The Roots Report: An Interview with Keith Howland

Okee dokee folks…I have watched the rockumentary Chicago: Now More Than Ever many times over. Chicago’s greatest hits was one of my early favorite albums. I remember getting it for Christmas in 1975 and having my father complain about their music. Ironically a few years back I took my parents to see Chicago in concert and they absolutely loved the show! Jimi Hendrix thought the band’s horn section sounded like “one set of lungs” and was wowed by the guitar mastery of Terry Kath. When Kath died of an accidental gunshot in 1978, it was a massive blow to the band. They continued on and had many more hits that tended to feature Peter Cetera and he exited the band for a solo career in 1985. Chicago was never a one lead vocalist band nor was the focus meant to be on one and the line-up has changed over the 50 years of the band’s life. Original members, Jimmy Pankow and Robert Lamm who wrote most of the band’s most enduring songs are still with Chicago as is trumpet player, Lee Loughnane. I have seen them a couple of times over the past few years and the band still has it. I spoke with longtime Chicago band member Keith Howland last week. He referred to himself as “Chicago’s longest tenured, non-original member.” Below is our conversation.

John Fuzek: Hello, is this Keith?
Keith Howland (Chicago): Is this John? I don’t know anyone else from Providence so it’s got to be you!
JF: So where are you right now?
KH: ummm…good question…Greenville, South Carolina!
JF: Do you have a show tonight? or this weekend?
KH: Yes, we do have a show tonight.
JF: How many shows on this tour?
KH: It’s about a four week run so about 20 shows maybe
JF: That’ll keep you busy
KH: Oh, yeah, we are really busy! We go home and we are there for about eight days and then we are out for another four weeks, then maybe we get two weeks off and are out for another month
JF: Wow!
KH: We’re working!
JF: Where is home for you?
KH: Nashville
JF: So, you are a singer-songwriter besides being in Chicago?
KH: You know I would probably, I guess the answer to that question would be yes,  I have sung, I would probably say more songwriter than singer (laughs)
JF: You have solo recordings out, correct?
KH: Oh, yeah, I have a bunch of solo records out, mostly instrumental records, but my most recent project is a band called Button, it’s me and two of the guys from the Doobie Brothers, John Cowand and Ed Toth, John Cowland is a great singer and bass player and his main claim to fame was the lead singer and bass player of the New Grass Revival
JF: Yes, I remember them, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck were in that
KH: And Ed, the drummer, was the drummer in the band Vertical Horizon back in the day, it’s a cool project, kind of prog, hard to explain, there are pop sensibilities but there’s a lot of soloing going on, Lou Pardini (Chicago)  is actually, he’s moved to Nashville and he’s part of the group, too.
(we went off track and off the record into a conversation about the Doobie Brothers in the 70’s and then off again into some chatting about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame)
JF: I read about a Chicago album that was recorded in the mid 90’s called The Stone of Sisyphus but not released until 2008, were you on that album, I know that you joined the band somewhere around that time
KH: That was recorded in ’93 or ’94 just before I joined
JF: OK, I wasn’t sure if that was something you did just when you joined the band
KH: I came in right after the recorded the Big Band Album and my first tour was in support of that Night & Day Big Band record
JF: I read that you crashed the audition to be in the band?
KH: Yeah, well, I did, I had a friend who was working at Third Encore Studios where they were holding auditions and had just called him days earlier and told him that I was between gigs and was looking for work and if he heard of anything to let me know, I got a call from my buddy Dave Friedman and he said that Chicago was auditioning guitar players today at Third Encore and I made a few phone calls to see if I could a hold of their management and pretty much got stonewalled, it was a closed audition, so I just threw all my gear in the car and I drove down there, one by one I saw each guy show up for the auditions as I was sitting in the parking lot, I saw Robert Lamm walk in and said, “ah, I can’t talk to him”, I saw Jimmy (Panko) and said, “ah, I can’t talk to him”, and the last guy to show up was Jason (Scheff) and I had met Jason once previously and I jumped out of my car and said, “hey, do you remember me, I’m Keith, I was playing guitar with that band, you came into the  rehearsal”,  I was doing the rehearsal with a drummer friend of his, and I said that I would really like a shot at this, can you talk the guys into it?, I got in and they gave me the gig right on the spot, right there!
