Back in the Seventies, you could not turn on a FM radio station without hearing Chicago. At the time, the band was the ultimate slap in the face of AM pop radio, what with their successful fusion of jazz, rock and aspects of big band music. Other bands attempted this before Chicago, such as Electric Flag and Blood, Sweat & Tears. But, neither of those bands played with the apparent reckless abandon that Chicago did in the early days. This band inspired high school jazz band musicians to stretch their talents to greater heights by playing their horns along with those iconic numbered titled albums. And, although Chicago found much success on the pop chart, many of their early hits had to be edited out of a tight, highly structure four- or five-song movement that the band had recorded for their albums.
And, what many people have lost sight of over the years was the fact that every original member of the Chicago band was a virtuoso on his chosen instrument. Sure, in the beginning, their horn section received the well-deserved praise, one rock guitar god by the name of Jimi Hendrix stated publicly that his favorite guitarist was the late Terry Kath. Supposedly Hendrix was intimidated by Kath’s guitar slinging, that was ultimately down-played as the band’s career turned from the jazz-rock experimentation toward a more soft rock bent as bassist Peter Cetera’s songwriting and vocals became stronger. But, go back to the first seven albums and listen to the band’s playing and interactions, and you will discover a band of unparalleled individual talent. This fact was one that took me until I was in my forties to actually discover. Now, I love going back to those early albums to enjoy the band’s playfulness within tight arrangements. And, in the early days, the lyrics were challenging and thoughtful.
But, as with many bands that find superstar success, Chicago drifted away from their original vision. First, the band started having major success with their ballads. Not only were the ballads big sellers, but those same ballads were winning the band Grammy Awards and pushing their albums to multi-platinum status. So, what had been a band with three lead singers and a unmatched guitar slinger morphed into a soft rock combo with touches of a horn section and a subdue guitar. And, the voice of Peter Cetera became the voice of Chicago.
Then, on January 23, 1978, the band was having a party, guitarist and band leader Terry Kath pointed what he thought was an empty gun at his head, pulled the trigger and accidentally shot and killed himself. So, with the band’s original musical visionary gone, the band regrouped and their transition to a soft rock band became complete in the aftermath. The final change in sound occurred in the eighties as the band further downplayed their horn section for a more prominent synthesizer sound in an effort to make the band more contemporary.
Once the transformation was complete after Kath’s death, in 1982, Chicago stormed back onto the Top 40 charts with most Cetera-sung ballads, although the band did occasionally find success with a few up-beat singles. Since Cetera’s songs were becoming the bigger selling singles from the band, the bassist opted to pursue a solo career. Once again, the band was at a crossroads. And, once again, the band succeeded by hiring new blood that would carry the ballad-driven songs throughout the rest of the eighties. Now, the songs were highly successful on the charts, but those songs were also bland and forgettable, especially when compared to their late-Sixties/early-Seventies output. In 1988, the band had the end-of-the-year number one hit song with “Look Away”, a forgettable slice of late-Eighties pop balladry that sounded like much of the other songs that were hits at the time.
Today, the band is a highly successful touring band that is showcasing their live playing abilities in addition to their hits, and they have many of the latter. But, Chicago’s concerts are pulling in those aging Boomers who remember the early days of the band’s music, in addition to young rebels from high school and college jazz bands that continue to carry on the jazz/rock fusion tradition that Chicago was on the cusp of inventing. Lately, the band’s recordings are leaning toward the jazz/rock/big band free-for-alls of the early days, when they are not recording new Christmas albums which have been very successful for the band.
So, today, in honor of a band that joined Cheap Trick in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2016, here are My 25 Favorite Songs by Chicago. Enjoy!
25. “Hard Habit to Break” (1984)
24. “Love Me Tomorrow” (1982)
23. “Stay the Night” (1984)
22. “If You Leave Me Now” (1976)
21. “Along Comes a Woman” (1985)
20. “Just You ‘n’ Me” (1973)
19. “Harry Truman” (1975)
18. “Free” (1970)
17. “No Tell Lover” (1978)
16. “(I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long” (1974)
15. “I’m a Man” (1969)
14. “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” (1970)
13. “25 or 6 to 4” (1970)
12. “Questions 67 and 68” (1970)
11. “Beginnings” (1969)
10. “Alive Again” (1978)
9. “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” (1982)
8. “Colour My World” (1972)
7. “Wishing You Were Here” (1974)
6. “Make Me Smile” (1970)
5. “Baby What a Big Surprise” (1977)
4. “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day” (1973)
3. “Saturday in the Park” (1972)
2. “Old Days” (1975)
1. “Dialogue Parts 1 & 2” (1972)
How’s that for a Top 25 list? I think it’s pretty hot! Not bad for a band whose only pictures were on the cover of the 1978 album Hot Street, which happened to be the only album that did NOT have a number assigned to it. Otherwise, all of Chicago’s albums’ front covers simply had a version of the band’s famous logo.
Now, allow me a moment to raise my glass in praise of this fantastic band Chicago! May they continue to push the boundaries and never be concerned with chart action. To Chicago!