April , 1985
By David Huff
Chicago's Music Becoming a Hard Habit to Break
It was a crisp October evening in Dallas last fall when one of America's most admired and popular rock acts of the 70's, strolled into town to perform music from their much anticipated 17th album that will be released next month. The audience was overwhelmingly receptive of the new material.
Chicago had just finished performing the platinum selling single, "Beginnings," from its very first album when a smile came across singer Peter Cetera’s face upon hearing the cries of welcome back from the crowd. As keyboardist Robert Lamm gazed into the sea of humanity, you could almost feel he was emotionally uplifted by the cheers as well. You could see the moment captured in the gleam emanating from his radiantly blue eyes. Indeed Chicago was back - and how!
The group’s rebound did not come easy. In what Lamm has called a mid-group crisis, Chicago hit a dry stretch from 1979-82 that saw the group's fortunes wither, its artistic pursuits stagnate, and its audience diminish into crowds of nostalgic adults.
The problem stemmed from the tragic death of founding member and guitarist Terry Kath, who put a gun to his head, thinking it wasn’t loaded, only it was, and pulling the trigger. His subsequent replacement, Donnie Dacus, came aboard for one successful album, Hot Streets, but he was never able to provide the leadership and guidance Kath possessed which stabilized the group.
"We just went through the motions onstage," said trombonist James Pankow. "We thought Donnie was going to come in and play leader. He didn't work out. Nobody seemed to want to join a band that was starting to believe that its best days were long gone."
The original Chicago Transit Authority has been together for nearly 17 years. The group’s original producer, William James Guercio, had become friends with saxophonist Walt Parazaider and guitarist Terry Kath, during his college years in Chicago. One day Parazaider invited their friend to hear the new band they had put together called The Big Thing. The group also consisted of drummer Danny Seraphine, trombonist James Pankow, trumpeter Lee Loughnane, bassist Peter Cetera and Lamm. The vocal duties were shared by whoever wrote the song, with the other three providing background vocals.
Guercio was impressed enough to offer to manage and produce the group. He talked them all into relocating the band to Los Angeles in 1968. He also convinced them to change their name to the Chicago Transit Authority. He arranged for the group to play the L.A. club circuit while he produced their debut. During this time, Columbia Records asked Guercio to work with another band in their stable of talent called Blood Sweat & Tears. His subsequent work resulted in a Grammy for Best Album of the Year.
The initial success of the BS&T recording, which featured the international hit “Spinning Wheel”, would delay Chicago's entry into the record industry. Guercio had to convince executives at Columbia there was room in the marketplace for another type of band with a similar sound to Blood, Sweat and Tears. Over
the years, both groups would often be compared to one another.
"We never had a rivalry with them or anyone," commented Lamm about Chicago’s relationship with the David Clayton-Thomas led band. "I think music journalists were mainly the ones waging the war. The only thing we had in common was the record producer who worked on both projects. I don't even think Blood, Sweat & Tears were really a band. They were just put together as a backing group to the singer.
“Unlike our band, they didn't have a commitment with each other like we did. You have to have that when you're out there with all the pressures. With us, there's a sincere love for one another that has nothing to do with music."
Due to the ambitious music the group had recorded, their debut became a double album. A reluctant CBS, which finally signed the group, agreed to finance the project if the band took a royalty cut. The resulting effort, The Chicago Transit Authority, was released in 1969. It remained a best seller for two years. Classic cuts were found on all four sides of the recording. "Make Me Smile," "Saturday in the Park," "25 Or 6 to 4," "Questions 67 & 68," "Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is?" "Feeling Stronger Every Day," "Just You 'n Me," "Color My World" and a remake of the Steve Winwood classic, “I’m a Man.”
In 1969, threatened with legal action by the actual Chicago Transit Authority, Guercio shortened the band's name to simply Chicago and worked with them on a second album, Chicago II. After the tremendous success of their first album, CBS then signed the group to a $16 million contract that called for seven albums and a greatest hits package. Guercio would remain the band’s producer the length of the contract. The result was nine consecutive platinum albums for the bad, including a live recording, a greatest hits package, and seven studio discs. Toward the end of 1977, the partnership was dissolved. .
