Wednesday, February 6, 2013

CHICAGO: America's Favorite Rock Band Still Gets No Respect

Chicago's Robert Lamm, and me
As a burgeoning young drummer, I had an early love and appreciation for music. When my dad brought home a double album called Chicago Transit Authority and played it for me, I knew instinctively that I was listening to something special. It took just the first three songs -- Introduction, Does Anybody Know What Time it Is, and Beginnings -- to hook me. I knew I was going to be a Chicago fan for life. And who knew that, some three decades later, one of the band's co-founders would play on one of my records? But we'll get to that in a minute.

As I listened to this album, I was blown away by the combination of strength and tenderness in the music, and flabbergasted by the guitar work of Terry Kath. I was also impressed with the powerful horn section, and loved the soulful baritone vocals of Kath, the almost big-band-singer voice of Robert Lamm, and the beautiful tenor of Peter Cetera. I was also floored by the drumming of Danny Seraphine. To this day I've never heard a better rock drummer.

But what grabbed me most were the songs. The power and grace of those tunes, the impossibly catchy melodies, the unbelievable progressions and changes and major 7th chords. Wow. Chicago's music spoke to me like no other music has. It knocked me out. Since that debut, I've happily followed the band along for its remarkable 46-year ride. 

Arguably the most popular American rock band of all time, Chicago, the first band to chart a Top 40 album in five separate decades, has sold more than 100 million records, including more top ten hits than any other artist except the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. And the band has stayed together and never gone a year without touring.

Obviously the group has gone through some changes. Kath sadly died of a gunshot wound in 1978. Cetera left the band after the 1985 summer tour to pursue a solo career. And Seraphine unfortunately was fired. But Chicago plays on, with four of the seven original members.

Co-lead singer and keyboardist Lamm, my favorite member and the guy who wrote so many of the band's classics, is still in the fold. He's also released a bunch of remarkably good solo albums over the years. And I'm honored to say that he played on one of my records a few years ago, fulfilling a lifelong dream of mine. The picture above was taken soon after he played on Away, my tribute to Beach Boys Carl and Dennis Wilson. 

Lamm and Carl Wilson, who sadly died of cancer, were very close friends. The song featured Lamm on keyboards, and also featured Carl's son, Justyn, and Dennis's son, Carl, singing with me on the four-part harmonies. 

Meanwhile, back in Chicago... The band's legendary horn section, too -- Lee Loughnane, trumpet, James Pankow, trombone, Walt Parazaider, saxophone -- is still intact. Other current members include Jason Scheff, who I profiled in San Diego Magazine a few years ago, Tris Imboden, Keith Howland and the newest member, the talented and personable Lou Pardini.

On record, Chicago's innovative, hard-driving rhythm and blues and jazz-rock of the early days was largely replaced in the 80s and 90s by a more polished, commercial, middle-of-the-road sensibility. As a result, the band has been lumped into the banal power-ballad pool by clueless critics who wouldn't know good music if it bit them in the ass. Even Chicago at its most blatantly commercial still produces great songs. 

Longtime fans of the group know what this band is really all about. In concert, Chicago still knocks your socks off. Sure, they play some of their Cetera-penned, David Foster-produced adult contemporary hits. And by the way, those songs are still good songs. But they also play their earlier classics -- Make Me Smile, Free, Feeling Stronger Every Day, Beginnings, Does Anybody Know What Time It Is, Introduction, Call on Me, Wake Up Sunshine, Saturday in the Park, Wishing You Were Here, Questions 67 & 68, Dialogue, 25 or 6 to 4 -- to remind the older fans what this band is still made of.

Chicago created one of the most identifiable and enjoyable sounds in the history of rock music. The early albums, especially, with their unique blend of rock, jazz, rhythm and blues, and pop, contain some of the best popular music ever recorded. Chicago is one of the greatest bands of the rock era. Yet they are often dismissed by critics and annually slighted by the terminal twits at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 

As I wrote last year in The Daily Beast, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a joke for dissing such great artists as Chicago, Yes, Peter Frampton, and countless others.

Despite never getting the critical respect it deserves, Chicago is thankfully still pleasing fans all over the world. I saw the band perform with my wife and daughter just a couple months ago here in San Diego, and they were fantastic. People who know what good music is have been loving this band since the days when Chicago records were played on progressive FM radio stations (yes, Chicago was once considered musically subversive). The love affair between Chicago and its fans, me included, is still going strong.


