Only the beginning, only just a start

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and/or a compelling story to tell. In this essay, I take a slightly different tack with an in-depth look at a band with whom I’ve had a love/hate relationship. They’ve enjoyed considerable commercial success with different lineups, playing several very different musical styles from Big Band rock to sentimental ballads to synthesized pop, selling many millions of albums and singles, and are still active into their seventh decade, but I can’t say I count myself among their longtime faithful fan base. That band is Chicago.

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In the long-ago summer of 1969, I was 14 and seriously ramping up my modest record collection. I had abandoned the practice of buying 45-rpm singles and embraced the idea of owning albums instead. I bought LPs by The Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel, and I became drawn to the music of more boundary-expanding artists like Cream, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Steppenwolf and Blind Faith.

My friend Steve was similarly tuned into new bands that weren’t Top 40, and he’d periodically show up at my house with albums he thought I might like. One such record was a double album called “The Chicago Transit Authority.” Its most noticeable characteristic was that it had very prominent horns — trumpets, trombones, saxes — on pretty much every track. This was a substantial departure from the guitars-bass-drums-organ lineup of most bands at that time. No rock band I knew used horns beyond the occasional sax solo.

I was totally taken by this music. Growing up in a household with a father who often played Big Band, swing and Sinatra records, I loved the sound of a vigorous horn section, but as a kid of the ’60s, I also loved rock and roll. Now, on this “CTA” album, I had a merger of these two things — a rock band with horns. How cool was that?

The opening track, the aptly named “Introduction,” had lyrics that came right out and explained Chicago‘s mission:

“We’ve all spent years preparing before this group was born, /With Heaven’s help, it blended, and we do thank the Lord, /So this is what we do, sit back and let us groove, and let us work on you…”

Boy, they worked on me, all right. The great melodies, the infectious rock beats, ferocious electric guitar solos, strong lead vocals and harmonies, and the dominant, thrilling horn parts combined to create something really dynamic. I simply couldn’t get enough of this stuff: “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?,” “Questions 67 and 68,” “Someday,” “South California Purples,” “Listen,” “I’m a Man” and especially the exhilarating “Beginnings,” still one of my all-time favorite songs.

Only eight months later, the band made the unheard-of move of releasing another double album as their second release, this time titled simply “Chicago.” Again, the seven-piece group bowled me over with instantly likable songs (“Movin’ On,” “The Road,” “In the Country,” “Wake Up Sunshine, “Fancy Colours”), smart arrangements and solid musicianship across the board. The chief difference was that this time, the group found themselves riding high on Top 40 charts in 1970 with three big singles: the exuberant “Make Me Smile,” the guitar-driven rock classic “25 or 6 to 4” and everyone’s favorite prom slow-dance tune, “Colour My World.” Now I found myself sharing the magic of Chicago with every pop-loving teen in town, and I found that vaguely unsettling.

At this point the band was touring non-stop, performing nearly 300 gigs a year to capitalize on their chart success. I saw them do a show in a gymnasium at John Carroll University in Cleveland at this juncture and was totally impressed by their energy and tight ensemble playing.

L-R: Robert Lamm, Peter Cetera, Danny Seraphine, James Pankow,
Lee Loughnane, Walter Parazaider, Terry Kath

So it was very disappointing to me when they felt the need to release a third double album, “Chicago III,” in early 1971. Clearly, they had been overworked and stretched thin, because there weren’t more than two or three memorable tracks to be found. Three sides were taken up by grandiose “suites” filled with listless instrumentals, banal lyrics about eating Spam for breakfast (?) and meandering solos with little melody anywhere. If not for the vibrant “Free” and “Lowdown,” it would’ve been pretty much a total washout. Even the record label chose to go back to the debut LP and re-release “Beginnings” and “Questions 67 and 68” as singles since there was nothing suitable on “Chicago III”…

To make matters far worse, Chicago’s next move was a live album, which was in vogue at the time, but they turned a week-long stint at Carnegie Hall into a bloated four-album set completely lacking in the excitement I’d heard in concert only 10 months earlier. I think I listened to it only once, maybe twice, before getting rid of it. One of my worst album purchases ever.

The next summer, the band wisely focused on just nine quality tracks to comprise “Chicago V,” a single album that offered a return to solid melodies, integrated horn charts and great vocals. On the singles charts, “Saturday in the Park” was just about as much fun as “Beginnings” or “Make Me Smile.” Still, the adventurousness and immediacy which had so enthralled me when they entered the scene in 1969-1970 seemed to be missing (for me, at least), even though “Chicago V” became the first of five consecutive LPs to reach #1 on the album charts.

I need to mention one nagging truth about Chicago that bothered me from the outset. They (mostly keyboardist Robert Lamm, evidently) had a penchant for making political statements in some of their songs that, while well-intentioned, usually came across as simplistic and lame. A typical example is “Dialogue (Parts I and II),” which was curiously popular as a single in 1972. With lyrics written as a conversation between an activist and a clueless college student, the track was designed to coax people to take to the streets and speak out against war, injustice, etc. Its awkwardness made me cringe, and still does.

From that point on, I basically lost interest. I can’t deny the continuous stream of hit singles were engaging, even infectious — “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” “Just You ‘n Me,” “Call On Me,” “Old Days,” even the Peter Cetera heartbreaker ballad “If You Leave Me Now.” But I couldn’t get motivated to buy the albums. I guess the sheen had worn off for me, and I’d moved on to other bands, other genres.

