I was eleven when my father asked me if I wanted to play an instrument. He had played trumpet when he was a kid all the way through his time in the Army AirForce. (they were combined during World War ll). His horn was up in the attic so I already had a great instrument. A Bach Stradivarius. Dad took me to meet the band director at St. Celestine grade school in Elmwood Park, Ralph Meltzer, and he said “show me your teeth”. He wanted to make sure they were straight so the mouthpiece wouldn’t tear up the inside of my lip. I passed the visual audition and became a trumpet player that day.
It wasn’t too many years later when I decided that I wanted to make the trumpet a career. That’s when I found out that my folks just wanted me to play an instrument to round out my childhood. They wanted me to decide on a “real career” rather than a fleeting one like being a musician. They didn’t think there was a future in music. Little did any of us know I’d be writing this 50 years later.
The summer after my junior year dad “pulled some strings” and got me a summer job at Chicago State Hospital on the docks to introduce me to the work a day world. That was tough work. After I graduated he got me another summer job at Revere Copper and Brass as a janitor on the 12 to 8 shift. It didn’t take me long to realize my preference was to pursue my musical talent.
I joined a local band called Ross and the Majestics while I was working the Copper and Brass summer job. Ross called one day and said we were offered a job at a bar in the Palmer House (downtown Chicago) for the whole summer. I told my dad that I wanted to quit the janitor job and play the hotel gig for the summer. He was not a happy camper. He said if I took the gig with the band I’d have to move out of the house. I moved out.
During my freshman year at DePaul University I got a gig with another band called The Shannon Showband. They had the same instrumentation as Chicago would eventually have. We played a number of Irish ballrooms on the north and south side. I did my first road gig with them in New York at the City Center ballroom. That was the farthest away from home I had ever travelled.
I met Walt at Depaul that same year. He was playing in a band called The Missing Links and invited me to come sit in with them. Terry and Danny were also in the band. When they broke up, Walt wanted to form a horn band which was initially going to be a Las Vegas show band but turned out to be Chicago.
When we first went on the road we had only enough money to pay for two rooms. A sleep room and a party room. We didn’t need much sleep back in those days. Once we moved out to California and had a little more money we could get four rooms. Two to a room, so Terry and I almost always roomed together. Terry was constantly playing guitar and writing songs. I learned a lot about playing guitar by just watching him play. I learned chord positions and technique from him.
Once we got signed to a record deal with Columbia Records we went to New York and recorded the Chicago Transit Authority album at the 42nd street studio. We had never recorded before so it was very intimidating standing in front of a Neumann mic. They pick up every aspect of your playing so there’s a learning curve until you figure out how to relax and blend with the band. We learned more and more about the recording process through the years and as the technology developed we developed along with it.
With the advent of the home studio it has become increasingly difficult for recording studios and record companies to stay in business. So I decided to put together a traveling studio so we could record while we’re on the road with much less overhead. I asked the late Phil Ramone (we miss him a lot) what I would need to build a quality traveling studio. He advised me to get a great mic and a great preamp. You can’t start with mediocre stuff and make it great later. It’s got to be the best sound right off the bat. Then you can enhance the sound even more in mixing and mastering.
I had worked on a Chicago / Doobie Brothers project in Sedona in 2012 with an engineer named Tim Jessup and he offered to help me put together Chicago’s traveling studio. Once we got the gear together and brought it out on the road we had to convince the rest of the band it was going to be good enough quality to make a record with. We recorded a version of “Dialogue”, on the bus, one instrument at a time and then mixed. Everybody was so pleased with the final product that we recorded Chicago XXXVl without going into a studio.
I also had a tech adventure with video. We were going to record “O Christmas Three” in Nashville and I wanted to film the project as we recorded it. I researched and purchased two HD cameras so I could set up one static camera and then roam with the other. Once I got to Nashville I quickly realized it would be impossible for me to do the filming by myself while simultaneously recording the album. Lou Pardini suggested I call his nephew Peter who had just graduated from film school at Cal State Northridge. We flew Peter Pardini to Nashville and he did such a good job with the making of the Christmas album that we brought him on the road with us. About a year later, after touring the world, he finished a project that we called “Chicago World Tour 2011 – Backstage Pass”.
Peter then made another video for the “What’s It Gonna Be Santa” single off the Christmas album of the same name. Once that was done he said he would love to do a documentary of the band. I asked the guys in the band and our manager Peter Schivarelli what they thought and they all agreed to let him go for it. It took a couple years in the making but the documentary is now done. It won best picture awards at the Sedona and Fort Myers Film Festivals and now it’s going to air on CNN on New Years Day 2017, just before our 50th anniversary on Feb. 15th.
We’ve kept very busy throughout our career and it’s not slowing down. In fact, we’re busier than any of us could have ever imagined we’d be. I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.