Chicago (the band): Jazz-Rock Crosses Over

The history of the "big band rock band"

The band Chicago in 1975
The band Chicago in 1975. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Who is Chicago? 

They were the band that picked up where Blood Sweat & Tears left off, a "big band rock band" with a horn section, full of multi-talented performers bent on transforming rock into a "serious" music on a par with classical music and especially jazz. But when success hit, it started to erode away at their mission statement -- though not their utterly unique and endlessly appealing signature sound.

Chicago's' 10 biggest hits: 

  • 25 or 6 to 4
  • Saturday in the Park
  • Hard to Say I'm Sorry / Get Away
  • Colour My World
  • Beginnings
  • You're the Inspiration
  • Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?
  • If You Leave Me Now
  • Old Days
  • Hard Habit to Break

Where you might have heard them Their early '70s rock hits remain staples on classic rock radio; ditto for their late '70s and early '80s ballads on adult contemporary playlists. Occasionally, however, Chicago's catalog interacts with other realms of entertainment, like the highly ironic use of "If You Leave Me Now" in the classic Gulf War film Three Kings and the zombie spoof Shaun of the Dead, or "Saturday in the Park" being featured in an episode of "The Sopranos," or "Old Days" popping up in the films This is 40 and Starsky & Hutch. 

Formed 1967 (Chicago, IL)

Styles Jazz-rock, Pop-rock, Classic Rock, Soft-rock, Adult Contemporary, Prog-rock

Claims to fame:

  • Did more than any other group to create a commercial fusion of jazz, classical, pop, and rock
  • Their signature sound was the result of several multi-talented singers, songwriters and musicians
  • A socially aware rock band whose lyrical activist sensibilities lasted longer than most
  • Lead guitarist Terry Kath, who died tragically young, is considered one of the most underrated rock guitarists of the era
  • Survived a series of setbacks to re-emerge in the '80s as a successful soft-rock group

The classic Chicago lineup:

Robert Lamm (born October 13, 1944, Brooklyn, NY): lead and backing vocals, piano, organ, guitar
Peter Cetera (born September 13, 1944, Chicago, IL): lead and backing vocals, bass, guitar
Terry Kath (born January 31, 1946, Chicago, IL; died January 23, 1978, Woodland Hills, CA): lead and backing vocals, lead guitar, bass
Lee Loughnane (born October 21, 1946, Chicago, IL): trumpet, flugelhorn, guitar, percussion, lead and backing vocals 
James Pankow (born August 20, 1947, St. Louis, MO): trombone, keyboards, percussion, lead and backing vocals 
Walter Parazaider (born March 14, 1945, Chicago, IL): alto and tenor saxophones, flute, clarinet, backing vocals
Danny Seraphine (born August 28, 1948, Chicago, IL) drums, percussion, keyboards

The History of Chicago

Early years

Anyone even casually familiar with the band Chicago won't be surprised to learn they were a bunch of guys from the Windy City who took up their instruments at an early age, learning jazz and classical music before being seduced by the money (and women) available to rock and soul party bands. In fact, the members of Chicago, all but two of whom were born and raised in the city or its suburbs, formed the band that was to be their legacy after meeting at the city's famed DePaul University. Walter Parazaider, a classically trained clarinetist who had discovered the joys of the saxophone, was heading up a local rock band called the Missing Links, which at times included Terry Kath, Lee Loughnane and Danny Seraphine. Embolded by the Beatles' recent use of horn sections on songs like "Got to Get You Into My Life," Parazaider began to merge his two loves, expanding the band into a large jazz-rock outfit; Fellow student James Pankow soon joined, then organist and vocalist Robert Lamm, recruited from another local group. As Kath moved from bass to guitar, and with a tenor needed to complete the group's harmony, Peter Cetera was invited to join. Due to the unconventional nature of both their size and scope, they went by the name The Big Thing.


Parazider's longtime musician friend James William Guercio, by 1967 a producer at Columbia Records, loved the concept and agreed to manage the band. Moving them out to Los Angeles, the group, now renamed Chicago Transit Authority after their hometown's bus line, rehearsed night and day while Guercio produced the second album by Blood, Sweat & Tears, another big rock band with similar ideas. When that album became a Grammy-winning smash, spinning off three hit singles, the stage was set for Chicago. The album Chicago Transit Authority was only successful on the new, free-form FM stations at first, but two years of buzz finally got them a hit with "25 or 6 to 4," and the band never looked back. The band's first six studio LPs were all smashes despite the fact that four of them were double albums; their singles ruled rock and also Top 40 AM radio.(The city of Chicago threatened to sue for unlicensed use of the CTA name, which is why the band's debut is called Chicago Transit Authority, but their second album is merely called Chicago, usually casually referred to as Chicago II).

Later years

Tastes began to change in the late '70s, with rock bands moving more and more away.from progressivism and into arena rock, leaving Chicago to rely more and more on soft-rock ballads and the appealing sound of Cetera's tenor vocals. The band fell out with their producer and manager Guercio over just this issue. Meanwhile, tragedy struck; guitarist Terry Kath, fooling around with guns at a band party, accidentally shot himself in the head, killing himself instantly. After some soul-searching, the band decided to soldier on, and though they were never far away from the pop charts, it wasn't.until the early '80s that outside songwriters and producers helped them craft the perfect adult contemporary sound with which to introduce the band to a whole new generation. Cetera left for a mildly successful solo career in 1985; Lamm and the horn section of Loughnane, Pankow and Parazaider have carried the torch ever since, leading Chicago into their fifth decade of recording and touring.

