KamerTunesBlog

Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

Forty Year Friday – CHICAGO “CHICAGO XI”

Artist: CHICAGO
Album: CHICAGO XI

[Welcome to Forty Year Friday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1977]

Chicago has been one of my favorite bands for a very long time. I’ve previously discussed their debut album in my Great Out Of The Gate series and the wonderful Chicago IX: Chicago’s Greatest Hits in my first post about Gateway Compilations. By the time they released their ninth studio album (confusingly titled with the Roman numeral for 11 due to an early live album and the aforementioned compilation being included in the numerical sequencing) they had racked up 10 consecutive platinum or multi-platinum albums, most of which topped the charts or came quite close. In recent years the majority of their hit singles were sung by Peter Cetera, whose voice I have raved about in my No Guilt, Just Pleasure post and the Thirty Year Thursday post about his second solo album, but he’s only featured on one song here. Keyboardist Robert Lamm and guitarist Terry Kath (who Jimi Hendrix once claimed “is better than me”) handle the majority of lead vocals, with trombonist James Pankow and trumpeter Lee Loughnane each getting one track. The remaining band members, drummer Danny Seraphine, sax & flute man Walter Parazaider and percussionist Laudir de Oliveira, let themselves be heard through their instruments, and collectively Chicago once again proved that they were one of the most talented groups of musicians of their era…and beyond. It’s not one of their most beloved albums, simply because it only included one Top 10 single and a few other minor hits, but there’s a lot to love here. Sadly there will always be a black cloud hanging over Chicago XI since it was released four months before Kath’s tragic death. His inimitable guitar work & soulful, husky voice were the heart & soul of Chicago, and even though they went on to record some great music, they were never quite the same after losing him. Fortunately for us he left on a high note, and I prefer to celebrate what’s here rather than bemoan what might have been.

The big hit, featuring Cetera’s glorious voice, was “Baby What A Big Surprise,” a midtempo semi-ballad with a stately horn-and-strings intro, an instantly catchy chorus (“Baby what a big surprise, right before my very eyes”) and an amazing bridge (“Just to be alone was a little more than I could take”) with shoo-bee-doo backing vocals. The Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson appears in the vocal mix. I always thought Lamm’s “Take Me Back To Chicago” was a bigger hit than it was, although it certainly received a decent amount of radio play. Written by Seraphine with Dave “Hawk” Wolinski, who would join funk band Rufus later that year, it shifts from the subtle, sweet, light-jazz verse with Lamm’s breathy vocals into an upbeat, catchy chorus with horn blasts, and a synth-infused midsection to break things up. Wolinski’s soon-to-be bandmate, Chaka Khan, adds her powerful voice throughout, most notably those wailing vocals through the outro. Pankow’s “Till The End Of Time” has a mid-‘70s Beach Boys vibe; a midtempo waltz shuffle with barroom piano & evocative (if not distinctive) vocals. Those 2-note horn stabs are distinctly Chicago. Loughnane’s “This Time” is peppy, punchy & poppy with a tight horn & rhythm arrangement. His voice has a lot of soul and isn’t far off from Kath’s. This song includes a stunning guitar solo that leads into a horn break. Lamm’s slow, smooth, jazzy & Latin-tinged “Policeman” is lyrically simple but tightly arranged, and I love Cetera’s harmony at “He’s a policeman, you know.” Kath’s “Takin’ It On Uptown” is a throwback heavy rocker with fuzzy guitar & cowbell accents over a slow, stomping beat. It’s not a classic but certainly proof that they could still rock. Two marvelous Kath tunes bookend the album. “Mississippi Delta City Blues” is a showcase for his voice & rhythm chops instead of a lead guitar workout. It’s equal parts funk, jazz & blues highlighted by their immediately identifiable horn swells, Kath’s gritty vocal performance and a great upbeat instrumental section. “Prelude (Little One)” and “Little One” are two separate tracks but function as one continuous piece. The former is less than a minute of strings, voice & jazzy trumpet, while the latter is a tender ballad that reminds me of Vince Guaraldi’s “Little Birdie” from A Charlie Brown Christmas, and strikes a nice balance between Chicago horns, orchestra and light jazz. The only song I avoid on this album is Lamm’s “Vote For Me,” which at best sounds like a Schoolhouse Rock outtake. Otherwise, this might be the ideal Chicago album for people who think Peter Cetera sings too many of their songs. That would again be the case on their next several albums but with Chicago XI the spotlight was more evenly divided, and we got our last taste of Terry Kath’s immense talents. It’s also the last album produced by James William Guercio, who had been with them since their debut, so in more ways than one this was the end of “Chicago Mach I.”

