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Chicago

+ {Chicago Transit Authority}

Brewing up a hybrid of jazz, classical, R&B, soft-rock and contemporary pop, the mighty big thing CHICAGO – yes, from the windy city in Illinois – eased through more than one transition in their long and challenging career; a 50th anniversary in the pipeline. Whether one’s bag be major starting-point hits `25 Or 6 To 4’ and the equally puzzling `Questions 67 or 68’, or the identifiably intimate `If You Leave Me Now’, `Hard To Say I’m Sorry’ and power-ballad `Look Away’ (their trio of chart-toppers from the 70s and 80s), CHICAGO captured hearts and minds like taking candy from a baby or shooting fish in a barrel.
Originally named Chicago Transit Authority, by manager and producer James William Guercio, the large ensemble were the first multi-selling rock/pop band to include a horn section, and were nearly the most successful American group of all time – running pretty close behind THE BEACH BOYS, of course. Pity there was no imagination when coming up with successive album titles; even LED ZEPPELIN and, in turn, PETER GABRIEL succumbed to the chore.
As flower-power and/or AM pop started to take root among former garage/psych kids, so too did the jazzy R&B inclines that ensnared DePaul University students Walter Parazaider (reeds/woodwind/sax), Lee Loughnane (trumpet) and James Pankow (trombone), who’d moonlighted for pin-money in the city’s bars and clubs, spurred on by the groundwork laid down by The BEATLES when `Got To Get You Into My Life’ facilitated horns.
Rehearsals began on February 15, 1967, when the power-brass trio, plus local players Terry Kath (vocals/guitar) and Danny Seraphine (drums), called upon Brooklyn-born Robert Lamm (vocals/organ) to audition at Walter’s parents’ basement. The Big Thing – as they were initially billed – gelled immediately, and performed as an R&B covers outfit around the city until they were spotted by the aforementioned Guercio. An in-house producer at Columbia Records, the final piece of jigsaw was when they added former Exceptions vocalist/bassist Peter Cetera to the fold. The septet – featuring three lead singers! – redirected themselves to Hollywood, Los Angeles, where they signed a permanent contract with said Columbia, albeit some 18 months down the line and under the guidance of guru Guercio, who’d become their manager, producer and overseer; he set up digs for them in a two-bedroom house where practice made perfect. But had the equally brass-friendly BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS pipped them to the jazz-pop post?
With only a simple logo and no photo cover-shot to speak of, the death-defying debut double-LP, CHICAGO TRANSIT AUTHORITY {*7}, was dispatched in spring ‘69, stunning critics with an eclectic fusion of genres, including good ol’ spirited R&B. By the end of the year, the eponymous Top 20 treasure (UK Top 10) had sold an awesome two million copies, helped by pop overtones of minor airplay hits, `Questions 67 and 68’, `Beginnings’ and a cover of the STEVE WINWOOD-penned/SPENCER DAVIS GROUP cue, `I’m A Man’, downsized from its original 7 minutes. If listeners had made it all the way to the funky, free-flowing finale of Pankow’s 14-minute instrumental, `Liberation’ (jazz-rock’s answer to IRON BUTTERFLY’s `In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’), they’d be hooked for life.
Like the proverbial domino effect, this marked the beginning of a string of unforgettable albums which all bore the trimmed logo and, after the eponymous CHICAGO (1970) {*8} – aka the double! “Chicago II” – were simply titled under their successive numerical order. Crossing a universal divide that Americans and Brits seemed to equally appreciate, an hour’s worth of diversions and streams of consciousness gave the group plenty scope to traverse their prog-jazz syncopation and classical traits into positive notations. Paraded among such highfaluting movements, suites and cross-pollinations were big hitters `Make Me Smile’, `25 Or 6 To 4’ and concert fave, `Colour My World’; the septet’s aura was such that `Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?’ (from their debut) made it three consecutive Top 10 entries.
1971’s CHICAGO III {*7} – you guessed it: a double! – proved the cacophonous combo versatile as well as multi-faceted, complementing individual contributions (mainly brassy “Suites”, solos and “Elegies”) from Lamm, Kath, Pankow and Co; Cetera & Seraphine’s `Lowdown’ and Lamm’s formidable `Free’, stretched out some deserved pop-chart airtime.
Vinyl excess culminated in CHICAGO’s fourth set, the all-encompassing quadruple live-in-concert boxed set AT CARNEGIE HALL (1971) {*5} – recorded over five nights in New York that April. Remarkably entering the Top 3, although left at the starting gate by discerning British fans, the tight ensemble were free to flex their muscular musicianship over nearly 3 hours of best-bits and jams from the previous few years. A precursor to “Yessongs” and ELP’s “Welcome Back My Friends…” triples, at least CHICAGO – or indeed Guercio – had the kahunas to get away with such a formidable feat.
