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Music / Chicago

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"In the early 1970s when a band lived and died by radio, Chicago ruled the waves with a brass fist..."
Liner notes for The Chicago Story

Chicago is a rock band formed in 1967 in Chicago, Illinois, first as The Big Thing and later as the Chicago Transit Authority (until the eponymous bus and train operator took exception to this example of fandom and the group changed its name to something less likely to get them sued).

The band's roots begin with a local band called Jimmy Ford and the Executives, which featured Walter Parazaider on saxophone and woodwinds, Terry Kath on bass guitar, and Danny Seraphine on drums. The three, who had been teenage friends, then left for another local band, the Missing Links; trumpeter Lee Loughnane occasionally sat in on that group's gigs. The four soon left to start their own band, with Kath switching to his preferred instrument of lead guitar; they soon recruited James Pankow (trombone) and Robert Lamm (keyboards), and started playing local clubs as The Big Thing, with Kath and Lamm sharing lead vocals. Within a few months, seeing a need for a tenor voice to complement their baritone vocalists, they recruited bass guitarist Peter Cetera as a third lead vocalist. The band then moved to Los Angeles and secured their first record deal, changing their name to The Chicago Transit Authority and later Chicago.


Chicago began as a politically charged, sometimes experimental, jazz-rock fusion band and later moved to a predominantly softer sound after the death of Terry Kath in the late-1970s, 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.


Music videos

Principal members (Founding members in bold, current members in italic)

  • Dawayne Bailey - guitar, vocals (1986–1995)
  • Peter Cetera - bass, vocals (1967–1985)
  • Bill Champlin - keyboards, vocals (1981–2009)
  • Jeff Coffey - bass, vocals (2016–2018)
  • Donnie Dacus - guitar, vocals (1978–1980)
  • Neil Donell - vocals, guitar (2018–present)
  • Bruce Gaitsch - guitar, vocals (1995)
  • Ray Herrmann - saxophones, flute (2016–present; 2005–2016 touring)
  • Keith Howland - guitar, vocals (1995–present)
  • Tris Imboden - drums, harmonica (1990–2018)
  • Terry Kath - guitar, vocals (1967–1978)
  • Robert Lamm - keyboards, vocals (1967–present)
  • Lee Loughnane - trumpet (1967–present)
  • Laudir de Oliveira - percussion (1974–1981; died 2017)
  • James Pankow - trombone (1967–present)
  • Walter Parazaider - saxophones, flute (1967–2018; retired from touring in 2016)
  • Lou Pardini - keyboards, vocals (2009–present)
  • Chris Pinnick - guitar, vocals (1981–1985)
  • Daniel de los Reyes - percussion (2012, 2018)
  • Walfredo Reyes Jr. - drums (2018–present), percussion (2012–2018)
  • Jason Scheff - bass, vocals (1985–2016)
  • Danny Seraphine - drums (1967–1990)
  • Brett Simons - bass, vocals (2018–present)
  • Ramon "Ray" Yslas - percussion (2018–present)

Other Members

  • Kenny Cetera note  - percussion (1984–1985)
  • Marty Grebb note  - saxophone, guitar, keyboards, backing vocals (1980–1981)

"Should I try to trope some more?":

