In a recording career spanning thirty-five years, Chicago has had remarkably few personnel changes. Four of the seven guys who recorded the band’s first album, Chicago Transit Authority, in 1969 will be here when the band shares the bill with Earth Wind & Fire next Tuesday at the Virginia Beach Amphitheater---keyboard player Robert Lamm and the horn section of James Pankow, Walt Parazeider and Lee Loughnane. The rhythm section has also been fairly stable, with only one change in each position----Jason Scheff replaced original bassist Peter Cetera in 1985 and Tris Imboden took over the drum chair from Danny Seraphine in 1990. Eighth man Bill Champlin was added in 1981 to provide support on vocals, keys and rhythm guitar.
But the lead guitar slot has been a different matter. After Terry Kath accidentally shot and killed himself in January of 1978, the band found his soulful musical style and personal vision difficult to replace. Over the next seventeen years, the group had several lead guitarists, all of whom were good enough players, but none of whom really filled the empty shoes that Kath had left behind.
In Richmond, Virginia, a young guitarist named Keith Howland was listening to Chicago records, making annual treks to Norfolk or D.C. with his family to see the band in concert, and soaking up the playing of Terry Kath and his successors.
“I was actually born in Silver Spring, Maryland,” Howland told me recently. “My father was an IBM-er. That stands for ‘I’ve Been Moved.’ We relocated from Silver Spring to Roanoke for a couple of years and then wound up in Richmond when I was in seventh grade. So I pretty much spent all my junior high and high school years in Richmond.”
Having taken up guitar at age seven, he played in bands while attending James Madison University, throwing “Beginnings” in with current hits by Billy Idol, Pat Benatar and The Police. Chicago came to the campus during his freshman year and he was there.
“It’s kind of funny,” he says as he recalls that night in Harrisonburg in 1982. “After the show was over, I went around and stood outside the backstage area just trying to get a glimpse of the guys---I was a huge fan. I saw Chris Pinnick milling around backstage through the glass doors of the Convocation Center. He was the guitar player at the time. And I just remember thinking to myself, ‘Man, that guy has the gig. That’s the luckiest man in rock and roll. What must it be like to be him?’”
After graduating from JMU in 1986 with a degree in Communications, he and his bass playing college roommate, Lance Morrison, returned to Richmond where they played with their own band and ran sound for others.
“Then, one day, we started talking about moving to L. A. And that was really the first time we’d even entertained the thought. When we were in college, we were just playing in bands and we had absolutely zero thought that we would go on to a career in music.”
He and Lance knew one person in Los Angeles, a guitarist who’d left JMU to try his luck on the music scene there. So in 1987, they drove cross-country “with a couple of guitars and basses and amps, and an old couch.”
Howland attended the Musician’s Institute in Hollywood and got a job with Andy Brauer Studio Rentals. He worked doing “cartage” for the big name studio musicians of the time, like Steve Lukather of Toto. (“I’d string up his guitars, load up the truck, go down and set him all up, put a piece of gum out for him. He would show up, plug in and play.”)
It turned out to be a great job for a young musician looking to make contacts in the business. In 1993, he joined Rick Springfield’s band for a summer tour. Two years later, he was in Chicago.
But lady luck and persistence played major roles in making his dream come true. A friend was working at a rehearsal facility in Los Angeles:
“He called me up and said Chicago’s down here auditioning guitar players…today. I had a brief moment where in my head, I sat there and thought, OK, what are my odds of actually being able to (A) get them to listen to me, and (B) today. I almost said it’s not even worth trying, turn the TV back on, make a pot of coffee and forget about it. But something inside me said ‘give it a shot.’
“So I threw my gear in my car with no idea of what was gonna happen. Now keep in mind, this was a closed audition. They had ten guys they were going to listen to; all had resumes longer than my arm.”
When he got to the studio, the musicians hadn’t arrived, but the crew was setting up. So Howland asked if he could get an audition, and was told to call the band’s management company. He did.
“They said, ‘Sorry we don’t know who you are, and they’ve got the guys they want to listen to.’ So I went back out to my car and was thinking what else could I do. One by one, I started seeing the guys filing in.
“I had had the good fortune a couple of months earlier of having met Jason Scheff, the guy who took Peter Cetera’s place. I was rehearsing with a band and Chicago was down the hall doing pre-production for their big band record. Jason knew our drummer and poked his head in and listened for a few minutes.
“Long story short, I saw Jason get out of his car. He was the last guy to show up. I hopped out and I just sorta said, ‘Hey do you remember me?’ And he looked at me like ‘No.’ ‘You know, I was a guitar player playing with that band a few months ago with Sergio on the drums.’ And he went, ‘Oh yeh yeh yeh.’”
Scheff took his phone number and said he’d see what he could do.
“He called me, and he told me later, ‘All I could remember was that you sounded like a good player. That was about it. So I thought it would be worth giving a listen.’
“They added an extra day on his word that it was worth listening to me. I went down by myself and played six tunes with the band. They offered me the gig on the spot. It was pretty unbelievable.”
He’s now in his tenth year with Chicago. (“I think I stopped pinching myself after about the first year.”) He’s also recorded his own instrumental albums including two new live CDs---one with Chicago drummer Tris Imboden, and one featuring his old friend Lance Morrison, who now plays bass with Don Henley, and Chris Pinnick, the “lucky” guy he saw through the glass back at JMU. They’re available at www.keithhowland.com.
Next Tuesday, July 6, the Keith Howland Fan Club will be out in force. His parents are coming from Richmond, and a lot of old high school and college friends always show up at the Amphitheater. They’ll see Keith Howland living out every musician’s dream, playing as a member of his favorite band.
copyright © 2004 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.