A Chicago Six-Pack

Random notes – I had tickets to see Dickey Betts but A) he had a mild stroke and then B) he fell down playing with his dog and needed brain surgery. He’s ok but needless to say the tour was canceled. Hoping for a speedy recovery. 

A couple of years ago, the band Spirit sued Led Zep for copyright infringement. Zep won but it turned out that the jury was only allowed to look at sheet music. Stupid, I thought. If they could hear the two songs together, Zep would lose in a minute. (Sorry, I love Zep as much as you do but Page is a notorious pilferer, has previously been sued and lost.) Anyway, the next trial will allow the jury to hear both songs.)

Chicago have been one of my favorite bands for as long as I can remember. They describe themselves as a “rock band with horns.” And I would add that especially in the early years when it was guitarist Terry Kath’s band, sometimes a pretty hard-driving one.

Their first album, Chicago Transit Authority, was released in 1969 and got a fair amount of play on FM radio. It was an interesting mix of what would become Chicago’s trademark sound and long, freeform guitar-driven jams. Kath even does a “song” called “Free Form Guitar” which is pretty much just him making his guitar sound like a psychedelic racecar for almost seven minutes.

So many great choices from this album but I’m gonna first go with “Beginnings.” This proves that Chicago could do love songs without descending into schmaltzy sentimentality. (That happened later.)

Spotify list

I actually went to see a local New England 10-piece Chicago tribute band named Introduction the other night. Excellent recreation and I highly recommend them. They focused on the best years (1968-1978) before Peter Cetera ruined them by doing sloppy, schmaltzy “dance with your grandmother at the wedding reception” dogshit.

One of the songs they pulled out of the closet was Chicago’s great cover of the Steve Winwood/Jimmy Miller composition, “I’m A Man.” (Miller produced the great run of Stones albums from Beggars Banquet through Goat’s Head Soup):

Spotify link

I guess the guys had a lot of material because both their first and second albums were double albums, a fair rarity. The band, originally named Chicago Transit Authority renamed themselves Chicago after the real CTA threatened a lawsuit. (As if anybody would confuse the two. We love nothing better in the US of A than to sue each other.)

Somewhere along the way the guys must have gotten radicalized because the liner notes of the second album say, “With this album, we dedicate ourselves, our futures and our energies to the people of the revolution. And the revolution in all of its forms.” If this surprises you, note this was released in 1970. easily the most radical time in this country. Antiwar fervor was raging and colleges were burning. (The Kent State massacre of college students was to happen a few months later.)

Despite the political overtones, the album itself wasn’t particularly political. There were several suites on the album notably one called “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon.” The song “Make Me Smile” – another love song – opened the suite up and what you’ll hear in the YouTube version is the single version with the beginning and end of the songs seamlessly stitched together. (I did the great song “Movin’ In” in an earlier post.)

Spotify link

Next up – Apart from “Movin’ In,” I’d say that “25 or 6 to 4” is my favorite Chicago song. From the opening descending guitar riff to the horn arrangement to Terry Kath’s blazing guitar solo, this song is note perfect. (I am a big-time Kath fan.)

According to Wikipedia, “According to composer Robert Lamm, the song is about trying to write a song in the middle of the night. The song’s title is the time at which the song is set: 25 or 26 minutes before 4 AM. Because of the unique phrasing of the song’s title, “25 or 6 to 4″ has been incorrectly speculated to be a veiled reference to drug quantities or a mystical allusion.” That was the kind of ridiculous shit that was imposed upon bands back in those days:

Spotify link

I’ll jump ahead a few years to 1973 and the album Chicago VI. By this point in time, I wasn’t following the band as closely as I did originally but I still enjoyed their songs on the radio. I’ve always dug the song “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day.” I have it on my iPod when I work out and I find the feeling upbeat, positive and optimistic. And it’s just a good groove:

Spotify link

Lastly, from Chicago III, I leave you with a short tune called “Free” sung by Terry Kath who was every bit as soulful a singer as he was a guitarist. Again it’s part of a suite called “Travel Suite.”

  • Terry Kath – guitar, lead, and backing vocals
  • Robert Lamm – keyboards, lead and backing vocals
  • Peter Cetera – bass, lead, and backing vocals
  • Walter Parazaider – saxophone, tambourine
  • Lee Loughnane – trumpet, claves
  • James Pankow – trombone, cowbell
  • Danny Seraphine – drums, percussion

12 thoughts on “A Chicago Six-Pack

  1. I want to go through and cover their early records sometime – I have a compilation that focuses on the Kath years, and I’ve only recently started spending time with the studio albums. ‘Saturday in the Park’ was a pretty good compromise between their pop sense and their eclectic sound.


  2. I agree that the early phase of Chicago is particularly compelling.

    Terry Kath was a hell of a guitarist. In fact, none other than Jimi Hendrix reportedly once told Walter Parazaider that “Your horn players are one set of lungs and your guitar player is better than me.”


    1. Hendrix reportedly praised several guitarists and it’s always (sort of) controversial about what he supposedly said about each. But from what I read, they’re not mutually exclusive. Yes, Chicago toured with Hendrix and that story sounds plausible. If Kath was “better,” maybe it’s because he was jazzier. Reportedly Hendrix praised (at least) two other guitarists by name – Rory Gallagher and Billy Gibbons. BTW, Kath had a daughter and she did a documentary on him a few years back. She did not want his name to be forgotten but alas, outside of Chicago fans and us musical junkies it has been. Haven’t seen the documentary but it’s on iTunes and I will definitely check it out.

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  3. I’ve been meaning to check out some Chicago for a while now, so I’ll use this as an excuse to start that off. Definitely more to that band than I’ve heard from soft rock radio.


  4. I’m familiar with all those songs from my early days of listening to the radio. Never took it farther. My buddies brother was an aspiring musician and would play the opening of 25 or 6 to 4 to death. Yeah I guess that later stuff kind of colored my delving further into their music (kind of like Fleetwood Mac). That documentary would be something I’d watch. Before I forget I thought they did a good job on the Winwood/Miller tune. I can feel your love for this band.


    1. That’s why I went out of my way to use a picture of the original guys. It was that band I loved, not necessarily later iterations, even though it was some of the same guys. They just watered themselves down. But that early stuff, boy I do love it. I may go back and listen to some of their mid-70’s stuff, see if there’s any gold in there. As to “I’m a Man,” I think they absolutely fucking kill it. I dug the cover band I saw. Great to hear all those tunes live.

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