When Chicago gathered at the Caribou Ranch to record its seventh album in the fall of 1973, there was an initial intention to do a "jazz" album, and though the concept would later be dropped, the two-record set does return to Chicago's tendency toward what Parazaider calls "ambitious jazz-type pieces," such as the opening set of tunes, "Prelude To Aire," “Aire," and "Devil's Sweet," contributed by Seraphine, Parazaider, and Pankow.
On his own, Pankow brought in another gorgeous ballad, though this time his subject matter went beyond romance. "'(I've Been) Searchin' So Long' was a song about finding myself," he says. "I was starting to figure out what I was put on this earth for. I don't think anybody in the band had written a song about the quest to meet that person inside and find out what he was all about, what his ideals were. I just had to talk about who I was and what I was feeling at the time. I felt after it was recorded that maybe other people could relate to that, 'cause the '70s was a time for soul-searching, it was a time for discovery, and I think that song was probably indicative of what a lot of young people were feeling at that time."
Cetera, who never claimed to be a jazz musician, was disheartened at the original concept of the album, and also at his lack of participation as a songwriter. "I had just about had it with any more writing because the group was content with having the three writers," he says, "when three or four of the guys in the group had said, 'we're doing a jazz album this time, nothing but jazz songs.' I went, 'Hoo, boy,' and I think we tried that for a couple of weeks. That was the first time I could really talk to Guercio, and he goes, 'I hate this, this is not working,' and I said, 'Well, so do I.' He says, ‘all right, this is not gonna work. Let's come up with a compromise,' [which] I think was, maybe, one of the records would be a so-called jazz album, and the other one would be the singles stuff, and he asked me if I had anything. I said, 'Well, I just have these couple of things here."
One of the songs Cetera showed Guercio was the lilting, Latin-tinged ballad "Happy Man," which the producer has called, "a Number 1 record that was never released as a single." "You know when people talk about these flashes of something coming?" Cetera asks. "They do, in fact. Every once in a while, a song will just come out of your mouth, the words and everything. It's remembering it or having a tape player around when that happens that's the important part, and most of the time people don't. And for some reason, they disappear just exactly the way they come, into thin air. 'Happy Man' was a song that I wrote about midnight driving down the San Diego Freeway on my motorcycle, and that song actually came to me just like I wrote it. It was the one and only song that I ever remembered, words and music, and I went home and sang it into a tape a day later, and that's how that song came out."
Cetera's second last-minute contribution to Chicago VII is one of the album's best-remembered songs, "Wishing You Were Here." "There's two people that I always wanted to be," Cetera confesses, "and that was a Beatle or a Beach Boy. I got to meet the Beach Boys at various times and got to be good friends with Carl [Wilson]. I remember I was living on the ocean, messing with the guitar one night, and the waves were rolling in, and I started learning that little lick that opens the song, and my then-lady was lying on the couch sleeping. We were going on the road within the next day or so, and with the waves coming in and that little lick, I wrote about the road."
Cetera wrote the song in the style of the Beach Boys, who just happened to be at Caribou when it was to be recorded. Guercio, who had known the group since his backup days in the mid-'60s, had recently taken over their management and was attempting to resurrect the venerable band's career, then in a deep trough. He would succeed spectacularly, but we'll get to that.
Cetera screwed up his courage and asked the Beach Boys to sing on the bridge and chorus of "Wishing You Were Here." "I always wanted the Beach Boys to sing on my song," he says, "and they said, 'Yeah, we'd love to sing backgrounds on that.' So, I got to do the background harmonies - myself and Carl and Dennis [Wilson] and Alan Jardine. For a night, I was a Beach Boy."