Praise be neither a 5-times album boxed-set, nor a directive double(!), the streamlined single-set CHICAGO V (1972) {*7} brought some sanity to the band’s bona fide crack at rock/pop recognition. Recalling all the close harmonies of The BEACH BOYS, CSN or a Tamla Motown act, the buoyant and busy chart-topper was made all the more friendly by Top 3 hit, `Saturday In The Park’ – one of Lamm’s most upbeat pieces; ditto, the accessible `Dialogue (Parts I & II)’, another in their long line of successes.
A relaxed and horizontal factor played its part in the recording of CHICAGO VI (1973) {*7}, their first chart-topper cut at Guercio’s custom-built Caribou Studios retreat. Particularly prolific in his role as main scribe, Lamm’s succinct soft-rock ballads `Critics’ Choice’ and `Something In This City Changes People’, were somewhat overshadowed by Cetera & Pankow’s `Feelin’ Stronger Every Day’ and the latter’s equally Top 10-touching `Just You ‘N’ Me’.
Searching for the methodology and mood lost somewhere in their previous couple of efforts, the group updated their jazz-fusion credentials with the recurring double-disc ethos of CHICAGO VII (1974) {*6}. Not content with seven players of distinction underlining their unmistakable talent, additional guest musicians David J. Wolinski (on ARP synth) and percussionist Laudie DeOliveira (who featured on “VI”) and the harmonies of The BEACH BOYS were utilised on a handful of tracks. In a direction equally occupied by SANTANA, WEATHER REPORT and RETURN TO FOREVER, the opening quarter of the set was down to mainly Seraphine and Parazaider that culminated in the 10-minute `Devil’s Sweet’. A sprawling affair, that also housed no less than three major hits (`I’ve Been) Searching So Long’, `Call On Me’ and the truly gorgeous `Wishing You Were Here’), CHICAGO were yer two-fer-one combo, albeit a loss-leader in the now less than impressed British market.
Reverting to their nostalgic MOR/R&B traits, CHICAGO VIII (1975) {*5} – showcasing the RANDY NEWMAN-esque `Harry Truman’ (#13) and Pankow’s `Old Days’ (#5) hits – once again positioned the soft-rock group at the top of the heap. As rivals to the jazz-pop crown BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS looked to be fading fast into no-man’s land, CHICAGO had defied the odds and their critics with yet another chart-topping LP: the collective treasure that was CHICAGO IX: CHICAGO’S GREATEST HITS (1975) {*9}. Even a compilation album was afforded a number.
Upgrading the aforementioned DeOliveira to a bona fide member of the Chi clan, 1976’s multi-Grammy repertory, CHICAGO X {*6}, had one song that was worth the admission price alone: the octet’s inaugural transatlantic chart-topper, `If You Leave Me Now’. Sung by songwriter Cetera, the smoochiest single on the planet (bar none) was not typical of the other sassy brass tracks on board; the previous Top 40 entry, `Another Rainy Night In New York City’ (very SEALS & CROFT) and `You Are On My Mind’, excelled in exotic tropological motifs.
As par for the course, the Top 10-only CHICAGO XI (1977) {*7} displayed all of the romantic codes (a la `Baby, What A Big Surprise’), with soft-shoe vocals and, as always, a memorable horn section, which, in itself, proved CHICAGO’s talent to drive a song into new heights, was still intact. Not so striking were the relative failure of 45s, `Little One’ and `Take Me Back To Chicago’, even when released on the back of the tragic death on January 23, 1978, of gun enthusiast Terry Kath, who accidentally shot himself in the head; Texas-born guitarist Donnie Dacus (ex-STEPHEN STILLS) was chosen to replace him when the time was right.
In the aftermath, the troupe became even more familiar with swooping ballads, which the majority of their audience seemed to appreciate, although one would argue that they’d peaked with their earlier works. Fresh fans investigating their past would be in for a big surprise, or indeed, shock (delete as appropriate). Breaking from tradition, though very briefly, 1978’s disappointing HOT STREETS {*5} – er… uncannily peaked at No.12. It was around about this point that the band slowly began to show signs of commercial fatigue: they’d also left their long-term manager Guercio. Now produced by Phil Ramone, `Alive Again’ and `No Tell Lover’ had registered in the higher echelons of the singles charts, but in competition with The DOOBIE BROTHERS, STEELY DAN and AVERAGE WHITE BAND, veterans CHICAGO sounded more akin to a suburban-ite EARTH, WIND & FIRE.
The musical landscape had been switching to new wave for some time now, without the group taking much notice. Turning their rhythmic, brassy elements over to disco, CHICAGO 13 (1979) {*3}, stalled one place outside the Top 20, caused by the failure to communicate with flops, `Must Have Been Crazy’, `Street Player’ and Cetera’s `Mama Take’. As Dacus moved aside for Chris Pinnick (an auxiliary member at first), 1980’s CHICAGO XIV {*4} bombed completely; both the album and its attendant 45, `Thunder And Lightning’, failing to get anywhere near the Top 50. And as a result, “Greatest Hits, Volume II” (1981) – in effect number “15” – sold so poorly, immediate changes were put in place.
