New documentary coincides with band Chicago's 50th anniversary

 
 
Updated 8/2/2016 9:35 AM
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  • Park Ridge native James Pankow, fourth from left, is one of the original members of the band Chicago.

    Park Ridge native James Pankow, fourth from left, is one of the original members of the band Chicago. courtesy of James Pankow

  • James Pankow, far left, and his Chicago bandmates, Walter Parazaider, Lee Loughnane and Robert Lamm, joined the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year.

    James Pankow, far left, and his Chicago bandmates, Walter Parazaider, Lee Loughnane and Robert Lamm, joined the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year. Associated Press

There's a lot of positive buzz about a new documentary film on the band Chicago, "Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago," due out later this year on the eve of the band's 50th anniversary.

The movie is "amazing," says band member, songwriter and trombonist James "Jimmy" Pankow, who grew up in Park Ridge (four blocks from Hillary Clinton, his third-grade classmate at Field School), and whose brother is Hollywood actor John Pankow.

The documentary won a number of film festival awards this year and the filmmakers are working on a distribution deal. Pankow is one of the film's four narrators.

"It talks about the drugs. It talks about the death. It talks about the obstacles and realities of being on the road up to 300 days a year, and what that does to you as a person and as an artist," Pankow said. "It's a very visceral look at the history of this band."

It's been a wild half century for Chicago, a band started by local musicians at DePaul University on Feb. 15, 1967 -- Pankow, Walter Parazaider, Terry Kath, Danny Seraphine, Lee Loughnane, Robert Lamm and Peter Cetera.

Seraphine and Cetera have since left the band. Kath shot himself in the head with a gun he didn't know was loaded and died in 1978.

When the band started out, Chicago played horn-heavy rock'n'roll in places Pankow referred to as "upholstered sewers." A year later, the band moved up to Rockford nightclubs. Pankow remembers hauling equipment and hiring go-go dancers to dance in cages on either side of the stage.

"These were grill-your-own-steak kind of places. When they shut down the barbecues, then we'd start the music," he said. "I was haulin' in maybe $300 a week, which in 1968, was pretty fair income. Remember, a new car was $4,000 then, not $40,000."

Their first album in 1969, "Chicago Transit Authority" -- with hits like "Does Anybody Really Know What Time it Is?" "Beginnings," and "Questions 67 and 68" -- rocketed them to stardom.

Chicago went on to sell 100 million albums, with 21 Top 10 singles and a Grammy Award among the band's long list of accomplishments. In 49 years, the band has never taken a year off and has played between 80 and 150 shows a year, Pankow said.

"Forty-nine years later, what can you say except how lucky you are to have had such an enduring career? And that this music would become the fabric of people's lives?" Pankow said. "We would be nothing, truly, without an audience who appreciates what we do."

Those fans cast 37 million votes for Chicago to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in April 2016. While Pankow appreciated the honor, he finds the hall's selections to be "inconsistent."

"There are people who are much less qualified who have been in the Hall of Fame for many years, and there are other artists that are similarly qualified as Chicago that have yet to be inducted," he said, mentioning Bon Jovi and The Doobie Brothers.

"Politics aside ... it was a great honor to finally be included. We carry no chips on our shoulder," he added. "It added another level of importance to our legacy."

People frequently ask Pankow, who now lives in the Nashville area, how he can play the same hits night after night, year after year, and not get tired of it. But he swears he doesn't. He's inspired by personal stories from fans who danced to Chicago songs at their weddings, proms or first dates. He's also heard touching stories from combat war veterans and cancer patients about how Chicago's music helped them through difficult times.

"It brings tears to your eyes," Pankow said. "It makes you want to get up on stage and deliver."

Now 68, he's at an age and place in his career where many musicians would be happy to retire. But he has no plans to throw in the towel and looks forward to the day when his guitar-playing sons join him on stage. He's not sure it will happen during this year's tour, which includes an Aug. 15 show in Rockford and others around the Midwest.

"You walk on that stage, and that's the reward. You're putting smiles on faces, and the roar of the crowd is like the first night every night," he said. "There will come a time when we just physically can't be at the top of our game, so we're going to play until that happens."

• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for people from the suburbs who are now in showbiz. If you know of someone who would make an interesting feature, email them at dgire@dailyherald.com and jsotonoff@dailyherald.com.

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