Chicago is an American rock band formed in 1967 in Chicago, Illinois. The self-described “rock and roll band with horns” began as a politically charged, sometimes experimental, rock band and later moved to a predominantly softer sound, generating several hit ballads. The group had a steady stream of hits throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Second only to The Beach Boys in Billboard singles and albums chart success among American bands, Chicago is one of the longest-running and most successful rock groups, and one of the world’s best-selling groups of all time, having sold more than 100 million records.
According to Billboard, Chicago was the leading US singles charting group during the 1970s. They have sold over 40 million units in the US, with 23 gold, 18 platinum, and 8 multi-platinum albums. Over the course of their career they have had five number-one albums and 21 top-ten singles.
Chicago Transit Authority and early success
The original band membership consisted of saxophonist Walter Parazaider, guitarist Terry Kath, drummer Danny Seraphine, trombonist James Pankow, trumpet player Lee Loughnane, and keyboardist/singer Robert Lamm. Parazaider, Kath, Seraphine, Pankow and Loughnane met in 1967 while students at DePaul University. Lamm was recruited from Roosevelt University. The group of six called themselves “The Big Thing”, and continued playing top 40 hits. Realizing the need for a tenor to complement baritone Lamm and Kath, they added local tenor and bassist Peter Cetera.
Jimi Hendrix once told Parazaider, “Jeez, your horn players are like one set of lungs and your guitar player is better than me.”
While gaining some success as a cover band, the group began working on original songs. In June 1968, they moved to Los Angeles, California under the leadership of their manager James William Guercio, and signed with Columbia Records. After signing with Guercio, The Big Thing changed their name to “Chicago Transit Authority”.
Their first record (April 1969), the eponymous Chicago Transit Authority, is a double album, which is rare for a band’s first release. It sold over one million copies by 1970, and was awarded a platinum disc. The album included a number of pop-rock songs – “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”, “Beginnings”, “Questions 67 and 68”, and “I’m a Man” – which were later released as singles.
When the actual Chicago Transit Authority threatened legal action soon after the album’s release, the band’s name was shortened to Chicago.
The 1970s: Chicago
The band released a second album, titled Chicago (retroactively known as Chicago II), which is another double-LP. The album’s centerpiece track is a seven-part, 13-minute suite composed by Pankow called “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon”. The suite yielded two top ten hits: “Make Me Smile” (No. 9 U.S.) and “Colour My World”, both sung by Kath. Among the other tracks on the album: Lamm’s dynamic but cryptic “25 or 6 to 4” (Chicago’s first Top 5 hit), which is a reference to a songwriter trying to write at 25 or 26 minutes before 4 o’clock in the morning, and was sung by Cetera with Terry Kath on guitar, the lengthy war-protest song “It Better End Soon”; and, at the end, Cetera’s 1969 moon landing-inspired “Where Do We Go from Here?”. The double-LP album’s inner cover includes the playlist, the entire lyrics to “It Better End Soon”, and two declarations: “This endeavor should be experienced sequentially”, and, “With this album, we dedicate ourselves, our futures and our energies to the people of the revolution. And the revolution in all of its forms.”
Chicago III would contain two hit singles. “Free” from Lamm’s “Travel Suite” would become the album’s biggest hit. The band would release LPs at a rate of at least one album per year from their third album in 1971 on through the 1970s. During this period, the group’s album titles invariably consisted of the band’s name followed by a Roman numeral, indicating the album’s sequence in their canon. The exceptions to this scheme were the band’s fourth album, a live boxed set entitled Chicago at Carnegie Hall, their twelfth album Hot Streets, and the Arabic-numbered Chicago 13. While the live album itself did not bear a number, each of the four discs within the set was numbered Volumes I through IV.
In 1971, the band released Chicago at Carnegie Hall Volumes I, II, III, and IV, consisting of live performances, mostly of music from their first three albums, from a week-long run at the famous venue. The packaging of the album also contained some rather strident political messaging about how “We [youth] can change The System”, including massive wall posters and voter registration information. Nevertheless, Chicago at Carnegie Hall went on to become the best-selling box set by a rock act, and held that record for 15 years. The fact that none of the first four titles were issued on single LPs was due to the productive creativity of this period and the length of the jazz-rock pieces.
In 1972 the band released its first single-disc release, Chicago V, which reached number one on both the Billboard pop and jazz album charts. It features “Saturday in the Park”, which mixes everyday life and political yearning in a more subtle way. It peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1972. Chicago would long open their concerts with the hit song. Another Lamm-composed hit song therein was “Dialogue (Part I & II)”, which featured a musical “debate” between a political activist (sung by Kath) and a blasé college student (sung by Cetera).
