© 2004 by Bill DeYoung
If American history has taught us anything, it’s that democracy comes at a price.
Over the course of 37 years, the members of the band Chicago have clung to the principles by which the group was formed; at times the bloodletting was fierce, at times the institution itself was shaken to its foundation. But like the United States, Chicago has survived and continues to change and grow and learn from mistakes made.
To date, the band has sold more than 120 million albums around the world. Their catalog continues to sell briskly.
“There’s something about this music which I don’t understand, that keeps people coming back,” said James Pankow, trombonist, songwriter and longtime brass arranger for Chicago.
“This music remains timeless, and it has no demographic. We look in an audience and we see four generations. Name another artist whose music appeals to children and grandmas.
“When we wrote this shit, we had no idea it would become this. It was just another pop song.”
The original seven Chicagoans – drummer Danny Seraphine, pianist Robert Lamm, guitarist Terry Kath, bassist Peter Cetera and the up-front horn section of Pankow, trumpeter Lee Loughnane and sax/flute player Walter Parazaider – first played together in 1967 in the Windy City.
The idea – credited to Parazaider – was to blend rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm & blues, jazz and pop into a heady stew, with the horns playing a major role. Originally called the Big Thing, and (briefly) Chicago Transit Authority, Chicago chose to use the horns as another voice, rather than just punctuating the songs.
There was no leader. Everyone contributed equally.
The sound was distinctive out of the gate, and the band’s producer, Parazaider’s old DePaul University pal James William Guercio, made their 1969 debut Chicago Transit Authority an audio astonishment.
“His drum sounds were pioneering in those days,” said Pankow. “Stereo drums. And what he did with eight tracks was amazing.”
Guercio, who’d honed his production skills on Blood, Sweat & Tears’ second release, double- and triple-tracked Chicago’s horn section in New York and Los Angeles studios.
With the second album, Chicago, the band was embraced by FM radio, and when AM Top 40 got on the bus, Chicago began hemorrhaging hits.
Lamm, Kath, Pankow and later Cetera were prolific writers, and Chicago’s hits came from all four. The band’s musical identity became so strong, so identifiable, that people loved Chicago records no matter who was doing the singing.
“Make Me Smile” was written by Pankow and sung by Kath; Lamm wrote “25 or 6 to 4” and Cetera handled the vocal. Lamm sang his own “Beginnings” and “Does Anybody Really Know What Time it Is,” but gave “Dialogue (Parts One and Two)” to Kath and Cetera as a duet.
“I was always very open to casting the song,” said Lamm. “I knew I was never going to sing ’25 or 6 to 4.’ I wrote it for Peter to sing, because in my very naïve way I would sit down to write a song and never think about the key or the range. It was ‘Here’s a song; who’s going to sing it?'”
It was a bit dicier for Pankow, who didn’t sing. “When Terry or Robert or Peter wrote a song, they wrote it for themselves, because they were singers,” he explained. “When I wrote, I didn’t have any particular voice in mind – I just had the melody, and the lyric, and so when I brought my stuff in to be recorded we basically had a sing–off.”
In the case of “Make Me Smile,” said Pankow, “Robert sang it, it wasn’t quite right. Peter sang it, it wasn’t quite right. Terry sang it, bingo. On the money.
“I think it was probably an awkward thing for the singers, because they were actually being auditioned for their own record. Because I didn’t know who the hell’s voice was right until I heard it.”
For “Just You & Me,” another Pankow tune, “Everybody wanted to sing it,” according to Parazaider. “So we had Open Mic Night. I sat there and watched all three of those guys have at it. The three of them were fighting to get into the vocal booth. I think even Jimmy went ‘Let me try it.'”
Singer and keyboardist Bill Champlin, who joined Chicago in 1981 (more on that later), heard a story about “Colour My World,” Pankow’s romantic ballad from the early days.
“Nobody liked it,” Champlin said. “Terry drew the short straw, and he sang the wedding song for a whole generation.
“If you listen to it closely, him and Jack Daniels went to the mic. It was a definite duet. And Jack was actually kinda singing more than Terry.”
“Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World” were edited from Pankow’s “Ballet for a Girl In Buchannon,” a four-movement piece on the second album.
