Thursday, April 11, 2013

EXCLUSIVE: A Revealing Conversation With Lou Pardini of the Legendary Band Chicago

Lou Pardini performing with Chicago
Lou Pardini has compiled a very impressive list of achievements in the music business. A Grammy-nominated songwriter as well as a gifted keyboardist and vocalist, he's worked with such artists as Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Santana, Earth, Wind & Fire and The Doobie Brothers. He's also written hit songs and toured with such acts as Patti Austin, The Commodores and The Temptations. His song Just To See Her, a Top Ten hit for Smokey Robinson in 1987, earned Smokey a Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. 

But even with that stellar resume', Lou's coolest gig is his newest one. In 2009, he was asked to become the newest member of the legendary band Chicago, replacing Bill Champlin, who was in the group 28 years. It seems a daunting proposition, joining one of the most beloved and stable bands of all time. After all, Chicago still boasts four of the seven original members, 46 years later, and still performs before adoring sellout crowds worldwide. 


Ed Tiernan Bindler - bluearcher.com
But Lou is a perfect fit. Not only because of his triple-threat talent, but because of his easygoing, personable demeanor and natural showmanship. He's clearly well liked by his bandmates, and has become a fan favorite. He's obviously enjoying the ride.

"It's a huge honor to be a member of a band that I've loved for so many years," Lou told me in an exclusive interview for The Reno Dispatch. "My first band back in high school was a horn band. We played Chicago songs. The first time I found myself on stage actually performing Beginnings with the real Chicago, I had an out-of-body experience. I've worked with many great artists and musicians, but it’s another thing entirely to be a part of a legend."


Lou is preaching to the converted, of course. Anyone who knows me knows that Chicago is my favorite band. The fact that this group, whose early records were as groundbreaking and innovative as any in popular music history, is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is an absolute joke. I even had the honor of recording one of my songs a few years ago with Chicago co-founder Robert Lamm, who is still in the fold and for whom Lou also has an obvious reverence.


"I'm a huge Robert Lamm fan," Lou says. "He has one of greatest pop voices, very soulful. And of course his songwriting. The guy is the complete musical package."


And, indeed, so is Lou, who's excited to report that there is new music in Chicago's future. The new, unnamed music project would be just the band's second collection of original material since 1991. The buzz about the new songs has already spread across the Chicago fan universe. Lou, who lives in Los Angeles, says the group, which kicked off its 2013 tour this past week, is "deep in the creative process right now" putting songs together, even while on tour. 



Lou (far left) and the band
"Everyone's writing and throwing their tunes in the pot," Lou explains. "Jason (Scheff) put four songs he has written into the pot. I wrote one song with Robert. We did a rough mix on that one with some fake horns, just to let people see where it starts. I've written a couple other songs that the guys like, and I also submitted an idea to Robert just a couple weeks ago that he likes. It's kind of an Otis redding, vintage R&B meets modern rock sound."

Lou says the band isn't sure yet about a timeline for the release of these songs, but "when we have six or seven songs that we're happy with that might be the point where we say, ‘OK, this is sounding like a CD, let’s do a few more and put an album together."

Longtime fans of Chicago will also be happy to hear that on the current tour, which arrives at Humphrey's Concerts by the Bay in my hometown San Diego on August 1, the band is revisiting a few classics from the early days that they don't always do - and reviving the mini-acoustic set that I personally loved so much.

"We're opening the show with Introduction and Questions 67 and 68, which we are loving," says Lou. "And there are three acoustic songs: Jason is doing Will You Still Love Me, Robert is singing Wake up Sunshine, and I’m resurrecting Look Away, acoustically with piano."

While Lou is having a blast on this tour, he was saddened by the news that Phil Ramone, the legendary record producer and engineer, died recently at age 79. Lou's worked with some great music producers in his career, but none more prestigious, or beloved, than Ramone, the so-called "Pope of Pop" who in his 50-year career won 14 Grammy Awards.



Phil Ramone in the studio
Ramone, who produced and/or engineered four Chicago albums, also worked with Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Natalie Cole, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Paul McCartney, James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Keith Urban, John Legend, and Tony Bennett, among many others.

Ramone first teamed up with Chicago in 1978 for the Hot Streets album, then in 1979 for Chicago 13. Neither was a huge commercial success by Chicago's platinum standards, but they remain two of the band's most underrated records. And they endure. On Chicago's current tour, the band sings Alive Again from Hot Streets and Street Player from Chicago 13.


Ramone joined forces with Chicago again on the Best of Chicago record in 2007, then, after Lou joined the band, Ramone returned to produce Chicago XXXIII - O Christmas Three, the band's third holiday album.


"Phil was so relaxed in the studio, so organized and supportive," Lou recalls. "My nephew Peter (Pardini) is a director and screenwriter who started filming Chicago working, which led to him doing a complete biographical film on our 2011 summer tour of Europe. That in turn led to Peter developing a friendship with Phil. They hit it off, and were talking up to about a month ago. Phil had a movie idea and asked Peter to write a script for it.  So he did that, and Phil really liked it."


