Chicago is a rock band that formed in 1967 in Chicago, Illinois. Well known for being one of the first (and, indeed, one of the few) rock bands to make extensive use of horns and for producing a number of hit ballads, Chicago had a steady stream of hits throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
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. They added more members, eventually growing to seven players, and went professional as a cover band called The Big Thing. The band featured an unusual and unusually versatile line-up of instrumentalists, including saxophonist Walter Parazaider, trombonist James Pankow, and trumpet player Lee Loughnane, along with more traditional rock instruments -- guitarist Terry Kath, keyboardist Robert Lamm, drummer Danny Seraphine, and bassist Peter Cetera (who was the last to join the original group). While gaining some success as a cover band, the group worked on original songs and, in 1968, moved to Los Angeles, California under the guidance of their friend and manager James William Guercio, and signed with Columbia Records. Upon release of their first record in early 1969, the band took a new name, Chicago Transit Authority (the band's name was shortened to simply Chicago soon after the album's release when the "real" Chicago Transit Authority threatened legal action).
The band's first album, the eponymously titled The Chicago Transit Authority, was an audacious debut: a sprawling double album (unheard of for a rookie band) that included jazzy instrumentals, extended jams featuring Latin percussion, and experimental, feedback-laden guitar abstraction. The album also included a number of pop-rock gems (several of which would later be edited to a radio-friendly length, released as singles and eventually become rock radio staples), and began to receive heavy airplay on the fledgling FM radio band.
The band's popularity exploded with the release of their second album, another double-LP set, which included several top-40 hits. This second album, titled Chicago, was the group's breakthrough album. The centerpiece track was a 15-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, "Make Me Smile", and "Colour My World". Among the other tracks on the album: Robert Lamm's "25 Or 6 To 4" (sung by Peter Cetera), and the lengthy "It Better End Soon". With that, the pattern had been set: the band, ever prolific, recorded and released music at a rate of more than two LP discs per year (always titled with the band name and a Roman numeral) from their third album in 1971 through the 1970s.
Some fans say a low point of the group's early career came when they released a quadruple-album live set, Chicago at Carnegie Hall (consisting of music from their first three albums). The performances and sound quality were judged sub-par; in fact, one group member went on record to say that "the horn section sounded like kazoos". The group bounced back from this misstep 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 radio hit "Saturday In the Park".
Other successful albums and singles followed in each of the succeeding years. 1973's Chicago VI also topped the charts bouyed by hits "Feelin' Stronger Every Day" and "Just You and Me". Chicago VII, the band's double-disc 1974 release, featured the Cetera-composed "Wishing You Were Here" (sung by Terry Kath, with background vocals by The Beach Boys). The next year's release, Chicago VIII featured the political allegory "Harry Truman" and the nostalgic "Old Days". That summer saw a very successful joint tour across America with the Beach Boys, with each act performing some of the other's material. But for all their effort, none of their singles went to number one until the group's tenth album (Chicago X) in 1976, when Cetera's slow, exquisite ballad "If You Leave Me Now" went to the top of the charts. Incidentally, that was the song which won Chicago their only Grammy award, for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group in 1977.
1978 was a tragic and transitional year for the band. The year began with an acrimonious split with long-time manager Guercio. Then, singer/guitarist/group founder Terry Kath died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, delivering a devastating blow to the band. Kath's death could have meant the end for the band, but instead the group stood strong and later that year recorded and released Hot Streets, their first album without Kath and Guercio and their first album with a title rather than a roman numeral (they would return to the old naming scheme immediately afterward, for the most part). The release also marked a move somewhat away from the jazz-rock direction favored by Kath and towards more pop songs and ballads.
This second phase of the band's career took off in 1982 with a new producer (David Foster), a new label (Warner Brothers), and the addition of keyboardist/guitarist/singer Bill Champlin. Foster brought in additional 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". The following album, Chicago 17, became the biggest selling album of the band's history, with two more Top Ten singles, "You're The Inspiration" and "Hard Habit To Break".
But the conflict between Peter Cetera's style of composing and those of the rest of the group caused Cetera to leave the band in 1985 for a solo career (he topped the pop charts with The Karate Kid, Part II theme song "The Glory of Love," and with a duet with Amy Grant, "Next Time I Fall (In Love)"). He was replaced by bassist Jason Scheff, who joined the band for the final Foster-produced album Chicago 18. This album was not as commercially successful as the previous two, but still produced the #3 single "Will You Still Love Me?"
Chicago playing in Queenstown, New Zealand.
Chicago playing in Queenstown, New Zealand.
From time to time, other artists contributed to Chicago recordings. For example, Al Green guested on a bonus track on the Chicago VI CD, while The Bee Gees guested on a track off of "Hot Streets". Chicago itself guested on a Paul Anka song, "Hold Me 'Til The Morning Comes", while the horn section made an appearance on the Bee Gees' album Spirits Having Flown.
The group also contributed to movie soundtracks, such as "Two Of A Kind", "Summer Lovers", and "Days Of Thunder".
In 1988, the band replaced producer Foster, and they topped the charts again with the Diane Warren composed single, "Look Away" from the album Chicago 19. The album also yielded three more Top 10 hits, including "What Kind of Man Would I Be?"
During 1989, Chicago did a joint concert tour with The Beach Boys (who had years earlier sung back-up vocals for "Wishing You Were Here").
By the end of the decade, Chicago planned and recorded a concept album, Stone Of Sisyphus. Their record company at the time, Warner Bros. Records, was unhappy with the finished result, and thus the album was never released officially, although in succeeding years bootleg recordings of the album have surfaced worldwide, including over the Internet. Selected tracks from the unreleased album have since been officially released on a compilation greatest hits CD box set.
Chicago was recognized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on July 23, 1992.
The band continued to be innovative in the decade of the 1990s, even though their popularity began to decline; there were also more personnel changes. Danny Seraphine left the band in 1990 and was replaced by drummer Tris Imboden, who first appeared on the unmemorable 1991 album Twenty 1. Keith Howland joined the band as lead guitarist in 1995. That same year, they attempted to merge their unique sound with Big Band music for the album Night and Day: Big Band, which consisted of covers of songs originally recorded by Sarah Vaughan, Glenn Miller, and Duke Ellington (from whom the album mainly got its inspiration). During a Los Angeles concert in 1997, Chicago also teamed up with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra to perform a James Pankow/Dwight Mikelson orchestral arrangement of Pankow's rock epic "Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon".
In 1998, Chicago released Chicago XXV: The Christmas Album, which mixed traditional holiday favorites with original compositions. (The album was re-released with additional tracks in 2003, under the title What's It Gonna Be, Santa?)
In 2002, the group (minus Cetera) had the opportunity to tell their story in an episode of VH1's Behind The Music. The show, however, was not without its difficulties. The episode put more emphasis on the death of Terry Kath than their entire career combined. Cetera completely disowned the special and went so far as to not allow VH1 to use any of the songs he composed for the band, even declining to be interviewed (although stock news footage of a Cetera interview does appear).
Despite the personnel changes over the years, the group still keeps active more than three-and-a-half decades after its founding. And as a new century turned, the band sold their entire recorded output to Rhino Records (after years with Columbia Records and Warner Brothers as well as their own label). In 2002 Rhino released a two-disc compilation, The Very Best of Chicago: Only The Beginning, which spans the band's entire career. Rhino has also begun releasing new versions of most of the band's albums, each including several bonus tracks; and in 2005 they released a new compilation entitled Love Songs.
The group continues to tour in big and small venues world-wide. Currently, they are on a joint tour with the band Earth, Wind & Fire.