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If you go
What: Chicago
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday; show is sold out
Where: Foellinger Theatre, Franke Park, 3411 Sherman Blvd.
Band member Jim Pankow says Chicago’s sound appeals across genres and generations.

Chicago still an inspiration 4 decades later

The last time Jim Pankow was in Fort Wayne, he was a DePaul University student and budding musician visiting his long-distance girlfriend more than 40 years ago.

When Pankow, trombonist for the classic rock band Chicago, returns to Fort Wayne on Tuesday, he will be greeted by nearly 2,500 Chicago fans who will fill Foellinger Theatre for a sold-out performance.

Pankow says that when the band was first jamming in a basement in suburban Chicago, they never anticipated the magnitude their music could hold.

“This music permeates generations, cultures and countries. It’s a phenomenon,” Pankow says by phone before the band’s show in Temecula, Calif.

“We most certainly never would have anticipated that almost half of a century later, that not only would we be busy, we would be busier than ever.”

Chicago’s horn section redefined the rock genre, helping the Grammy Award-winning band garner 11 No. 1 singles such as, “If You Leave Me Now,” “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” and “You’re the Inspiration.” The band released a new single, “Somethin’ Comin’ I Know,” this month.

Pankow is responsible for most of the band’s horn arrangements.

“Walter Parazaider (founding band member) had the idea of putting together a rock ’n’ roll band with an indigenous horn section. A horn section that wasn’t just an afterthought but as a lead voice,” Pankow says. “It was a bizarre, very fresh idea at the time.”

Pankow says that Chicago is more than just the iconic power-ballad band, and the new show allows for the band to showcase their diverse musicality.

“We’re playing better than ever. You close your eyes and you’re hearing the record. It’s performed with no smoke and mirrors. It is just guys with talent doing it the old-fashioned way. What you see is what you get,” he says. “The music is the pull. It’s what keeps it fresh, and keeps it going.”

Pankow, a native of St. Louis, has played trombone since childhood. When he graduated high school, he was awarded a music scholarship to Quincy University in Illinois, but after his freshman year, he transferred to DePaul to start his own band on the bar scene in Chicago.

After watching Pankow perform, classmate Parazaider recruited him to complete the three-piece horn section for his new rock band, The Next Big Thing. With vocalist and keyboardist Robert Lamm rounding out the seven-piece band, they began touring as a top 40 R&B band at clubs across the Midwest.

“We slowly, but surely, began to discover our own voice, our own music and we brought that into the set,” Pankow says. “As soon as we did that, we started getting fired from one club to another. They weren’t ready for what we had to say musically. So we decided to pack it up and go to the West Coast. We thought they would be more open-minded, and that’s where the record companies were.”

Moving to Hollywood in 1968, the band changed their name to the Chicago Transit Authority, inspired by old friend and CBS Records producer Jimmy Guercio, who took the bus line to school every day. They became a regular fixture at the famous Whisky A Go-Go on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. They released their first album in 1969.

When the actual Chicago Transit Authority threatened legal action, the band settled on Chicago for short. The signature logo has been the face of the band for 34 albums, in which 25 have been certified platinum.

Pankow says the band made the decision early on that they wanted the music to be the star of the show.

“It’s not about the people, it’s about the music. That logo is our identity,” Pankow says. “The logo embodies what the music is all about.”

After 46 years, Pankow says the band has to consider how much longer they can continue at this pace. They have been on the road since June and will wrap up this leg of the tour this week, followed by a two-week break before they begin a string of symphony performances and additional tour dates scheduled from September to March.

All Pankow will say for now is that if the Rolling Stones can make it 50 years in the music industry, and still perform, so will Chicago.

“We’re having a great time above all. The audience is right with us – they’re excited, we’re excited. It’s a communion that never gets old,” he says. “We are having fun, the show is slamming and people can’t get enough of this. We’re doing sell-out business across the board – so why stop now?”