Four decades on, Chicago’s horn-fueled sound still inspires nostalgia
By Jack Houston
Bands had always used horns to sweeten their records going back to the early days of rock ’n’ roll, but it was never quite socially acceptable to give saxes, trumpets and trombones equal billing—until Chicago. Together with bands like The Electric Flag and Blood, Sweat and Tears, Chicago brought horns from the background and made them a lead instrument, as important to the overall sound of the group as the guitar or vocal.
A testament to the emerging instruments’ importance in Chicago’s jazz-rock blast, the same horn section that joined The Big Thing (as the band was originally known in 1967) is the same horn section that fans will see at the Tropicana, Feb. 15-17.
Saxophonist Walter Parazaider, trombonist James Pankow and trumpeter Lee Loughnane, together with singer and founding member Robert Lamm, have weathered more than 45 years of stylistic shifts, personnel changes and the death of founding member and guitarist Terry Kath in 1978.
Rising to fame as Chicago Transit Authority—a name that lasted only until the group became famous enough for the real Chicago Transit Authority to pursue legal action—the band released its self-titled debut album in 1969, a two-LP set produced by the same James William Guercio who helmed Blood, Sweat and Tears’ self-titled breakthrough a year earlier. Although the latter would go on to receive the Grammy for Album of the Year, the former went double platinum and stayed on the charts for more than three years.
Blessed with three competent singers in Kath, Lamm and bassist Peter Cetera, Chicago scored three No. 1, 21 top 10 and 36 top 40 singles across three separate decades, reaching a commercial peak with 1984’s Chicago 17, which has since been certified platinum six times over by the RIAA. That was the album that launched Cetera as a solo act and paved the way for the arrival of Jason Scheff, who remains the group’s bassist and reprises Cetera’s expressive vocals on hits like “If You Leave Me Now,” their first No. 1.
Today, Chicago draws upon more than 30 albums’ worth of material, from early rock hits like “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is,” “25 or 6 to 4” and “Saturday in the Park” to ’80s MOR staples “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” and “You’re the Inspiration.” They’re not even afraid to break out some of their more ambitious material, such as the Pankow-written six-part suite “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon,” which contained in it two top 10 hits, “Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World.”
Chicago will never be considered the coolest band in the world, but like many groups whose commercial success far outstrips their critical standing, that’s somewhat beside the point. To take nothing away from its talented members, Chicago has always been greater than the sum of its parts, a musical vehicle in perpetual motion, able to withstand pop music’s ever-changing landscape.
More than anything, Chicago is a well of nostalgia, with songs that call to mind any number of memories: a first love, first slow dance or, depending on how far you go back, a first moon landing.