July 21, 2012
By David Huff
Chicago - Dallas, TX
Becoming A Hard Habit To Break
A JAM Magazine Exclusive Interview with Saxophone Player Walt Parazaider
Band Promo Photos Courtesy Chicago's Facebook Page
The numbers speak for themselves. The Chicago Transit Authority, i.e. Chicago, formed in the apartment of college student Walt Parazaider in 1967, is one of the longest, most successful rock groups in music history. Second only to the Beach Boys in hit singles and album chart success among American bands, this 'horny' rock and roll band charted more singles in the '70s than any of their contemporaries during that time. Considering how legendary that era of music was in the annals of rock, Chicago's accomplishments were simply extraordinary by any standards. To date, they have sold over 38 million albums worldwide that includes a dazzling library of 22 gold albums, 18 platinum discs and eight multi-platinum recordings. The group has also notched five No. 1 albums and charted 21 Top Ten singles. In a word, Chicago's success the past 45 years has been nothing short of breathtaking.
The framework of Chicago was initially formed around Parazaider, guitarist Terry Kath, drummer Danny Seraphine, trombonist James Pankow, trumpet player Lee Loughnane, keyboardist Robert Lamm and bassist Peter Cetera. Today, the horns still remain as does the "Saturday in the Park" songwriter Lamm. Terry Kath died in 1978 from an accidental gunshot. After the untimely death of Kath, Chicago went through a three-year transition period that saw producer David Foster introduced to the band, a new management team put in place, and R&B singer Bill Champlin added to the band. The moves, which also included the band forming their own label in conjunction with Warner Bros., not only shifted the group's sound toward a more commercial bent, it literally turned them into superstars once again. Unfortunately, success would cost them dearly. Peter Cetera, who thought his career would best be served as a solo artist, left the band in 1985. For reasons still not clear today, Seraphine was voted out of the band in 1990.
The past aside, today Chicago is more than just a core group of survivors. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame may not think this iconic group with timeless music is worthy of admission, but that ignorance is their loss. When you can still fill major halls and amphitheaters after 45 years on the road, that vote of confidence by the public can't be ignored, no matter how you count the ballots. No matter how you look at it, this highly regarded musical institution really has become a 'hard habit to break'.
JAM: I was interviewing this young rock band the other day, and I said to them, "I've been observing and writing about the music business for 33 years." Now here I am speaking with you, the guy who formed Chicago in 1967. Today, you are on tour performing for not one, not two, but starting your third generation of audiences. It takes my breath away whenever I think about the incredible longevity of your group. Does it you sometimes?
Walt Parazaider - Every once in a while, you sit back from painting the picture, look at it and go, "Whew, what a wonderful thing we have been allowed to do." My father was a 6-6' trumpet player. He told me one time that if you're complaining about having a gig for any length of time, I'm going to take you to doctor and have your head examined. My wife says the same thing. She's put up with me for 45 years. When I'm grumbling a little bit about the band, she stops me and says, "Be grateful!" To me, Chicago is sort of an anomaly, and a phenomena, we've been able to continue year after year. For us to still be able to go out and express ourselves and make people happy with the music we play, it really is remarkable.
JAM: It must be nice to know the music you created really does span generations.
When you see a person put their arm around their girlfriend or wife, and you know they are thinking about a time in their life when the song we're playing meant a lot to them, that's special. The payoff every time is the smiles we see in the crowd. I have to tell you, for me, Chicago is an amazing feat we've been able perpetuate over an amazing span of time. We work hard, we love what we do, and most of all we enjoy one another's company. The four original members out of the six still in the band - Robert Lamm, Lee Loughlane, Jimmy Pankow and myself - you know, it's a family. Sometimes we fight, but most of the times we all agree we have this great love for music, and love what we do. There isn't a day that doesn't go by where I don't say, "Thank You!"
JAM: It is remarkable who well the band has adapted to all the format changes in the music business throughout your history. I'm curious, did your children, or even the grandkids, come in handy when the Internet age revolutionized the music business since they literally grew up in it?
Well, it's funny thing when you are talking about the Internet. We have a pretty good online presence with our website. With the advent of the Internet, it's another way for us to express ourselves. It's a great way for us to test out new music. We're getting ready to do a compilation Christmas album of the different Christmas songs we've done over the years. It is a changing world, and I'm not going to tell you I'm the genius with a computer. I had a techno phobia until my wife backed me into a corner and forced me into getting an iPhone. My children grew up with what's going on.
JAM: So has this new frontier the music business was dragged into been rewarding?