“None of us knew what editing was in those days,” said Pankow. “The first time I heard ‘Make Me Smile’ edited as a single was on the radio in my car. I’m going ‘How’d they do that? They butchered that fuckin’ thing.'”
“We thought it was a travesty to be editing ‘art,’” Loughnane said. “We had to grow up and learn that a single on the radio is an advertisement for the band. Which then gives them the possibility of coming to a live show and hearing the whole piece.”
This was one of de facto band member Guercio’s ideas – he did the early edits without consulting the members of Chicago.
“It really didn’t bother us,” Parazaider said. “When that first album hit the charts at 39 or 42 with a bullet, we just went apeshit and were ecstatic. We had hit records and we were out working, and it’s something that we had really hoped to do, all of us, for a while.”
(Pankow’s multi-part song was actually titled “Ballet for a Girl in Buckhannon,” named for his girlfriend at the time, who lived in Buckhannon, West Virginia. It was misprinted on the album and has remained misprinted ever since.)
Chicago was embraced by the catchy tune-loving radio crowd and jazzbos alike – the former sent 35 singles into the Top 40 between 1970 and ‘91, and the latter dug their virtuosic ensemble playing. Horn players became something more than the geeks in the high school marching band.
Guercio – also band manager – had convinced them to keep their faces off the album covers and use a ubiquitous logo instead, like a brand name, instantly recognizable. And the albums didn’t have titles, but sequential numbers, like volumes in a library. With one or two exceptions, the logo and number have appeared on every one of Chicago’s twenty-something albums to date.
“It’s helped the band to continue on through some personnel changes,” Parazaider explained. “They know the music, and they know the logo, the quality standard is there. The logo is the standard.”
The logo became the umbrella for Chicago’s all-for-the-band, the-band-for-all approach.
Pankow said anonymity never hurt the musicians as they barnstormed the country. “Believe me, there was no problem being recognized,” he laughed. “We had to have security wherever we went. In a hotel in Pittsburgh, women were scaling the friggin’ building trying to get to us.
“I remember gigs where they had to put us in a linen truck, or a plumbing van, to get us in and out of the gig. We had police stationed on the stage just to protect us from fanatical fans.”
V (1972) was the first of five consecutive No. 1 albums. The singles, including “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” “Saturday in the Park,” “Old Days,” “Free” and “Call on Me,” had been hitting bang, bang, bang, one after another. Pankow said the band felt it had the Midas Touch during this period.
The collaborations continued: Cetera and Seraphine co-wrote “Lowdown,” Pankow and Cetera came up with “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” and “No Tell Lover” was a three-way between Loughnane, Cetera and Seraphine. On Cetera’s “Wishing You Were Here,” Kath and the composer shared the microphone.
Cetera’s “If You Leave Me Now,” from X, became Chicago’s first No. 1 single, in 1976.
“We probably could’ve done a whole album of crap by the fifth album,” Lamm said, “filled it out with long solos, and stuff like that, which is some of what we did on the other albums. But that was the intent, to stretch out and have long solos.
“But by 1972, there really just wasn’t the time. And that’s just not what was written.”
V had been the band’s first non-double album (the fourth release, Chicago at Carnegie Hall, clocked in at an endurance-testing four LPs).
“When we started, the record companies were paying unlimited copyrights,” Loughnane said. “And I think people took advantage of that by naming solo sections as a different song. By V, they went to paying for just 10 copyrights on an album, and that changed everything musically.
“Then we tried to accomplish the musical statements we’d done before in a shorter period of time. Say the same thing but condense it. If you can’t say it in three minutes, you shouldn’t be saying it.”
The endless cycle of recording, touring and more recording was beginning to take its toll. “We worked our asses off,” Parazaider said. “We were on the road so much, we didn’t know anything but each other. You want to talk about burnt.
“We’d wonder sometimes, looking out the plane window going ‘Will there be a day where we don’t have to face this deadline, and really get into something?’ So we really cut down on the afterthoughts – you get done with a record, it’s mixed, you hear it once and you OK it. And then I would never revisit the album again.”
According to Lamm, the seven midwestern musicians thought they were hot shit.
