When you think of the band Chicago, it’s likely that it’s the vision or sound of a horn section that may spring to mind. The use of brass and woodwinds to make a musical point is what gave the group its initial boost.
Lee Loughnane, the band’s trumpet and flugelhorn player, said that bringing horn players into a big role in the band was there from the beginning.
“Historically, the writers have always left space for the brass to be put in,” Loughnane said during an interview in May from his home in Sedona, Arizona. “During the verses or the intro sections, we were always allowed to really make statements and not just be the background of the song. We really became a lead voice. That’s the way we all approached it.
“It was logical for us. The only thing that was different was that it hadn’t been done before. Brass was more like an afterthought or a percussive part in a song.”
Now, Chicago and its horn section return to Reno for a show on Saturday at Grand Sierra Resort and Casino. It comes at a time when the group is being celebrated in various venues, including their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year and the release this year of a new documentary film, “Now More Than Ever: The Story of Chicago.”
Billboard magazine states that Chicago had charted the most singles of any artist in the ’70s. The band has also earned three No. 1 singles, “If You Leave Me Now” in 1976, “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” in 1982 and “Look Away” in 1988.
Just a few months ago, Loughnane joined his bandmates at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony to be inducted.
He is one of the founding members of the group, along with the other two horn players: James Pankow on trombone and Walter Parazaider on woodwinds. One of the group’s main vocalists the entire time, Robert Lamm, still is the group’s main keyboardist.
Chicago was first eligible for the hall of fame in 1994. Loughnane said that the band had varying responses to the length of time it took for them to finally get in.
“The first couple of years we were overlooked, we really couldn’t understand why,” he said. “Then, that faded into just working. Most of the bands (in the hall of fame) aren’t working, and some of them aren’t even on the planet Earth anymore, so we feel very fortunate to do what we are doing.”
Racking up the votes
Lounghnane credited a groundswell of radio deejays and journalists who kept Chicago in front of the hall’s voters every year. It was their first true year of nomination, which is also when they were accepted, that it all came together.
“Those some people in that groundswell, especially the people in radio, really went to bat for us,” Loughnane said. “They had played our records for years, and I think they were pretty angry that we weren’t in there. ‘Are you calling us dumb for playing their records?’ (laughs).
“We also had our fans voting for us online to be inducted. The last time we counted, we had 37 million-plus votes, which was about 12 million more than the next inductee to us. The band was very excited once we found out that we got it.”
Loughnane said the whole hall of fame process was a lot of fun, but it had a different feel than past honors.
“Most awards come and go, and then you have breakfast,” he said. “But the difference was that the show was on HBO for at least a year and it was seen over and over again. So, more and more people are seeing it and it’s giving us a benefit, more than we even imagined.”
A little history
This big honor had its roots in what’s called the summer of love. Chicago formed in 1967 when the band members were college students in the city that gave the band its name. A year after it formed, Chicago moved to Los Angeles. The band released its debut album in 1969, and started a huge run of hit albums and singles. Their best known ’70s songs include “Make Me Smile,” “25 or 6 to 4,” “Beginnings,” “Saturday In the Park” and “Baby, What a Big Surprise.” Loughnane helped write such hits as “Call on Me” and “No Tell Lover.”
The band still had hits into the ’90s, including “Hard Habit to Break,” “You’re the Inspiration” and “I Don’t Wanna Live Without Your Love.”
Even when Chicago was mostly a fixture on classic rock radio instead of the pop charts, the group continued to record and release albums. Along with the founding four members, the group currently features one member from the band’s ’80s heyday (Jason Scheff on bass), two members from the ’90s (drummer Tris Imboden and guitarist Keith Howland) and two from within the last decade (Lou Pardini on keyboards and Walfredo Reyes Jr. on percussion).
In the live shows, Loughnane said the group “starts with the first album and goes right up to the present day. We try to cover as much of our career as we can in two hours or whatever we’re allowed.”
Always on tour
In its official bio, Chicago is proud to state that it has toured every single year it’s been in existence. Loughnane had a simple reason why it doesn’t get to be drudgery.
“The songs have never gotten any easier to play,” he said. “We have to keep ourselves in shape musically and physically to be able to withstand it. The hardest part for me is really the travel, the actual ‘getting there’ and then being away from my family. That’s always been the hardest thing in my career. The actual playing: that’s why we are still around. We still have fun with that.”
The fun — as well as some of the difficulties — are on display in “Now More Than Ever.” Loughnane said the documentary won awards at recent film festivals in Sedona, Arizona, and in Ft. Meyers, Florida, and the band is working on finalizing a deal with Showtime to broadcast the film sometime in the fall.
“To me, the final result came out pretty true-to-life,” Loughnane said of the film. “I think that it really gives the audience the chance to decide what is true or false.
“We just let Peter Pardini, the director, try to get it across for us. We wanted to be as truthful as possible with no leading questions to us. We just let anyone who was involved in our career at the time tell us what they saw. It also reminded me of some things that I didn’t know, because I was drinking and using at the time. Some of what I saw was pretty disconcerting.”
Sober since 1981, Loughnane now gets to clearly see the impact his band has on people over decades. He said that the question of why the band is so enduring, especially on radio, comes up often.
“I don’t know what the answer is,” Loughnane said. “When you first write a song, you’re hoping that someone besides yourself likes it. So, to have these songs endure and to resonate emotionally with people, that’s what has really kept us going. That’s the best way I can explain it: that emotional connection.”