Chicago Biography

Chicago

Robert Lamm, Lee Loughnane, James Pankow and Walter Parazaider met, guess where, to form this enduring rock 'n' roll band.

Chicago is one of the most successful rock bands in America and they are among the Top Ten best-selling US musical groups of all time. With hits such as ‘Hard To Say I’m Sorry’, ‘If You Leave Me Now’, ‘You’re the Inspiration’, and ‘Hard Habit to Break’, Chicago may well be most widely identified from the Peter Cetera and its era of radio-friendly power ballads, but its career spans further and wider than their string of No. 1's.

Chicago the band was formed, unsurprisingly enough, in Chicago the city, in Illinois, and the largest in the American Midwest. The city’s rich diversity in population and cultures meant that the band members were steeped in a rich goulash of musical styles and philosophies. The Chicago blues was a wonderful movement in the 40s that melded Mississippi/delta black music, the “original” blues, with a new rock edge – Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf were the most famous children of this movement, with other luminaries like Paul Butterfield, Buddy Guy, Sonny Boy Williamson and BB King.

But Chicago saxophonist and founding member Walter Parazaider cites the King of Swing, Benny Goodman, as being his primary influence to start playing. Parazaider was nine and a clarinetist to start with. After studying and practising for a number of years, he was a classically proficient musician whose dream was to take his teacher’s place on the Chicago Symphony. However, he also picked up the saxophone along the way, as he “discovered that you could make a buck and get some girls playing a saxophone in a rock 'n roll band.” Parazaider enrolled in DePaul University, continuing his moonlighting gigs as well as continuing to take classical clarinet classes.

Trumpeter Lee Loughnane was also at DePaul, taking a teaching degree. He bumped into Parazaider through a mutual friend, future Chicago guitarist Terry Kath. Kath was a childhood friend of Parazaider and played with him in their band Missing Links, together with drummer Danny Seraphine. Kath and Seraphine, although lacking a formal musical education were talented musicians who learnt the ropes the hard way: on the stage.

The addition of Loughnane to Missing Links gave impetus to Parazaider’s vision of having a rock band with a horn section. R&B bands already had this concept, such as James Brown, and The Beatles paved the way with their ‘Revolver’ album. However, it had never been tried out in a rock context with the horn section as an integral part of the band’s sound.

They needed more musicians, and the first to be approached was James Pankow, a recent transferee to DePaul from Quincy College who played trombone. Pankow was not from Chicago; he was from St Louis, Missouri, another area with a proud tradition of the blues. Originally he had not wanted to play trombone, because it wasn’t cool, unlike sax, guitar or drums. It wasn’t easy either starting out: it was physically difficult for a ten year old to manoeuvre such a cumbersome instrument. But he persevered, and won a full musical scholarship to Quincy College.

They still needed bass and keyboards to round out the band. They thought they had found both in organist Robert Lamm. Born in Brooklyn, New York, Lamm was asked if he could fill in the bass lines on the organ pedals, and he lied, saying that he could. Thus, The Big Thing was born, consisting of Parazaider (sax), Seraphine (drums), Kath (guitarist), Loughnane (trumpet), Pankow (trombone) and Lamm (organ and bass). Rehearsing in Parazaider’s basement, they learnt a repertoire of James Brown and Wilson Pickett material. This was in 1967.

The Big Thing became a regular on the Midwest club circuit, and on one fortuitous evening, they opened for a band called the Exceptions, “the biggest club band in the Midwest”, according to Pankow. The Big Thing then had the audacity to nick the Exceptions’ bass player, Peter Cetera.

Cetera was also a Chicago boy, taking up the accordion at age 10. He later switched to bass and joined the Exceptions. Loughnane explains Cetera’s inclusion: “We needed a bass player at the time. Robert was playing the bass pedals on the organ…there just wasn't enough bottom with the bass pedals. You needed a real bass in the band. And we needed a tenor voice…When Peter joined the band, that solidified our vocals.”