“It wasn’t so much arrogance as it was being young and stupid,” he said. “We had become conditioned, by this point, of ‘Everything we do people seem to like. Let’s just keep doing this.’ And when suddenly a single came out and it wasn’t Top Ten, just Top 40, it was like ‘What the fuck is this? Don’t they get it?'”
“When the seventh album came out,” said Loughnane, “all seven albums were on the charts. I thought we were pretty hot. You think this is never gonna end.”
Life was good. Still, with their corporate-stamp look and Roman numeral titles, Chicago albums – filled with great songs and performances though they were – began to become predictable.
From all accounts, the one who most resented adhering to Chicago’s hit-making blueprint was guitarist Kath, who preferred the longer, more improvisational pieces.
“The commercial part of the band bothered him,” said Parazaider. “I think he had the hardest time with the fame and all of that stuff. He just wanted to make music, and in his words, he didn’t give a shit if it sold or not.”
Cetera – in a separate interview – said the fellowship was already starting to unravel by this point. Group unity, he said, had its drawbacks. Behind the logo, unseen by the adoring public, things were strafing.
“The truth of the matter is that we always came off like this boring ensemble, everything seemed like goody two-shoes, when in fact it wasn’t,” Cetera explained. “There were inner turmoils. Every bad thing you could think about in a group was happening in our group – you just didn’t hear about it because we were very good at hiding it.”
Touring behind VII, Chicago – at Kath’s insistence – played entire shows of lengthy jazz pieces, leaving out most of their many hits. Critics and audiences hated it.
Said Lamm: “I remember smoking a joint and getting really high and calling Terry and saying ‘Terry, you know what? I think we’re completely fucking up. We should play every one of our hits, because the jazz thing isn’t working.’ He got completely angry with me, because he wasn’t there. He really wanted to just play.”
Success, inevitably, went to their heads. They acquired the usual problems of the rich and famous. “You can see some of our old TV specials, and people are shaking because they’re so wired from blow,” said Pankow. “I look back and I don’t know how the hell I did what I do when I was screwing up like that. Because it’s a demanding gig.”
The bloom came off the rose in 1977, when the band hired outside counsel to look into their contract with Guercio.
“It was so one-sided,” Pankow recalled. “Danny Seraphine was driving home in his little second-hand VW to his two-room home in Sherman Oaks, realizing that our producer was living on 3,000 acres in Colorado and driving around in Cadillacs and flying in Lear jets. And Danny’s going ‘What’s wrong with this picture?'”
When the band’s lawyer re-read the management contract from ’69, Pankow said, “he laughed in our faces. He said ‘You guys are fools. This guy is fucking you every way from Saturday.’
“He owned everything. He’d said ‘You guys make the music, and we’re going to do the business so you aren’t sidetracked by the business and you can concentrate on being creative.’ Translation: ‘We’re going to hide all the business from you so we can steal from you, and rob you blind.’ He got 100 percent of the publishing, for songs that he didn’t write one note of.”
Guercio, Loughnane said, “had an idea that the artist should be paid for their art. And he lied, plain and simple.
“We were very malleable at that time. All we wanted to do was write songs, go into the studio and play. And we trusted that they were taking care of the business.”
Guercio declined to be interviewed for this story.
“My theory is that he had some kind of brain aneurysm,” Lamm explained. “And he just stopped thinking logically. Instead of just being a talented musician who was a brilliant producer, and someone who had some great ideas, he kind of became megalomaniacal. To the point where he could no longer be brilliant and productive. And we were his tool.
“We had no experience in any other world, other than the world he introduced us to.”
Chicago settled out of court with Guercio in 1978, regaining most of their publishing (Guercio, Pankow said, “will own a piece of it for the rest of his life”).
The sudden betrayal and loss of their Svengali was a stunner. “Basically, it was called growing up,” Pankow recalled. “We weren’t naive little kids any more. I was 20 years old when this started; I didn’t know shit about the business. I knew how to play the damn horn, and I knew how to jump around on a stage.”
Still, worse things were to come.
In the early morning hours of Jan. 23, 1978, Kath died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at a friend’s house in Woodland Hills, California.
“I know in my heart that it was an accident,” said Pankow. “If he hadn’t been up for three days, and acting crazy, party hardy … he was a gun enthusiast, and he had gone to the shooting range, which he did regularly. He came back – this is on no sleep – and he was cleaning his gun, and there was a bullet still in the chamber which he had forgotten about because he was wasted. He put the clip back in, it chambered the round, and it went off.”
