The group were originally not called “Chicago,” at all, but “The Big Thing.” Then, the band changed its name to “The Chicago Transit Authority,” about the time they moved to Los Angeles in June of 1968 and signed with Columbia Records, with James William Guercio, their manager and friend taking the band where the action was.
Soon, the REAL Chicago Transit Authority threatened to sue if the group didn’t change its name. So the group became simply “Chicago” and it remains so today, one of the longest-running bands never to have broken up or taken a long hiatus, second only to the Beach Boys in terms of singles, albums and longevity.Wikipedia lists “Chicago’s” number of albums as 120 million albums sold, 22 gold albums, 18 platinum albums and 8 multi-platinum albums. Of those, five were Number One albums and there were 21 Top Ten Hits from the rock, jazz, fusion, progressive rock, soft rock musicians. It is surprising that the group has won only one Grammy, awarded in 1977 for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group. In 1976, “Chicago X” contained Cetera’s composition “If You Leave Me Now,” which became the group’s first Number One single. The band has had hits like “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It is?”, “Saturday in the Park,” “If You Leave Me Now,” “Glory of Love” (the theme song for Karate Kid II) and “You’re the Inspiration”, written by Robert Lamm for Kenny Rogers in a 3 hour period before Lamm was to fly to Italy, but a song which Rogers never recorded. [Cetera calls Robert Lamm, in a January 15, 2007 interview before “Live at Lake City” with Orchestra Concert, “One of the great songwriters of that generation.”]
“Chicago” is credited with being the leading U.S. singles-charting group in the 1970s and their breakthrough album,”Chicago II,” began the band’s tradition of the iconic numbering of each subsequent album. How many albums have there been? Somewhere around 30, with promises that there will be a new one come fall of 2010.“Chicago” is unique in that it is a relatively faceless band. Its members are replaceable and interchangeable, although the death of founding member Terry Kath in 1978 from an accidental gunshot wound, as described in a VH1 “Behind the Music” special was a low point. (Supposedly, Kath was horsing around with a firearm and had just said, “Don’t worry, guys. It isn’t even loaded. See?”)
Also in that VH1 special, original band member Pankow said, in 2000, “One record company said to us, ‘˜Man, if you get rid of the horn section, we’ll sign you.” With incredulity, Pankow continues, “That’s like telling Elton John to get rid of the piano!” [One original member of the group, Danny Seraphine—who was fired by the group in the 1990’s for not getting along with some of the replacement musicians—was so incensed by the focus of the VH-1 special on Kath’s death that he demanded that all references to his participation be removed. Seraphine has since formed the California Transit Authority and, in 2006, the group played the CD USA’s New Year’s Eve party on Fremont Street in Las Vegas.]
Despite Terry Kath’s tragic accidental death, the group soldiered on, bringing in Donnie Dacus to assume lead singer duties in April of 1978. He left the group after “Chicago 13” in 1979, as the band began to move away from jazz and rock and more towards pop ballads.
In 1981, Columbia Records dropped the band, but Warner Brothers picked them up. Bill Champlin left in August of 2009, to be replaced by Lou Pardini. Tris Imbodden, originally the drummer for Kenny Loggins, replaced Seraphine. In 2009, sometimes the only “original” member of the group onstage would be Robert Lamm. Lately, when I’ve seen them, trombonist James “Jimmy” Pankow, with his rolled up sleeves and plunging neckline shirts, has given good horn and good show. I can’t help but smile. In his sixties (66, said the local newspaper), he is still going strong, as are the other “original” members.
My favorite band member from the past four shows remains guitarist Keith Howard, who shreds his solos with flair. For that matter, there was a lengthy percussion piece that allowed other band members to take a breather and, with at least two percussionists and two keyboard artists at all times, the ten members on stage were keyboards (2), percussion (up to 3 on any song), woodwind (usually sax, but sometimes flute, 1), cornet (1), guitar (2) and the irrepressible trombone (1).
In an interview at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Florida (the band was playing there and was also singing the national anthem at the Florida Marlins game of April 10, 2009), Robert Lamm was interviewed and appears in a YouTube interview saying, of the group’s longevity, “I think it’s as simple as we enjoy each others company and we’ve all grown as musicians.” When asked how they got together initially, he answers, “By Providence.”
When asked about how the music business has changed since “Chicago” formed in 1967 and began churning out its hits in the 70s, Lamm becomes more serious on the video: “How changed? Technology. As human beings we’ve changed, but a ‘˜Chicago’ concert is always memorable and always maintains a high level of quality.” He noted that the group had 70 singles that were played on the radio back in the day and says, “If we were trying to break now, I have no idea where we’d go. I find it very puzzling.” He also said that he did not, at first, follow “American Idol,” which asked to use some of his songs. “I was sort of looking down my nose at it, but now I’m kind of in to it. I like the idea of it.”
The group appeared on Season 9’s Finale of “American Idol” on May 26, 2010, with eventual winner Lee DeWyze singing along to a medley of some of their hits.
A characteristically over-the-top give-it-all-you’ve-got performance on June 17th in Moline, with a twenty-minute intermission and, hopefully, a break for a young local musician who has been making it in Chicago and across the Midwest for years, but deserves wider recognition of his talent.
Sources: www.chicagosuntimes article by Bill Zwecker for RedCarpet on 5/27/2010; Fox-WFLD, Channel 32 on May 27, 2010; Youtube video of April 10, 2009 Florida Marlins game with “Chicago” performing the national anthem; April 10, 2009 interview with Robert Lamm at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino; Interview with Peter Cetera on Jan. 15, 2007 YouTube video prior to “Live at Lake City” with Orchestra concert; www.wikipedia.com; “Chicago” and “Earth, Wind and Fire” concert at Northerly Isle Pavilion in Chicago; “Chicago” and “America” concert at Northerly Isle Pavilion in Chicago and June 17, 2013 concert at IWireless Center in Moline, IL.