Chicago honors and awards Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2016), GRAMMY Award (1976), Hollywood Walk of Fame (6438 Hollywood Blvd.)

More About Chicago

Other Chicago facts and trivia:

  • Chicago's ubiquitous, trademarked logo, their simple one-word name, and their anti-celebrity stance were imitates by several huge "faceless" rock bands of the late '70s, including Boston, Kansas, Journey, Styx, Foreigner, and REO Speedwagon
  • Based on sales and chart hits, Chicago is second only to the Beach Boys as the most successful American band of all time
  • Kath was succeeded on guitar by Donnie Dacus, Chris Pinnick, Dawayne Bailey, and then their current guitarist, Keith Howland; Jason Scheff, Cetera's replacement on bass and lead vocals, has been with the band since 1985
  • Laudir DeOliviera was the band's percussionist in the late '70s; band associate Bill Champlin sat in on keyboards, guitar and occasional lead vocals during the '80s and '90s
  • Kath hated Cetera's "Lowdown" and only grudgingly played guitar on it, while Cetera nearly refused to sing Pankow's "Old Days" because of a line that mentioned kiddie puppet show legend Howdy Doody; both songs were Top 40 hits
  • The band's habit of giving their LPs Super Bowl-style Roman Numeral titles remained steady for 11 albums: 1978's Hot Streets was officially their 12th album, and a series of live and compilation albums are counted toward the total but not numbered. The later albums 13, 15, 16, 17, and 18 used regular numbering, and their 21st album was stylized as Twenty 1

Chicago hit singles and albums:

#1 hits

Pop "If You Leave Me Now" (1977), "Hard to Say I'm Sorry" (1982), "Look Away" (1988)

Adult Contemporary "Beginnings" (1971), "Call on Me" (1974), "Wishing You Were Here" (1974), "If You Leave Me Now" (1977), "Hard to Say I'm Sorry" (1982), "You're the Inspiration" (1984), "Look Away" (1988), "Here In My Heart" (1997)

Top 10 hits

Pop "Make Me Smile" (1970), "25 or 6 to 4" (1970), "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" (1970), "Beginnings" (1971), "Colour My World" (1971), "Saturday in the Park" (1972), "Feelin' Stronger Every Day" (1973), "Just You 'n' Me" (1973), "(I've Been) Searchin' So Long" (1974), "Call on Me" (1974), "Old Days" (1975), "Baby, What a Big Surprise" (1977), "Hard Habit to Break" (1984), "You're the Inspiration" (1984), "Will You Still Love Me?" (1986), "I Don't Wanna Live Without Your Love" (1988), "You're Not Alone" (1989), "What Kind of Man Would I Be?" (1989)

Adult Contemporary "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" (1970), "Saturday in the Park" (1972), "Just You 'n' Me" (1973), "(I've Been) Searchin' So Long" (1974), "Old Days" (1975), "Another Rainy Day in New York City" (1975), "Baby, What a Big Surprise" (1977), "No Tell Lover" (1978), "Love Me Tomorrow" (1982), "Hard Habit to Break" (1984), "Will You Still Love Me?" (1986), "If She Would Have Been Faithful..." (1987), "I Don't Wanna Live Without Your Love" (1988), "You're Not Alone" (1989), "What Kind of Man Would I Be?" (1989)

#1 albums

Pop Chicago V (1972), Chicago VI (1973), Chicago VII (1974), Chicago VIII (1975), Chicago IX – Chicago's Greatest Hits (1975) 

Top 10 albums

Pop Chicago (Chicago II) (1970), Chicago III (1971), Chicago at Carnegie Hall (1971), Chicago X (1976), Chicago XI (1977), Chicago 16 (1982), Chicago 17 (1984)

Movies and TV Chicago's stayed active throughout all their many lineup changes, and they can still be found on TV every so often -- in the past few years they've been featured on "The Bachelor," "Ellen," "Jimmy Kimmel Live!," and a notable appearance on the 2014 Grammy Awards, where they performed a medley of their biggest '70s hits with the vocal assistance of Robin Thicke. If you want to see the original group doing their thing in TV footage, however, you'll need to track down a couple of episodes of the classic BBC musical variety show "Top of the Pops"

Notable covers "If You Leave Me Now" seems to be the standard for R&B groups who want to put a modern spin on Chicago's blue-eyed soul: it was covered by the Isley Brothers and Boyz II Men both. But "Saturday in the Park" is the most sampled Chicago groove, used in two minor hits -- De La Soul's "A Roller Skating Jam Named 'Saturdays'" and Jill Sobule's poppier "Cinnamon Park" from 2004. Chicago also holds the strange distinction of covering their own classic hit as a single all over again; in 1986 they attempted a booming arena-rock version of "25 or 6 to 4" that left listeners mostly cold