The band was now renamed Chicago Transit Authority, perhaps aptly named as the band was asked to leave Chicago and relocate to LA, in late 1968. Kath, Pankow and especially Lamm were writing large amounts of original material for the band. Parazaider’s long time friend and producer Jimmy Guercio was trying to get the band signed on CBS; the band’s demo and Guercio’s persistence led to the CBS big-wigs signing them.

In January 1969, the band went to New York to record their first album. Finding that they had too much material, they suggested doing a double album, which CBS agreed to on condition that they cut their royalties. ‘The Chicago Transit Authority’ (1969) was an audaciously ambitious double album, with audible influences from the Beatles to Jimi Hendrix, from the soulful to the rock-out bash, from howling guitar solos to smooth horn passages. It eventually peaked on the Billboard chart at no. 17. Soon after the release, the band changed its name to simply Chicago.

Simply ‘Chicago’ (1970) was also the name of their second double album, and was just as ambitious as its predecessor. Perhaps the most adventurous recording so far was the 13-minute ‘Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon’, penned by the classical-leaning Pankow. As a result of a broken jaw and some quiet writing time, Cetera too contributed some material towards the album.

January 1971 came, and it was time to record their third double album, simply titled ‘Chicago III’ (1971) – Chicago were to use this system of naming their future albums, because they felt that the songs simply spoke for themselves. ‘Chicago III’ netted another cache of hit singles, including Cetera’s ‘Lowdown’ and Lamm’s ‘Free’.

In October 1971, CBS released a four-record box set that covered the band’s week-long sell-out shows at Carnegie Hall. The feeling about that performance was mixed: Cetera and Pankow hated the sound on it, but Parazaider felt a justifiable sense of pride at the band’s unique achievement. After a world tour, ‘Chicago V’ (1972) was recorded. It was also a milestone in that it was the band’s first single disc album. Famous for Lamm’s ‘A Song for Richard and His Friends’, the song seemed to foreshadow Nixon’s later impeachment for Watergate. The album marked a departure from the band’s earlier extended instrumental jam-oramas, featuring nine tightly crafted pop songs.

The band took a break from recording and touring by working on producer Guercio’s film, ‘Electra Glide in Blue’ (1973), starring Robert Blake and featuring Kath, Loughnane, Parazaider and Cetera. ‘Chicago VI’ (1973) was recorded on Guercio’s newly acquired ranch in Colorado. The solitude helped focus the band’s creative energies, with Pankow penning the two hit singles ‘Feelin’ Stronger Every Day’ and ‘Just You ‘N Me’.

Just a couple of months after the release of ‘Chicago VI’, the group gathered at Guercio’s ranch to record what would be their seventh album. The original intention was to do a jazz record, hence ‘Italian From New York’, ‘Aire’, and ‘Devil's Sweet’ were written by Lamm, Seraphine, Parazaider, and Pankow. Cetera however never saw himself as a jazz musician, which explains his diminished contribution songwriting-wise on ‘Chicago VII’ (1974). Despite this, he did pen one of Chicago’s most famous songs, ‘Wishing You Were Here’, which featured Carl and Dennis Wilson and Alan Jardine from the Beach Boys. The relationship between the bands was so good that they embarked on a sold-out nationwide tour the following summer. 1974 also saw the arrival of an eighth member, Brazilian percussionist Laudir De Oliveira.

1975 was a good year for Chicago. ‘Chicago VIII’ (1975) was released, and worldwide record sales for this single year were 20 million copies. A greatest-hits compilation, ‘Chicago IX’ (1975) was released in November. June 1976 saw the release of ‘Chicago X’ (1976), with the massive, instantly recognisable hit ‘If You Leave Me Now’, a song that barely made the final cut. ‘Chicago X’ won the band its first platinum record, selling a million copies in three months, and ‘If You Leave Me Now’ went to the top of the Billboard singles chart. The single won them a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus, but typecast the band into the saccharine ballad format that some members were unhappy about (especially Kath and Lamm).

‘Chicago XI’ was released in 1977, but tensions were mounting between producer Guercio and the band, resulting in a split. A few months later, tragedy struck when Kath died of an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound. Devastated, the band tried to regroup by auditioning guitarists, eventually hiring Donnie Dacus.

