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Horn Band Extraordinaire
Filmmakers, fans and entertainers team up to honor rock supergroup Chicago in new documentary
By Amy Steelman-Angeli
(more articles from this author)
2003-07-24
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I love horn bands. Whether it's the soulful sound of Earth, Wind and Fire - or the shuffly boogaloo beat of Average White Band, brass and woodwinds energize the rhythm section with a power that takes rock music to some outer ethereal level.

Sure, the drums and bass create the all important groove, but in my mind little compares to the perfection of the horn section blasting away with a three-part power chord or punctuating the melody line with some fine staccato accents.

Horns have played an important role in backing many vocal artists throughout rock’s rich history. In fact, Hall of Famer Phil Spector relied heavily on a handpicked horn section to anchor his legendary ”Wall of Sound,” a phenomenon that became the signature for acts like the Righteous Brothers. But it wasn’t until the late ‘60s, with the emergence of groups like Blood, Sweat and Tears, that the horn section came into its own as an integral part of the rock and roll ”combo.”

During the early 1970's dozens of horn bands were formed, many were recorded and some even managed to reach the stage. A few, like Randy and Michael Brecker’s Dreams, were touted as jazz-fusion, but most fell under the new heading of “funk,” a fresh groove that gave birth to the Gap Band, Ohio Players, Kool and the Gang and others.

But for them, life in the limelight was short. Most horn bands went the disco route, a direction misguided. And like the mighty dinosaurs that once ruled our tiny planet, horn bands were finally wiped out by their own giant cataclysm in techno-pop.

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Incredibly, one horn band managed to survive the ‘80s apocalypse -- the legendary Chicago. Formed in the Windy City in 1967, the band offered a sound all its own, a sound that was largely carried by its horn section. They ruled the ‘70s airwaves with tunes like ”Saturday In The Park,” “Wishing You Were Here” and the list goes on and on It was the seduction of the horn section that led many young women, including myself, to surrender their virginity.

Most of Chicago’s early contributions featured the voices of Robert Lamm, Terry Kath and Peter Cetera, but it was the horn trio of Parazaider, Pankow and Loughnane that defined Chicago’s unique persona. With a heavy touring schedule, they remained in the mainstream, and thanks to some well planned collaborations, Chicago weathered the synth storm.

Then, in 1985, the magnificent seven once again rose to the top of the charts with their comeback CD, Chicago-17. With music icon David Foster behind the glass, Chicago “fostered” a fresh sound and brought to the forefront their newest member, Bill Champlin, along with his legendary vocal style. The combination truly redefined Chicago.

But on the heels of 17's success came a major dilemma. Front man Cetera, whose signature alto dominated Chicago 16 and 17, walked away from a sure thing, choosing to go his own as a solo artist. Many believed that Chicago’s reign as horn band extraordinaire had ended. Like Journey without Perry, how could Chicago “Stay the Night” without PC?

Band and management had to respond quickly. They were due in the studio to begin recording Chicago-18, and desperately needed someone to fill Cetera’s shoes. Not an easy feat, considering the band’s bassist boasted a vocal range that few other rockers could match.

In walked the curly-haired kid -- Jason Scheff, with a style and a flair that kicked ass. Scheff energized the band with new karma, man! I was lucky enough to catch him during one of his first performances, at Philadelphia’s Spectrum, a few days after Robert’s daughter was born. And in my book, it remains one of Chicago’s best live shows.

Fast forward to 2003, the year following the band's third successful comeback tour, Chicago plans to treat their fans once again as they visit dozens of venues this summer -- their 36th touring season. Last year, the group, revitalized by a new distribution deal with music giant Rhino Records, was applauded and recognized by its peers in a special commemorative edition of Billboard Magazine.

With Rhino’s release of the CD set, “Only The Beginning”, the rockers also saw heavy air play. Not on radio - but television, with a half dozen national and international appearances, including their highly acclaimed two hour special “A&E Live By Request.” The timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

The current lineup includes founders Robert Lamm (keyboards, vocals), Walter Parazaider (woodwinds), Lee Loughnane (trumpet, flugelhorn, vocals) and Jimmy Pankow (trombone, percussion), whose onstage hip gyrations rival even the King, himself.

The band evolved from Chicago to CHICAGO, with the addition of Tris Imboden (drums) and Keith Howland, (guitar). With these two talented newbies, they became a powerhouse of sound and “tight” became the most often used description in the venue parking lot after each show.

Some pundits - and we know you both - argue that the band no longer has relevance. “Why aren’t they recording new material?” is the rant heard from time to time on the band’s busy website. What if Terry lived? What if Jimmy continued writing?

This team is legendary, and is supported by fans, who are diehard to say the least. And it is through the fans, themselves, that this story is told. Who better, since Chicago’s music means different things to different people? Their music has left its mark on millions of fans worldwide. If the band only knew how many times they’ve broken open a keg at a frat party, walked the bride down the aisle, danced with prettiest girl at the prom and healed our hearts during bad times, then they might begin to understand why their fans adore them so much.

There’s no better way to stroll from 1967 into the present day than through Chicago’s music, and the band continues to colour our world with hope, especially in light of recent world events.

It’s this ongoing love affair with eight multi-talented performers, their instruments and extraordinary magnetism, that drew me to them, and made me want to give back, through my art, a documentary as powerful, honest and entertaining, as their music. It’s time for all of us to stand up, let them take a seat, and just relax and enjoy. Chicago Tribute


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