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Music / Chicago (Band)
aka: 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 group enjoyed two periods of major success, one as an ambitious, politically-oriented jazz-rock and jazz fusion group (albeit gradually evolving towards R&B and soul-based pop-rock) during the early-mid '70s and another as a slick, radio-ready AOR and adult contemporary act during the '80s.

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, having increasingly become close friends, then left for another local band, the Missing Links; trumpeter Lee Loughnane occasionally sat in on that group's gigs. The four eventually 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; the group's original premise was that of an entirely-"democratic" and "faceless" band in which no single member would receive significantly-greater publicity than their bandmates, thus enabling greater emphasis on the music as opposed to the underlying personalities. Within a few months, seeing a need for a tenor voice to complement their baritone vocalists, the Big Thing recruited bass guitarist Peter Cetera (formerly of fellow local band The Exceptions) as a third lead vocalist. Attracting the attention of record producer James Guercio, the band accepted his offer to relocate to Los Angeles, changing their name to The Chicago Transit Authority. Now directly adjacent to the booming West Coast rock scene of the era, the band rapidly became a successful live act, opening for such hippie-era lynchpins as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix (the latter even declaring Terry Kath's guitar work superior to his own). The corresponding publicity enabled the group's self-titled debut record, an energetic, politically-charged jazz-fusion double album, to become a sleeper hit. Renaming themselves to merely "Chicago" in 1970, the band released two further double albums in the following years and, aided by the success of singles such as "25 or 6 to 4" and "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?", became one of the most popular and prolific American rock groups of the era, notable for their skilled instrumental interplay and socially-commentative lyrics (typically courtesy of Robert Lamm, initially the band's lead songwriter).

Although the commercial success of Chicago's output would continue to balloon in subsequent years - four consecutive studio releases of theirs attained no. 1 on the Billboard 100 album charts from 1973 to 1976 - band members' accounts of the period paint a decidedly less utopic image. Owing to an extremely heavy touring schedule and the strain of producing multiple double albums back-to-back, both Robert Lamm and Terry Kath began to struggle with cocaine addiction, reducing their songwriting output by the mid-'70s. Possibly owing to both Lamm's decreasing influence and the contemporary decline of the jam band genre, Chicago's output increasingly shifted into R&B and funk-inspired pop-rock, with 1974's Chicago VII the final studio album to feature any significant volume of jazz fusion material; partially to ease drummer Danny Seraphine's work, Brazilian percussionist Laudir de Oliveira was added to the band's lineup during this era. Peter Cetera, meanwhile, increasingly occupied the songwriting void opened by the group's shifting dynamics; while initially contributing songs in a range of genres, his legacy would, however, ultimately be cemented by the single "If You Leave Me Now", an easy-listening ballad which, upon release in 1976, became an enormous international hit and decisively empowered Cetera within the group's dynamic. Cetera-sung ballads would become regular lead singles and thus the public "face" of Chicago in subsequent years, pressuring the group's remaining songwriters to contribute more Soft Rock-adjacent tracks.

On January 23, 1978, however, Chicago's fortunes experienced a drastic and tragic downturn when Terry Kath accidentally and fatally shot himself in the head while inebriated at a friend's house. Initially contemplating dissolving the band, Chicago's remaining members were nonetheless encouraged to continue, although their work would henceforth become audibly less guitar-based. Subsequent albums, while commercially-successful, featured the band transitioning from the jazz and R&B influences of their earlier work in favor of horn-adorned yacht rock and (particularly on 1979's Chicago XIII) disco; Peter Cetera likewise increasingly emerged as the group's lead songwriter and frontman during this period. Following the onset of the disco backlash in 1979, however, Chicago's fate was ostensibly sealed: 1980's Chicago XIV (and its accompanying tour) was a major critical and commercial failure, prompting record label Columbia to buy the group out of their own contract for over $2 million USD. Lacking a label or a defined direction, Chicago's breakup appeared imminent. Fate once again intervened, however: via the intervention of drummer Danny Seraphine, the band came into contact with aspiring producer David Foster, who agreed to produce the group's next album, Chicago XVI. Developing a songwriting partnership with Cetera, Foster effectively revamped the band into a slickly-produced AOR and adult contemporary outfit centered on romantic, radio-ready power ballads dominated by Cetera's tenor vocals (and, more sporadically, the baritone of newly-acquired sideman Bill Champlin) rather than the horn solos and instrumental interplay of old. XVI was ultimately picked up by Warner, and, through the success of lead single "Hard to Say I'm Sorry", both transformed Chicago into one of the most popular corporate rock groups of the period and cemented Peter Cetera as a household name. Chicago's fortunes thereby appeared to be secure for the foreseeable future.