  • Album Filler: Averted with their early work. In fact, they had so much material their first three albums (and the seventh) were double albums.
    • Amazingly enough, one of their biggest hits, "25 or 6 to 4", was originally intended to be Album Filler. The story behind the song is that they needed one more song to finish their second album. The various members of the group were sitting around the studio, knowing they needed one more song, but too tired to be very creative. At which point Robert Lamm turned to James Pankow and asked, "What time is it, anyway?" Pankow replied that it was "25, maybe 26 minutes to 4 o'clock" (in the morning). Lamm was thus inspired to write a song about being up until Oh-God-Thirty in the morning, trying to write one last song to fill an album.
  • Anonymous Band: Up until the mid-80s, Chicago deliberately downplayed the personalities behind the music, as shown by its album cover art. This changed, however, with the advent of MTV.
  • The Artifact: In their early days, Chicago's horn section set them apart from many of their contemporaries, but as time went on the horns became less and less prominent. Where they'd originally been featured as lead instruments, they ended up in a supporting role providing embellishments (that Robert Lamm and Bill Champlin were mostly playing on keyboards anyway).
  • Author Tract: Their early albums had a lot of these. If it's penned by Robert Lamm, expect this trope (also, expect a lot of vitriol aimed at the establishment). Exemplified by ''A Song for Richard and His Friends''.
  • The Band Minus the Face: Twice over, when Kath died, then when Peter Cetera left.
  • Break-Up Song: "Hard to Say I'm Sorry".
  • Breather Episode: It's a bit atonal in places, but the "Memories of Love" suite is still much Lighter and Softer than "Fancy Colours" and "25 or 6 to 4" before it and "It Better End Soon" after it on Chicago II.
  • Chronological Album Title: Pretty much all of them after the first two, respectively titled The Chicago Transit Authority and Chicago... and the latter would be retroactively known as Chicago II. The few that didn't include one are Chicago at Carnegie Hall (the 4th album), Hot Streets (the 12th), Night and Day Big Band (the 22nd), and all the compilation albums except for Chicago IX (though the compilations are counted in the album numbering).
  • Common Time: Many early songs avert this, like "Colour My World", which uses compound time instead.
    • "Colour My World" is usually counted as being in 6/8 or 12/8, neither of which is exactly an example of Uncommon Time. Other songs from that era, such as "Make Me Smile" and "Poem for the People", include multiple examples of complex time signatures, though.
  • Cool Old Guy: Founding members Robert Lamm, Lee Loughnane, Walt Parazaider, and James Pankow may be in their 70s, but show no signs of slowing down.note 
  • Cover Version: They covered "I'm A Man" by the Spencer Davis Group on their first album and in The '90s they released Night & Day: Big Band, a covers album featuring their own versions of big band jazz standards.
  • Cut Short: "Dialogue Part II"
  • "Days of the Week" Song: “Saturday In The Park.”
  • Epic Instrumental Opener: Several. "Memories of Love" is a particularly notable example, as it has around five and a quarter minutes of instrumentals before the vocals come in. "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" is also an example, surprisingly to people who have only heard the radio edit (the odd, dissonant piano intro is almost always excised when the song is played on the radio).
  • Epic Rocking: Their first album was half catchy rock and half this, including a fifteen-minute experimental number. (Some of the songs, such as "Beginnings", were both catchy rock and Epic Rocking at the same time.) Other pieces on their following albums, such as "Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon", "Elegy" and "A Song for Richard and His Friends", were firm ventures into progressive rock.
    • Notable examples include "Beginnings" (7:59), "Poem 58" (8:42), "I'm a Man" (7:45), "Liberation" (14:44), "Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon" (12:42), "Memories of Love" (the entire suite is 9:14, although one of the individual movements, which is naturally shorter, bears the same name), "It Better End Soon" (10:28), "Sing a Mean Tune Kid" (9:18), "Travel Suite" (22:34), "Elegy" (15:19), "A Song for Richard and His Friends" (6:58), and "Devil's Sweet" (10:04). On the band's first four albums (counting At Carnegie Hall), more songs were probably over six minutes than not. The band's live performances often extended the lengths of songs that were already pretty long, too (for a particularly extreme example, the Carnegie Hall version of "South California Purples" runs for 15:35, compared to the studio version's 6:13).
  • Everyone Went to School Together: When Chicago first formed as The Big Thing, five of its six members (Kath, Loughnane, Pankow, Parazaider, Seraphine) were attending DePaul University. The other founding member, Lamm, was a student at the nearby Roosevelt University.
