Chicago on a Desert Island
Chicago on a Desert Island
A Q&A with Rick Johnston
Of Chicago Authority
By Geoff Gehman
It took Rick Johnston all of 6:35 to join the Chicago Transit Authority band wagon. Then a high schooler, he was immediately hooked by “Introduction,” the kaleidoscopic first track on the group’s 1969 recording debut. Listening to a friend’s brand-spanking-new copy, he was bowled over by tunes–“Beginnings,” “Questions 67 and 68,” “I’m a Man”—that were explosive and implosive, elastic and integrated, deep in the pocket and outer space. He was so captivated, in fact, he decided to expand his five-piece ensemble to nine pieces with horns.
Four decades later, Johnston still rides the band wagon of the band long known as Chicago. He’s the singing lead guitarist and manager of Chicago Authority, which he launched in 2013 to perform numbers by an ensemble that revolutionized jazz/rock guided by guitars, keyboards and horns. Based in the Buffalo area, the nine musicians play top-shelf versions of hits (“25 or 6 to 4”), deep cuts (“South California Purples”) and recent tracks (“Something’s Coming, I Know”). Johnston sings lead on such numbers as “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” and channels the locomotive, liberating licks of Terry Kath, a favorite guitarist of Jimi Hendrix, a fellow technical and spiritual pioneer.
On March 24 Johnston and his mates will make their debut at the Mauch Chunk Opera House. Below, in a conversation from his home in North Tonawanda, N.Y, he discusses why he loves looking “under the hood” of Chicago arrangements, why other rock bands don’t have brass players who are true-blue teammates, and why Kath’s signature solo in “25 or 6 to 4” takes him to places and spaces he sometimes can’t remember visiting.
Q: Can you remember the first song you couldn’t forget, the one that absolutely laid you flat?
A: For me it was “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys; that was basically a game changer. I heard it in 1966, when I was 12. I had been learning to play instruments and I was singing in a chorus and our chorus teacher started showing us different chord arrangements and harmonies. And then I heard that song and I was able to apply that knowledge and it was, wow, something brand new for me. Not to mention the fact that it was brilliantly put together by Brian Wilson, who is in a class by himself.
Q: What was the first Chicago tune that put you in the band’s wheelhouse?
A: We had a five-piece band in high school and one of the guys said “You have to hear this”—Chicago’s first album–and we basically unwrapped it and put it on. The first track on the first disc was “Introduction” and we just sat there with our jaws on the floor; it took a while to pick them up. After that, our five-piece band became a nine-piece with horns. Our first set was full of Chicago songs and our second set was basically tunes from Blood, Sweat & Tears.
Q: Why did you decide it was high time to start a band dedicated to performing Chicago originals?
A: The sax player [Jack Prybylski] and I formed the band because we both loved the music and we wanted to celebrate it. We had been kicking around the idea since the mid-’70s; he was one of the people who hung out with us as musicians in high school. We lost track of each other and after we reconnected we decided to turn our idea into a reality. We like to tell people that we took so long to start the band because we had to wait for the trumpet player and the singer to be born [laughs]. We joke that we basically called the trumpet player’s parents and said: Hey, why don’t you guys go to a drive-in [to conceive a future trumpeter]?
Q: How slavishly accurate and authentic are you when it comes to following Terry Kath’s guitar equipment and style of playing? Do you, for example, have a Chicago Blackhawks sticker on your Telecaster?
A: I do not [laughs]. I don’t play Kath’s parts note for note, partly because I feel I’d be directly compared to him, and that comparison is pretty tough when Jimi Hendrix says [to Kath’s Chicago comrades]: “Your guitar player is better than me.” It doesn’t really make sense to play note for note because he didn’t play things the same way every time; he had more of an improvisational jazz background. It’s just mind blowing what he fit into those songs, so I’d rather channel what he played. Playing note for note would also get me compared to the killer guitar players who followed him [after Kath died in 1978 after accidently shooting himself in the head]: Steve Lukather, Dawayne Bailey, and Keith Howland, who is a monster.
Q: Kath’s solo in “25 or 6 to 4” is a rock landmark: locomotive, swashbuckling, washboarding, wah-wahing, all over the map, epic. Take us inside the solo and tell us where it takes you.
A: The first eight bars are iconic, so I stay true to them. The last eight bars, when the band comes back in, are also iconic, so I stay true to those, too. What happens in between is anyone’s guess, including mine. The solo is basically an A Minor progression that becomes a battle between control and uncertainty. The incredible speed, the incredible up and down [on the fretboard], the pretzel fingerings, the emotions, the stamina—it just takes me out to a different place—sometimes far out. The guys in the horn section are coming up to me and slapping hands and saying “What a solo you played!” and I’ll say “I don’t remember what I played.” That’s just pure channeling. It’s a high that is legal.
Q: Are you tempted to slide Kath’s six-minute-long “Free Form Guitar” into gigs?