  1. Exclusion from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is the reward. It would be a shame for Chicago to tarnish its reputation by dabbling in that kind of mediocrity. As always, the Sex Pistols had the right idea.

  2. Who needs the hall my cover art will save the band.

  3. There is a petition on the page "Induct Chicago to the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame" We need as many signatures we can get...WT


    01. Walter Parazaider (1967-Present: saxophone; clarinet; flute; songwriter)
    02. Lee Loughnane (1967-Present: vocals; trumpet; flugelhorn; songwriter)
    03. James Pankow (1967-Present: vocals; trombone; songwriter)
    04. Robert Lamm (1967-Present: vocals; piano; keyboards; songwriter)
    05. Terry Kath (1967-1978: vocals; guitar; songwriter)
    06. Peter Cetera (1967-1985: vocals; bass guitar; songwriter)
    07. Danny Seraphine (1967-1990: drums; songwriter)
    08. Laudir De Oliveira (1973-1980: percussions; songwriter)
    09. Donnie Dacus (1978-1980: vocals; guitar; songwriter)
    10. Bill Champlin (1981-2009: vocals; keyboards; guitar; songwriter)
    11. Jason Scheff (1985-Present: vocals; bass guitar; songwriter)
    12. Tris Imboden (1990-Present: drums; songwriter)


    Bill Clinton, David Foster, Al Jardine, Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston, Barry Gibb, Philip Bailey, Verdine White, Ralph Johnson, Steven Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Billy Joel, Sting, Gerry Beckley, Steve Lukather, Bobby Kimball, Alistair Ian "Ali" Campbell, Huey Lewis, Chris Isaak, Dave Matthews, Lenny Kravitz, Axl Rose, Slash, Dave Grohl, Taylor Hawkins, Rob Thomas, Stephan Jenkins, Mark McGrath, Steve Malkmus, Trey Anastasio, Justin Vernon

    1. great list roy. how cool would it be if bill clinton, on brian wilson, inducted them? that is, if the band ever gets inducted.

    2. Keith Howland (1995-Present: vocals; guitar (longest tenured guitarist); songwriter)

    3. Yes, good add, thanks. But I generally delete comments from anonymous posters.

  5. First, a Chicago politician named Barack Obama is elected the first black President of the United States of America in 2008. Then, in 2010, the National Hockey League's Chicago Blackhawks win their fourth Stanley Cup in franchise history, but their first Stanley Cup since 1961, the year of Barack Obama's birth. Dustin Byfuglien becomes the first African-American hockey player in NHL history to win the Stanley Cup. Then, in 2013 the Chicago Blackhawks win their fifth Stanley Cup in franchise history and their second during a Barack Obama presidency. Three more black hockey players win the Stanley Cup: Ray Emery, Jamal Mayers, and Johnny Oduya. Obama and Oduya both have five letters and they both begin with the letter O and end with the letter a. Obama and Oduya both have Kenyan ancestry. Then, what do you know, Chicago, the band, is finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 20??, during a Barack Obama presidency.

  6. Fantastic article, Jamie! Those of us in the know are in a very exclusive club--we know just how good this group of individuals is--then, now and always. I've seen them several times this year and in every moment of every show, the band gave their all. Very impressive for a group of gentlemen who could easily rest on their laurels.

    And I'm struck again but how incredible it must have been to have had Robert play on your release. Very special moment, I imagine. His respect and love for Carl shine through.

  7. What a terrific article! Very cool about RL agreeing to play with you. That must have been something. And yeah, it's all about the music. Their work, especially their early work, is magical...but there's still magic in those notes. :-)

    1. thanks very much. i agree. the band still kicks ass in concert.

  8. Why say Chicago gets no respect? Over 100 million records say otherwise, so stop worrying about what no more than 10 people think and keep playing Chicago records!

    1. record sales and industry respect are two very different things. get a clue. and if you read my story you would know that i will forever be playing chicago records.

  9. Dear Mr. Reno a/k/a Jamie: I appreciate your clear, rich, and informative writing; as well as your excellent taste in music and musicianship! Thank you. ~A. Taylor Burton