|Chicago's Robert Lamm, and me|
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 35 years later, one of the band's leaders 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 horn section, and loved the soulful baritone vocals of Kath, the almost big-band-singer voice of Robert Lamm, and the beautiful tenor singing 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 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 Lougnane, 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 very 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, contian 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.