 

 

Forty Year Friday will return in two weeks with a two-fer from a Woodstock-era legend.

27 comments on “Forty Year Friday – CHICAGO “CHICAGO XI”

  1. DanicaPiche
    September 22, 2017

    A Woodstock-era legend — I’m looking forward to it already. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. DanicaPiche
    September 22, 2017

    Chicago Mach I seems a very fitting description. I wasn’t too familiar with the distinctions and it’s always interesting to learn more about contributions to multi-layered sounds. I’m going to listen to “Baby What a Big Surprise” and others now.

    Like

    • A lot of people dismiss everything after Terry Kath died as “Chicago sold out” and “they went pop with Peter Cetera,” which is ridiculous because they already had massive success for nearly a decade with every album they released. How can you sell out if you’ve already sold millions and had tons of Pop hits? They were never quite the same band without Kath, who is rightly hailed as a guitar god, but they released some really cool music over the next 6-7 years before Cetera departed for a solo career. Once their original drummer, Danny Seraphine, was booted from the band I completely lost interest. He was (and still is) such an incredible player. Okay, that’s probably way too much information for you. Hope you liked the song samples I chose.

      Liked by 2 people

      • DanicaPiche
        September 23, 2017

        That’s funny, Rich! It’s definitely not too much information for me — this is why I enjoy your blog so much.
        Why was the drummer kicked out of the band?
        I do like the song samples and understand why they had so many hits.

        Like

      • I don’t know the whole story about the drummer, or perhaps I knew it once & forgot the details, but I believe he wasn’t happy with their musical direction and they felt his style wasn’t suited for the more straightforward nature of their music. They hired a very talented drummer to replace him but he didn’t have the same feel as Mr. Seraphine. It was the combination of all those musical talents that made Chicago so special. At least they kept the same 3-piece horn section for a long time (until recent health issues kept one or two of them from performing). I’ve always said that the three horn players created a unified sound that was distinctly their own, which can’t be said for many horn sections.

        Liked by 1 person

      • DanicaPiche
        September 24, 2017

        I’m going to have to listen for the horn section in particular. I’ve felt that horn sections tend to get overlooked and this one seems pre special.

        Like

      • I highly recommend checking out the Chicago song “Questions 67 & 68” from their debut album. The horn chart is exquisite and distinctly them.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. 80smetalman
    September 22, 2017

    This takes me back! I liked Chicago in the 70s but when my musical tastes went harder in the 80s, they became one of my Not Guilty Pleasures. I haven’t heard this album in ages. “Baby What a Big Surprise” was one of our cruising tunes.

    Like

    • When you wrote “This takes me back,” I could help but think you should have ended it with “(to Chicago).” 😀 That’s a great cruisin’ tune, as are so many of the songs in their amazing discography. Glad you could still appreciate them even after your tastes went harder.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Alvaro Almeida
    September 22, 2017

    Laudir de Oliveira died last week doing what he liked best: playing.

    Like

    • I read that sad news earlier this week. He was an unsung hero of Chicago’s music. I think a lot of people forget how much he contributed to their sound throughout the ’70s. RIP, Mr. de Oliveira.