I can sum that question up this way. A few years back, we were playing in New Jersey before about 20,000. I saw a kid in the audience that couldn't have been more than 15 years old. We were playing, "Does Anybody Know What Time It Is?" Now if we do the math on this young man, I think we can go back the three generations you were talking about. I just had to know why he was there. After the song, I walked to the front of the stage and said, "Hey dude!" He came over to me and said, "What?" I go, "How do you know this music?" I mean, his parents may not have even been a twinkle in their parent's eyes when we wrote that song. He goes, "Well, my parents listened to the music, and I had an older brother who turned me on to you. I checked it out on YouTube and I really like your older stuff." That about says it all! I'm not here to judge what others have done, but to have survived all the trends we have, it comes down to this. Good music is simply, good music and it talks to people no matter how old they are.
JAM: For bands of your stature, and I think this is especially poignant in today's unsettling world of music, there comes a point in a band's career where protecting the brilliant portions of their recording career is more important than creating new music. At any point in the past, has the band ever grudgingly felt that way, perhaps on the Chicago 30 and 32 albums, or did if fire you up instead to prove critics wrong?
With all the hits we've been fortunate to make, I'd have to be pretty cavalier to say, "you know what, I want another ten hit records!' We have never approached songwriting that way. This band was scared stiff with every album we made. We thought, "Let's try and make some music that we believe in, we want to put on record, and most importantly, enjoy playing for people." Personally, I'm happy when an established artist has a hit long after it was thought they had run out of steam. With 30 and 32, in my opinion, those albums were hits in my eyes. It didn't have to register on the charts because at that time, that was the best music written by Chicago, and our best performances. That has been the philosophy of the band after every single album, no matter what point of our career we were in at the time of the release. There are two things this group works really hard on - performance and the music we create. If we felt that either one of those elements were evening themselves out, or leveling off, we'd step back and reassess what we are doing.
JAM: The sad thing Walt is this. Even if Chicago really nailed it with an album and you delivered something positively adult and wonderful, is anyone going to care these days? The Internet has opened up many portals for people to obtain music. Today it's a real fight out there for bands to be heard. That's a new reality as a journalist I'm still having trouble coming to grips with today.
I think you're right. There's a lot of music out there, some of it good, a lot of it bad. Back in days of The Beatles, you had music that 90 percent of it wasn't so hot, and ten percent that was really great. Today, I thoroughly believe there is room out there for good music. As far as how it gets delivered, that's another story. If you speak to record company executives or social media people, the music business is in a state of flux.
JAM: Back in the days when Chicago compiled five No. 1 albums, 21 top Ten Singles and 25 platinum albums, record companies cared about the music and nurturing artists for a long term career. Today, artist development has literally been replaced with YouTube development. You have been an observer and participant in this business for over 50 years. How do you assess the overall industry?
I saw it starting to turn into and entirely different direction around the turn of the millennium. Here's the thing. When we started out at Columbia in the late '60s, they had Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel and Janis Joplin. Now those artists might not sell a ton of albums every time they put out a record, but the executives stood behind the artists and the people in the field believed in them as well. As time went by, and I'd say this was around the time Madonna hit, all the sudden record company attitudes changed. When some type of hot music trend hit, labels had scouts scouring the country looking for performers to plug into that next big thing. Basically, record companies would throw ten artists against the wall. If one stuck, that's the artist they'd put their promotion money behind. The other nine were swept out the door. We saw that happening and decided to be the masters of our own fate. When we left Columbia, Chicago started its own record company. We thought if a label showed an artist the door, we'd see if there was something we could do with them. Turns out we were successful doing that. Label executives would say we must have a tremendous staff working these artists. The truth was, we had a guy manning the phones, taking orders and that was it. That's how we sold the stuff. That system made labels nervous, because our success showed other groups there was another way. Suddenly, you had artists insist they should own their own products. Labels, however, resisted and stuck to the old ways. It was nearly their undoing. Last week, I saw an artist go No. 1 on the charts and they only sold 160,000 units. The next artist sold 60, 000. My point is this. The days where a band went gold or platinum is pretty much over now.
JAM: Walt, there is something to be said about music that doesn't have a visual component to sell the goods. It allows the listener to create their own scenario with the music, whereas visual tends to dictate. Chicago, to me, has always been substance over matter. Has that been the glue that's kept the band viable over the decades?
