Chicago outlasts the scorn of the 1980s to establish itself as one of the biggest pop acts of all time.
Chicago with Leon Russell
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After forming in college, the members of Chicago Transit Authority — soon simply Chicago — abandoned their namesake home for La-La Land in 1968.
Within a year, they’d signed with Warner Bros. and launched one of the most successful bands American pop music has ever seen with a self-titled double album.
But to hear keyboardist Robert Lamm tell it, the momentous move was no big thing.
“In your late teens and early 20s, there’s no decision that’s really big,” said Lamm, one of four remaining original members of Chicago. “‘You want to do it? OK let’s do it.’ We perceived it as a necessity and an adventure, and it gave us the space to get away and really feel like an independent band.”
It was fortuitous timing for the octet. Acts like Genesis, Yes, Caravan and The Moody Blues had already begun to explore rock music with arty, symphonic pretensions. Although Chicago’s music is big and dramatic — thanks to the horn section, its members possess such great appreciation for pop and soul idioms that the theatricality and scope of the songs rarely overshadow the vocals or melody.
Their manager, James Guerico, who had a job at Columbia Records, was able to bring the band in and clear the way for them to debut with a double album. (Indeed, each of their first three releases were double albums.) Although it initially produced no hits (“Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?,” “Beginnings” and “Questions 67 and 68” charted later), it would remain on the album charts for a then-record 171 weeks.
They shortened their name to simply Chicago for their next album, which fell just short of No. 1. However, the group’s next four studio albums topped the charts, with seven going platinum.
Then, in 1978, tragedy struck.
Singer/guitarist Terry Kath died of an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound while playing with a gun and drinking.
“We were very close, so losing a brother, losing Terry Kath the way we did was obviously traumatic. We knew that it’d take some time, and we’d try to figure out what we were going to do,” Lamm said.
Although they would go on, much changed that year. They cut their ties with Guerico. Their next release, “Chicago 13,” only went gold, and its follow-up didn’t even do that well, spelling the end of their time with Columbia. But Warner Bros. picked Chicago up, assigning them producer David Foster, and a whole new band was born.
When we started doing Diane Warren songs, I was disgusted.
“We were very uncomfortably thrust into working with David Foster, who perceived the band in terms of the success of ‘If You Leave Me Now,’ because he was sort of a younger guy. So we came back strong, but it was that Chicago 2.0,” Lamm said. “It was very successful, and I think it was successful because the strength of the songwriting and the skewing of the approach to the current trend.”
By increasing the quotient of ballads, laying on the sentimentality and adopting overwrought ’80s pop production, the group was able to revitalize its career, but with a cost. Once a fairly well-feted act, Chicago’s commercial play earned heaps of scorn. The band became a punch line for lame music.
“When we look back at it in total, and the fact that we didn’t curl up into a fetal ball and quit because of that feedback, it is less significant now than it seemed then,” Lamm said. “When we started doing Diane Warren songs, I was personally disgusted, but I was more disgusted with radio and the audience, because I know that we rendered all those really well — we can play anything great. So if nothing else, I took pride in that. We made great-sounding albums that took the most pedestrian songs and made them sound great.”
Although they’ve only released four studio albums since 1991, the members been much more active of late. Discs from 2006 and 2008 were followed with a record of Latin takes on their greatest hits. Titled “¡Exitos!,” it features a group of terrific New York salsa musicians rearranging 12 classics with Latin rhythms and Spanish lyrics. They’ve also finished up an album of Christmas music with producer Phil Ramone, due next year.
“(That) was very inspiring, and we just had a great time with each other. So we’re kind of sniffing around the idea of going back into the studio and recording a brand-new Chicago album with him this fall,” Lamm said.
The act has had more hit singles than any American band other than The Beach Boys, but Chicago knows no quit. That it has remained vital long enough to be one of the top 10 best-selling American acts of all time is even surprising to Lamm. “Selling is one thing, but that fact that we’re continually performing, I think, is even more amazing,” he said. “Indeed, I’m amazed by it every day.”