Cetera wasn't the only friendly competition the triumvirate of Lamm, Kath, and Pankow faced among Chicago songwriters on Chicago VII, as trumpeter Lee Loughnane entered the lists. According to Cetera, though, he needed some help. "I tried to help Lee Loughnane with a song," Cetera says, "and that song turned out to be 'Call On Me.' Lee had written a song. It wasn't called, 'Call On Me,' it was called something else, and it in fact was terrible. I talked to him at the ranch one day, and he was all bent out of shape. He said that he had played the song for the guys, and they had told him in fact to get the heck out of there with the song. I said, 'Well, come on, let's have a go.' So Lee and I went and re-wrote the lyrics and re-wrote the melody and came up with the song called, 'Call On Me,' which was a big hit for him."
Chicago VII was preceded by the February, 1974, single release of "(I've Been) Searchin' So Long," which became the band's eighth Top 10 hit. The album itself, released in March, not only topped the charts, but brought back into the charts its six older brothers. The entire Chicago catalog was listed in Billboard during the year.
Loughnane's "Call On Me" became the second Top 10 single from Chicago VII during the summer, a season that also saw the release of Robert Lamm's first solo album, Skinny Boy. "Wishing You Were Here" became the album's third single in October, peaking at Number 9 in Cash Box, Number 11 in Billboard.
The year 1974 also marked the addition of an eighth member of Chicago, Brazilian percussionist Laudir De Oliveira. De Oliveira had first appeared on Chicago VI as a sideman. "I used percussion a lot in the records to complement the drums," notes Guercio. "I think Danny brought Laudir in, and we ended up using him quite a bit. He was a nice guy."
“We were looking for a couple of things," Lamm explains. "One was that were getting into more poly rhythmic Latin groove things. The hope that we could bring in this other color to enhance and flavor some of songs we were writing during that time. The other thing was to help the rhythm section in a more consistent groove."
Chicago began work on its next album August 1, 1974, at Caribou Ranch, and the results started to emerge in February, 1975, with the release of the single "Harry Truman," Lamm's tribute to a President America could trust, and thus a reference to the recently concluded Watergate scandal. The song reached the Top 20, and all that was unusual about it was that it was the first Robert Lamm song released as a single by Chicago in more than two years, a noticeable fall-off for a man whose writing had once dominated the group.
“I think I was getting a little stagnant," Lamm admits. "We were partying pretty hard, too. There was a lot of drug abuse, a lot of alcohol abuse. That slowed us down. I was writing a little bit less, but not much less, and I think I was stuck creatively, so that even the things that I wrote were mediocre or not fully thought out. The touring schedule and the recording schedule slowly began to catch up to me, because I wanted to also have a life, and I was really trying to figure out that balance, and it was not easy. For myself, those were the factors, but I also think that Peter began to writ more and other members of the band began to write more."
THE SINGERS AND THE SONGS
As a general rule of thumb in bands that the person who writes a song generally gets to sing it. But not in Chicago. The band boasted three impressive singers with entirely different styles (Lamm, Kath, and Cetera) and four consistent writers (Lamm, Kath, Pankow, and Cetera), and the group's approach was to use the best man for each song.
This was especially true in the early days, when Lamm was the dominant songwriter. "I would cast the songs as I was writing," he says. "I did ways write songs for myself. I wrote songs for Peter. I tried to spread the stuff around a little bit."
Pankow, who for most of Chicago's career sang only backgrounds and demos, used other vocalists for all his best-known songs. But unlike Lamm, he didn't cast them, he let the band compete. "'Make Me Smile’ was tried by Terry, Peter, and Robert,' he notes. "Terry wound up with assignment. 'Searchin' So Long' was, again, sung by all three guys, (Peter wound up with the assignment. I wrote my songs like I felt them, in the keys that I felt comfortable writing them in. I really didn't have particular vocalist in mind when I wrote those songs. We'd have a sing-off.”
Pankow finally sang a lead vocal – reluctantly – on "You Are On My Mind" on Chicago X when he felt that none of the other vocalists could capture what he wanted. The same thing happened on "Till The End Time" on Chicago XI. "The reason I wound up singing those two tunes,” he explains, "is that they didn't make sense in terms of inflection and attitude until I went in there and I said, 'Hey, guys, this is what I hear: and Guercio said, 'You sing it!' I went, 'Oh man, you're kidding,' cause I had never a lead vocal in front of a mike in a studio before."
