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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND

Famed Rock Group Has Time on Its Side

After nearly 30 years, the legendary Chicago still performs with four of six original players. But don't be late, or you'll miss the show.

September 05, 1996|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Their number of records sold far outnumbers the entire population of their Windy City hometown.

Since 1967, Chicago has recorded twentysomething albums, 18 of which have gone gold and 13 platinum. Originally The Big Thing--then the Chicago Transit Authority and soon afterward, for brevity's sake, Chicago--their double-album debut was a hit as the band began to tour with over 300 gigs per year.

To list their hits would fill this section. Suffice to say, they have Grammies, fans and their own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Feb. 15, 1997, will be their 30-year anniversary.

One of the band's founding members, woodwind whiz Walt Parazaider, agreed to talk about Wednesday's show at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza and called at exactly the designated hour. Don't be late to this 8 p.m. show. Chicago won't be.

*

Wow, you're on time. So Chicago always starts on time?

Punctuality is a precious commodity. It shows respect for the people that come to see you. I'm sorry, but if you're late, you're telling those people "bleep you." My dad is 83 years old and still plays in three bands, and I think he raised me right. He told me, "Dress right. Be early and help them set up, and then if you suck, they'll feel sorry for you and pay you anyway." And after 120 million records sold, no one is throwing tomatoes at us.

*

Where did Chicago fit into the 1967 music scene?

In 1967 it was the middle of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles thing as we were putting the band together in my apartment. We decided to be a rock 'n' roll band with horns, sort of like the Beatles with horns.

Our horns were not like James Brown's horns, which were great, but the horns are an integral part of the songs, except for maybe that sappy period we went through in the '80s. But one thing I've learned is never to turn your back on a hit. They gave us the opportunity to continue to play our music.

*

I remember you guys played at the Earl Warren Showgrounds in 1969 with the Chambers Brothers and Love.

Yes, it's been an amazing thing to have survived all this time, and not just physical survival either. Never in my wildest dreams did I think we'd still be touring and playing major venues and talking about it 30 years later. I always thought maybe we'd have two or three hit albums, but my God . . .

*

How do you account for the band's longevity?

Good Midwestern stubbornness is a big part of it. Four of the six originals are still in the band. We did 300 days a year for the first three or four years, and with all that traveling, you get very friendly. Manic depressives wouldn't work in this band. Any of these negative woe-is-me people wouldn't work in this band. You need a positive attitude.

*

So there haven't been more band members than the population of Chicago?

We've added people along the way. We've had guys in the band for 10 or 15 years. We're on our fourth guitar player, and our original drummer retired a few years ago, so we're on our second drummer. And we added Bill Champlin on guitar and keyboards. That's it.

*

Has the crowd changed over the years?

The kids that saw us at the Earl Warren Showgrounds in the '60s had kids in the '70s and '80s. Now they're the grandmas and grandpas, so we have a third generation of fans now.

When we play something off the first album, say "Color My World," the grandmas and grandpas get into it, but the kids don't get it. When we play "Hard to Say I'm Sorry," the next generation gets into it. But it's still strange to see a 16-year-old kid dancing to a song that was written 25 years ago or before he was a twinkle in anyone's eye.

*

When did the band decide to abandon Roman numerals?

We never stopped numbering (the albums) one way or the other. All Beethoven's works are numbered, so we figured when some kid in the year 2030 at Thousand Oaks High School or Cal State Northridge is trying to figure out what the 13th Chicago album was like, it will be easy for him to find out. Or the other story is, we always came up with seven or eight titles and could never decide. Somewhere between those two is the truth.

*

What would you say to an aspiring musician?

I'd say the same thing I always say when someone asks me if there's room for them in the business. I'm living proof there is. If you're a horn player, learn to be proficient on your instrument. Also, perhaps, learn to play the keyboard and become a double threat. Also, when someone says you can't, don't listen to them. Just keep punching and work your behind off.

*

At one point, you were about to join the symphony. What happened?

I have a degree in classical music from DePaul University, and I was the protege of the first clarinetist of the Chicago Symphony when I decided to start a rock 'n' roll band with horns. He told me, "If you play in the symphony, you'll end up killing the conductor. You need to be self-employed."

*

Is there anything Chicago hasn't done yet?

We try to make every show the one that goes to heaven, and we try to make every record just a little bit better than the one before.

*

When the Cubs come to Dodger Stadium, whose side are you on?

That's a rough one. I've been out here for 20 years and, right now, I'm pulling for the Dodgers because they have a shot to do it. But when the Cubs come to town, I don't even go because I'd have to wear two hats.

* CHICAGO IN CONCERT

At 8 p.m. Wednesday at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd. Tickets are $29-$59. Call 449-2787.

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