By on recently caught up with Chicago's Lee Loughnane to talk about the band’s current charity campaign that sees fans bid for the chance to sing onstage with their idols.

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The city of Chicago has been regarded by some as the hub of some of the greatest music to originate in America for much of the last century, providing the birthplace of Benny Goodman in 1909, and attracting the talents of Lionel Hampton in the 1920s and Muddy Waters in the 1940s. And it was this musical melting pot that lay the foundation for one of the most enduring acts in music history.

Chicago, the band that took the name of its city of origin, was formed in 1967 by Lee Loughnane, Peter Cetera, Robert Lamm, James Pankow, Terry Kath, Walter Parazaider and Danny Seraphine, and went on to record 32 albums – including 5 consecutive Number Ones – and 21 Top Ten singles, 11 of which hit the top spot on the charts. They’ve worked with musical heavyweights such as David Foster, Phil Ramone and Lenny Kravitz, and have topped sales of 100,000,000.

And they’re still going strong today, forty-five years later, hitting the road as much as they can to bring the tunes that everyone loves to their fans old and new. This year’s tour kicked off in the U.S. in Modesto, California on March 7, and will see them team up with the Doobie Brothers in July and August.

Chicago Live

You’re The Inspiration
Although music has driven the band since the beginning, charity keeps the beat at the heart of Chicago.

“For the last three years we have partnered with the American Cancer Society to raise money and awareness for breast cancer," says founding member Lee Loughnane, explaining the Sing With Chicago initiative that has been proving a hit with fans at the band’s concerts. “If you go to, you’ll see a pink banner on the top of the front page. If you click on the banner, you’ll see a list of dates that we’re playing. You choose the date that you’re going to be attending the show, and you make a bid for the chance to sing If You Leave Me Now with the band, get a couple of [premium] tickets, and get the chance to come backstage and talk with us, have some food, hang out.”

The initiative has already been so popular that the band has raised over $130,000 for the charity.

“The fans have been 100% on our side and supportive and happy that we’re doing this,” said Lee. “They really appreciate what we’re doing. People have been really enjoying doing it – whether they can actually sing or not is actually not important. They feel so empowered to be able to give something back for their loved ones. And that is usually what happens – either the singer is a survivor of breast cancer, or they know someone who is affected. And for us, that is very cool and gratifying to see them come up and have so much fun with the song.”

The experience of getting onstage and singing one of the band’s biggest songs with the group is extremely moving for all those who take part – there is even a Facebook group for the I Sang with Chicago initiative, where people have uploaded their performances.

“It ranges from people who are actual performers who walk around the stage and connect with the audience, to those who just stand there and sing like they’re in their own bathroom,” said Lee. “We don’t do any rehearsing with them, so its cold singing – and no matter what happens, we play the song. Sometimes they finish the song before we get to the end of the first verse – they’ve already finished singing! But no matter what happens, everyone has got a standing ovation.”

The American Cancer Society has been overwhelmed by the generosity of the band, with chief mission officer Terry Music saying: “We so are pleased that Chicago is offering this amazing opportunity for the third straight year, and that the band remains dedicated to using their musical talents to help us create a world with less breast cancer and more birthdays. What an exciting way for our supporters to fight breast cancer and have a once-in-a-lifetime experience onstage with a legendary band.”

Chicago is dedicating their 2012 US tour to Paqui Kelly, a breast cancer survivor, close friend of the band, and wife of Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly. Proceeds will help the American Cancer Society fight for every birthday threatened by breast cancer in every community – by helping people stay well, helping people get well, by finding cures, and by fighting back against this disease.

“It has been a really successful collaboration,” says Lee. “The most important thing is to keep the awareness out there.”

The initiative follows a similar program the band ran with VH1’s Save The Music Foundation in 1999, which saw young musicians join the band on stage to perform some of Chicago’s greatest hits.

Lee and Chicago are heading back on tour in April, and there are still plenty of opportunities to sing with the band. Click here to find out more.

A Hard Habit To Break
The ACS isn’t the only cause the band is supporting this year. A portion of the ticket sales for the coming tour will benefit two of the band’s other favorite charities.

“We also work with the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation and Hannah and Friends," said Lee. "The Ara Parseghian Foundation is seeking to cure Niemann-Pick Type C, which is a fatal disease that usually hits children before adolescence. Three of Ara’s grandchildren passed away from this disease, so we are trying to raise awareness of that to hopefully come up with a cure – as yet there is no cure. Hannah and Friends is [football coach] Charlie Weis’ charity, and his wife Maura put that together for their daughter, who is a special needs child.

“Our manager, Peter Shivarelli, went to Notre Dame University and played football when Ara Parseghian was still coaching. So when this problem with his grandchildren came up, Peter asked if he might be able to offer some assistance, and he came and asked the band if we were interested. And of course we said yes. And that’s when we started helping Ara 17 years ago.

“And then when Charlie Weis came to Notre Dame and Peter found out about Charlie’s charity of Hannah and Friends, he again asked if we could be of assistance, and again we said yes. So there is a Notre Dame connection.”

During their long career, Chicago have always given back where they can, something Lee Loughnane puts down to pure gratitude.

“It’s just great being able to give something back, because we have received so much being able to play music. It is just a joy to be able to do what we do and to use that platform to help others. And that is mainly the impetus behind it.”

Among Chicago’s other charity initiatives are a Halfway House residence in New York for mentally-challenged adults that the band established with Geraldo Rivera, a scholarship for music students at De Paul University that was set up following the tragic death of the band’s original guitarist Terry Kath, and work with WhyHunger that saw the band work with Earth, Wind and Fire and offered song downloads for donations of food and money to local food banks.

Lee says that we can all make a difference when it comes to making the world a better place: “Donate however much money you can afford to do, to feel like you’re giving something back. Every little bit helps. There is no amount that will not be accepted. Do whatever it is that you can, and that’s plenty.”

Baby, What A Big Surprise
Lee had some great news for Chicago fans when I spoke to him – he was actually in the middle of writing a new song when I rang.

“We’re going to start recording in the next couple of months,” he said. "We don’t know what the album is going to be called, whether it is going to be a complete album or just a few songs – we don’t know how long it is going to take, we’re just getting started right now. We’re pretty excited about starting new music.

“Since last March, we’ve been building our own web platform, so we will be able to deliver right from our website original music. We already have a program called Premium Access – a series of behind-the-scenes movies of the band in our travels – you see us on the bus and backstage, a look at what we do for a living. And in the next month or so we’re going to release a DVD, a documentary that we made of last year’s performances. That will be for members of Premium Access – those who have already have purchased Premium Access will have the chance to purchase this as well. We had a brief theatrical run with it in December, it was called One Night Only, and many people didn’t get a chance to see it. So now we’re going to offer it on the website.”

Look To The Stars thanks Lee Loughnane for taking the time to talk to us. Find out more about Chicago at the band’s official website. Visit the American Cancer Society here.

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