Cetera, on the other hand, usually sang lead vocals on his compositions, with one notable exception. "We recorded [the musical track for "Wishing You Were Here"] in a wrong key for my voice," he says. "It actually should have been up a step, step and a half. For some reason, I just didn’t realize that until after we had recorded it. So, therefore, that put the verses in such a low key that I just couldn't sing it, and that's how Terry got involved singing that one." No one seems to mind the result.
If Lamm's muse was beginning to fail him, James Pankow retained his ability to pen one or two gems per album. This time, his most notable composition was the bright, sentimental "Old Days." "It's a memorabilia song, it's about my childhood,' he says. "It touches on key phrase although they date me, are pretty right-on in terms of images of my childhood. 'The Howdy Doody Show' on television and collecting baseball cards and comic books. Peter absolutely hated singing that song. He said, 'I'm not going out there and singin' "Howdy Doody,' man! And "baseball cards and blue jeans." I mean, this is corny, man. I'm not sing in' this shit.' And we stopped doing it live, ultimately, because Peter refused to sing those lyrics." Whatever Cetera thought, "Old Days" was a Top 5 hit when it was released as the second single from Chicago VIII, which had appeared in March, 1975.
The year is arguably the peak in Chicago's career, a year during which the band scored its fourth straight Number 1 album, a year when, once again, all its previous albums were in the charts (Guercio estimates worldwide sales for 1975 alone at 20 million), and a year during which it undertook one of the most successful tours in history.
In May, Chicago hit the road with the Beach Boys as its opening act, not realizing what was going to happen. According to Guercio, who was managing both acts, he had deliberately set up the tour to give Chicago a kick in the ass, feeling that its concert programs, given over to hit medleys, had become complacent and sloppy. The Beach Boys, on the other hand, had, under Guercio's tutelage, become a renewed success, with their Endless Summer compilation of early '60s hits topping the charts, and Guercio had turned them into a tight, impressive stage act as well. The tour ultimately played to 700,000 people and grossed $7.5 million.
In September, Chicago's string of 16 consecutive Top 40 hit singles was broken with the relatively low placing of "Brand New Love Affair." It was far from the end of the band's hit-making days, and, as the third single from an album (unusual in those days), could be written off, but it was the first indication in five years that everything Chicago touched did not necessarily turn to gold.
Its next album, Chicago's Greatest Hits, released for the 1975 Christmas season, was, however, a predictable major hit, and, at certified domestic sales of four million, remains the band's biggest selling album.
Chicago returned with an all-new album in June, 1976, when it released Chicago X. The album is best remembered for a song that just barely made the final cut, Peter Cetera's "If You Leave Me Now." "That was one of those magical 'Jeez, guys, we need one more song' [situations]," Cetera recalls. "In order to get everybody involved in it, I - which is probably one of the first times we'd ever done it this way - suggested that perhaps since Jimmy Guercio had learned the song from me, while I showed him the guitar part that I'd played, and he was a better guitar player than I, that he should play acoustic guitar, and then we'd let Terry play bass, Bobby would play piano and Danny would play drums and I would sing, and we would do it all together. 'Come on, guys, like the old days.' 'You mean, we're gonna record all at once again?' And I said, 'and I'll tell you what, I'll even kind of do it like a lounge singer. I'll take a mike and kind of walk around and show you guys where we're going with the song.' So, we learned the song, and that song, as you hear it, was actually recorded live, albeit the vocal was done over, just because I was walking around so much. I counted the song off, and we went into that groove, and what you hear is the song that we did. The only overdubs were the electric guitar that Terry put on later." (Cetera is not counting the beautiful Jimmie Haskell string arrangement added to the song later in Los Angeles, an arrangement that garnered the song one of its two Grammys.)