I think so. Great music wins out every time, I don't care when it was written. Listening to music on a record is still an experience to a lot of people. You have to be adaptable in this business. We had our greatest success as a band selling records during the '80s because we were willing to change. We even did videos when MTV hit. But here was the thing back then. Many acts became video stars with one catchy song. They disappeared because they didn't have the music in them to sustain a long-term career.
JAM: People are attending your shows with the Doobie Brothers not to look forward, Walt, but back to a time in their minds when they were thin, the skin was smooth and their hopes and dreams were alive. Do you fully understand how important it is for Chicago to still be out there doing what it does today?
Yes I do. From the Internet messages we receive, through letters that I get, people we meet at shows, I know how important this band is to people. We often hear how our music helped get them through the worst part of their lives with our seventh album, or the fourth, you name it. The late Dick Clark said it best. Music is really the soundtrack to our lives. Chicago is perpetuating that soundtrack, and like I said earlier, it's become a way of life for us. We started out as kids, and we are going to finish this going out kicking and screaming into the night with the greatest blasts of music we can.
JAM: This is kind of a loaded question, but do the members of Chicago need to age better than its audience does. If you succumb to old age, that means they have too. I would think it's quite a responsibility to know you're the best hope of keeping who they once were alive.
Well, I don't think that is a loaded question. You just made a statement that has quite a bit if truth written into it. I'll tell you very frankly, I'm 67 years old. My dad was 89 when he laid the horn down because he couldn't play gigs any more. He continued to perform for his own enjoyment until he passed at 91. Truth be told, we are kids at heart. No one is being rolled out onto the stage. We aren't moving slowly around on gold-plated walkers. I like the fact we're playing, as you said, for our third generation. It makes us feel good that young people appreciate our music and performances. We are out there giving 110 percent and having a great time doing it. That's the way we've played our shows for 45 years. If we can keep the hope alive for those people in the audience to be young for those two hours, fantastic! I want people in our audience to plug into us and go back in time. I want our audience to retain the emotions they go through watching us so they'll come back and see us again when we come through. Then we'll give them another shot of our music and the positive energy we have.
JAM: I think Jimmy Buffett has got it right with his golden rule of always performing his "Big 8", when on tour. If you're going to play year after year at this stage of the game, there are certain numbers you should not leave out. Do you understand his philosophy?
Yes I do, I really do. There are certain Chicago songs people want to hear that if we didn't play them, we would get tar and feathered. Those particular tunes will always be incorporated into the show. There will also be other things during our two hours on stage that might not be as recognizable, but will be enjoyable to listen to. We know people pay good money to hear certain songs. Along the way, we like to give them a musical education - the Chicago way - on other songs we feel deserve their attention as well. It's a win / win situation all the way around.
JAM: Here's one thing about successful groups I have yet to understand, even to this day. What is that gnaws at singers where they feels this incessant urge to walk away from a situation they were instrumental in building? It never works out in the end. Nothing against Pete Cetera, but you're here playing amphitheaters, and I have no clue where he is today. Have you ever really figured out what was bothering Pete so much that he had to walk away from Chicago?
To be candid with you Dave, I really don't think Pete was happy in the band. Whether you have a group of people you are playing cards with, or even softball, in our case it was music. I don't want to keep somebody in a band that's unhappy. He wanted to go out on his own and try and have success. We all figured why have a person who is going to be, and this is not on purpose, but who is going to be a negative force. He just didn't want to be part of Chicago anymore. I wondered about his decision because it didn't make any Midwestern sense. It was a real puzzlement at the time because the whole unit worked so well together. Pete's a fine singer, and in that sense, I can see him wanting to try something different. The thing is he wasn't inhibited by us from doing a solo record.
JAM: I believe selling 10 million albums in three years went to his head. I also think Pete felt the rest of the band was weighing him down.
All of us had done something outside the band. In my case and the horns, we had done things for Elton John and Barry Gordy's Motown acts over the years. Nothing stopped us from doing activities outside of the band. Exposing ourselves to other types of artists, whether it was R&B or Elton's music for instance, brought that experience back to the band. We'd come back refreshed with a new attitude toward music. Even Robert recorded some solo albums. Here's the thing. We all made a pact when we started Chicago. As long as you made the band priority, go ahead and do whatever extra curricular activity you want.
JAM: Chicago has been very careful to preserve the integrity of the name and its music. No ex-members are running about touring under a pseudo-Chicago banner. What measures have you taken to preserve peace in the valley in that regards so no splinter factions could occur?
You should also add what has the band done to make sure the logo stayed intact as well.
JAM: I'm talking more about making sure a Beach Boys situation never occurred.