Terry Kath

Chicago had always been one of those bands that remained an essentially faceless entity. Its members could go out in public and be unrecognized, and they liked it that way. Still, I was among many music industry observers who assumed the band would hang it up in 1978 following the unfortunate death of guitarist Terry Kath, Chicago’s inspirational leader and best instrumentalist. The idea that Chicago was “a rock and roll band with horns” pretty much died with Kath, as his fiery guitar work was the key ingredient in their rock band credentials. Indeed, no less a guitar god than Jimi Hendrix had been quoted in 1970 as saying, “Terry Kath plays better than me.”

But no. The band hired the first of several replacements for Kath, and soldiered on. Chicago, whose Roman numeral-titled albums were a source of some ridicule from those who labeled their music “corporate rock,” endured a comparatively fallow period during which their so-so chart performance matched their tired formula on the records. By 1982, Columbia Records, their label from the beginning, let them go.

This didn’t stop them from shopping around for another label and producer. Full Moon Records took the bait, and with notorious Canadian pop producer David Foster at the helm, Chicago re-emerged with an altogether different sound, still carried by bass player Peter Cetera’s strong tenor voice but now doing material written by outside songwriters, with almost no horns in sight. Veteran musician Bill Champlin joined the ranks, playing a substantial role in the soft-rock sounds favored by Foster and Cetera. The resulting album, “Chicago 16,” found a new, younger audience who responded favorably to the ’80s version of the group. Cetera’s smooth “Hard For Me To Say I’m Sorry” put them back at the top of the singles chart.

No longer filling stadiums or arenas, Chicago was now playing smaller halls as they built their new audience. I was reviewing concerts for a Cleveland newspaper at the time, and saw them at the Front Row, an intimate theater-in-the-round venue, and was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the show. The new songs didn’t do much for me, but it sure was great to hear the old stuff, both the hits and deeper album tracks.

Peter Cetera

Lamm, who had been such an important singer and composer for the band, became almost invisible as Cetera assumed the role of Chicao’s pretty-boy front man singing songs co-written for him by Foster and others. These tunes charted well (“Hard Habit to Break,” “You’re the Inspiration,” “Along Comes a Woman”), but their success went to Cetera’s head, who left the band in 1986 for a solo career and chose not to maintain ties with the group. He was famously absent when the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016.

A guy named Jason Scheff, a bassist with a tenor voice eerily similar to Cetera’s, joined in 1986, and he and Champlin became Chicago’s primary singers for the next five years, and through the ’90s and 2000s as well. Scheff got off to a rocky start when Foster made the misguided decision to feature a radical reworking of “25 or 6 to 4” as the first single from “Chicago 18,” which thankfully stalled at #48. Still, it was newcomer Scheff’s vocals that carried “Will You Still Love Me?” and “If She Would Have Been Faithful…”, both Top 20 hits.

Over the past 30 years, Chicago has remained a commercially viable band, touring periodically and releasing numerous greatest hits packages, a Christmas collection and even a winning tribute to Big Band music (a couple tracks are included in my Spotify playlist). But “Chicago XXX” in 2006 has been their only studio album of new original material since 1991.

Recently, I was urged to sit down and watch “Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago,” an award-winning documentary on the band, its successes and struggles, and I gotta tell you, it was an entertaining and eye-opening two hours well spent. It incisively tells the band’s story from initial rumblings up to the mid-2010s, and I urge anyone with even a passing interest in Chicago’s music to check it out. It’s currently available on Amazon.

I learned, for instance, that the three guys who have been Chicago’s consistent horn section for the entire life of the group — sax man Walter Parazaider, trombonist James Pankow and trumpeter Lee Loughnane — were all classically trained musicians who were headed for careers in the symphony until they were bitten by the rock and roll bug. That threesome, and Lamm and Kath, each logged thousands of hours practicing and gigging with fledgling bands in the Chicago area, honing their musical chops until they met up in 1967. Their mission, said drummer Danny Seraphine, was to blend the musical trends and traditions of their city — blues, jazz, rock, Big Band — into a brand new style and a new band that they initially called The Big Thing.

The excesses that plagued so many ’70s groups — The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin — took their toll on Chicago as well, according to the documentary. Original manager/producer Jim Guercio had played fast and loose with the band’s finances, pouring them into a new studio in Colorado and failing to pay royalties. Cocaine use among the band was rampant and destructive, negatively affecting interpersonal relationships. New members didn’t join the lineup seamlessly.

Chicago has always had its detractors. A review of the documentary in The Chicago Reader by a fellow named Bill Wyman (not the former Stones bassist) described it this way: “It’s an altogether fitting testament to Chicago’s hippie self-absorption and dopey excesses, all far out of proportion with both the amount of listenable music Chicago produced and its musical importance.” Ouch.

The venerable horn section: Pankow, Parazaider and Loughnane

But I’ll always have a soft spot for Chicago, if only for those first two groundbreaking albums that dared to fully integrate horns into a professional rock band. Thanks, guys, for bringing that dream to fruition all those years ago.

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The Spotify playlist below is, as you’d expect, heavy on the first two albums, but there’s also a hefty dose of material from their later work. Nearly every studio album is represented with at least one track in order to provide you with a representative cross section of Chicago’s entire career arc.