Behind five decades worth of hits and an infamous logo, Chicago is a rare case of peerless longevity in an ever-shifting music industry.
Chicago formed in its namesake city in 1967 around seven musicians, who took notes from classical, jazz, blues, R&B and rock to form the foundation of their horn-centric rock sound.
Peter Cetera (bass/vocals), Walter Parazaider (saxophonist), Terry Kath (guitarist/vocals), Danny Seraphine (drummer), James Pankow (trombonist), Lee Loughnane (trumpet) and Robert Lamm (keyboard/vocals) were originally a cover band known as the Big Thing. After moving to Los Angeles and signing with Columbia Records, they became Chicago Transit Authority.
Their eponymous debut album charted at No. 17 on the Billboard 200 and sold over 1 million copies, eventually going platinum. The band, with guidance from manager James Guercio, changed their name simply to Chicago, had a new iconic logo designed and in the subsequent two decades became a hit-making machine.
Over the years, Chicago has toured the world relentlessly, charted Top 40 hits across five decades and sold more than 40 million units in the U.S. alone, behind 23 gold, 18 platinum and 8 multi-platinum albums. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016. They’ve won two Grammy Awards, had five consecutive No. 1 albums, 11 No. 1 singles, and 21 Top 10 singles.
The band’s success has not come without its trials. From 1967 to 2018, Chicago has had 24 different members. Only three original members remain — Loughnane, Pankow and Parazaider — the latter of whom recently retired from touring.
“I would say the longevity is due to a couple of things,” Chicago guitarist Keith Howland told Do Savannah. “One of which is the catalogue of material. The fact, and I don’t want to misquote myself, that Guercio had the foresight to think, let’s brand this with the logo and let’s make the album covers the logo, so people are going to recognize the music and not focus on one individual or one star. That set the band up to service personnel changes.
“The other thing, to use a football reference, the product that you put on the field. This band has always put a very strong live product on the field. Great live performances. When you do that, people go, ‘Well, Chicago is coming back, we have to go see them, they were great.’ If you put a bad product on the field, your ticket sales start going down because no one wants to come see you again. It is a testament to the strength of every lineup the band has put together. I’ve seen all of them and they were all good.”
Chicago’s first nine albums, released between 1969 and 1977 and featuring all the founding members, produced a majority of the band’s hits, including “25 or 6 to 4,” and “Where Do We Go From Here?” In 1978, the band fired Guercio over financial issues. They were hit even harder the same year when Kath died of an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The band decided to continue on, recruiting Donnie Dacus to fill Kath’s spot, setting a new precedent for a rotating lineup in most of the band’s positions. The heart of the band, Chicago’s horn section, however, has remained unchanged since its founding.
“What Chicago was, in its inception, was a true band of seven guys that had a chemistry that lit the world on fire,” Howland said. “It doesn’t happen that often, where you get that many guys in a room and it all gels. It always amazed me.
“Peter was overlooked as a bass player, for the same reason Terry got overlooked; it was such a big band and the focus was on the horns and the songs,” Howland said. “I think if Terry and Peter and Danny had been a power trio, they would have been talked about like Cream.
“But what I think a lot of people miss is — people say on social media, 'Oh, it’s just tribute band now,'” Howland continued. “Now hold on a second, we’ve got three original members on stage and two of those original members wrote the bulk of the music that we are playing in our live show. A lot of people don’t realize, because Jimmy is not a singer, that he wrote ‘Feeling Stronger Every Day,’ ‘Old Days,’ ‘I’ve Been Searching So Long,’ ‘Just You and Me.’ He wrote ‘Make Me Smile,’ ‘Color My World.’ Jimmy wrote a boatload of the hits.”
For this year’s tour, Chicago envisioned a new setlist for fans. After "Chicago II" was nominated for the Grammy Hall of Fame, the band relearned the material and decided to reproduce the album live for their first set each night of tour. "Chicago II," released in 1971 as just "Chicago," was nominated for three Grammys and spawned a number of hits, including “Make Me Smile,” “Wake Up Sunshine,” and “Color My World.”
“It’s interesting. I never, ever, thought in my lifetime that I would be playing 'Moving In,' 'In The Country,' 'It Better End Soon,'" Howland said. “The two decades I’ve been in the band, there are so many hit songs, you have to stick to the story and give the people what they want, which is the hits. There have been times where we’ve wedged an album cut into the show as just sort of one little taste of something left of center. When the guys said they wanted to do the entire 'Chicago II' record, I was chomping at the bit. That’s a lot more than one obscure tune and it’s very meaty guitar stuff.
“The cool thing about it is, it’s such a great vehicle for Lou Pardini [keyboards/vocals]. He’s killing it, doing the Terry stuff. I’ve always heard he’s very soulful and a great singer. It’s kind of a showcase for Lou and me, by default. He’s killing it.”