February 02, 1987 12:00 PM

The band Chicago may have the easiest-to-remember discography in pop history—most of their albums are numbered, 2 to 18. But even the most practiced trivia nut would be hard pressed to name many of the band members who made all those records. For at least one of the eight originals, that anonymity became anathema. “Deep down inside there was always a burning desire to be on my own,” says Peter Cetera, who after 18 years with the group realized a career-long ambition by going solo two years ago. “I wanted to be out on my own and recognized for what I did, instead of having it all filtered through the group.”

Author and singer of Chicago’s If You Leave Me Now, Stay the Night and Baby, What a Big Surprise, hits that helped resurrect the group’s once flagging fortunes, Cetera, now 42, is finally making a name for himself—and no one else. His second solo album, Solitude/Solitaire, has produced two No. 1 singles—Glory of Love, from the movie The Karate Kid, Part II, and The Next Time I Fall, a duet with gospel singer Amy Grant. Both songs are Grammy nominees. Cetera is clearly, and abundantly, pleased that his high, distinctive voice, which had helped define Chicago’s sound, has won him individual attention. “It’s totally me,” he says. “I’ve always known what I had to offer and I wanted people to know. I wasn’t sure they knew what I had to contribute. I’ve gotten more recognition and feedback than during my entire career with the group.”

Sometimes the feedback is a little scrambled. Recently he was listening to the radio in his adopted hometown of Sun Valley, Idaho, when a deejay introduced Glory of Love as a new song by Chicago. A week later, he recalls, the deejay played the song and “then mispronounced my last name [the accent is on the second syllable]. A week later they called me ‘Pete Cetera.’ About three weeks later they got it right.”

Still, Cetera prefers a confused identity to none at all. Following Chicago’s initial successes—”we laughed our way around the world,” he says—the “accoutrements” of rock ‘n’ roll became more important to him than the business of producing good music. Dulled by endless touring, he drank, got stoned and got fat, the complete “rock ‘n’ roll breakfast of champions. The whole period from the second to the 16th album, I virtually ran rampant,” he says. One night he played a bass solo that he considered “the greatest the world had seen.” When he listened to a tape afterward, he recalls, “all I heard was garbage. The tape didn’t lie.”

Cetera credits his wife and Glory of Love co-writer, Diane Nini, 36, with pulling him “through the rough spots.” Housemates for 15 years, the couple decided to marry in 1982 after they “realized we desperately wanted a child.” The birth of daughter Claire, now 3, came a year before Cetera’s formal split with the band. “It wasn’t amicable, but it wasn’t the worst,” he says. “It’s nothing that me having a hit and them having a hit won’t make better.”

Today, Nini helps guide Cetera through the “excruciating process” of songwriting (“I agonize over every word,” he says) and steers him clear of pop-life excesses. A regimen of cross-country skiing, cycling and mountain climbing has helped him trim 50 pounds gained during his Elvis years. “I’ve turned into the person I always wanted to be,” says Cetera, who adds that nowadays his idea of an “ideal day is to be showered and in my jammies by 6, feeling comfortably exhausted.”

He’s proud of the fact that, rather than waiting anxiously by the phone, he was off mountain climbing on the day Glory of Love became his first solo No. 1 single. “You have different priorities on the mountain,” he says. “Like wondering if you’re going to live.”