While the past few years have seen various 50th anniversary celebrations of rock bands that started in the 60s, such as the Beach Boys, Cream and this year The Doors, only very few have consistently performed for five decades. Chicago is one of them. The only other band I can think of that can truly match this record is The Rolling Stones.
Chicago’s story started in Feb 1967 – according to a Daily Herald article I found, it was Feb 15 that year. Then, James Pankow (trombone, keyboards, percussion, vocals), Walter Parazaider (woodwinds, backing vocals), Terry Kath (guitar, bass, vocals), Danny Seraphine (drums, percussion), Lee Loughnane (trumpet, guitar, percussion, vocals), Robert Lamm (keyboards, vocals) and Peter Cetera (bass, guitar, vocals) formed a band called “The Big Thing.” While the lineup has changed numerous times over the years, Pankow, Parazaider, Loughnane and Lamm have remained as original members.
Initially, The Big Thing was a cover band playing top 40 hits. Prompted by their manager, James William Guercio, they moved to Los Angeles in June 1968, got a contract with Columbia Records and changed their name to Chicago Transport Authority. At that time, they had started to work on own material. In April 1969, CTA released its eponymous double album, which by 1970 had sold over one million copies. Among others, it includes the classic Does Anybody Really Know What Time It is? and a great cover version of the Spencer Davis Group’s I’m A Man.
The album’s fusion of jazz and rock is reminiscent of Blood, Sweat & Tears, which is not a coincidence. A few months earlier, Guercio had produced that band’s hugely successful eponymous second studio album. During CTA’s tour to support their debut album, the actual transit authority of Chicago threatened legal action, forcing the band to shorten its name to Chicago. Just nine months later, in January 1970, Chicago released its second studio album, Chicago, another double release that later became known as Chicago II. It featured three top 10 Billboard Pop Singles, including Make Me Smile, Color My World and my favorite Chicago tune, 25 or 6 to 4.
After an extended tour, the band’s third studio album appeared in January 1971. While Chicago III, yet another double album, did not yield any major hits, it saw the band introduce new musical styles, including funk and country. A great example is the opener Sing a Mean Tune Kid, which features a cool funky guitar sound by Terry Kath. Kath also shines with Jimi Hendrix-like guitar riffs on I Don’t Want Your Money. Speaking of Hendrix, he once told Parazaider, “Your horn players are one set of lungs and your guitar player is better than me.”
Chicago continued to release new studio albums each year. Chicago X, the band’s eighth studio release appearing in June 1976, yielded its first No. 1 single, If You Leave Me Now. Written by Cetera, the Grammy award-winning ballad prominently features string arrangements and acoustic guitars, foreshadowing the band’s focus on pop ballads during the “Cetera era.” This was continued with Cetera’s Baby, What a Big Surprise on the follow-up, Chicago XI, though in the wake of its releases the album brought more change to Chicago than continuity. It was the band’s last record prior to Kath’s accidental death with a gun and the last album produced by Guerico.
Chicago 16, released in 1982, completed the band’s full transition to soft rock, driven by Cetera and new producer David Foster. The ballad Hard to Say I’m Sorry became Chicago’s second No. 1 single in the U.S. The follow-up, 1984’s Chicago 17, continued the successful formula. It became Chicago’ best-selling album, fueled by four top 10 singles: You’re the Inspiration, Hard Habit to Break, Stay the Night and Along Comes a Woman. While the band enjoyed unprecedented commercial success, tensions rose over Cetera’s and Foster’s artistic dominance.
According to a CNN documentary, Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago, which aired on Jan 1, 2017, the other band members felt that Cetera increasingly regarded Chicago as his back-up band. Cetera who had physically shaped up also became the focus in the band’s videos recorded for MTV. The cameras mostly ignored the rest of the band. Things came to a boil when Cetera started a solo career and sought an arrangement where Chicago would take breaks after tours to allow him to focus on his solo work. The band rejected, and by the summer of 1985 Cetera was out.
Interestingly, Chicago continued to work with Foster on 1986’s Chicago 18, before switching to Ron Nevison who produced the next two albums, Chicago 19 (1988) and Twenty 1 (1991). Starting with that album, the band slowed down the pace of new releases. Since then, seven Chicago albums have appeared, including two Christmas albums, compared with 16 during the band’s first 25 years.
Last year, Chicago was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, together with Cheap Trick, Deep Purple, Steve Miller and N.W.A.. But sadly, this milestone was not all harmony. While Seraphine reunited with his former band mates, Cetera stayed away after the band had rejected his proposal to perform 25 or 6 to 4 in the key of E, four notes lower than the original. In a Rolling Stone interview, Lamm explained, “if it’s just a four-piece band you can do it, but with horns, you got to transfer those…It’s not something we wanted to do for a one-off.”
Chicago has sold more than 100 million records, making it one of the world’s best-selling bands of all time. They have had five no. 1 albums and 21 top ten singles. Among American bands, their success in Billboard singles and album charts is only second to The Beach Boys. Chicago continues to perform live prolifically and is currently doing a 50th anniversary tour across the U.S. This will include 30 co-headlining dates with the Doobie Brothers from early June until the end of July.
Here is a nice clip of Chicago’s epic 25 or 6 to 4. By the way, the title refers to the time Robert Lamm wrote it, which was 25 or 26 minutes to 4:00 am.
Sources: Wikipedia, Daily Herald, CNN documentary “Now More Than Ever”, Rolling Stone, YouTube