  • Fading into the Next Song: On "Chicago 16" the tracks "Hard To Say I'm Sorry" and "Get Away" segue together.
  • First Snow: "Song of the Evergreens".
  • Foreshadowing: The last single with Peter Cetera, "Hard Habit to Break", has a good portion sung by Bill Champlin, who would eventually replace Cetera as the lead singer (most notably with their last U.S. number one, "Look Away").
  • Genre Shift: Initially a more experimental jazz-rock band, they changed their sound in the '80s and played more soft rock ballads.
    • Some would place that genre shift closer to Chicago V through Chicago VII in the mid-1970s. They were capable of genuine heaviness on earlier albums, on tracks such as "South California Purples" and "Sing a Mean Tune, Kid". That began to be phased out on V, while ballads such as "If You Leave Me Now" became much slicker. At the same time, their singles output came to consist entirely of ballads, while they previously had also charted with faster tunes like "Make Me Smile".
      • Chicago VII was probably the band's last album in its early style; its first LP was mostly instrumental jazz-rock, while the second was closer to their later sound. This was also their first studio double album since Chicago III and, perhaps not surprisingly, their most progressive studio release since then as well. After this album they abandoned their prog leanings pretty much entirely.
  • Greatest Hits Album: Three official, plus two box sets and several compilation albums.
  • Idiosyncratic Cover Art: Nearly all the album covers feature the band's iconic logo in a different setting. The exception is Hot Streets, which features a portrait of the band.
    • Chicago VI has a small group photo above the logo.
  • In the Style of...: A cover of "I'm a Man" by the Spencer Davis Group on their first album re-imagines a three minute Soul song as a seven minute version that verges of Heavy Metal.
  • Lighter and Softer: Their '80s body of work.
  • Loudness War: The Rhino remasters.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: "Lowdown." Punchy brass and a jubilant melody, coupled with lyrics like "lowdown, feelin' pretty bad, feelin' like I lost the best friend that I ever had."
  • Meanwhile, Back at the…: Their 1974 TV special Meanwhile Back at the Ranch (taped at Caribou Ranch in Colorado, where the band recorded from 1972-77), intersperses performance footage with a cheesy storyline presented Silent Movie-style; the show's title is used in the transitions.
  • Neoclassical Punk Zydeco Rockabilly: Their first album featured a mixture of improvisation-heavy jazz, soulful Blues Rock and Hard Rock guitar riffs. The trend continued until it reached its pinnacle in Chicago VII.
  • Numbered Sequels: They numbered them Roman numerals in the 70s, switched to regular numbers in the '80s and switched back at some point afterwards.
  • The One That Got Away: "Byblos".
  • Progressive Rock: Their work with Terry Kath is often classified as this due to its emphasis on improvisation and complex musicianship.
  • Reckless Gun Usage: Terry Kath's death was due to this (and the page quote for that reason). He removed the magazine from a semi-automatic handgun, put the barrel to his head and pulled the trigger. Which in and of itself is not always fatal (but is always an extremely bad idea), but he had forgotten that he'd chambered the first round from the magazine, thereby making the gun loaded.
  • Re-release the Song: They recorded a high-tech version of their classic "25 or 6 to 4" for Chicago 18 in 1986. It stalled at #48 on the singles chart.
  • Sampled Up: "Street Player" from Chicago 13 bombed when released as a single, but was very successful as a sample for "The Bomb" by the Bucketheads and Pitbull's "I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)".
  • Self-Titled Album: Chicago's original name was The Chicago Transit Authority, under which they released their album of the same name. After legal trouble with the real CTA led to the name change, the band released another self-titled record under the new name (aka Chicago II, though the official title was Chicago). Most of the albums released since then have just been Chicago plus a number.
  • Solo Duet: Terry Kath layered two echoing tracks of his own voice on "Byblos".
  • Soprano and Gravel: Cetera's soaring tenor and Kath's gruff baritone. Robert Lamm occupied a space somewhere in between.
  • Title by Number: "25 or 6 to 4".
    • Also "Poem 58" and "Questions 67 and 68."
  • Updated Re-release: Steven Wilson remixed the band's second album in 2017. It's a noticeable improvement in sound quality; even non-audiophiles should be able to tell a difference almost immediately.
  • Vocal Tag Team: Kath, Lamm, and Cetera started out the tagging trio; Bill Champlin replaced Kath, and Jason Scheff replaced Cetera. Later, Champlin was replaced by Lou Pardini, while Scheff was replaced by Jeff Coffey briefly, followed by Canadian Neil Donell.


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