Leaving behind Columbia for the enterprising Warner Brothers offshoot, Full Moon Records, and enlisting former SONS OF CHAMPLIN commander-in-chief Bill Champlin (to supersede D’Oliveira), a corner had been turned for CHICAGO 16 (1982) {*6}. Another difference or dimension to their beefier sound was producer David Foster, who also helped transcend the ensemble from disco wannabes to an AOR/arena-rock act, albeit with one smoothed-out exception, their return to chart-topping territory: `Hard To Say I’m Sorry’ (UK Top 5). Focusing on Cetera’s lighter lead vox and the BEE GEES-styled harmonies, producers of the Daryl Hannah movie, Summer Lovers, garnered it further filmic praise and guaranteed the set a place in the Top 10. `Love Me Tomorrow’ found a formula in its slick ballad approach, pushing Cetera even further to the forefront.
The band continued to flaunt their dizzy orchestrations and trademark jazz-pop textures with CHICAGO 17 (1984) {*7}, a Top 5 record that reconciled them with the Top 5, their first in several sets and, indeed, years. Buoyed by three of their most stream-lined, slickest and sophisticated power ballads ever: `Stay The Night’, `Hard Habit To Break’ and `You’re The Inspiration’ (the synth-shiny `Along Comes A Woman’ also of Top 20 status), their fabric and foundations had been restored.
However, with attention zooming in on the talents of PETER CETERA, he exited stage left to find solace in a lucrative solo career; the similarly-shaped `The Glory Of Love’ and `The Next Time I Fall’ (the latter featuring Amy Grant) both scaling the top spot. Filling not only his berth but that of Pinnick’s, the young 20-something Jason Scheff (son of ELVIS’s former bassist Jerry) launched his career on CHIGAGO 18 (1986) {*3}, a record that tried in vain to echo it predecessor. Once again, just simply mirroring previous haunts didn’t always prove fruitful and, although it heralded yet another big hitter, `Will You Still Love Me?’ (#3), and the not so towering `If She Would Have Been Faithful…’ (#17), slow sales figures of the said set showed up CHICAGO to be behind that of CETERA; an interesting re-working of `25 Or 6 To 4’ induced a Marmite effect on their loyal fanbase.
Adding guitarist Dawayne Bailey to the line-up for CHICAGO 19 (1988) {*4}, sales for the soft-rock Top 50 album did nowhere near match the Top 10 highs of attendant 45s, `I Don’t Wanna Live Without Your Love’, `Look Away’ (their third and final No.1), `You’re Not Alone’ and `What Kind Of Man Would I Be?’.
On the back of their “Greatest Hits 1982-1989” compilation, and prior to TWENTY 1 (1991) {*3}, Tris Imboden (ex-HONK, ex-KENNY LOGGINS BAND) replaced Seraphine, but a new decade did not bode well for a group seemingly playing safe and going through the motions; only `Chasin’ The Wind’ (their final Top 40 flourish) had nationwide appeal.
If outsiders thought things couldn’t get worse (not that Bailey’s replacement Bruce Gaitsch was bad), Giant Records gave the once great CHICAGO a chance to swing back in time on 1995’s NIGHT & DAY: BIG BAND {*3}. Critics had a field day, as the group took one down memory lane on several Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller nuggets of nostalgia.
As Gaitsch moved over for Keith Howland, the festive-friendly CHICAGO 25: THE CHRISTMAS ALBUM (1998) {*6} was not at all as schmuck as it sounded; the ensemble taking us through some enterprising arrangements and fireside harmonies. 1999’s crooning CHICAGO 26: LIVE IN CONCERT {*5} was basically a run-through of all their live faves, fashionably re-worked for the day’s more discerning market; check out the finale which pitted the guys alongside MICHAEL McDONALD on JACKIE WILSON’s `(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher’.
The numerical fixation going awry somewhat with their many AWOL-period exploitation and compilations sets, the near-Top 40, Jay Demarcus-produced CHICAGO XXX (2006) {*6}, brought back some sunnier climes to a band thought to be dead in the water. Okay, it was mainstream and as stream-lined as any “Doobie Dan” reformation, but there was light at the end of the tunnel on tracks like `Feel’, `King Of Might Have Been’ and `Caroline’.
Bypassing the near-lost 1993 recording, STONE OF SISYPHUS: XXXII {*5} – finally issued in 2008! – and another holiday-time album, CHICAGO XXXIII: O CHRISTMAS THREE (2011) {*5} – featuring Champlin’s replacements Lou Pardini (vocals, keyboards) and Drew Hester (percussion) – it was indeed good to hear something fresh from the team. Adding percussionist Walfredo Reyes, Jr. (ex-SANTANA) when Hester drew out, NOW: CHICAGO XXXVI (2014) {*6} sounded pleasing to the ear, showcasing a band who could splash out the horns as easily as coming up with some slick and straightforward songs, though mainly for folks to sit back and enjoy with a glass of wine… and er… cheese.
© MC Strong 1994-2004/GRD // rev-up MCS Jan2016

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