Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
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.