Hi, my name is Keith Howland and I’ve been the guitar player with Chicago for over 23 years. Hard to believe that I’m not only chronologically the oldest guitar player to ever play with the band but also the longest tenured. Of course that really doesn’t mean much when compared to the unbelievable body of work created by the late Terry Kath on the band’s first 11 albums!
I was born August 14th, 1964 in Silver Spring, MD the son of an IBMer. My older brother Craig, almost 4 years my senior, was playing drums from my earliest memory. Our neighbors, Jeff and Chris Todd, were almost exactly 2 years apart from my brother and I in age, and Jeff was a budding young guitar player. The Beatles, The Carpenters, Elvis and many of the singles of the day were played frequently in our household. At about age 7, I started to ponder what instrument I might play at the prompting of my parents who had seen that athletics were certainly not going to be my strong point. I chose the guitar since my brother played drums and I wasn’t even aware of what a bass guitar was at the time. Also, guitar just felt cool to me. The four of us put a little band together and started playing some of the music we had been listening to. I was the front man, trying to emulate Karen Carpenter as best I could.
“A few years later, my brother Craig brought home a quadraphonic recording of Chicago II at the recommendation of his drum instructor. Things changed radically that day as we sat amongst the 4 stereo speakers devouring the whole record. We both became big fans of the band from that day forward.”
The first time we saw Chicago live was at the Capital Center in Largo, MD in 1975. Funny story, I broke out in a rash on my face after sitting behind 2 long haired gentlemen smoking some funny cigarettes. My mother told me that I must have an allergy toward marijuana, which I later proved to be inaccurate, but it was a nice try on her part. We saw the band several more times at Merriweather Post Pavillion (at which I would later play with the band) with Donnie Dacus on guitar. The band was always an incredible live experience.
In the mid 70’s, my family relocated to Roanoke, VA and I was officially in my first horn band! My brother and I enlisted the services of a trumpet playing neighbor (kind of an odd trio I know) and started playing Chicago tunes at Junior High school dances. My parents actually put a sound-proof room in the basement of our home, with a small stage and flood lights for effect. Come to find out that the sound proofing wasn’t for our benefit but so that they didn’t have to listen to us 24 hours a day!!
After again relocating (IBM stands for “I’ve Been Moved”) somewhere in the late 70s to Richmond, VA, this would prove to be my last stop before graduating from college. During my Junior High School years I was a member of the school Stage Band which performed many pop tunes and allowed me to play guitar even during school hours. My band teacher, Mrs. Monroe, when she wasn’t yelling at me to turn down, encouraged the rhythm section to learn some rock tunes which she allowed us to play at the tail end of Stage Band concerts. We performed Free Bird, my first attempt at really LONG guitar solos, and covers of Boston tunes such as More Than a Feeling, and Peace of Mind. At this point, we had no one to sing so I was to become the lead singer by playing the melody lines on the guitar. I believe this helped develop a sense of melody in my soloing.
During my high school years, I played in several bands with an older guitarist named Barry George who had a knack for really digging into the music and replicating EXACTLY what was on the records. This was the first time that I had actually LISTENED to what was really going on and not just what the basic chord changes were going by.
Another huge part of my musical development came from my brother Craig during this period. I was listening at the time to the likes of Ted Nugent, Kiss, and other hard rock acts of the 70s. My brother was listening to The Crusaders, Earth Wind and Fire, Steely Dan and the like. Every year at Christmas, my brother would go seek out records that I had yet to hear but that he thought I might appreciate. He exposed me to Jeff Beck, Journey, Toto, and many other bands that stretched my harmonic imagination. I owe the fact that I had the harmonic maturity to land a gig like Chicago to my brother really expanding my horizons outside of rock. Of course, even during this time, Chicago was still number one on both of our lists.
Off to college I went in 1982 to James Madison University to study computer science, which at the time I thought would be my career after school just like my father. What I found in school was a collection of musicians that I would work with and continue developing my craft of playing the guitar. One band was an R&B cover band which dug me into the great rhythm guitar work of that era, and another was a female vocal fronted band that covered Heart, Journey, Missing Persons and the like. Ironically, I was to take lead vocal duties in that band on only 2 songs….. Dancing With Myself by Billy Idol, and Beginnings by Chicago! How’s that for some foreshadowing? Also during my Freshman year, Chicago came to my university on the Chicago 16 tour. It was one of the best concerts I had ever seen and still holds that spot up to this day. The band was on fire and Chris Pinnick was tearing his Telecaster apart at that show. After the concert, my buddies and I hung out by the backstage door to try to get a glimpse of the band. I remember seeing Pinnick through the glass doors wandering the hallway and thinking to myself, “That’s the luckiest guy in the world! I wish I could get a gig like that!”. The band made their way out to the vans and I got up the courage to knock on the passenger side window behind which sat Peter Cetera. Peter rolled down the window, and the best I could spit out was “How do you sing so high Peter?”. He replied by simply saying “It’s just my voice man….” and quickly rolled up the window. How humiliating.
My college roommate (and band mate) Lance Morrison and I were then trying to decide what to do with our lives after graduating college. We had moved back to Richmond and were still playing in a very successful club band which also featured my brother Craig on drums. We were running a sound company mixing live sound for local bands, and I was also performing with a jazz fusion band called Secrets which included the great Carter Beauford on drums and Butch Taylor on keyboards. Carter and Butch would later become part of the Dave Matthews Band. Then came the phone call which changed everything. One afternoon, a fellow guitarist and JMU alumnus, Brad Henderson, called Lance and I and told us that he was in Los Angeles going to a one year music program studying guitar. The school was called GIT and also included a bass program. Well, this was an excuse to move to sunny Southern California and to stay out of the real world for another year! Lance and I loaded up a Ryder truck and headed for Hollywood!