JF: That’s great!
JF: I know that this is probably a question that you’ve been asked a thousand times but and there have been other guitar players before you, but how does it feel to step into the place that Terry Kath originated in that band?
KH: Well, I am stepping in to the shoes of Terry Kath, Donnie Dacus,  and Chris Pinnick, and Dwayne Bailey, so, I have a three guitar player buffer between me and Terry which is probably a good thing because, you know, stepping straight into those shoes would have been terrifying but the fact that there were three other guitar players between me and him made it a little bit more manageable for me, but I grew up listening to this band, loving this band, and so I do the best I can to honor the music the way it feels like it should be honored, which means keeping the spirit of Terry in there but I’ll inject a little bit of myself as well, trying to strike a balance
JF: Over the years that you’ve been in the band there were several personnel changes, so do you notice the dynamic of the band changing with each new member? Or is it a constant?
KH: It’s no different than maybe an NFL locker room, you’re in tight spaces with a bunch of guys and you’re doing something that requires everybody to play well together, so yeah, every time we change, we change a piece of that puzzle, it changes the dynamic, sometimes better, sometimes worse, sometimes just different, right now we’re in a really good place
JF: You got two new members fairly recently, didn’t you? Drummer and Bass player?
KH: Yeah, for a brief period we had a bass player, Jeff Coffey, he decided that 200 days on the road a year didn’t work for him and he bailed out after about a year and a half and Tris Imboden, our drummer of almost thirty years decided at the same time that he would, now he’s semi-retired or at least not on the road nearly as much as he used, I think he’s doing a fw shows here and there, yeah, we replaced them, actually with, Walfredo Reyes, our percussionist, slid over into the drum chair and then we hired a guy name Neil Donell, tenor vocalist and acoustic guitar who sings all the Peter Cetera stuff, and a bass player Brett Simons who worked with Melissa Etheridge, we kind of replaced two guys with three, we also go another percussionist, Ramond Yslas
JF: The old bass player handled all of the Peter parts, eight? Wasn’t he the song of Elvis’ bass player?
KH: Yes,  Jason was the son of Jerry Scheff who played with Elvis
JF: I looked at the discography of the band and I know there hasn’t been a lot of new stuff from the band other than like Holiday CDs and such, is there a new album coming out, are there plans for a new album or anything new, not that the band really needs to do anything new to continue at this point? Just wondering though
KH: The last new things that we did which was just a few years ago, was Chicago XXXVI which was called Now and that was an all original record that met with critical acclaim and the band liked it but it didn’t, but in this climate it’s really hard these days to sell a lot of records, we were proud of it and a lot of people liked it, but um, you know, it is what it is these days
JF: Yup, streaming services, not many folks buy CDs, and musicians just giving away music has made it hard
KH: Now it seems like, recording music is, for a lot of artists, not so much for Chicago, or Doobie Brothers, you know legacy bands like that, because they already have a catalogue in place that drives their touring but for younger bands recording music just gives you an excuse to go out and play live, you’re doing it with the expectations that it’s going to generate a lot of income, some artists do, obviously, they sell records, but what does that mean anymore?
JF: How do the other original members, Robert, Jimmy and Lee, how do they feel about being on the road? Are they over 70?
KH: I can’t answer that (laughs), you know, we really do still love doing what we do, the peripherals of it, which are the long bus rides and the travel and the whole thing
JF: Do they ride the bus with the rest of you or do they fly or take other means to gigs?
KH: Yup, they ride the bus
JF: I was thinking that they have been on the road forever and have the status and maybe the money from royalties over the years, maybe they fly (laughs)
KH: Nope, we all ride the yellow submarine together (laughs)
JF: That’s a good thing, keeps the band on the same level, no elitism!