Like most of the other band members, Kath was no stranger to alcohol and drug abuse.
“That incredible, terrible loss due to carelessness, it was the biggest wake-up call we could ever have,” Pankow stressed. “We realized ‘Hey man, what a bunch of assholes we’ve been. We’ve been taking our audience for granted, we’ve been taking our gift for granted, we’ve become a bunch of spoiled, delusionary brats.'”
Kath’s loss, Pankow added, “took the wind out of our sails. We got a major slap across the face when that happened, because his death was a careless death. He didn’t need to go.”
It was the late ‘70s. Cocaine, said Pankow, was a part of a working musician’s life. “What a vile thing. I’m so glad those days are over. We survived. Terry didn’t. And in his death, we all became stronger, more responsible people. So his death was his gift to us, at the risk of sounding macabre.”
With both Guercio and Kath out of the picture, Chicago hired the first in a series of new guitarists and producers and came up with Hot Streets – the start of something new. No Roman numeral, and a photograph of the band on the cover.
Hot Streets produced no major hits, and was one of their least well-received albums. According to a record-label fan poll, the logo, and the numbered titles, were touchstones. They wanted them back. The musicians’ egos were bruised, but they followed up with 13 and XIV, each of which sold less than Hot Streets.
“The day after Terry Kath passed away, I got a call,” remembered Bill Champlin, a killer white-soul singer who’d been gigging for years around San Francisco and Los Angeles. “And I said ‘Yeah, I play guitar, but I can’t fit in those shoes.’ I thought I was being offered an audition, at least.”
Although he was quite an accomplished guitarist, Champlin wasn’t a lead player and considered himself a singer and keyboardist first and foremost. He passed on the invite.
Through his friendship with drummer Seraphine, Champlin came in to work on the sessions for what would become Chicago’s first album with Full Moon/Warner Bros, 16 (Columbia having unceremoniously dropped the band after their recent poor sales). He and Seraphine enlisted David Foster to produce, and before the record was released, Champlin had become a full-time member of the band.
The last song written and recorded for 16 was “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” a lush ballad co-written by Cetera and Foster. The two became fast friends during this period.
The song went to No. 1, and Chicago – without founders Kath and Guercio, and without the mighty muscle of Columbia Records – was reborn.
Still, the Foster sound was, well, it was different from vintage Chicago. “Some of the songs just didn’t lend themselves to horns,” Parazaider said. “On some of the Foster stuff, we ended up picking up guitars and keyboards, and that was frustrating for us.
“Lee and Jimmy and I were saying ‘Maybe we don’t fit into this any more.’ We had a conference call between the three of us, and we said ‘Maybe we should do something else together.’ This was our worth for all these years, and it wasn’t being used. And it really bothered us.”
Champlin: “To give him his due, David actually did some really great work. On the 17 album there’s some horns that are just so sweet. It was Jimmy Pankow’s chart, but he (Foster) truncated everything seriously to make it fit correctly. Rather than just saying ‘I don’t understand it, let’s get rid of it.'”
Many of the band’s longtime fans considered the switch to a softer, ballad-heavy repertoire (orchestrated by Foster, who would later make his name producing MOR hits for Cetera and other vocalists) something of a sellout. “To me, commercial is really more about people liking what you’re writing as opposed to trying to write what you think people are going to like,” said Cetera, “which is what happened towards the end. For Christ’s sake, we had a disco song on one of the albums after Terry died, a year after disco was over. Just because somebody wanted it on.”
Sellout or no, Chicago had its second wind. 17, released in 1984, became the biggest album of their career, and sent three singles (“You’re the Inspiration,” “Hard Habit to Break” and “Along Comes a Woman”) near the top of the charts. 17 went platinum seven times – and one can imagine Columbia executives kicking themselves for letting Chicago go.
These were the salad days of MTV. Although Champlin had sung part of “Hard Habit to Break,” the Foster-produced hits were all voiced by Cetera.
“When you make a video, the lens goes to the lead singer,” Loughnane explained. “And it makes it look like that person is the leader of the band. However mistaken that might be.”