Lou says making the Christmas album was "effortless" because of Ramone's calming and positive presence. "He had a way of making you feel like you were the best," Lou says. "First time I met and him and talked to him, he told me in his infamously deep voice, 'I've been listening to your tunes, Mr. Pardini... and you are good' (laughs). I thought, 'Hey, Phil Ramone says I'm good.' He really meant it."

While it may sound counter-intuitive, Lou says Ramone would actually settle on the first or second takes more often than he expected.


"Phil would just smile when he knew that it was the right take," Lou says. "He was a good person to have around if you’re a perfectionist like myself. His philosophy was that it doesn't have to be perfect, he was always looking for the emotion of the song. Some artists get trapped into having to make every note perfect, but Phil was listening for the emotion."


Lou says Ramone brought a lot of humor to the studio. "He had a story for just about every legendary artist he worked with, and it wasn't name dropping because he really worked with all these people," Lou says. "He told me that when he produced (Barbra) Streisand's Evergreen record, a year after the song reached number one, Phil told Barbra, 'I'm remixing your vocal on that song, or we could just re-do it. Come in and let's dot those i's.' Phil said Barbra got all excited. Then he told her he was just kidding. He said, 'Barbra, the song was Number One, a year ago!' They both had a good laugh."

Lou says the sessions for the Oh Christmas Three album, which was recorded in Nashville, home of two Chicago members, Jimmy Pankow and Keith Howland, were completed in just three weeks.

The first week, the rhythm section tracked 14 songs. "It was a daunting prospect, all we had were the demos of our takes on different Christmas songs," Lou explains. "We had to be quick on our toes. We didn’t do any more than three takes on any song. The second week, we did the horns, and week three we did the vocals and mixed the music as we were going."

Was he happy with the result? "Yes, but is anybody happy? There were things that, if we had more time, we could have put more extra stuff in. Like a lot of things I've done, I'm not entirely happy at the time, but when I go back years later and listen, I can say, 'Yes, that's pretty good.'"

According to Lou, Ramone was great at moving things along, the logistics. "We had a big chalkboard of all the songs, a very organized chaecklist of what was done, what needed to be done, backing vocals, overdubs, keyboards, everything," he recalls. "He would methodically check things off. I never do that. I’m more fly by the seat of my pants, he was very organized, which was a good thing."

Lou says everyone in the band loves Ramone and will miss him. "When I heard he had passed away, it was like losing a relative," he says. "He and I connected on an artistic level. It was on my bucket list to do a few of my original songs with him. I'm so sad I won’t be able to have that chance, but very happy that I did get a chance to meet him and work with him, he was a wonderful guy."

Lou, who on the current tour is singing Make me SmileFreeDialogue (co-lead), Hard Habit to Break (co-lead), Call on Me, I'm a Man (co-lead), and Look Away, says being in Chicago is the highlight of his career.


"And it allows me to be as 'R&B' as I want," he says. "I've known the guys in the band for a long time. Bill (Champlin) and I have been friends for 25 years. I knew Jason (Scheff), too, and did some charity things with Jimmy (Pankow) and Lee (Loughnane) over the years. I even subbed for Bill a few times. But when they finally asked me to join the band, I was in shock. Really, it was truly mind blowing."


While he loves songwriting, producing, and being in the studio, Lou says performing "is my true love. To be able to do it every night with high-level musicians such as these, it's all you can ask for."


11 comments:

  1. Excellet read! I felt like I was right there enjoying your one on one. Lou you are a perfect fit for Chicago. I can't wait to see you & the band at our beautiful Humphreys by the Bay!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks anonymous. If I knew who you were were, I'd look for you at Humphrey's! :)

      Delete
    2. Lou..... waiting to say hi to you at Casino Rama on May 18th! If you need coffee mid-afternoon, I'm ready!

      Ted Michaels

      Delete
  2. Nice article. Lou is definitely a good fit for this band, my favorite band of all time. When I heard Bill Champlin was leaving, I was shocked. Didn't know how they would ever replace that guy. I guess I was wrong. Looking forward to the new music on the horizon.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks for a great article! I am thrilled that Lou is a member of the ever fabulous Chicago! I just saw these guys back in January at the Waikoloa Bowl here on the Big Island of Hawaii. They are all super talented. I wish I could meet them all in person and tell them that! Come back to Hawaii anytime!

    ReplyDelete
  4. I truly like this article...WT

    ReplyDelete
  5. Just now came across this article. Chicago has always been my favorite band. Many years ago I had a variety / top forty band in the Inland Empire. I somehow ended up hiring Lou to play keyboards / key base. At the time I used several keyboard players (all from the L A area) to work for me. Lou quickly became my favorite. Not only was he great, but he was the most humble individual I ever worked with.
    He was never "too good" to work my gigs. His success couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for saying hello, Al. I totally agree. Lou is a class act, all the way. Very kind and genuine person, and a rare talent.

      Delete
  6. Great article. Thanks for sharing this in-depth information. My favorite band has been Chicago since the "beginning." I love the addition of Lou. He is a great fit, and a great talent.

    ReplyDelete