KH:Absolutely
JF: I read that you played with Rick Springfield
KH: (laughs) yup, I did a summer with Rick in ’93
JF: Who else did you play with before Chicago?
KH: I was in Olivia Newton John’s band for a minute, that tour got cancelled due to her illness, I worked with Patty Smyth from Scandal, I played with a jazz Saxophonist named Warren Hill, then Rick, and I think that’s pretty much it, I was sort of, right around ’92-’03 I was starting to do a little bit of session work, I was doing, jingles and stuff
JF: Any jingles that I might know?
KH: I can’t remembers, but I played on a Tiffany record!
JF: Tiffany?
KH: Yup! And then I got the gig with Rick and I did some other stuff with Patty Smyth and Warren Hill and I did the summer with Rick, came home, was off for about eight months and that’s when I started making phone calls to find out if there was any other work running around and that’s when the Chicago audition came up and that’s been my gig ever since
JF: THe show that happens now, do you primarily take care of the hits or do you do any deep cuts?
KH: Last year we did a lot of deep cuts because we performed the entire Chicago II album
JF: Really? Wow!
KH: There’s a Soundstage, PBS, DVD of that, this year we’re kind of back to mostly the hits, but you know, we’ve got “Introduction” in there, “Street Player”, so there’s some deep cuts
JF: Do you play the WHOLE long piece “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon” that has “Make Me Smile” and Colour My World” in it?
KH: Yes, we do play “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon”
JF: Great! that’s a beautiful piece!That is awesome that they do that. A lot of people don’t know that those two songs are excerpts from that long piece
KH: A lott of people don’t realize, too that the first real hit that the band had was “Make Me Smile” which was plucked from the Ballet, it was a three and a half minute radio edit, CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) had been out and had released, I believe, “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” and I believe that “Make Me Smile” was the first one that really hit the charts and then they kind of doubled back and then stuff off the first album became hits after “Make Me Smile” which was sort of an interesting dynamic, you know, that doesn’t usually happen, that radio will backtrack to a previous album and then all of a sudden, it kind of speaks to where radio was then in 1970
JF: People respected and appreciated music more back then, and it wasn’t so disposable
KH: It was certainly more organic
JF: Well, I am sure that I could talk with you for a long time but I know that you have better things to do, like get some rest for your show tonight (laughs). Anyway, I love Chicago and I am really envious of someone who gets to play in a band like that and you still get to do your own stuff on the side
KH: It’s been  blessing, it’s been a great thing and I never in a million years thought, I was looking for a GIG, I was looking for like another summer, and here I am almost twenty five years later
JF: Crashing the audition worked out for you! Sometimes you just have to do something like that, jump in, sometimes it pays off
KH: Trust me, when I got shut down, I was sitting at my house in Santa Clarita, in my kitchen with a pot of coffee, I was like, “Is it really worth it for me to get all my gear in the car and try to get down there and try to convince someone to listen to me, it’s never going to happen” and something inside me said “you’ve got to give this a shot”, so I did,  I was really close to turning the TV on, pouring a cup of coffee and going, “Oh, well, it would have been nice to have heard about this a little sooner instead of the day of”
JF: Well it’s fortunate for the band, it’s fortunate for you and it’s fortunate for us that your filling in and you are part of the reason that the band keeps going because as long as there are great people in the band Chicago can keep going
KH: Well, let’s hope so!
JF: Well, I appreciate the conversation, I enjoyed it, and appreciate that you took the time to chat
KH: Alright, thanks!
JF: Have  a great show tonight!
KH: Thanks, take care!

Don’t miss your opportunity to hear the legendary sound live when they take the stage at Providence Performing Arts Center on April 19. For more about the show, “25 or 6 to 4” to: www.ppacri.org That’s it for now. Thanks for reading. www.JohnFuzek.com

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