Chicago’s James Pankow on Recording With Jimi Hendrix, Partying with Janis Joplin & Hitting a Major Milestone: ‘We’re Going to Do This as Long as We Can’

Chicago’s James Pankow on Recording With Jimi Hendrix, Partying with Janis Joplin & Hitting a Major Milestone: ‘We’re Going to Do This as Long as We Can’

It’s an incredible accomplishment: Since its inception in 1967, Chicago has never missed a year of touring. Even during the pandemic, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees played dates in 2020 before the shutdown, and then was one of the first acts back on the road in 2021. 

“It was eternity, not being able to work for a year and a half,” says James Pankow, the band’s trombonist and one of the three founding members — along with keyboardist/singer Robert Lamm and trumpeter Lee Loughnane — still with the band. “So here we are. This is our 57th year and, gosh, it just keeps getting better. I have to pinch myself because this phenomenon is never ending. And, man, we’re going to do this as long as we can.”

Earlier this week, the band hit another milestone: on Wednesday (March 6), Chicago played its 50th show at Las Vegas’ Venetian Theater, the first act to reach that landmark. The 1,815-seat venue at the Venetian allows fans to see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band in a much smaller setting than its other 80-to-90 annual shows. 

There’s a reason Chicago is still filling seats more than a half century after its inception in its namesake city: It is one of the most successful rock acts in history, landing albums on the top 40 of the Billboard 200 album chart for six successive decades and releasing such pop-rock classics as “Saturday in the Park,” “Make Me Smile,” “Just You & Me,” “If You Leave Me Now” and “Wishing You Were Here.”  On Billboard’s charts-determined 2019 list of the Greatest of All Time Artists, Chicago ranked as the third-highest band, behind only The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and 10th on the list overall.

In a wide-ranging conversation, an animated Pankow, 76, talks about the future of the band and why he still delights in taking the stage every night, while also looking back at bringing down the house (literally) with the Beach Boys, earning Janis Joplin’s respect and opening for (but never recording with) Jimi Hendrix.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

When I saw you at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles last summer, it seemed like the band was having the time of its life and the energy was outrageous. It feels like a good time in the life of Chicago. 

The current lineup, in my opinion, is the strongest lineup in the history of the band. The band is firing on all cylinders. There’s no weak spots in the personnel. We have trimmed the fat and we are just slamming. Being on stage with my fellow bandmates is a joy every night that I will never tire of. Who would have thought more than a half century later that it’s still an amazing experience? More amazing than ever.

On Wednesday, you celebrated your 50th performance at Las Vegas’s Venetian Theatre. What do you like about playing there? 

The sound in that room, which I particularly appreciate, is amazing. There’s not a bad seat in the house in terms of hearing every note in the music. We play arenas. We do the Forum in L.A., Madison Square Garden — those are created for sporting events, and the acoustics leave a lot to be desired. The intimacy of the Venetian Theatre, you hear everything. And when people come to hear Chicago, they come to experience the real deal. There’s no smoke and mirrors. This is live. They are actually seeing and hearing the band recreate this music completely live. And we do it very well, if I may say so.

The current run at the Venetian ends March 9. Will you be back in 2025?

I hope so. We love this gig. 

You’re playing very complicated, sophisticated music. When’s the last time you remember one of you getting lost on stage? 

Everybody has a moment. We’re human. If somebody flubs, you’re right there to watch his back. I remember one night the horn section opened the show with an a cappella horn thing, and I went completely blank. I got on stage and I started blowing notes that had nothing to do with the piece. They were wrong notes. They were hideous. I stopped playing and I went up to the mic and I said, “I blew it!” The comic relief took a million pounds off my back. The audience loved it. But that’s what live is. Stuff happens.

You travel by bus now, instead of flying, but those days of chartering a plane in the ‘70s and ‘80s must have been pretty sweet. 

For many years, we leased an airplane. We had a logo on the tail. That was an amazing experience. It spoiled us. You leave the show, you get on your jet and you’re in the next city before last call. It wasn’t a four or five-hour bus ride, it was an hour flight. It was the golden age. We were as excessive as everybody [Laughs].

It was a little difficult getting used to ground transport after chartering for so many years. Then the cost of aviation fuel went through the roof and it just wasn’t practical anymore and so we had to go to buses… We’re a lot more frugal. We have our eye on the bottom line. I want to go home with some money in my pocket.  

You’re headed out with Earth Wind & Fire this summer for the sixth time. What’s your favorite Earth Wind & Fire song?

I love so many of them. “September” has always been one that I love to play. It’s got a great groove. The horn parts are really fun to play. Their arrangements are really terrific. And then you look around and there’s 20 guys on stage. It is so powerful. I’m a maniac on stage, and usually I end up next to [EW&F high-energy bassist] Verdine [White] in the finale, and the two of us are trying to stay out of each other’s way because it’s nonstop. It’s pretty funny, we have had moments of near collision. My horn has had to go into the shop a couple of times after banging into the neck of his bass. It’s hand-to-hand combat up there (Laughs)

You’ve had multiple runs with the Beach Boys as well. You must have amazing memories. 

