Chicago is an American pop rock/jazz fusion band formed in 1967 in Chicago, Illinois. The band began as a politically charged, sometimes experimental, rock band and later moved to a predominantly softer sound, becoming famous for producing a number of hit ballads. They had a steady stream of hits throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Second only to the Beach Boys in terms of singles and albums, Chicago is one of the longest running and most successful U.S. pop/rock and roll groups.
According to Billboard, Chicago was the leading U.S. singles charting group during the 1970s. They have sold over 120 million albums worldwide, scoring 22 Gold, 18 Platinum, and 8 Multi-Platinum albums. Over the course of their career they have charted five No. 1 albums, and have had twenty-one top ten hits.
The band was formed when a group of DePaul University music students began playing a series of late-night jams at clubs on- and off-campus. The group eventually grew to seven players and went professional as a cover band called The Big Thing. The band featured an unusually versatile line-up of musicians, including a full horn section (saxophonist Walter Parazaider, trombonist James Pankow, and trumpet player Lee Loughnane) in addition to the more traditional rock instrumentalists: guitarist Terry Kath, keyboardist Robert Lamm, drummer Danny Seraphine, and bassist Peter Cetera.
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 guidance of their friend and 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 (released in April 1969), the eponymous The Chicago Transit Authority, was an audacious debut: a double album, very rare for a first release, featuring jazzy instrumentals, extended jams featuring Latin percussion, and experimental, feedback-laden guitar abstraction. The album began to receive heavy airplay on the newly popular FM radio band; it included a number of pop-rock songs — "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?", "Beginnings", and "Questions 67 and 68" — which would later be edited to a radio-friendly length, released as singles, and eventually become rock radio staples.
Soon after the album's release, the band's name was shortened to Chicago, when the actual Chicago Transit Authority threatened legal action.
The band's popularity increased with the release of their second album, another double-LP set, which included several top-40 hits. This second album, titled Chicago (also known as Chicago II), was the group's breakthrough album. The centerpiece track was a thirteen-minute suite composed by James Pankow called "Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon" (the structure of this suite was inspired by Pankow's love for classical music). The suite yielded two top ten hits, the crescendo-filled "Make Me Smile" (#9 U.S) and prom-ready ballad "Colour My World", both sung by Terry Kath. Among the other popular tracks on the album: Terry Kath's dynamic but cryptic wah-wah-buttressed "25 or 6 to 4" (a reference to a songwriter trying to write at 25 or 26 minutes to 4 in the morning, sung by Cetera, Chicago's first Top Five hit), and the lengthy war protest song "It Better End Soon."
The band recorded and released LPs at a rate of at least one disc per year from their third album in 1971 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, a naming pattern that lent an encyclopedic aura to the band's work. (The two exceptions to this scheme were the band's fourth album, a live boxed set entitled Chicago at Carnegie Hall and their twelfth album Hot Streets. While the live album itself did not bear a number, each of the four discs within the set was numbered Volumes I through IV.) The distinctive Chicago logo was designed by Nick Fasciano (bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Coca-Cola logo) and has graced every album cover in one form or another; as an American flag on III, a piece of wood on V, a dollar (or U.S. currency) bill on VI, a Cardinal on VIII, a Hershey bar on X, a computer silicon chip on 16, and mosaic on 18 being among the examples.
In 1971, Chicago released the ambitious quadruple-album live set, 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 (along with the James Gang and Led Zeppelin in 1969, one of the few rock bands to play the historic concert hall since the Beatles performed there on February 12, 1964). The performances and sound quality were judged sub-par; in fact, trombonist James Pankow went on record to say that "the horn section sounded like kazoos." 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 distinction for 15 years.
The group bounced back in 1972 with their first single-disc release, Chicago V, a diverse set that reached number one on both the Billboard pop and jazz albums charts and yielded the Robert Lamm-composed-and-sung radio hit and perennial fan favorite "Saturday in the Park", which mixed everyday life and political yearning in a more subtle way. It peaked at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1972. Chicago would long open their concerts with the hit song.
In 1973, the group's manager, Guercio, produced and directed Electra Glide in Blue, a movie about an Arizona motorcycle policeman. The movie starred Robert Blake, and featured Cetera, Kath, Loughnane, and Parazaider in supporting roles. The group also appeared prominently on the movie's soundtrack.
Other successful albums and singles followed in each of the succeeding years. 1973's Chicago VI topped the charts buoyed by the hits "Feelin' Stronger Every Day" (#10 U.S.) and "Just You 'N' Me" (#4 U.S.) and it was also the first of several albums to include Brazilian jazz percussionist Laudir de Oliveira. Chicago VII, the band's double-disc 1974 release, featured the Cetera-composed "Wishing You Were Here", (#11 U.S.) sung by Terry Kath and Cetera with background vocals by Cetera and The Beach Boys and some fusion jazz. Chicago VII also provided one of the group's enduring signature tunes, the anthemic "(I've Been) Searchin' So Long," which started with as a soft ballad and culminated in a hard-rock conclusion featuring Terry Kath's electric guitar soloing against the Chicago horn section and a soaring string arrangement by Jimmie Haskell. "Happy Man," another song from Chicago VII, was also a popular favorite on FM radio, was a big hit in South America and subsequently covered by Tony Orlando and Dawn on their album To Be With You. Their 1975 release, Chicago VIII, featured the political allegory "Harry Truman" and the nostalgic Pankow-composed "Old Days". Both hits reached the Top 15, with the latter even reaching the Top Five. That summer also saw a very successful joint tour across America with The Beach Boys, with both acts performing separately, then coming together for a rousing finale. The tour was considered one of the highest grossing in rock music up to that time.
