mellodons perform at various dances, etc. Had our 50 year class reunion in Sept. 2014 and several of the guys there talked about playing in the band with you and remembering you getting that trombone to really rip like nobody else. Glad all your hard work and devotion to music paid off and that you love what you do. Saw Chicago live in Oshkosh, WI at EAA a few years ago. Sounded as good live as on the recordings. Father Wiskirchen must be smiling in heaven.
  • Richard Bies '66 from Bali, IndonesiaGreat interview Jimmy. I remember watching and listening to you in Marching Band and Mellodons after school and after basketball and baseball practice at Notre Dame 1963 thru 1965. I used to shake my head and say man they practice as hard as we do on the field. Of course Father Wiskirchen, like all the other coaches always shot for perfection and to get the most out of a person. I took CTA with me to Nam June 1969 and introduced you to them at Tuy Huy Air Base Vietnam and I am still playing them all ever since. You said it like it is and diplomatically I might add. RRHOF needs a bit of reassessment in how they evaluate impact on a generation and make their choices. Seriously how many Jordans, Mays, Hammering Hank, Babe Ruth, Bobby Hull stayed on their game for 47 years! Your stats and endurance speaks for itself now pleasing 3 generations. Congrats your induction is long overdue and most deserved I will be watching your induction from home in Bali.
  • Michael Wallace from Fontana, Near Los Angeles, CaFor technical expertise, Pankow is, hands down, a legend. No question. As a keyboardist, I wrote down, from ear, Pankows "Ballet" and was amazed at how it cohered. As a vocalist in professional choirs from years ago, I now understand how the Bach influence coheres with the product of such a devoted musician. It is so gratifying to know the source of his love for "Ballet". Chicago's 50+ years, and their pronounced impact on subsequent "Classical Rock" bands, is enough to grant the band recognition of the highest stature. Whether HOF recognizes them or not, is a trifle. The record of history eclipses the HOF, and reveals the greatness of those of comparable stature as Chicago.
  • Fritz Souder from MarylandI've always enjoyed the music presented by the group Chicago and it's members over time. They are a very eclectic bunch of writers and musicians. Being a songwriter myself I am also an admirer of Bach and his musical inventions and like James mentioned they are very mathematical. Keep up the good work.
  • Howard Levin from Levittown, PaIn the early years, as far as I could tell, the criteria for inductions were: who was a game changer, a root influence on rock, on rock radio, crossed over to most audiences and whose work persists, even a long ago chain of hits. Recently, the RRHOF might have gone overboard on categories 1 and 4, especially with artists I've listened to, like Madonna, N.W.A., one-hit wonder Percy Sledge, et.al. I'm not sure the Moody Blues or Genesis(who was inducted instead of more deserving Yes) fit criteria 1(scratch 2) and Chicago, much as I've enjoyed their music, especially from the early years, don't meet criteria 1 and 3. When their early audience accused them of selling out for rereleasing their material from their first album as singles(did I hear that right?), they apparently reacted the wrong way and went top 40, never mind where the rest of their material was leaning. Maybe the most crucial point is that the Electric Flag, Blood Sweat and Tears and James Guercio's previous project, The Buckinghams opened and filled the brass-driven pop/rock niche before that same label, Columbia, signed Chicago. There are some who think the RRHOF should change their name, maybe to something like: the Popular Music Hall of Fame. That way, the induction of Chicago would be more legitimate(like Donna Summer's?), but whose popular music are we talking about in an international context? Julio Iglesias? John Farnham? Asian artists we've never listened to? That's where the nomination process has gotten the RRHOF. Those of us following the nominations over the years expected the nominations to be inclusive in some ways, exclusive in others.
  • Joe from CaliforniaMy first concert was back around 1973. Chicago with Bruce Springsteen as the opener! We sat about the third row and my ears are still ringing from the horns. Great show. I really liked the pre Pete cetera Chicago. Later, they got a bit soft rock for my taste, but HOF for sure.
  • Brian Roy from Orange City FlJust saw them for the first time in Daytona last Saturday (Oct 4) at the Peabody. I must say everything James said in his interview came out on stage with the band. They were fabulous! Keep up the good work James! Over 40 years of touring is an inspiration in itself. I grew up with Chicago on the radio during that duration. Most of their songs hit home to a special time and place in my life, it was a pleasure to listen to some awesome classic songs played out right in front of my eyes! Keep rocking guys, we're still out here buying tickets!
  • Paul Nega from Elgin Il..Hey! Come to the SEARS CENTRE in Hoffmanm Estates Il..
