It was a long time coming, but in April Chicago were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Eligible since 1994, the popular and iconic band hadn't even been nominated until this year when they finally broke through and claimed their place among music's greats. Not that fans ever doubted that status. Having toured every year since they first formed almost 50 years ago, Chicago have never stopped providing their devoted following with performances that are jam-packed with hits and bring audiences to their feet.
As the original members of Chicago took the stage to accept the honor, sitting ringside was Chicago fan Keith Howland who also happens to be the group's guitarist. His leap from fan to band member began more than 20 years ago when he was a struggling musician in Los Angeles and got a phone call that changed his life forever.
"I had done a couple of tours by that time, one with Rick Springfield and one with Patty Smyth, and I was basically looking for my next gig," says Howland. "I got a phone call from a buddy of mine who worked on guitar rigs at Third Encore which was a rehearsal facility in L.A. I told him I was looking for my next job and asked if he could let me know if he heard about any auditions. Later I got a call from him, and he said 'I know this is last minute, but Chicago is down here looking for a new guitarist. The audition is closed, and they have eight guys coming in today. But maybe you should come down here and try to get in?'
"I hung up the phone, poured myself another cup of coffee and thought about putting The Young and The Restless back on. But then something inside of me thought 'You know what? This is your dream gig, so why don't you go down there and see if you can make something happen.'"
When band members like Robert Lamm and James Pankow began arriving at the facility, Howland was too nervous to approach them. Then Jason Scheff, bassist and lead singer of the group, came along, and Howland made his move. He had met Scheff once before and asked if Scheff remembered him. He didn't. But after some small talk there was a glimmer of recognition, enough to persuade Scheff to talk to his bandmates about giving Howland a shot. He was hired that day. And that's how a kid whose brother bought him his first Chicago album ends up a member of the band and reveling in their induction into the Hall of Fame.
"It was definitely an amazing night," he says. "My wife was there to witness it with me, and from a fan perspective and a performer's perspective, it was just incredible. I got to watch Deep Purple and Steve Miller accept their induction, and I got to see Cheap Trick perform. And then I took the stage with Chicago and got to play the guitar solo on '25 or 6 to 4.' It was a bizarre evening for me, because I sat there and watched five guys from our band go up and speak, these guys I've been working with for 22 years now and then go up on stage and perform. It was the old me and the new me, the Chicago fan and a member of the band."
The old and new can also describe the personnel from Chicago which took the stage that night. The vocalist was Jason Scheff, who came in to replace Peter Cetera in 1985, making his tenure longer than Cetera's. The same can be said of Howland.
"I saw a graphic recently which was interesting. It was a timeline of all the members of Chicago, and I've been in the band almost as long as all of the other guitarists combined. And when I joined, I thought I was just going to get a summer tour out of it."
While he says he's accepted his good fortune and finds his membership in this historic band "normal," he says a recent experience did provide some perspective for him.
"I found out that Toto was playing a show on our night off in Iowa. I've loved Toto since I was a kid, and I'm a big fan of Steve Lukather. Steve's a friend now because I was his guitar tech for a while, which was what I was doing when I was trying to establish myself in L.A. I sent him a text and asked if I could get a couple tickets so a friend and I could come to the show. Then Robert Lamm heard Toto was playing and wanted to come along. And one by one other members of the band wanted to come along too. So I sent another text to Steve and asked if I could have eight tickets instead of the pair I originally asked for. I just had a pinch-me moment and had to call my brother to say 'I just sent a text to Steve Lukather asking for tickets so my band Chicago and I could go see Toto in concert. If you had told me when I was a kid that I could say that, I'd have laughed in your face.'"
Howland's history with the band, along with the 25 years that preceded his joining Chicago, is part of a documentary released this year called Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago. Directed by Peter Pardini, son of Chicago keyboardist Lou Pardini, the film chronicles the full history of the band and includes archival footage from members' own home movies. While that film is helping to chart the band's past, the current lineup is striving to keep the group moving forward. Their most recent album, released in 2014, may not be the last, though no immediate plans are in place for recording. And, of course, they'll continue to tour, playing solo in markets like Fort Wayne and in tandem with Earth, Wind & Fire at future gigs in larger venues. Sharing the stage with bands like that has provided more "pinch me" moments for Howland.
"Besides being able to play with Chicago, we tour with bands like Huey Lewis and the News; REO Speedwagon; Earth, Wind & Fire; Little River Band, the Beach Boys; Crosby, Stills & Nash; Hall and Oates - it's just amazing. We always end up playing with them at some point during the show, and I think 'Wow, Kevin Cronin just high-fived me' or 'Verdine White just danced by and winked at me.' It's just an incredible ride. I can't imagine what my life would have been if I had decided to turn on The Young and The Restless that day."