Parazaider remembers things a little differently, and his account also points up the piecework nature of the group's recording techniques by this time. "The rhythm section was really struggling over some song,' he says. "Lee, Jimmy [Pankow], and myself were done with our part of the recording. The foreman was taking us down to Denver to get us out of town. I remember Guercio and Peter talking, 'cause it was Peter's song, saying, 'If this doesn't work within the next couple of takes, we're gonna shine this. We've got enough tunes for the album.' I'm sitting around my pool three months later, and the local station goes, 'We've got the debut single by Chicago coming up.' A song comes on. I'm cleaning my pool, and I'm going, 'That's a catchy tune. Sorta sounds like McCartney. Where have I heard this before?' The next thing, they go. 'That's Chicago's latest release, "If You Leave Me Now.'" The main point of the story, outside of me being a dummy, is that usually, things that just made the album end up being some of the biggest hits."
That the group didn't recognize the song's likely popularity is indicated by its decision to release Lamm's Latinish 'Another Rainy Day In New York City" as the first single. But after that record only made the Top 40, "If You Leave Me Now" came out on 45 in July. It streaked to Number 1, Chicago's first Billboard singles chart topper. Chicago X itself failed to top the charts, peaking at Number 3, but won the band its first of the newly minted platinum record awards, selling a million copies in three months, and spawning a third Top 50 single in Pankow's vocal debut, "You Are On My Mind."
Nevertheless, the success of "If You Leave Me Now" overshadowed the album from which it came, and also consolidated what by now seemed a definitely stated preference on the part of radio, if not Chicago's audience in general, for lush ballads sung by Peter Cetera over any other style the band might care to put forward.
"Since 'If You Leave Me Now' became a single, we've become victims of our own success," says Pankow who sees the impact continuing to this day. "Radio thinks of us as power ballads, period. If we give them an uptempo song or we give them another kind of a groove, they won't play it because it's not what they hear as being Chicago."
"To be sure, the ballad-ness that the band became identified with through the singles after 'If You Leave Me Now,' that drove me crazy," says Lamm. "I know it drove Terry crazy, because that isn't what we set out to be and it isn't how we heard ourselves, and it's still not how we think of ourselves."
By the start of 1977, after eight relentless years of touring and recording, strain was beginning to show in the firm of Chicago Music, Inc. "I think it was taking a bit of a toll," says Parazaider of the pace of the band's career. "We were getting pretty tired. We'd cut down the touring from 300 dates to 250, down to 200, which is still a hell of a lot of days on the road, and I think at the end of some of the tours we were getting a little tired. Some of the shows could have been better. But let's face it, we were booming."
So they were. In January, 1977, Chicago reluctantly undertook another world tour, and the band was in Europe when Chicago X won the Grammy for Album of the Year and "If You Leave Me Now" won two Grammys, for Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocals and for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus.
Chicago returned to the U.S. and recorded a new album in the spring before heading out for another European tour and another American tour. For the record, Peter Cetera contributed another of his lush ballads in "Baby, What A Big Surprise." "I just think it's the next evolution from where I was at before that," he says. "It was just something that I had worked up at my house and kept working on it, and I recall the Beatles' 'Penny Lane,' where there's that pocket trumpet, a piccolo trumpet. I wanted to get that effect with Lee, and that song came up."
Another strong song on the collection was drummer Dan Seraphine's "Take Me Back To Chicago," written with David "Hawk" Wolinski. Seemingly nostalgic, it is a song with a darker theme than may be immediately apparent. "Take Me Back To Chicago' is about Freddy [Page], the drummer in the Illinois Speed Press that died very tragically," says Guercio. "Everybody came from Chicago to make it. Illinois Speed Press had the best shot, had the biggest budget, had the first record, and totally could not get along."