  • Herb Bruce from FloridaGreat article. Overdue. Pankow is not just a rock heavyweight, he's a music heavyweight. His greatness is too hip for most rooms. Commercial and critical success. That's perfection.
  • Janet Ruggiero from Bellingham, Ma Great article and videos. Loved them.
  • Mandy from Delray BeachSaw Chicago again @ The Hard Rock in Ft Lauderdale on October 2, the band was so great, so tight, so soulfull... blew me away! They could not have been any better, actually getting better with age! As a music lover having seen the band so many times, have to say this was their best performance ever, for me. It was thrilling to see how much fun they were having as well, very genuine. The sound system being awesome... Icing on the cake!
  • Bill Fisher from Granbury Texas Who needs the RRHOF.... Keep rockin Jimmy! Saw you guys at Nebraska Fair last year while traveling myself and LOVE you guys from day one! It's not rocket science....Listen, if you think we're only here for the money...
    You're stupid....
  • Rick Bradbury from New JerseyVery interesting thoughtful remarks by one of the best trombone players ever. James Pankow class ..period on stage his performance has amazed audiences for decades.Great interview.
  • Lon Blair from MarylandI went on a date with James sister Annie. Very nice person.
  • John H from North CarolinaNice piece, except that "25 or 6 to 4" is a Robert Lamm composition. "Make Me Smile," "Just You and Me", and a ton of other hits are Mr Pankow's! His comments about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are on target.
  • Glen Petersen from Baton RougeI am extremely proud to brag that I sang onstage with Chicago in Biloxi two years ago. The smile on my face that night was not just a result of my personal thrill in being with "my" band, but also in experiencing the down to earth personalities of these pros and seeing up close and personal the joy they still have in giving their fans 100%. Publis Enemy? Beastie Boys? The Blue Caps? The Stooges? Really? Jimmy, your music and your words are golden.
  • Michelle from MichiganWhenever I see James perform...it is like WOW. He has so much energy and appears so happy to perform for us! I can surely tell he loves what he does. I grew up with Chicago and understand the lyrics of their music now more than ever. I actually listen to their music each day. I listen for Terry's guitar, Danny's drumming, Peter's and Bobby's voices....most of all James trombone. Don't ever stop doing what you do. You inspire people like me every day. Keep us smiling!
  • Marie Heckman from Evans,nyNice interview with a great composer and musician. Thank you.
  • Richpequa@gmail.com from Tribeca, NycJimmy has written a ton of awesome songs, as many hits as anyone else in the band, but "25 Or 6 To 4" is not his. That's a Robert Lamm tune all the way. Thanks for this great interview. Jimmy's horn parts are as important to me as any other aspect of the band. It's very impressive that the horns not written by Jimmy on the new album are equally stellar.
  • Jim Gutierrez from PhilippinesChicago does not need the R&R Hall of Fame to validate their music and the influence they've had as musicians known worldwide going on 50 years. Sure, the world has changed since their debut album. They sing about good things, happiness, things everyone is familiar with. This band's music has touched the lives of millions of fans. They are still loved. Who needs the Hall of fame? They are for real.
  • Dr. Brandon A West from Detroit, MiAlthough the Band is not formally in the HOF, some of their product has been on display there. ie the press for the album cover for Chicago VI. The Guess who is another band long over due for induction. In 1970 American Women sold better than the Beatles. (Randy Bachman's guitar is on display there)
  • Ed Di Giambattista from Culver Lake New JerseyOne would think that James Pankow would first be given credit for writing "Ballet for a girl in Buchannan" rather than 25 or 6 to 4 which is clearly more to guitarist Terry Kath, and simply a lesser effort.

    After all Ballet is a Suite that contains the monster song "Colour my World" which for years was the most requested and dedicated song on Valentines Day until Billy Joel's "Just the way you are" took over the honor.
  • Barb White from Clark NjI have been a Chicago fan since their first album, Chicago Transit Authority. I have lost count how many times I have gone to their concerts.
    In 1999 I visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and did exactly as Jimmy said - looked for the Chicago exhibit. I was flabbergasted when they told me Chicago was not in it. So I wrote a letter to them when I got home. Surprise Surprise - no reply.
    I never watch the HOF inductions on TV because it is basically a farce.
    Chicago is too good for them!
  • Briana from VaWhat an interesting, in depth, and eye opening interview. I really enjoyed hearing Jim's point of view on a lot of things. The Hall of Fame discussion was interesting and the songwriting aspects just fascinating. I've seen these guys live a half dozen times this year, and they're incredible. Their songs resonate with multiple generations. How can anyone deny that they're lucky and blessed (as are we, the listening public).
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