Jimmy Pankow never set out to make music that would someday be woven into the fabric of life for an entire generation of baby boomers.
For nearly 50 years the trombonist, arranger, and songwriter for Chicago has simply been engaging in the kind of creative muscle flexing that leads to happy accidents such as "Colour My World" or "Make Me Smile," massive pop hits that instantly conjure memories for folks of a certain age.
For example, those two songs were part of a much longer piece entitled "Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon" from the band's second album in 1970. In a telephone interview to promote the band's sold out show at Centennial Terrace in Sylvania on Tuesday, Pankow said "Ballet" was the result of a late-night marathon session of listening to Bach's Brandenburg Concertos.
"Bach was flawless in his ability to weave lines together," said Pankow, an ebullient, articulate interview subject. "I was listening to it for several hours and thought, 'Whoa how did that guy do this? It's 200 years later and this stuff still cooks.' "
So at about 3 in the morning he sat down at a piano and started playing the arpeggios that mark the intro to "Colour My World." Once he had that down, he woke up fellow band member Walt Parazaider, and asked him to play a flute line over it.
"I asked Walt, 'Is it any good?' and he said, 'Are you kidding, this is going to make me famous,' " Pankow said.
Except that "Colour" and "Make Me Smile" were tucked away in a 13-minute, multi-part piece that never had a chance for radio airplay. This is where the happy accident part comes in: Pankow said unbeknownst to the band -- a bunch of guys steeped in jazz, rhythm and blues jamming, and rock who at the time didn't have a clue how to maneuver in a studio -- someone from their record company edited both songs out of "Ballet" and turned them into singles.
Voila, two hits were born from one night of Bach.
Chicago had a remarkably fertile creative period in the '70s and, along with Blood, Sweat and Tears, introduced the power of a horn section in pop music. Songs such as "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?," "25 or 6 to 4," "Saturday in the Park," "Feelin' Stronger Everyday," "Old Days," and "If You Leave Me Now" covered every mood from slow-dance nirvana to getting a summer buzz on and hanging out in the park.
Pankow said the key to a good song is pretty basic: Someone has to hear it.
"You don't really have the power and vision to know that this is something amazing [when you write it]. It's just a recording or a reflection of a personal experience and I think it requires validation from others. You could be the greatest songwriter in the world, but if nobody heard it, it would be irrelevant."
Chicago has released dozens of albums and withstood at least two major personnel changes when original guitarist Terry Kath died from an accidental self-inflicted gunshot and bass player Peter Cetera left the group to pursue a light-rock solo career, but the band has continued to evolve and change.
The band -- original members Robert Lamm, Parazaider, Pankow, Lee Loughnane, along with Jason Scheff, Keith Howland, Tris Imboden, and Lou Pardini -- has adapted to changes in the music industry and is taking a portable recording studio on the road with them to work on new material. Chicago also puts up live recordings and other material on its Web site, chicagotheband.com, for fans who subscribe and join their "community."
"All of a sudden we are the record company and that's what artists are doing now if we want to play the game, but it's always about the music," Pankow said.
He said he feels lucky every time he looks out into the audience and sees legions of folks singing his words back to him.
"This music has taken on a life of its own. It has become the fabric of lives and it's ageless," he said, chuckling. "I thought I'd have a fishing pole and a cigar by now and I figured I'd be done. Boy are we lucky to be able to do something we're so passionate about and do it all our lives."
Tuesday's show is sold out. Centennial Terrace is at 5773 Centennial Rd. Gates open at 6:30 p.m. and music starts at 8.
Contact Rod Lockwood at email@example.com or 419-724-6159.