By September, 1977, when Chicago XI was released, it was Chicago and Guercio who could not get along. The split between group and manager had been a long time coming, with antipathy on both sides. "It started happening with the tenth record," says Parazaider. "Things started getting pretty strained. He didn't want us to learn any of the production techniques. He'd go to sleep at nine o'clock, and we'd start producing the records ourselves. Or trying to. I think if you're the producer of your album, you have a fool for a client. You can't be that objective about what you're doing on both sides of the glass."
"I think basically we felt at that point that we had been used," says Cetera. "We had signed contracts that we were told to sign that we believed to be fair that weren't, and I think it was just utter frustration of being let down, 'cause here we are, a bunch of guys from Chicago that were honest and believed in people, and we found out that everything wasn't as kosher as we thought it was. The second reason is that, musically, I think he'd had enough, and we'd had enough. We felt that he wasn't around to produce us anymore. He wanted to do other things, obviously, and we wanted to do other things with other people."
If Cetera criticizes Guercio as a producer, Lamm notes that the band was also dissatisfied with him as a manager. "He wasn't ever our really hands-on manager," Lamm says. "Larry Fitzgerald was our hands-on manager, he was the guy that ran the office and talked to the promoters. Guercio owned the management company. Howard Kaufman, who now manages the band, was the business manager. Guercio had some kind of disagreement with these guys and fired them. Then he took on the actual management, or he tried to, himself, and that lasted just a few months, and then we fired him."
Not surprisingly, Guercio disputes these accounts, though he does not absolve himself from blame for the split. "You can't have that much control and not have people resent it after a while," he says. "I only intended to do it for a few albums. I did not intend to have it go on for ten records. If you really study the records, and you study the transitions of the albums, I'm pretty proud of all the records I made, 'cause they were not easy to make. As I look back, I was much too hard on these guys. I felt a thoroughbred by committee is a goddamn mule. I gotta take the rap. I think I totally manipulated them for my own ends as well as theirs, whether they understood them or not."
And Guercio makes clear that the ends toward which he manipulated Chicago were broadly ambitious in a way the band never realized - and perhaps never could have been expected to realize. "The only reason I made a commitment to contemporary music was because it was important to me to put Stravinsky, and to put Thelonious Monk, and to put Glenn Miller on the radio every ten minutes across the world," he says. It was to this end, he suggests, that he became involved in management and production. "The only thing that ever could manipulate me was a song, or a voice, or talent," he says. That's all that ever moved me. The only ability I have, by the way, is, I can make people 20 feet tall, if I see something special in them."
But at the height of their success, when Guercio was ready to take Chicago to a higher artistic peak, they disappointed him, he says. He recalls protracted arguments in which he told them, "You're breaking down the doors for all these other jazz musicians, classical musicians, to enter into the pop mainstream, and that's a sacred responsibility. So you got ten number one records. Great. What are you gonna do about it? Why aren't we doing an opera? Why aren't we doing a symphony?" "That band achieved about 20 percent of what I thought it was capable of doing, and 10 percent of what I wanted it to do," Guercio says today. "The music was no longer the basis of the relationship. It wasn't a creative enough process for me. The success could have continued, but I really needed to change what I was doing with my life."
In retrospect, it's not hard to see why the partnership, no matter how successful (and, perhaps, in part, because of its success) had to end. Guercio had exerted a powerful control over the members of Chicago, especially in the early days, and as they became stars, it seems inevitable that they would begin to chafe under his admittedly harsh leadership, even as they were eager to dispel the impression, prevalent in the press, that they were no more than enthralled Trilbys in the hands of a sinister Svengali. Guercio's final comment on the subject seems undeniable: "I was difficult to work with, but I knew what I was doing."
In the short term, little seemed changed. "Baby, What A Big Surprise" sailed into the Top 5, and Chicago XI was certified platinum the month after its release. But in dropping Guercio, Chicago was stepping into the unknown. And only a few months later, the band would be devastated by a loss from which, in the eyes of many inside and outside of the group, it has never recovered.
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