The very first cut explodes off the new album with an awesome blend of power and finesse. Drums and deep bass pound out a thundering rhythm; horns dart and wail over the power chords from guitar and keyboard; and penetrating vocals unerringly sink in the lyrical and melodic “hook.” The song, “Alive Again”, bears an unmistakable and unique signature and, unsurprisingly, is an instant hit. In the last decade Chicago has emerged as the classiest ensemble in their art—the Cadillac and Mercedes of rock. Chicago has rolled more unvaringly sophisticated monster albums off its assembly line than any other U.S. band, a staggering 11 for 11 platinum LPs with its latest, Hot Streets, a certain 12th.
But for the closely knit eight-member group, “Alive Again” is more than just a title. Last January lead guitarist Terry Kath, at 31, accidentally killed himself while fooling with a 9-mm. automatic pistol he assumed was empty. Though Kath’s tragic death was the result of recklessness, not any rock star death-wish, “it hit us all like a wall,” says vocalist/ bassist Peter Cetera. “The bottom really fell out. We thought, is this the end of the line?” Keyboardist Bobby Lamm recalls: “We were on the ropes emotionally and psychologically. We couldn’t imagine standing onstage without him.”
To make the period even more unsettling, just weeks earlier Chicago had severed its 11-year tie to producer James William Guercio, the group’s brash if reclusive mastermind. It was Guercio who recognized Chicago’s pioneering jazz-rock sound, relocated the group to L.A. and made it a super-band. But in recent years Guercio had headed into movies (several Chicago bandsmen appeared in cameos in his Electra Glide in Blue) and become a more distant—but a no less controlling—figure. “Somewhere around our album Chicago V it went from ‘being taken care of to being manipulated. It was part him, part us,” says Lamm. “We were naive and idealistic and stuck to the music. Jimmy produced some great albums and encouraged and supported us financially in the beginning. But then he got up on a mountain and gave directives. It didn’t wear well.”
The disillusionment with their mentor, and the shock of Kath’s death, also brought into focus another disturbing reality: that in the Frampton/ Fleet-wood/ Bee Gee era of rampant rock iconolatry, there was more logo than ego behind the band members’ fame. They enjoy the mixed distinction of reigning as the world’s most famous-but-faceless rock stars. Says Lamm: “As a result of our marketing campaign, the band still had no image at all as we were getting into our 30s. We felt that maybe we should have some control. Terry’s dying caused us to reevaluate our lives.”
The first step was the very decision to carry on. After Kath’s funeral Doc Severinsen (a friend of the band and an esteemed musician when he is not playing Tonight Show fop) visited them at Lamm’s house. “You have changed my life and others with your music,” he exhorted them, “and you have a tremendous responsibility to continue.” That snapped them back. “It sounds banal and ridiculous, but we felt that everything Terry worked for—whatever we had left of him—would be lost otherwise,” says Lamm. Adds trumpeter Lee Loughnane, “I feel he’s watching us up there right now.”
Finding a replacement guitarist/ vocalist, however, took 35 disheartening auditions. “Some guys made the mistake of trying to play just like Terry,” Lamm recalls. “We didn’t want that.” They were exasperated until at the end they got to Donnie Dacus, a 26-year-old Texan who’d just come off the lead role in the movie version of Hair. Dacus’ roots were more pure rock than Kath’s—he’d toured with Kiki Dee, Stephen Stills and Boz Scaggs—and, marveled Lamm, “He just burned on everything. He blew us away. The kid’s an original.” Vocalist Cetera sensed in Dacus, who, for Chicago, is uncharacteristically kinetic onstage, something more: “It’s a new flair, a different feel. We were getting stale. He’s a real rocker. It was like being born again.”
Further, the band has now signed on with Jeff Wald, dynamic manager of his wife, Helen Reddy, Flip Wilson and Sly Stallone. Unlike the shrewdly sheltering Guercio, Wald builds images through media extravaganzas. He booked Chicago for a week at L.A.’s Greek Theatre on a bill opened by no less than the L.A. Ballet Company and the L.A. Philharmonic. Wald even brought Gov. Jerry Brown backstage to visit the group, which has since anted up a $30,000 contribution for his campaign. This week there is a street festival in L.A. before a hoped-for 300,000 to kick off a fall-winter tour.