Accounts differ on the subsequent fallout. Following the gargantuan success of the revamped Chicago's second album in 1984, Cetera, now indubitably the band's most publicized member, proposed an ultimatum both increasing his pay and enabling him to take periodic hiatuses from the band to develop his solo career (similar to Phil Collins with Genesis). The band's horn section, however, baulked at the possibility of the formerly-"faceless" Chicago further transforming into a star vehicle for Cetera (thus marginalizing their already greatly-reduced role further) and refused these terms, gradually pushing him out of the group; following a small number of subsequent solo hits, Cetera's career would largely fade into obscurity by the close of the '80s. Chicago, however, merely continued in the vein established by Cetera for the remainder of the decade (with then-24-year-old bassist and songwriter Jason Scheff as a replacement), producing several major singles such as 1988's "Look Away". Although their mainstream recording career largely concluded with the critical and commercial failure of 1991's Twenty 1 (with Warner rejecting an attempted comeback album, Stone of Sisyphus, in 1994, relegating the group to a touring act), Chicago continue as a live act into the present, although Robert Lamm and Lee Loughnane are the sole remaining founding members to regularly appear with the group.

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 won a total of five Grammy Awards out of 19 nominations: three in 1977 connected to Chicago X and "If You Leave Me Now", and two in 1985 for "Hard Habit to Break" from Chicago 17. Their first album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2014, and the band was granted the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020. They were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2016.

Music videos

Principal members (Founding members in bold, current members in italic, members included in the band's Hall of Fame induction indicated with HOF)

