In 1967, after The Beatles released Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, groups all over the world began to see musical possibilities not considered before. Soon new genres like heavy metal, progressive, and punk, began joining the more familiar rockabilly, blues, soul and pop music scene, which had dominated early rock and roll. From within this soup of ideas, a seven-piece band emerged in Chicago. Initially called The Big Thing, they soon changed their name to The Chicago Transit Authority, and eventually it was shortened to just Chicago. While bands like The Beatles, and Moody Blues, and American composers like Phil Spector, had used orchestras, including horn sections, in the studio to bring their music to life on vinyl, there weren’t many bands that began with the horn section as an integral part of their sound. Lee Loughnane on trumpet, James Pankow on trombone, Walter Parazaider on woodwinds, along with Peter Cetera Robert Lamm, Danny Seraphine and the extraordinary guitar player, Terry Kath, created a band with a totally new, yet distinctly American sound, that would soon be pumping out hits at a rate not seen since the Beach Boys in the decade before them.
In 1978, tragedy struck, when Terry Kath passed away at the age of 31 from an accidental gunshot wound. The band contemplated retirement, but soon decided to continue. For the next 18 years, attempting to replace Kath, the band utilized a variety of guitar players before finally hiring Keith Howland in 1995.
Howland says, “I was kicking around LA looking for a gig, and had basically called everyone I knew in the music industry trying to find one.
Then, one morning, I got a phone call from a buddy of mine, Dave Friedman (Friedman Amplification), who said, hey man; Chicago is auditioning guitar players if you want to try to get in?” While Keith didn’t know anyone in the Chicago organization, he decided to throw his equipment in his car and take a ride down to the tryout. Though he did not play that day, he did meet the bands' bass player. Howland Continues, “I talked to Jason Scheff, and he talked the guys into adding an extra day to listen to me, and the rest is history!” However, it wasn’t just a guitar gig; he had to sing as well. Though his speaking voice is in the lower tenor, baritone range, his vocals with the band tend to be in the higher tenor ranges. When this was pointed out, he laughed, and said, “Well, the older I get, the less that becomes the case, but that was the gig.” Before that he had toured with Rick Springfield and never sang a note. In his college bands, he sang songs from guys like Billy Idol, and ironically, a cover of the Chicago hit, Beginnings. Still laughing, he adds, “But you know what? The job called for tenor, so I just, you know, pulled up my jock strap and went for it. The guy before me Dwayne Baily, had a really high, pure tenor, and they wanted to replace that. So whatever I had to do, falsetto, a pair of pliers, whatever they wanted!”
While not necessarily being known as a vocal heavy band like say, Queen, Chicago, nevertheless, does challenge the listener with a wide array of different, and interesting, styles and harmonies. In their early years, the band featured the voices of high end tenor, Peter Cetera (25 or 6 to 4), the more soulful Terry Kath (Colour My World), and Robert Lamm (Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is). Agreeing, Howland say's, “Oh absolutely. The stuff, especially during the David Foster era, and after Bill Champlin kind of got into the thing. If you listen to some of the backgrounds, like on You’re The Inspiration, A Hard Habit To Break, or If She Would Have Been Faithful, that one has some really interesting background harmony stuff.” Beyond the vocals, Chicago is probably best known for their sterling orchestration. You only need to listen to the classically influenced introduction to the bands first ever single, Questions 67 And 68, to realize there was something special happening in the windy city. That type of sound would eventually become associated with European progrock bands, but when it was released in July 1969, just one month before Woodstock, it was uniquely American.
After hunkering down for the pandemic, and like most of us, watching a lot of Hulu, Howland is glad the band is finally back on the road. He says, “I’ve been touring for about 30 years, and that was definitely the longest I’ve ever been at home.” While he may have lost his calluses waiting out Covid, the band kept busy working on new material. He says, “there is a new record in the works. There are some tunes from 20 years ago, that guys sort of had laying around, never quite completed, and Robert Lamm wrote a bunch of new material with Jim Peterick from Ides Of March, and Survivor. So yeah, right now there are like 20 songs that are completed, or almost completed that's included on this thing." Continuing, he says, "I don’t even know at this point if it’s going to be an album, a double album, two albums. My guess is it’ll be out sometime in the spring of 2022."
About being back on tour again, he said, “After this pandemic shutdown, for the doors to fly back open and see, like our show in Atlanta, eight or nine thousand people returning to see the band, it’s a very emotional experience for all of us.” As an example, he added, “We were doing a song in the encore called Free, and the hook in the song is, I just want to be free, and the pandemic took that away from us. We were playing it, and I started actually getting a little choked up singing that line in front of the crowd, and seeing them react. So yeah, it’s like they say, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. We’re just happy to be able to do what we do for a living, and continue putting smiles of peoples faces.
Chicago’s tour will bring them to the Venetian Theater in Las Vegas for three nights, September 15th, 17th, and 18th. Additionally, on the 18th, the band will be hosting their fan club, so if you want to meet Keith, or any of the other extraordinary musicians, get your tickets soon.