In 1973, Guercio produced and directed Electra Glide in Blue, a film about an Arizona motorcycle policeman. The film stars Robert Blake and features Cetera, Kath, Loughnane, and Parazaider in supporting roles. The group also appears prominently on the film’s soundtrack.
Other albums and singles followed in each of the succeeding years. 1973’s Chicago VI was the first of several albums to include Brazilian jazz percussionist Laudir de Oliveira and saw Cetera emerge as the main lead singer. Chicago VII, the band’s double-disc 1974 release, their 1975 release, Chicago VIII, featured the political allegory “Harry Truman” (#13) and the nostalgic Pankow-composed “Old Days” (#5). That summer also saw a joint tour across America with the Beach Boys, with both acts performing separately, then coming together for a finale.
1976’s Chicago X features Cetera’s ballad “If You Leave Me Now”, which held the top spot in the US charts (for two weeks) and the UK charts (for three weeks.) The song also won Chicago their only Grammy award, for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group in 1977. The tune almost did not make the cut for the album. “If You Leave Me Now” was recorded at the very last minute. The success of the song foreshadowed a later reliance on ballads.
The group’s 1977 release, Chicago XI, includes Cetera’s ballad “Baby, What a Big Surprise”, a No. 4 U.S. hit which became the group’s last top 10 hit of the decade.
Death of Terry Kath and transition Edit
1978 began with a split with Guercio. On January 23 of that same year, Kath died of an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound.
After auditioning over 30 potential replacements for Kath, Chicago decided upon guitarist/singer/songwriter Donnie Dacus. While filming for the musical Hair, he joined the band in April 1978 just in time for the Hot Streets album. Its energetic lead-off single, “Alive Again”, brought Chicago back to the Top 15; Pankow wrote it “originally as a love song but ultimately as recognition of Kath’s guiding spirit shining down from above.”
The 1978 album Hot Streets had producer Phil Ramone at the helm. It was Chicago’s first album with a title rather than a number; and was the band’s first LP to have a picture of the band (shot by photographer Norman Seeff) featured prominently on the cover (with the ubiquitous logo downsized). These two moves were seen by many as indications that the band had changed following Kath’s death. To a degree, the band returned to the old naming scheme on its subsequent releases, although most titles would now bear Arabic numerals rather than Roman numerals. Hot Streets, the band’s 12th album, peaked at No. 12 on the Billboard charts; it was Chicago’s first release since their debut to fail to make the Top 10. The release also marked a move somewhat away from the jazz-rock direction favored by Kath and towards more pop songs and ballads. Dacus stayed with the band through the 1979 album Chicago 13, and is also featured in a promotional video on the DVD included in the Rhino Records Chicago box set from 2003. Again produced by Ramone, it was the group’s first studio album not to contain a Top 40 hit. Dacus departed from the band shortly after the album’s release.
The 1980s: changing sound, and the ballads
Chicago XIV (1980), produced by Tom Dowd, relegated the horn section to the background on a number of tracks, and the album’s two singles failed to make the Top 40. Chris Pinnick joined the band to handle the guitar duties and would remain through 1985, and the band were also augmented by saxophone player Marty Grebb on the subsequent tour. Believing the band to no longer be commercially viable, Columbia Records dropped them from its roster in 1981 and released a second “Greatest Hits” volume (also known as Chicago XV) later that year to fulfill its contractual obligation.
In late 1981, the band had a new producer (David Foster), a new label (Warner Brothers), and the addition of keyboardist, guitarist, and singer Bill Champlin (Sons of Champlin). Percussionist Laudir de Oliveira and Marty Grebb departed from the band. During Foster’s stewardship, less of an emphasis was placed on the band’s horn-based sound, being replaced by lush power ballads, which became Chicago’s style during the 1980s. The new sound brought more singles success to the band than they had ever had prior to that point, but it reportedly caused internal friction within the band members, which in turn reportedly led to Cetera’s departure in 1985.
For the 1982 album Chicago 16, Foster brought in studio musicians for some tracks (including the core members of Toto), and used new technology (such as synthesizers) to “update” and streamline the sound, further pushing back the horn section, and in some cases not even using them at all. The band did return to the charts with the Cetera-sung ballad “Hard to Say I’m Sorry/Get Away”, which is featured in the soundtrack of the Daryl Hannah film Summer Lovers.
1984’s Chicago 17 became the biggest selling album of the band’s history, producing two more Top Ten (both No. 3) singles, “You’re the Inspiration” and “Hard Habit to Break”. The album included two other singles: “Stay the Night” (No. 16) and “Along Comes a Woman” (No. 14). Peter’s brother, Kenny Cetera, was brought into the group for the 17 tour to add percussion and high harmony vocals.