Chicago gave a concert in Mexico City in 1975 at the Auditorio Nacional which was highly appreciated by the attendants in spite of the fact that the Mexican press later reviewed it not as one of the band’s better performances, presumably for the band not being "in the best of shape". The tickets for the concert sold so fast that thousands of people were not able to get in, so Terry Kath asked those inside to applaud for those standing outside. Carmen Romano de Lòpez Portillo, the wife of Mèxico's then-President Josè Lòpez Portillo, is said to have been among the attendants in the first row.
But for all their effort, none of their singles went to number one until Chicago X in 1976, when Cetera's slow, exquisite ballad "If You Leave Me Now" climbed to the top of the charts and remained there for two weeks. The song also won Chicago their only Grammy award, for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group in 1977. Ironically, the tune almost did not make the cut for the album; "If You Leave Me Now" was recorded at the very last minute. The huge success of the song would foreshadow a later reliance on ballads that would typecast the group on radio, despite the presence of mellower songs on all the previous albums. The group's 1977 release, Chicago XI, was another big success for the band; it included Cetera's hit ballad "Baby, What a Big Surprise", a #4 U.S. hit which became one of the group's last big hits of the decade.
1978 was a tragic and transitional year for Chicago. The year began with an acrimonious split with long-time manager James William Guercio (which had actually occurred three months earlier). Then, on January 23, guitarist/singer/songwriter/group co-founder Terry Kath died of an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound. Another version describes Kath's drunken last words to guitar tech Don Johnson: "Don't worry, guys. It isn't even loaded. See?" Kath was the group's leader onstage, and for many longtime fans, its musical soul. Terry Kath's stunning death could have meant the end for Chicago, but encouraged by friends and admirers such as Doc Severinsen, the group held fast and soldiered on.
After auditioning over 30 potential replacements for Kath, Chicago decided upon guitarist/singer/songwriter Donnie Dacus, who joined the band in April 1978 just in time for the Hot Streets album and its energetic lead-off single "Alive Again", which brought Chicago back to the Top 15.. The group was briefly re-energized by Dacus, whose long blond hair and rock star image stage presence seemingly overshadowed his musical abilities. The kinetic Dacus may have been out of character for the normally laid-back Chicago, but he could sing and play, and the band responded by delivering some of their tightest live performances ever. Hot Streets, with producer Phil Ramone now at the helm, was Chicago's first album with an actual title rather than a number and was the band's first LP to have a picture of the band featured prominently on the cover (with the ubiquitous logo downsized,) two moves that were seen by many as a way to indicate 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. The release of Hot Streets also marked a move somewhat away from the jazz-rock direction favored by Kath and towards more pop songs and ballads. Dacus didn't last long, only staying with the band through the 1979 album Chicago 13 (Dacus is also featured in a promotional video on the DVD included in the Rhino Records Chicago box set from 2003). 13, again produced by Phil Ramone, was the group's first studio album not to contain a Top 40 hit.
1980's Chicago XIV, 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. Production values were spare, perhaps due to the lean, stripped-down New Wave music that was popular at the time. Chris Pinnick handled the guitar duties and came close to the "Kath sound," but did not sing. He would remain with the band through 1985. 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 later that year to fulfill its contractual obligation.
The second major phase of the band's career took off in late 1981 with a new producer (David Foster), a new label (Warner Brothers), and the addition of keyboardist/guitarist/singer Bill Champlin and guitarist Chris Pinnick (who had played on XIV and subsequent tour); percussionist Laudir de Oliveira also departed at this time along with former Buckingham and sax player Marty Grebb, who had joined the group briefly for the XIV tour.
Foster brought in studio musicians for some of the tracks on Chicago 16 (including the core members of Toto), and Chicago once again topped the charts with the single "Hard to Say I'm Sorry/Get Away". This was followed up by a song that barely missed the top 20, "Love Me Tomorrow." The following album, Chicago 17, became the biggest selling album of the band's history, producing two more Top Ten singles ("You're the Inspiration" and "Hard Habit to Break") (both #3 hits) and two other singles ("Stay the Night" (#16) and "Along Comes a Woman" (#14). Peter's brother, Kenny Cetera, was brought into the group for the 17 tour to add percussion and high harmony vocals.
Lead vocalist Peter Cetera's desire to record a second solo album (he'd done his first one in 1981) and not continue with the band's gruelling tour schedule caused him to leave Chicago in 1985. Although other band members (including Lamm and Champlin) have released solo material, Cetera has proved the most successful, topping the pop charts with The Karate Kid, Part II theme song "Glory of Love," and also with Amy Grant on "The Next Time I Fall". Two more songs, a 1988 solo hit called "One Good Woman" (#4 U.S.) and a 1989 duet with Cher called "After All" (#6 U.S.) reached the Top Ten.