According to Champlin, Cetera – who’d made a solo record in between Chicago albums – was giving off ‘I’m leaving’ signs for a few years. “He’d really gotten himself under control,” he said. “He’d quit smoking, drugs and drinking, he really got into good shape. He was making a run at it.
“He knew band rhetoric as good as anybody, and could spout it. He knew how to make it sound like a band. But he really saw himself as a solo artist.”
In the summer of 1985, Peter Cetera quit Chicago.
“It wasn’t amicable in any way, shape or form,” Cetera recalled. “I was led to believe one thing, as far as letting me do my solo stuff, when there was time. And when there was time I wasn’t allowed to do my solo stuff without everybody kicking and screaming. And that turns into not a very good situation.”
Lamm described a band meeting in their manager’s office. “Peter said ‘I don’t really like where the music is going. To be honest with you, I never really dug the music that much anyway.’
“I remembered there were things on VII or something that he maybe didn’t like, but why wait 10 albums to say something?
“In every group context, there’s a certain chemistry. And I think Peter felt like he wasn’t getting along with everybody like he wanted to. I think Peter was a guy who couldn’t sit down and say ‘You know, I’m just not comfortable with what’s going on, or with you,’ or whatever. He was the guy that said ‘It’s hard for me to say I’m sorry.'”
Cetera’s exit was a bitter pill for the remaining old friends. “Before he left,” said Pankow, “he was making demands, like ‘I want 50 percent of the take because I’m the focus, I’m the guy, I’m the voice of Chicago.’ He wanted 50 percent of the gross receipts from the road, top billing.
“Our answer to that was “Hey dude, we’ve been a democracy since the beginning. We’re a team here. There’s no lead, there’s no focal point. We’re a band and we’re all equal partners here.'”
Cetera: “Nobody really wants to hear what really happened, and how it really happened. They always want to hear how everything was good, and we’re gonna get back together, and that’s just not the case.
“I’ve tried over the years to do certain things that would’ve made that happen, and I’ve been rejected. I’m not really interested in reunions, but there have been certain things over the years that would have been fun to do.”
He dislikes answering too many questions about Chicago. “The only thing I can equate it to is constantly talking about your ex-wife, and the new wife doesn’t like that too much,” he said. “In my instance, my new wife is what I’m doing now.”
Lamm: “The guy is a great singer, and a great songwriter. He’s just so talented, and on that level all of us have tremendous respect for the guy.”
But fans shouldn’t look for a reunion anytime soon. “In 1995, we threw out the olive branch,” Loughnane said. “We had just gotten our masters from Columbia. That presented an opportunity for the first time where we could put the Warner Brothers and CBS years on the same discs, on Chicago Records, which we had just formed.
“For Heart of Chicago Volume 1 we were going to do two original songs – and we asked Peter if he wanted to sing them. He said no, he didn’t think the songs were good enough.
“So what are you gonna do?”
For a 2001 Behind the Music show on the band, Cetera declined to talk and was conspicuous in his absence. “Not only were they not gonna talk about me, they were going to diminish my role in the group,” he said. “And they did fairly well in that thing. Making it out to be that Terry Kath was the heart and the soul of the music – well, he wasn’t. He was one of us. So they did a fairly nice job of expunging me from the record.
“Basically, what Chicago was, was a group of guys that were musically democratic. Which, in the end is not a very good idea. What happened was, we got together, Bobby would write these fabulous songs, and he would have Terry sing one song, me sing one song, and it was a great thing. Everybody wrote songs.
“And then ego started getting in the way of ‘He’s got a song on the album; I need one.’ And then stuff started getting on the album that had no reason to be on the album. People started thinking they were something that they weren’t. The fact of the matter was that before Terry’s death, he was probably the first one that wanted out of the group. He wanted to be gone. He hated it.
“I think had Terry been alive, we would’ve probably broke up anyhow. That’s where it was heading.”
For his part, Pankow has very little nice to say about his former bandmate. “I remember he said to Walt once, ‘You horn players lead a charmed life.’ In other words, I’m the lead singer, I brought all these hit songs to life with my voice, and you guys just blow on a pipe.