Another symbolic departure was recording its latest album in the Miami studio used by the Bee Gees (who sing background on one track) with renowned producer Phil Ramone. And instead of the Super Bowl-like Roman numerals that grandly proclaimed their work (from Chicago II to Chicago XI), this one is called Hot Streets, and for the first time their faces actually appear on the cover along with the familiar swirling Chicago logo. Cetera figures Hot Streets will be a disappointment if it sells only the accustomed million. “We’re still waiting for the Big One—five million. If this one doesn’t do it, nothing will.”
Six of Chicago’s charter members were brought up right there, and the seventh, Lamm, arrived from Brooklyn at 15. Four have serious musical backgrounds. Lamm majored in the subject at Roosevelt University. Walter Parazaider (woodwinds), son of a trumpet player, became a protégé of the Chicago Symphony’s first clarinetist. Loughnane mastered trumpet at the Chicago Conservatory. Trombonist Jimmy Pankow won a music scholarship to Illinois’ Quincy College.
The band first sparked at Chicago’s De Paul University, where Lamm, Parazaider, Loughnane and Pankow (who had transferred from Quincy) met drummer Danny Seraphine and Guercio (who had toured with Dick Clark and managed Chad and Jeremy). With Kath, they put together a “big band” rock sound playing Midwestern bars. By the time Cetera, a onetime seminary student, joined up, the group called itself the Big Thing.
The breakthrough came in 1968 when they packed up in U-Hauls and split for the West Coast. Guercio renamed them Chicago Transit Authority (later shortened when the real CTA threatened to sue) and helped the group perfect their seamless fusion of pop, rock and jazz horn arrangements. The resulting debut LP, Seraphine remembers, “was like getting laid for the first time, with guns going off. It’s like nothing you’ve ever done before.”
Guercio produced their next 10 albums, six of them at his 3,000-acre Caribou Ranch in Colorado. Finely crafted hits like 25 or 6 to 4, Saturday in the Park and If You Leave Me Now kept emerging (though critics sometimes denounced the music as machine-tooled veneer) while the band explored elaborately textured “suites” in a classical vein. The arrival of the Rio-born percussionist Laudir de Oliveira from Sergio Mendes’ band in 1974 for Chicago VII put Latin rhythms in their repertoire.
Less likely to change than its style, however, is Chicago’s longstanding abhorrence of the L.A. rock circuit. All eight musicians live in relative tranquillity between the suburban plushness of Bel Air and the wilder contours of Zuma Beach. Rather than cruise with the Hollywood & Vinyl crowd, they visit among themselves. Rehearsals ate in a small studio at Seraphine’s house, where the driveway fills up with Lamm’s VW, Loughnane’s Aston Martin, assorted Mercedeses and Porsches and the matching Rolls-Royces of Pankow and Parazaider. “We once thought making it was affording cashmere suits,” muses Pankow. “If you had told me back then that we’d someday own matching Rollses, I’d have laughed—or puked.”
With five wives, two live-in “old ladies” and nine kids among them, Chicago is more a family than anything else. Lamm’s second wife, Julie Nini, is the younger sister of Cetera’s girlfriend of six years, Diane. Terry Kath’s lady, Camilla, is still a “sister” to the group, and recently she joined them during an image-polishing stand in New York’s Central Park. And when the wife of a road manager died last month in a car crash, band members rendezvoused from distant vacation spots to be with him at the funeral. “We honestly love each other as brothers,” says Pankow of the egalitarian group. “We don’t let anybody get out of hand. If someone feels insecure—that he isn’t needed in this band, and we have all felt that way—the others are there to give him strength.”
Of course, it’s hard to feel insecure within a “corporation” that for years divvied up profits equally—but only after plowing one-quarter of its revenues back into a group pension fund. “That eliminated money as a reason to break up,” Lamm explains. “We’d all have hundreds of thousands of dollars left, even if everything were to dry up tomorrow.” That seems unlikely. On Hot Streets, six members of the creatively free group earn composer credits, and there are three different lead singers. Moreover, unlike almost every other rock group of the 1970s, there have been no self-aggrandizing solo projects. The one exception is a 1974 LP by Lamm he now laughs off as “a collector’s item.” “Here there’s no backbiting or jealousies,” sums up Parazaider, speaking for the other seven. “This is Utopia, the best of everything. If you can’t keep your sanity, then all those gold and platinum records don’t mean anything.”