Keys Disease: Take Me Back To Chicago

Keys Disease: Take Me Back To Chicago

You may remember reading one of my earlier columns about the group Chicago’s great “lost” album, The Stone of Sisyphus. Then again, you may not remember that column at all. It really doesn’t matter much in the overall scheme of things; it is, however, an appropriate segue into this week’s ramblings.

I was very surprised to discover recently that Bill Champlin, a 27-year veteran of Chicago, is no longer with the band. Champlin joined Chicago during the recording of their mega-hit album, Chicago 16. His vocals, keyboards, and guitar skills, as well as his songwriting, helped propel the band throughout its second heyday in the 1980s. He sang co-lead vocals with Peter Cetera on one of the band’s biggest hits, “Hard Habit to Break,” and was the featured lead vocalist on other hits like “Look Away” and “You’re Not Alone.”

Apart from the remaining four original members, Champlin had the longest tenure in the group and was a huge part of the sound of the post-Terry Kath/Peter Cetera Chicago. That’s mainly why the announcement of Champlin’s departure came as such a shock—compounded by the fact that it happened in the middle of a tour! Something must have happened for Champlin and Chicago to part ways before a gig commitment was fulfilled.

The official announcement, as put forth by both Champlin and Chicago, says that Bill amicably left Chicago to focus on his own solo career. The official announcement seems to be a whitewash over something perhaps a bit less amicable than officially described.

Champlin’s new solo album is complete, and he has no solo tour appearances booked until November. Bill’s wife, Tamara Champlin, was allegedly quoted online as saying that Bill would have never left the group high and dry in the middle of a tour. And yet another unconfirmed rumor has it that Champlin was fired via an e-mail message from the band’s management. If that turns out to be true, how freakin’ cold is that? Imagine yourself on tour with the group you’ve been an integral part of for the better part of 30 years. There’s a short break before the tour resumes. You wake up and check your e-mails in the morning and SURPRISE! You’re fired!

Chicago does have a history of firing musicians… but it’s usually the guitar player who gets the axe (pun intended). Guitarist Donnie Dacus? Fired. Guitarist Chris Pinnick? Fired. Guitarist Dawayne Bailey? Fired. The band also fired original member and drummer Danny Seraphine for allegedly letting his chops go to hell; Seraphine maintains that the rest of the band didn’t want the drummer in a leadership role in the group.

Whatever the reason for Champlin’s departure, it’s something that must have been planned for in advance. Singer/songwriter/keyboardist Lou Pardini has already stepped into Champlin’s spot on the tour, and there’s already a YouTube clip of him on stage with Chicago singing lead vocals their old classic, “Make Me Smile.” His version sounds more like the original Terry Kath vocals than the version Bill has been singing for the past couple of decades.

It will be interesting to see what happens with Chicago. I mentioned earlier that four original band members remain: Robert Lamm (keyboards and vocals), Walter Parazaider (saxophone and flute), Lee Loughnane (trumpet), and Jimmy Pankow (trombone). While these four are still the backbone of Chicago, Parazaider is often replaced by Larry Klimas for what I understand are health reasons. And all original members are well into their 60s by now. Chicago has toured every year for the past 40 years… they have survived the deaths, departures, and firings of many band members… and their music still means a lot to people. How long will they still go on and be able to call themselves Chicago?

Hopefully, there are still several good years ahead of this classic band that, by the way, deserves to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Don’t get me started on that topic again. Anyway, as long as Chicago still plays concerts each year, then the rest of us still aren’t old… yet.

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