During our time in Hollywood, we spent the year going to school, playing our instruments, and pretty much living every Sunday night at the world famous jazz club “The Baked Potato”. Every Sunday it would be either Steve Lukather or Michael Landau on guitar, Jeff Porcaro or Carlos Vega on drums, Jimmy Johnson or John Pena on bass, and either David Garfield or Greg Mathieson on keys. This was the real education for me during this period, getting to see up close and personal how my heroes did what they did.
After GIT was complete, Lance and I decided to stay in LA and seek our fame and fortune. I spent the next few years working for an instrument rental company called Andy Brauer Studio Rentals. Andy had a warehouse and stored most of LA’s top session musician’s gear there. When a client had a recording session, my job was to load the truck, drive to the studio, set up the guitar rig, tune the guitars and have everything ready when the client arrived. Included amongst these clients were Steve Lukather, Tim Pierce, Dean Parks, Neal Stubenhaus, and many others. I became friends with Steve and Tim during this period, two heroes of mine.
My first opportunity for a real gig was in 1992 when Olivia Newton-John was forming a band to take out on the road for the summer. I got a shot at the audition and landed the gig! I had arrived! I quit my job at Andy’s place and bought a whole slew of gear for the upcoming tour. To say I was excited would be an understatement. After a week of rehearsal, Olivia was supposed to make her first appearance to sing with the band. That day, the musical director came into the rehearsal and informed everyone that Olivia had just been diagnosed with Breast Cancer and that the tour was cancelled. I was crushed. I returned all the gear I bought and begged for my job with Andy back.
About 2 years later, I landed an audition with Patty Smyth formerly of Scandal. She had a hit record with Don Henley at the time and wanted to shoot a music video for her second single “No Mistakes”. She also was scheduled to perform on The Tonight Show, and to do a one off live performance at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre. I did these 3 gigs with her and continued to work for Andy.
Then came the pivotal moment for me in trying to move on from my day job and to play music professionally for the rest of the foreseeable future. Andy Brauer client Tim Pierce, who had been Rick Springfield’s guitarist through his massive career in the 80’s, called me one afternoon and asked if I might be interested in auditioning for Rick’s band. Springfield was coming out of semi-retirement and was planning a summer club tour to see if people were still interested in him as an artist. Well, I auditioned, got the gig, and yes, people were still very interested in Rick! It was like Beatlemania all over the country and overseas in Asia. What a great guitar gig and what a great guy to have as your boss on your first real tour. I was dubbed “New Guy” by Rick and boy was I! That summer was unforgettable.
Fast forward to January 1995 and again I’m looking for a gig. I had put my feelers out with every contact I could think of in LA. One afternoon I received a call from amp guru and friend David Friedman. Dave says to me, “Hey, Chicago is down here auditioning guitar players today if you’re interested?”. My first thought was to turn the TV back on and wait for the next opportunity hopefully with a bit more lead time. Certainly it was a closed audition and I would have no chance of them listening to me! Then mini Anthony Robbins on my shoulder shouted in my ear “Take Action You Idiot!” and so I did. I threw all my gear into my car and headed down to the rehearsal studio. I sat in the parking lot and waited for the band to show up. I had met Jason Scheff a few months prior while rehearsing with a original band project and had joked with him that if they ever needed a guitar player I’d be interested. I had no idea that the position would indeed open up. One by one the guys filtered into the building. Finally, the last guy to show was Jason. I jumped out of my car and said “Hey man, how do you sing so high?”…..just kidding, I said “Hey, do you remember me from a few months back? I’d like to audition for the Chicago gig!”. He told me that he did sort of remember me, but that the auditions were pretty well set in stone and he doubted he could get me in. Well, Jason did indeed talk them into listening to me, in fact, they added an extra day just for my audition. I came into the audition, shaking with fear, and proceeded to start playing through the tunes with the guys. I almost stopped playing when Lamm started singing Saturday In The Park cause it freaked me out. Oh my God! It’s freaking Robert Lamm! The last song of the audition was 25 or 6 to 4 and I think that’s the one that put me over the top. I’d spent my whole life preparing to play a 3 minute guitar solo and this was the mother of all long solos! After the audition, the guys had a meeting in the hallway to discuss what they had heard. After a few minutes, they returned to the room and Robert Lamm says to me, “Hey, do you want a gig? And you can have it for as long as you want it!” At the time I thought to myself that perhaps I might get 5 years out of them before they might want to retire! I spent the next 4 hours in a phone booth in the hallway of the rehearsal studio calling everyone I knew, telling them of the great news.
Well, here I sit writing my bio for the band’s website. It’s been over 21 years since that audition and it seems like there’s no end in sight! I’ve played virtually every venue in this country and beyond, played for Presidents, shared the bill with many of my childhood heroes such as Hall and Oates, Huey Lewis, The Doobie Brothers, Earth, Wind and Fire, Crosby, Stills and Nash, The Beach Boys, America, Little River Band, Peter Frampton, and REO Speedwagon, and performed at the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame earlier this year. Not many itches haven’t been scratched for me. This year is the 50th anniversary of the band and who know what surpises are in store. I am truly grateful and blessed to have been along for this ride that is Chicago!