      Like

  5. Aphoristical
    September 22, 2017

    I wonder if I’ll dive into Chicago one day. Always liked most of their Kath era stuff.

    Like

    • I think you’ll really enjoy their catalog, especially the Kath years, whenever you dive into it. Hard to believe how successful they were for so long, and yet people stopped taking them seriously for a long time after their first few albums. They were truly a groundbreaking band.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Jeff Kempin
    September 23, 2017

    I always liked Chicago….with Terry Kath. After his death, Chicago became too much of a soft rock/ballad band for me. But those early years, man, what a great band. Hooks galore, super tight playing, 2 great singers (Cetera and Lamm) and one pretty good one (Kath) plus a killer horn section plus a fantastic rhythm section. This band had it all.
    These guys were working hard too and were putting out double/triple/multi album sets in the beginning of their career. I think Chicago V was the first single album they released. So yeah, always was a big fan of Chicago.
    Btw, I live in Oak Lawn, IL which is probably between the Downers Grove and Blue Island names on the map on the record cover. 😉

    Like

    • Hi Jeff. How cool that you like between the two places on the album cover map. Glad we have this band in common. I would rank Kath as a great singer, although in a different way than the other two. He had so much soul in his voice, like a blues singer. It’s amazing when you think about the massive success they had with every album they released for the first decade of their career. Whether or not you think their ’80s output is too soft & mainstream, those multi-disc sets were groundbreaking and commercially & critically successful. It can be argued that they’re the greatest American band of all time. They’re certainly up there among a handful of greats.

      Like

  7. Alyson
    September 23, 2017

    Hi – Had to do a little background research before jumping in with a comment as hadn’t realised Chicago were quite as big as they obviously were in the US. A long career indeed. The Chicago I remember is very much from this era – Liked them a lot and I’m not surprised to hear that there was Beach Boys involvent/influences during this period. I have a great love for late ’60s orchestral pop and the equivalent in the ’70s seems to be the soft rock (an awful all-encompassing term) of bands like Chicago who also injected some jazz into their music. Peter Cetera’s voice I really like also so all in all it’s a thumbs up from me.

    As for the roman numerals thing, I bet they wished they hadn’t started with all that, as it does get complicated – Do you include the live album and greatest hits in the sequence or not? Also you have to go back to the first album and give it a numeral retrospectively – It’s a quagmire. Nice review as ever and for the second week in a row, no anecdote – What’s going on?! I will have to remember about Chicago however when I come to the state of Illinois in my Amercian Odyssey series (bit of shameless self-promotion there!).

    Looking forward to finding out who the Woodstock legend is. Have a nice week off.

    Like

    • Hi Alyson. It’s funny when I hear Chicago described as soft rock. Although they eventually had a lot of hits that would fall under that category, I grew up hearing them as a groundbreaking horn-driven rock/jazz group. Some people will claim that they “sold out” with mellow hits like “If You Leave Me Now,” but they already had a ton of pop hits before that one. They were among a handful of artists who appealed to Top 40 and album rock listeners in equal measure.

      I agree that they probably regret the whole Roman numeral thing. They weren’t even called Chicago for their first album, then hey had Chicago II, their fourth album was a 4-LP live album without numerical name but it was still considered IV, and their first Greatest Hits had a Roman numeral. The album after the one in this post had a name “Hot Streets” but still considered XII. Later on they switched to regular numbers (with 16) and on & on like that.

      I hope Chicago is in the mix for your Illinois post (along with Cheap Trick).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Alyson
        September 24, 2017

        You sound like my husband when we discuss Dr Hook – My memories of them are more from the the mid ’70s when they started having big chart hits such as A Little Bit More – His memories are much more from their earlier period when they had a very different style. I was just such a Top 40 girl back then which is why it’s interesting dropping by here on a Friday – I have been finding out about all that I missed in 1977 when I was listening to chart rundowns on the radio.