“As far as Walt’s concerned, the farther away that guy is, the better. And as far as I’m concerned, anybody who thinks their shit doesn’t stink, and they’re more important than the whole …”
Cetera’s successor, Jason Scheff, has now been in Chicago for 18 years – longer than the man he replaced. A bassist and singer of considerable ability, he wrote and sang “What Kind of Man Would I Be,” a Top Five Chicago single, in 1989.
The son of Elvis sideman Jerry Scheff, Jason grew up a Chicago fan. “If somebody confuses me for Peter or anything else, it’s a great problem to have,” he said. “We’ve maintained a sound, and I’ve never tried to sound like Peter. I sing it the way it’s been loaded into my DNA, and anything else would be a lie.
“If anything I wish I was more like Champlin, who is so stylized.”
(Champlin’s “Look Away” hit No. 1 in 1988, and he and Scheff shared vocal duties on the Top 20 “If She Would Have Been Faithful” in the same period.)
In 1990, another founding member left the group. According to Pankow, drummer Seraphine had “sabotaged” a U.K. tour with his playing, which had become lazy and uninspired.
“Every one of those gigs, it was an eternity up there,” Pankow said. “And if the drums ain’t playing the tempo, there’s nothing you can do.”
Seraphine, said Pankow, was given six months to get back in shape. When the band reconvened to rehearse, the drummer still couldn’t keep his tempos up.
“It was really a difficult, difficult situation,” Pankow explained. “We had no choice. We would have been committing career suicide had we kept him. The rhythm section was just plodding along. People were walking out of the shows.”
Seraphine, whose precise jazz drumming had given Chicago its sparkplug in the early days, was summarily fired.
“I’m still bummed,” Pankow said, “because we’re talking about one of the most innovative pop drummers in history. In the beginning, nobody could hold a candle to this guy. And to this day, I don’t know how he lost that chop.”
In came Tris Imboden, who idolized Seraphine’s musicianship. Imboden had been touring for years with the likes of Kenny Loggins and Al Jarreau.
“What I saw as my responsibility was to try and make the songs feel as good as possible,” Imboden said. “But I also tried to keep some of those thumbprints that Danny had made an integral part of the song. The guys from Day One encouraged me to make it my own.”
Added Parazaider: “You have to travel well to be in this band. If you don’t, and we’ve had ‘em, you’re gone. This is hard enough to do .”
After that, the road was not without its pitfalls. Pankow explained that his alcoholism had gotten so out of hand by 1991 – “I was drinking onstage and making a pretty big ass of myself” – the other band members staged an intervention in a Nevada hotel room. “I was basically confronted with my problem: Either you stop what you’re doing or we’re going to have to replace you,” Pankow revealed.
So he cleaned up his act. Guitarist Keith Howland joined the ranks in 1995, cementing the steadiest Chicago lineup since the beginning.
Today’s concerts are joyous and celebratory affairs. The three “new guys” – Scheff, Imboden and the wickedly talented Howland, who plays like the young Terry Kath – give the “old songs” freshness and muscle.
Chicago’s catalogue, including a gold Christmas album from 2001 and a five –disc box set – is now distributed by Rhino (Guercio, predictably, sued the band last year, claiming a piece of the deal. The band won the lawsuit).
The band members know they probably won’t have any more huge hits, what with the current music scene, but they swear they’re OK with that. “Look at Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra,” Pankow said. “These guys worked into their 80s. They didn’t need a hit record, because they had developed this legacy, just by virtue of staying out there and for the love of what they did. And we love this.”
“What’s really fortunate is that we don’t need a hit record to sell a lot of concert tickets,” Scheff observed. “Careers evolve and go to different places. For me, personally, everything is gravy at this point. We played Jones Beach last summer and nearly sold it out – 11, 12,000 seats. I’m so grateful, man.”
Pointed out Pankow: “We have reached a legendary status, by virtue of staying together. By doing it well for years.
“They say the nice guy finishes last. Well, we are finishing last. It’s karma, and our reward is the fact that we can go out and work as long as we want to, because people want to come hear it.”
Chicago was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014; although Danny Seraphine was present, Peter Cetera declined to participate.
As of this writing (2023), Bill Champlin, Tris Imboden, Jason Scheff and Keith Howland are no longer in the band. Walt Parazaider retired in 2004.