The unintentional death of Kath the following year was a change the group never foresaw. The members of the band were devastated by the tragedy and briefly considered breaking up. The guitarist had been one of the key players who most defined the rhythmic sound of the band. Replacing him was not going to be easy. After the initial shock wore off, the group decided they still had something to offer musically. Kath’s death and Guercio’s firing cast a shadow over the band it could not shake. Their music and career went into a terrible slump. Their confidence, along with the music industry itself, went into a tailspin with the advent of the 80's.
"When we made our deal with CBS," recalled Lamm, "records were selling five million copies for a number one single. A year later, that number was half the previous year, and a year later, it was half of that. CBS had a multi-million dollar commitment to us. For each record we recorded they had to give us X amount of dollars.
“Suddenly, the industry started going down the tubes and most of the record companies were panicking. Our label thought that if Chicago wasn't selling, they should turn their attentions towards something else. That something else was Bruce Springsteen.
"When we first entered the scene, a number one album could sell four to five million copies. Today, you are lucky if you sell a million copies with a number one album. This downward spiral record labels experienced wouldn't have happened so fast if the companies would have been more courageous and not been corporate manipulators."
With the record industry in turmoil, CBS refused to back a planned 1979 Chicago tour. In a surprise move, the label turned around and offered Chicago one million dollars to cancel their contract with the label. Chicago took the money. They released a second greatest hits album package and then retreated to Carribou Ranch in Colorado to find themselves and save the band. The money from CBS financed the project, which would become the band's 16th album.
“I can see where CBS was coming from,” Lamm said frankly. “They just saw the bottom line. They didn't consider Chicago worth their time or effort. They didn't think about the music or the album. They just thought about what the costs of having us on the label were going to be. It was as simple as that.”
The amicable departure started a new era for Chicago. Warner Brothers stepped up to the plate and signed the free agent band. Helming their debut was up and coming producer, David Foster. Unlike his predecessor, Foster was a songwriter. He co-wrote seven of the eleven compositions on the recording, including the hits “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” and “Love Me Tomorrow”. Foster radically redefined Chicago's sound utilizing the latest technologies and techniques. He also introduced outside songwriters and session musicians for the first time. The results were nothing short of astonishing.
Also breathing new life into Chicago during this time was singer / keyboardist Bill Champlin. In his voice, the band found the missing link in its sound that had been absent since Kath’s death. Peter Cetera benefitted greatly from the new stylistic changes as well as he abandoned the bass and assumed the role of lead singer. A new and younger audience discovered Chicago as well. After spending its entire career at Columbia, the uncharted waters this group was now navigating proved to be much smoother sailing than anyone could have ever imagined.
"I can see where CBS was coming from when they let us go," injected Lamm of the band’s divorce from their previous partner. “They were only looking at the bottom line. It had come to a point in our relationship were they didn't consider Chicago worth their time or effort. They didn't think about the music or the album. They could care less what we had accomplished the ten years we were with them. All the label thought about was what the band was going to cost them now. It was as simple as that.
"The hardest thing to do is to maintain a sense of security in the record business. Your past accomplishments mean nothing. Our attitudes had not changed since we first got together. Columbia’s did. We approached each album with the attitude of, 'Let's get together, make some music and hope somebody likes it.' With the move to Warner, we have rediscovered the spirit in ourselves once again."
To say Chicago literally reinvented itself would be an understatement. Chicago 16 had three Top Ten hits, received three Grammy Awards and found themselves with a new generation of fans.
"What we are beginning to see happen now," noted Lamm, "Is a whole new audience of people starting to discover us. A lot of our biggest fans these days are 18 to 25 years old. They are finding out about Chicago for the first time. That's tremendously gratifying. It's great when what you are doing sounds fresh and new to people who've never heard it before. You get the feeling you're creating something that lasts."
There's no bitterness between Chicago and CBS insists Lamm. The band proved it still had musical legs. The last laugh will be on the label that callously abandoned a platinum selling band because someone in their organization felt the group could no longer sell any albums.
"With rock and roll, anything can happen," smiled Lamm. "With the success of our last album, our entire catalogue has been selling now. We could have gone down a road like the Beach Boys and play our old hits and live off our past. We didn't want to do that. This band wanted to write new music then go out and play it.
"The history of rock and roll is filled with artists who released successful comeback albums. The thing is, Chicago never went away, our previous label did. When you think about it, music is a process of sharing experiences and ideas that you hope will musically connect with a large amount of people. I can tell you right now that Chicago will never fall back on their past accomplishments solely to draw and audience. I feel there is still a lot of music left in us. Our next record will prove that.”