We had some runs with the Beach Boys that were off the map as well. We were doing stadiums. And this is when Peter [Cetera] was still in Chicago and the Beach Boys were fully represented. Dennis [Wilson] and Carl [Wilson] were still alive. Brian [Wilson] was out. Mike Jardine and Mike Love. It was the original lineup of both bands doing both of our biggest hits. I remember being at Angels Stadium, and they had to evacuate the upper deck because they were worried about the concrete cracking because people were going up and down, singing “We’ll have fun, fun, fun…” They had to send a riot squad up there and evacuate it. Those are some other pretty wild experiences we’ve had.

Do you have a favorite era of Chicago? 

Each one is defined in a unique way — you can’t really compare because it’s a completely different time. But the first album will always be the most special to me. I’ll never forget walking into Columbia Recording Studios in New York City, standing in front of a mic and knowing that this is going on tape forever. We were very frightened young men. And that music was the embodiment of the idea of what this band is all about.

When we put this thing together, [founding member/ band saxophonist] Walt Parazaider approached all of us and said, “Hey guys, what do you think about the idea of a rock and roll band with a horn section that’s a lead voice?” How do you create a horn section that is a main character in the music? Not just frosting on the cake and background riffs, like is typical with what horn sections do. We didn’t know if that was going to work or not. But I guess it has, because here we are all these years later!

Chicago opened for Jimi Hendrix after he saw you opening for Albert King at the Whisky a Go-Go on the Sunset Strip. What was that like? 

We had become almost like the new house band at the Whisky and big acts that were going through L.A. would go there on their night off to check out what was going on in the local see what’s the next big thing. We were in the dressing room waiting to go back on stage and we opened the door and here’s this guy standing in the doorway. “Is that?” “Wait a minute. Is that Jimi Hendrix?” And he says, “You guys have a horn session that sounds like one set of lungs and you got a guitar player that’s better than me. You guys want to go on the road with me?” 

And the rest is history. We became his opening act. We got exposure that we never could have had. Hendrix was a God. I remember being on stage at those shows and the audience would be going, “We want Jimi, we want Jimi,” and Walt would go to the mic and say, “Shut the hell up and listen!” [Laughs.]

Is it true you talked about recording together? 

We were talking to Jimi and [Jimi Hendrix Experience members] Noel [Redding] and Mitch [Mitchell] about “Hey man, let’s do an album together.” And Hendrix was all excited.

It’s really quite charming in a way: [original Chicago guitarist/vocalist] Terry Kath and Jimi Hendrix intimidated each other. They both had such high regard for one another that they were nervous around each other. They were never really quite able to compare notes. Eventually, yes, but for much of the tour, they were afraid to approach each other. But then as we worked together more and we got more comfortable with each other, we were talking very seriously about an album project: A mash up with Hendrix and Chicago. And, man, the next thing you know Jimi’s gone, then Terry Kath is gone. I will always wonder what would have resulted had we collaborated. [Hendrix died in 1970 and Kath in 1978].

You also opened for Janis Joplin. Where did you meet her?

We met her at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. We were the opening act for Santana and then Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis. We’re sitting in our dressing room and, out of the blue, Janis Joplin barges into the room. I don’t know why. Maybe she just wanted to get a look at these scraggly looking nobodies.

She proceeds to brush her hair in the full length mirror on the wall. She drops her brush and she looks at us and says, “Pick up my brush, you MFs.” And Walt, all 6’ 2” and a ½ of him gets up off the couch,  walks right over to Janis Joplin and looks right down into her face and says, “Young lady, pick up your own [MF] brush and tell me you’re sorry.” And she was like a little schoolgirl. She bent down and picked up her brush and looked at Walt and said, “I’m sorry,” and walked out of the room sheepishly.

From that moment on, she respected us because everybody else let her get away with abusive behavior, abusive language, and we didn’t tolerate it. She just stuck to us like white on rice. She became dependent upon us to keep her together: “Hey Janis, put the Hennessey down. You’ve got to go to work. Get your butt up on stage.” She would hang in our dressing room, not her own. And she would not go to an aftershow party unless we’re at the table with her. 

If you could put one Chicago song in a time capsule, which one would it be?

“Beginnings” from the first album. It’s one of the songs in the repertoire that I get to stretch out on and solo on. So, I always like that.

You put out a great documentary, 2016’s Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago, but have you thought about writing an autobiography?

We’ve been approached by several writers. If you do a book, you’ve got to tell the whole story. Our manager said, “If you guys told the whole story, you’d all be in prison.” [Laughs.]

I mean, there’s been drugs, alcohol, ex-wives, affairs. All that stuff that’s going on, the seedy underbelly. It’s part of life. And I don’t know if there’s any lifestyle that’s more conducive to being a bad boy than what we do. So, there’s things that you can talk about and things that you cannot talk about. 

You’re down to three founding members on the road since Walt retired from touring in 2017. How many of you would you need to keep touring?

We’re going to do this until we cannot be believable anymore. I don’t want to have to get up on stage with great effort and go through the motions and try hard to do what we do. As long as we can get up there and we can kill it every night, I pray to God that we can do that. At this point there is no end in sight. We’re at the top of our game. I say, “Retire to what?”

The post “Chicago’s James Pankow on Recording With Jimi Hendrix, Partying with Janis Joplin & Hitting a Major Milestone: ‘We’re Going to Do This as Long as We Can’” by Melinda Newman was published on 03/08/2024 by