I have to tell you there are groups in Europe - I don't want to mention names - that are dealing with that stuff right now. These are big groups that have splintered off into different factions where maybe a name member has gone in one direction from the main body. There are even groups touring today that don't even have any of the original members performing with them. Very honestly, the situation has happened to us. We had to send out a cease and desist order.
JAM: You did a good job of keeping in quiet, because I never heard one word of a splinter Chicago band.
Well, we don't ever talk about it. We've also had to keep an eye on our logo. It has been infringed upon. There was a nationwide pizza operation that tried to use it. There have been other attempts of people trying to use the Chicago logo. The four of us own the logo and the music. For lack of a better word, we are responsible for the integrity of what that logo stands for, which is substance and music. I also might add that Chicago is a band that is not known for throwing televisions out of windows, heaving furniture threw glass windows, or destroyed bars in hotels. We have always been known as a group that made really good music. We showed up on time, played and made people happy. We are very diligent about protecting what is ours, and we have a staff to deal with the problems when the need arises.
JAM: By the way, the labeling Chicago albums by numbers. Did it just morph into its own thing after awhile or was it a strategic marketing move on the band's part?
It was me having the classical degree, so I went for the numbering of the albums. We started doing it right off the bat. Someone in the band once said wouldn't it be cool if we are lucky enough to have a career with ten albums. As you mentioned earlier, our albums number in the 30's now. Chicago's recordings are numbered the same was symphonies are. Beethoven has his 5th Symphony, 9th, you name it. With us, we took a more classical approach to basically chronicle how we progressed from one album to the next.
JAM: It's almost like all your albums are a series of movements?
Yes. You know, we have talked about our albums appearing that way as well. In a sense, this band's music is a constant a work in progress.
JAM: Over the years, I have grown increasingly wary of bands and artists that get them selves involved with politics. I've also gotten really pissed off at the musicians who just have to tell the world what their sexual orientation is. When I look at Chicago, your group is the standard bearer of class because you let your music, and charitable work, do all the talking for you. That's one of the reasons I respect you all so much.
Well, I have to thank you for that remark. Obviously everyone is entitled to their opinion. When and where they choose to share those viewpoints is often a sticky subject. If you want to talk about the golden flute or clarinet I played with the Chicago Symphony, I'd be happy to talk with you about that. If you and I were just sitting somewhere over a beer talking, we might get into politics. I don't think I have the right, or the knowledge like all these talking heads on television think they do, to discuss it in public. If people believe all the stuff political analysts talk about, we should all probably start digging a six-foot hole to jump in. Personally, I think musicians should be musicians and leave it at that. If they want to put their views in their music, then that freedom of speech is a great thing. We have always considered ourselves to be musicians first and foremost.
JAM: I really like the audience participation of your show when you do the song "If You Leave Me Now." You actually have a real member from the crowd come up and sing the entire song. When did you introduce that segment into your show and why?
That came about three years ago when we were approached by the American Cancer Society. They had a theme for cancer awareness called "More Birthdays." They wanted to create a world with less cancer and more birthdays. We can all tell stories about loved one's we lost to cancer. My wife's mother and my mom had breast cancer. Getting involved was sort of a no-brainer. The ACS had created this website to give them an online presence, and we suggested people sign up and bid on their site to sing that song with us on stage. All the money raised went to cancer research. The success of the promotion far exceeded our wildest dreams. For instance, I guy is coming to sing at our Los Angeles show after submitting a winning bid of $50,000. Another person went door-to-door in North Carolina collecting money so he could sing with us on stage. He raised thousands. As of now, this particular segment of our show has raised well into the seven figures for the American Cancer Society. The program is near and dear to our heart. No pun intended, but we don't want to blow our own horns on how successful this has been.
JAM: Giving back really does mean a lot to this band.
Yes it does. We owe a debt of gratitude to people like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, who take a chance by taking us on the road with them when we first started out. Our motto since that time has been to pay it forward.
JAM: Most charity work is personal. I noticed that Chicago is involved with the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation as well as Hannah & Friends. Can you tell me how and why the band chose those two distinct organizations?
Our manager, Peter Schivarelli, went to school at Notre Dame. He was also on the football team and played for Ara. Until recently, Charlie Weiss was their football coach. Hannah & Friends is Charlie's foundation. Peter approached the band with an idea to participate in those charities. In fact, Notre Dame is doing research today on the Niemann-Pick Type C disease. (All three of Parsegian's grandchildren have the rare disorder.) We were asked by Pete if we'd be interested in helping out. How could we say no to two great ideas?