They made music history by blaring their signature horns over classic rock ‘n roll.
This Friday, Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Chicago will perform at MGM National Harbor.
“It’s Chicago and their greatest hits,” the band’s guitarist, Keith Howland, told WTOP. “It’s over two hours of music with a 20-minute intermission, so we’re hitting pretty much every nail on the head.”
Born in Silver Spring, Maryland, in 1964, Howland grew up visiting Wheaton Music Center and Chuck Levin’s Washington Music Center, all while listening to Chicago’s music.
“My brother was taking drum lessons at Wheaton Music and his drum instructor sent him home with transcriptions of Danny Seraphine’s ‘Chicago II,'” Howland said. “He brought that record home and we sat in his bedroom … He had the four speakers, quadraphonic like surround sound, just sat in the middle of the room and we were blown away. We had never heard anything like it.”
Thus, he became a lifelong fan of Chicago, not knowing he would later join the band.
“Our parents started facilitating us going to Chicago concerts,” Howland said. “My first Chicago concert was 1975 at the Capitals Center in D.C. … My first year with the band in ’95, we played Merriweather Post Pavilion. That was a trip to come full circle … with my family in the audience, taking the stage with the band that I grew up going to see at the very same venue.”
Chicago officially formed in the Windy City in 1967, as an offshoot of an existing band with Terry Kath, Danny Seraphine and Walt Parazaider, who performed with Dick Clark.
“Walt decided it would be a good idea to put together a rock ‘n roll band with horns,” Howland said. “Terry Kath was playing bass but switched over to guitar. Walt recruited Jimmy Pankow and Lee Loughnane from DePaul [University] to form the horn section … Peter Cetera came in late in the game. Robert Lamm came in with a notebook of song lyrics … Originally, it was the six guys.”
They originally played supper clubs around Chicago as a well-dressed cover band.
“They were wearing suits and ties, doing choreographed dance moves and playing Motown,” Howland said. “The club owners would say, ‘You can’t play your original music.’ … They all dropped acid and listened to [The Beatles’] ‘Sgt. Peppers,’ and the very next day they declared, ‘Forget this, we’re not doing cover tunes anymore, we’re going to do our own thing.'”
It was a real turning point in the band’s history.
“Terry Kath literally ripped his suit off on stage, as legend has it, and did the entire night of nothing but original material,” Howland said. “The club owner tried to shut them down. Robert Lamm dove off the stage, jumped on the guy and started a fist fight. Of course, they were fired, but at that point they went forward as ‘We’re a legitimate, original music rock band and that’s all we’re gonna do.'”
Soon, they were discovered by producer Jim Guercio, who brought them to L.A.
“They started playing The Whiskey every week, building a following, then Jimi Hendrix came in, heard them and invited them to come on the road,” Howland said. “That was the big exposure moment. I don’t think they had even released their first album … In the really early days, Chicago was considered underground prog-rock. They were edgy, political, proggy, not mainstream.”
Their first album, originally titled “Chicago Transit Authority” (1969), featured a hit song with a unique swing vibe: “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”
“That is literally the very first song that the band recorded in the studio,” Howland said. “These guys were basically just kids, teenagers … They were like deer in the headlights. It was all new to them. They were in the city, they’d never been in a studio, the red light came on … That song, we play it every night, I’ve probably played it 2,500 times now or more, and it never gets old.”
Their second album, “Chicago II” (1970), included the catchy, enigmatic “25 or 6 to 4.”
“Robert Lamm was sitting in his apartment in New York City trying to write a song,” Howland said. “He was ‘Waiting for the break of day, searching for something to say, flashing lights against the sky, giving up I close my eyes. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, 25 or 6 minutes to 4 in the morning.’ It’s a song about writing a song, it’s getting really late and he feels like he’s stuck.”
In 1972, they found another hit with the bouncy “Saturday in the Park.”
“Robert had a knack for coming up with hooky [songs],” Howland said. “I’ve always told him, ‘You do your best work when you just sit down at a piano.’ … That’s the way ‘Saturday’ was. He had a little room where he wrote and sat down at a piano with a tape recorder and that riff came out … He was still living in New York looking out his window at Central Park and out came that song.”
In 1982, the band shifted gears to ballads with the apology song “Hard to Say I’m Sorry.”
“That was a Cetera-David Foster thing,” Howland said. “That was the song literally that put essentially another era onto the career of Chicago. The band suffered Terry Kath’s death in 1978 … In 1981, enter David Foster … They went in the studio, him and Cetera hit it off, they wrote that song, that became a No. 1 single and launched the ’80s era of Chicago.”
In 1984, they landed another hit with the pop love song “You’re the Inspiration” (1984).
“Peter and David Foster said, ‘Do you want to try to write a tune for Kenny Rogers’ new record?’ They went into the studio and wrote ‘You’re the Inspiration,’ Cetera sang it and they sent it to Kenny Rogers, who declined to record the song,” Howland said. “Basically what’s on the record is essentially the demo they cut to present to Kenny Rogers … It wound up being a huge hit.”
After Cetera left the band for a solo career, they promoted bassist Jason Scheff to lead singer for their album “Chicago 18” (1986), including the No. 3 hit song “Will You Still Love Me?”
“That was the first hit post-Peter Cetera,” Howland said. “Peter Cetera was over doing his first solo album. According to Jason, David Foster got ahold of a rough mix of ‘Glory of Love,’ which was gonna be Cetera’s first single. He came into the studio, played it for the guys and said, ‘This is what we’ve gotta beat.’ They looked at each other and went, ‘Whoa.’ … Both songs were huge.”
After that, Scheff carried the band on lead vocals into the future.
“I remember when Cetera left, I was like, ‘Oh boy, this is huge,'” Howland said. “I was living in Richmond, Virginia. I went out and bought ‘Chicago 18’ on vinyl and brought it home. I put the record on and the first song was ‘Niagara Falls.’ I heard Jason’s voice and he had this very high tenor voice and I went, ‘Wow, I think they’re gonna be OK. Sounds like they found a guy.'”
Howland’s dream came true when he joined the band in 1995.
“I was living in L.A. and I’d done a year with Rick Springfield,” Howland said. “I started making phone calls. One was to a friend named Dave Friedman, who was an amplifier repair guy. His shop was inside a rehearsal studio in North Hollywood … A month later he said, ‘Chicago is down here auditioning guitar players today.’ … I threw all of my gear in my car and drove down.”
In 2016, Chicago was officially inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but sadly, Howland didn’t get to join them despite having played with them for 21 years at that point.
“That’s always been a bone of contention with a lot of bands going into the Rock Hall,” Howland said. “Even Jason Scheff who was with the group for 30 years and had several hit songs wasn’t inducted,” Howland said. “They’re very much about the original band.”