  • Eric Baines – bass, vocals (2022–present)
  • Dawayne Bailey - guitar, vocals (1986–1995)
  • Peter Cetera - bass, vocals (1967–1985; HOF)
  • 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)
  • Loren Gold – keyboards, vocals (2022–present; 2021-2022 touring)
  • Ray Herrmann - saxophones, flute (2016–present; 2005–2016 touring)
  • Keith Howland - guitar, vocals (1995–2021)
  • Tris Imboden - drums, harmonica (1990–2018)
  • Terry Kath - guitar, vocals (1967–1978, his death; HOF)
  • Robert Lamm - keyboards, vocals (1967–present; HOF)
  • Lee Loughnane - trumpet (1967–present; HOF)
  • Tony Obrohta - guitar, vocals (2021–present)
  • Laudir de Oliveira - percussion (1974–1981; died 2017)
  • James Pankow - trombone (1967–present, HOF)
  • Walter Parazaider - saxophones, flute (1967–2018, HOF; retired from touring in 2016)
  • Lou Pardini - keyboards, vocals (2009–2022)
  • 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; HOF)
  • Brett Simons - bass, vocals (2018–2022)
  • 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.
  • Character Check: A rare musical example from Chicago 16, the album in which the band moved to its more commercially successful adult contemporary sound. The full version of "Hard to Say I'm Sorry", a soft rock piano ballad, contains the mini-track outro "Get Away", a much more upbeat number featuring the band's classic horn-driven jazz rock sound (for the only time on the album).
  • 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.
  • 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.”
  • Do Not Call Me "Paul": After successfully completing rehab in the early 1980s, Robert Lamm insisted that his bandmates no longer call him Bobby, but by his complete first name to represent how he had become a new man after kicking drugs.
  • 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 during the fourth and final movement. "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). Their cover of "I'm a Man" also has this in the style of each band member gradually joining in on the song (the horn section playing assorted percussion instead of their usual instruments) before the vocals enter.
  • 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, three of its six members (Loughnane, Pankow, Parazaider) were attending DePaul University. Lamm was a student at the nearby Roosevelt University, while Kath and Seraphine were also Chicago natives who had known everyone else in the band since their teenage years.
  • Fading into the Next Song: On "Chicago 16" the tracks "Hard To Say I'm Sorry" and "Get Away" segue together, which is a little jarring since "Hard To Say I'm Sorry" is a keyboard-led ballad sung by Peter Cetera, while "Get Away" is an uptempo number with group vocals and horns. Still, if you're familiar with how they sound together, the fade out on the single version of "Hard To Say I'm Sorry" sounds a bit sudden and truncated. Some radio stations play both songs 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 Mashup: 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.
  • 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, which, while retaining much of the harder, politically-themed jazz rock of prior albums, likewise featured slicker, more radio-friendly faire such as "Saturday in the Park"; the group's subsequent albums during the mid-'70s would oscillate between experimentation and accessibility, eventually settling on a softer, R&B and funk-influenced pop sound by "Chicago X" in 1976 (which, in featuring the major easy listening hit "If You Leave Me Now", decisively shifted the group's focus further towards commercial soft-rock). By the late '70s, the band's singles output resultantly came to consist of Peter Cetera-penned ballads such as "Baby, What a Big Surprise", despite having previously 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.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Danny Seraphine admitted in his autobiography Street Player that his explosive temper often affected his judgment during his time with the band. As he claims, the acrimony toward him started after he punched a roadie for acting rudely toward his family members and later convinced the band to fire their longtime road manager (who happened to be Walt Parazaider's brother-in-law) after they had a fistfight of their own over the earlier incident. Said road manager was deeply hurt by his dismissal and died two months later of "heart problems" at just 40.
  • "How I Wrote This Article" Article: "25 or 6 to 4";
    "Waiting for the break of day
    Searching for something to say..."
  • 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.
  • Incredibly Long Note: Terry Kath sustains one on his guitar at the beginning of "Listen", lasting 37 seconds right up until Robert Lamm sings the first verse. For a more ambient example, Robert plays a very long organ chord on the introduction of "Fancy Colours" which actually does linger beneath the vocals until the beat picks up at 1:37.
  • 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.
  • Live Album: Chicago At Carnegie Hall in 1971; Live In Japan in 1972note ; Chicago XXVI: Live In Concert in 1999; and Chicago XXXIV: Live in ‘75 in 2011.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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, except their greatest hits, live, and Christmas albums. Their first regular studio album with an actual subtitle was 2008's Chicago XXXII: Stone of Sisyphus.
  • Solo Duet: Terry Kath layered two echoing tracks of his own voice on "Byblos".
  • Something Blues: Played straight with "Mississippi Delta City Blues". Slightly played with for "South California Purples"; a careful listen would note the song very much has a traditional blues structure, but the meter changes from 4/4 to 3/4 and back are not typical of the genre, hence "Purples" instead of "Blues".
  • Soprano and Gravel: Cetera's soaring tenor and Kath's gruff baritone. Robert Lamm occupied a space somewhere in between.
  • Spell My Name With An S: "Colour My World" and "Fancy Colours" from Chicago II both favor the British spelling despite the band's American nationality and being written by two different members (James Pankow and Robert Lamm respectively).
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Jason Scheff sounds like a near-carbon copy of Peter Cetera on lead vocals, with the main difference being he was almost two decades younger than the guy he replaced. This was especially evident on Chicago's initial post-Cetera hits, including "Will You Still Love Me?" and "What Kind of Man Would I Be?"
  • Title by Number: "25 or 6 to 4", "Poem 58" and "Questions 67 and 68."
  • Truck Driver's Gear Change: Employed at the end of a number of their '80s hits, including "Hard to Say I'm Sorry", "Hard Habit to Break" and "Look Away".
  • Uncommon Time: Very prevalent in their earlier material. A couple of famous examples include the brief 5/8 interlude before the main theme of "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" and the 7/4 measures in part two of "Dialogue".
  • 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.
  • We Used to Be Friends: Peter Cetera, Danny Seraphine, and Bill Champlin all left the band on acrimonious terms and remained estranged — or are still estranged — from their former bandmates for years after their departure. Averted with Jason Scheff, who left on amicable terms in 2016.

Alternative Title(s): Chicago