        Like

      • I’m glad you have experience with this type of conversation. I didn’t know much from Dr. Hook other than their early ’70s hit “The Cover Of The Rolling Stone,” but I remember being surprised when they had some “soft rock” hits like “Sharing The Night Together” and “When You’re In Love With A Beautiful Woman” later in the decade. Not sure if the shift in their musical direction was a gradual one if you followed their career, but it was hard to believe they were the same band. I have a good 2-CD Dr. Hook compilation that I haven’t played in years. I need to give that a spin soon, thanks to this conversation.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Alyson
        September 25, 2017

        Well I have just checked and the album my other half loved was Bankrupt from 1975 but by 1976 they had moved onto the soft rock hits, so not that gradual – More like a seismic shift. But sorry this was a Chicago FYF and I have caused a seismic shift to Dr Hook – Sorry!

        Like

      • No need to apologize for moving the conversation in new & fun directions. You reminded me that I need to revisit my Dr. Hook collection so I appreciate the diversion.

        Like

  8. James Hollingsworth
    September 25, 2017

    I have always had on cassette the first CTA album along with Chicago IX plus Chicago 17 was the first tape I ever bought when I was a boy. Always liked those first two albums I mentioned and was listening to them last year on my only remaining tape player in the garage and realised just how good they actually were. Since then, I have purchased the Rhino Box Set of all their albums up to Hot Streets and there is so much to discover, some truly original music scattered throughout. I am not sure I would pick out any particular album as a classic on its own although in a bid to convince a friend of mine of their greatness, I purchased him a copy of Chicago II. As for the eighties stuff, there are some good tunes in there but honestly some of it is truly terrible. There recent NOW album is good though. Dig in and get listening to Chicago, I have made three mixes of my favourite tracks and never get tired of listening to them. ‘A Hit by Varese’ is an absolute belter!

    Like

    • Hi James. I’m glad you got your hands on that Rhino box set. There’s so much great music on those discs, and much of it gets better with time & repeated listens. I bought the “Quadio” box set, which has the first 8 studio albums and Greatest Hits on blu-ray with original quadrophonic mixes. Unfortunately my stereo (with surround sound set-up) has been in storage for two years as I moved and then shopped for a new house. Sometime in November the renovations will be completed & I’ll finally have a music room again. Needless to say that’s one of the first things I will be playing.

      I agree that much of their stuff from the mid-’80s & beyond is terrible or, at the very least, forgettable. I always enjoy hearing that horn section, though, even on the lesser material, but they certainly were never the same without Kath…and then without Cetera. I did see them sometime in the ’90s and it was a really enjoyable show, and I’m glad they’re keeping the music alive for new generations of fans.

      Good call on “A Hit By Varese.” So good.

      Cheers.
      Rich

      Like

  9. Glenn Sutton
    December 1, 2017

    I’ll admit to being one of those people who sometimes dismisses Chicago’s output after Kath died, but at least I’m not as bad as the folks who won’t listen to anything after album number 3 (excuse me, III). Those people are missing out on a lot of good music. This album reminds me a little of their second, what with the classical-type suite ending with a Kath vocal (shades of “Memories of Love”) and the nice variety of poppers and rockers. As for “Vote For Me” I find it kind of amusing, especially around election time.

    Like

    • I’ve never understood people writing off Chicago after the first few albums. They often claim that the band “sold out” and “went soft,” which doesn’t make sense when you consider that they had big pop hits from the start of their career, and many of the later albums contain as many challenging, jazz-inspired songs as hit singles. “Vote For Me” is just too lightweight & silly for me, but I can understand why it works around election day. I wonder if Lamm wrote that with tongue-in-cheek or if he felt he was making a big political statement.

      Like

  10. Pingback: Satur-debut – CHICAGO “CHICAGO TRANSIT AUTHORITY” | KamerTunesBlog

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