A: I did that once for about 20 seconds and people were looking at me as if to say “What are you doing?” So I decided: I’m not going to do that anymore [laughs]. One day I probably will incorporate a bit of “Free Form Guitar,” just the feedback and the tapping, just for the fans. Kath was definitely an innovator: it had to be about 10 years later that Eddie Van Halen came up with his tapping technique.
Q: You’re a little short in the hair department, so you can’t duplicate Kath’s shoulder-length bangs, which were always flying over his eyes as he was bouncing and bobbing around.
A: I actually did go out and buy a hat similar to the one he wore in the ’70s; I believe it’s called a newsboy cap. I wear a hat because it’s a lot cheaper than a toupee [laughs].
Q: Chicago shook up the concept of a rock band by introducing truly integrated, articulate horns that play much more than two- or three-note exclamations over and over. Why don’t more rock groups have horns that play meaningful conversations?
A: The biggest hurdle is finding horn players who can play together. If they don’t play together, it doesn’t sound right. The second hurdle is you have to have an exceptional trombone player; there’s nothing worse than an out-of-tune trombone player. Third, horn arrangements tend to be very structured. There may be a 16-bar rest and when the players come back in, they have to know how long they can stretch or shorten a solo. You’re basically tied to the horn charts, and a lot of bands don’t like that. A lot of bands today have a sax player in the studio who plays like he’s a horn section by himself, which adds a lot more color to the arrangements. But most acts when they play live will have the horn parts played on synthesizer. It probably has to do with saving money; it’s cheaper not to have three extra people.
Q: What do you understand and admire about Chicago that you didn’t before you began playing the band’s songs in public for money?
A: What hits me now is the nuance. The songs are brilliantly written and layered; there’s a whole lot going on under the hood that the casual listener misses. There’s this great back and forth between the horns and the keyboards and the guitar and the bass and drums and the vocals, and each one of them gets enough room to say: Hey, I’m here, too. It’s mind boggling how well produced those early songs are. [Producer James William] Guercio had something to do with it but those guys in the band were the ones sitting in a room for a year and making those great arrangements. That nuance is what really keeps me going and looking under the hood.
Q: I’m not a fan of the ’80s edition of Chicago, when the band churned out blow-dried hits like “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” and “You’re the Inspiration.” Do you feel obliged, or pressured, to dip into that box of ear candies?
A: Those hits have to be played because we’re appealing to a certain demographic; we do have to sell tickets. In Jim Thorpe we’d be remiss if we didn’t play “You’re the Inspiration” and “Hard Habit to Break,” if nothing else to let the fans know that we are fans. We even play tunes from the latest album, the title track [“Now”] and “Something’s Coming, I Know.” It’s all part of a nearly three-hour show that celebrates a 50-year legacy. [Saxophonist] Jack [Prybylski] likes to joke that he hopes people have brought their sleeping bags.
Q: You balance the early and late hits with deep cuts like “South California Purples,” an often overlooked track from the first album. Why did you decide to break the glass on that one?
A: It’s just a great song. It’s fun to play on guitar and our drummer [Keith Spurlock] sings the heck out of it. When we first formed the band we wanted to do a little more than play just the hits; you can go see the original band and hear those. So we all chose a bunch of songs we wanted to play, including deeper album cuts. We rotate those because as a regional band we tend to play the same places and we don’t want to burn it out.
Q: So, Rick, what tops your Bucket List?
A: Musically, I’d love to perform a few songs with Chicago. Non-musically, my wife and I would like to sell everything, get on a boat, and do what’s called America’s Great Loop. We’re headed in that direction; we’re about a year and a half away. We just have to make sure the boat is near an airport and the band.
Q: And what tops your Fuck It List?
A: I have no time for close-minded people. I enjoy hearing differing opinions; I guess I’m an innocent—64 going on 18. When close-minded people cover their ears and close their eyes and go “la la” when they hear a differing opinion–that gets my goat. I guess I would say my mind is closed to close-minded people.
Rick Johnston: The Scoop
A former engineer for concert sound systems, he works full time in the electronics systems field.
He basically stopped playing guitar for 10 years after a 1988 car accident popped tendons in his left hand. “I could play, but it was absolute torture.” It took him a decade to relearn to play comfortably and confidently.
His desert-island Chicago album is the band’s same-named 1970 second double-disc release, featuring “Colour My World,” “25 or 6 to 4” and “In the Country.”
He enjoys booking Chicago Authority concerts as benefits for a private library that was public and a foundation that gives instruments to youngsters whose schools have drastically downsized or eliminated music programs. “We’re not in this for the money. We’re all seasoned musicians, we’ve all sown our seeds in the music industry, so it’s time to give something back.”
As Chicago Authority’s manager, he juggles the schedules of nine musicians who perform in five groups, as well as two brass players who coordinate athletic bands at the University of Buffalo.
He roots for the Buffalo Bills.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. “I’m a Man,” “Beginnings” and “25 or 6 to 4” are his desert-island Chicago tunes. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.