Their new era started with them entering a new studio with a new producer and a new guitarist, resulting in ‘Hot Streets’ (1978). It was their first studio album not to follow the Roman numeral sequence, and also the first to feature the band on the cover instead of its famous logo. The album’s first single ‘Alive Again’ was a direct tribute to Kath.

Chicago was under pressure to change their sound; ‘Chicago 13’ (1979) contained a song called ‘Street Player’ which had a disco flavour. ‘Chicago 13’ did poorly by Chicago standards, with de Oliveira and Dacus leaving soon after to be replaced by Chris Pinnick. ‘Chicago XIV’ (1980) was disappointing as well, and another compilation album was released soon after, ‘Greatest Hits, Volume II’ (1981).

1981 saw the arrival of Bill Champlin, as the band needed someone to sing Kath’s gutsy vocals. Champlin knew Seraphine, and had a close working relationship with Canadian producer and songwriter David Foster. Foster contributed much to ‘Chicago 16’ (1982), co-writing eight of the album's ten songs, including ‘Hard To Say I'm Sorry’. The Foster-Cetera songwriting partnership marked a definite move along the easy-listening balladsy road.

‘Chicago 17’ (1984) was the band’s best-seller. Hits like ‘Hard Habit to Break’ and ‘You’re The Inspiration’ took album sales to over six million. However, Peter Cetera, writer of many of Chicago’s romantic ballads decided to leave in late 1985 to concentrate on his solo career. He was replaced by bassist and tenor singer Jason Scheff, son of the legendary bass player Jerry Scheff. The band also hired guitarist Dawayne Bailey, from Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet band. ‘Chicago 18’ (1986) was a certified gold album, and after an autumn tour to break in their new singer and guitarist, Chicago recorded ‘Chicago 19’ (1988). ‘Greatest Hits 1982-89’ (1989) and a tour with the Beach Boys followed.

In 1990, Seraphine left to be replaced by Tris Imboden, an Orange County drummer who was Kenny Loggins’ drummer for several years, as well as touring with Chaka Khan and Al Jarreau. ‘Twenty One’ (1991) was recorded, with two Diane Warren contributions, ‘Explain It To My Heart’ and ‘Chasing The Wind’. In 1991, they were honoured with their own star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

In 1993, the band began work on a new album, but one which reflected their weariness at the record companies’ insistence on top 40 hits. This resulted in the ‘The Stone of Sisyphus’, which was not released. Warner Bros. disliked the album so much that it parted ways with Chicago.

Forsaking their commercial sound, they then recorded ‘Night and Day (Big Band)’ (1995), which brought the focus back on big band jazz and swing. It contained numbers by the late great jazzman Duke Ellington, a major influence of the band, and featured guest appearances by The Gipsy Kings and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry. Keith Howland joined in early 1995 to replace Dawayne Bailey on guitar. Also in 1995, they secured the rights to their early Columbia material between 1969 and 1980. The catalogue is now reissued on the band’s own Chicago Records label.

In 1997, Chicago teamed up with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra to perform an orchestral arrangement of Pankow's rock epic ‘Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon’. To commemorate their 30th anniversary, they released the compilation ‘The Heart of Chicago 1967-1997’ (1997), which had two new songs including the ballad ‘Here In My Heart’. The next year, they followed up with ‘The Heart of Chicago 1967 - 1998 Volume II’ (1998). That same year they released ‘Chicago XXV: The Christmas Album’ (1998) which went gold.

In 1999, they released their first live album for over two decades, ‘Chicago XXVI: Live in Concert’ (1999). More compilations and a tour with their good friends Earth, Wind and Fire followed, until ‘Chicago XXX’ (2006). The unreleased 1993 album ‘Stone of Sisyphus’ (2008) finally saw the light of day in 2008, the album once dismissed by Warner Bros. as “unreleased”.

Band
Robert Lamm – keyboards, vocals
Keith Howland – guitar, vocals
Jason Scheff – bass, vocals
Tris Imboden – drums
Bill Champlin – keyboards, vocals
James Pankow – trombone, vocals
Lee Loughnane – trumpet, vocals
Walter Parazaider - saxophone

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