Famous & Faceless
How do you sell 110 million records yet remain anonymous. How do you have a career spanning almost 50 years, multiple chart toppers and a Grammy, yet still walk about in your home town with the mass public oblivious to you.
Well if you’re Robert Lamm, Lee Loughnane, Walt Parazaider, Jason Scheff, James Pankow, Trish Imboden & Keith Howland, collectively know as CHICAGO, you probably can.
To many the group will remain attached to ballads like ‘If You Leave Me Now’, ‘Hard to Say I’m Sorry’ and ‘You’re the Inspiration’ but the origins of the group are far removed from middle of the road banality and compilation albums to beat the band.
Chicago started life as Chicago Transit Authority in 1967. Their refreshing fusion of jazz & rock set them aside from their peers, scoring their first hit with ‘I’m A Man’ – a Spencer Davis Group cover, which was followed up with ‘Does Anybody Know What Time It Is?’- a Top 10 hit on both sides of the pond. Lead vocals were shared beaten Terry Kath and Peter Cetera. The latter would break from the band in 1985 but not before Cetera penned ‘If You Leave Me Now’ – a worldwide chart topper in 1976.
By that stage the band had clocked up 9 albums in 9 years! Before the end of the seventies only The Carpenters (strangely) had sold more records then the Windy City natives.
Tragedy struck in January ’78 when Kath accidentally shot himself in the head. A keen gun lobbyist the 31 year olds death in front of band members in his house threatened to put an end to the band (album sales would drop for the next four years, forcing trombone player Pankow to quip “We used to have gold and silver albums and singles…Our latest album has gone plywood!
1982 would herald a huge change in the group’s musical direction. Bill Champlin (ex-Sons of Champlin) would replace the lamented Kath and share song-writing duties with both Peter Cetera and record producer David Foster. The group’s 16th album , simply titled ‘Chicago 16’ – the group had used roman numerals on each album to that point, returned Chicago to the Billboard Top 10, both in album, and the No.1 single lifted from the album ‘Hard To Say I’m Sorry’.
Astonishingly the group’s next cut – ‘Chicago 17’ spawned four hit singles. ‘Stay The Night’ and ‘Along Comes a Woman’ both reached the Billboard Top 20, while ‘Hard Habit to Break’ and ‘You’re The Inspiration’ continued the now familiar pattern of ballad-laden tracks.
Breaking from the group in 1985, Peter Cetera would go on to record No.1 tracks with his first singles away from the band – ‘ Glory of Love & ‘Next Time I Fall’ The departing Cetera was replaced by a youthful Jason Scheff (his father Jeff being Elvis Presley’s bass player) and ‘Chicago 18’ & indeed ’19’ kept the band’s popularity among the masses , while ‘Will You Still Love Me?’ cracked the Billboard Singles Chart Top 3, ‘Look Away’ from ‘19’ would become their 3rd chart topper.
The 90’s would see a change in certain musicals styles and genre’s. The ballads became benign and the group were forced to change direction. By 2005 the band had clocked up now less than 29 albums
In almost 40 years and though the group still produced original material – Chicago XXX (30- and reverting to the Roman numerals, would creep inside the Top 40 Albums charts, the group would produce one too many compilation albums, however they continued to see very well.
Flash forward to 2015 and the band’s last offering Chicago XXXVI- Now saw the group come full circle and return to their grass roots with a powerhouse of an album deliciously laden with horn, trombone and rich deep vocals from group founder Robert Lamm. The group relentlessly tour in a punishing schedule, yet the sixty something’s would still put their peers, and those young whipper-snappers to shame with their energy.
Astonishingly, Chicago has only ever won one Grammy – Record of The Year in 1984 for ‘Chicago 17’ and haven’t been inducted into the Hall of Fame! ………….. Yet!
Not that it will annoy Robert, Lee, Walt, Jason, James, Trish & Keith.
They’re probably having a Starbucks now among the masses. Oblivious to everyone.
…. till next time, Brian Kennedy (Radio Blaa Blaa)