JENNINGS: Change doesn't slow Chicago down

Chicago's horn section dazzles the crowd at Artpark during a 2013 appearance. (Thom Jennings photo)

On July 31, Chicago returns to Artpark for a special Saturday in the park performance, their first since a spectacular sold-out show in 2013.

A lot has changed for Chicago since 2013. In 2014, The Grammy Foundation inducted their debut album, “Chicago Transit Authority” into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Two years later, the group became Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees. In 2017, three of the group’s principal songwriters, former member Peter Cetera and current members Robert Lamm and James Pankow were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and in 2020 the entire group received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Formed in 1967, the group recorded 24 studio albums, seven live albums and 11 compilation albums, which resulted in 23 Gold albums, 18 Platinum albums and a staggering 21 top ten selling singles. They have sold over 100 million units throughout their career, which is more than The Doors, Van Halen, Journey, David Bowie and Stevie Wonder sold.

If you attend a Chicago concert, it’s likely you will know every song.

Chicago is not just a band with a slew of hits, they are a group with an incredible history. They are one of the few bands in recorded music history that was able to successfully reinvent themselves and survive dramatic lineup changes and personal tragedies.

The band’s first major obstacle occurred in 1978 when founding member Terry Kath died from an accidental self-inflicted gunshot. Kath was a brilliant and innovative guitarist, and in addition to his guitar playing he handled lead vocals on some of Chicago’s early hits, including “Colour My World” and “Make Me Smile.”

The group almost split after Kath’s death, and in the next few years the group’s popularity waned and they were dropped by their record label in 1981 because they were no longer considered commercially viable.

In a few short years the group would prove their old record label wrong thanks in part to record producer David Foster, who helped reinvent the band’s sound. The result was the mega-selling albums “Chicago 16,” “Chicago 17” which featured massive hits like “Hard Habit to Break” and “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” featuring lead vocals by Peter Cetera, who became the face of the band in the early 1980s.

Cetera left Chicago in 1985 to pursue a solo career, and the band was faced with the loss of another prominent member, but they quickly brought in Jason Scheff, and they released another successful album in 1986 that featured a remake of the band’s signature hit, ’25 or 6 to 4.”

By the 1990s, Chicago returned to their original sound that emphasized the horn section. While the 1980s was a good period for the band commercially, producer David Foster had reduced the role of the horn section during that era.

The group has had numerous lineup changes, even since they were at Artpark in 2013. Jason Scheff departed in 2016, saxophonist and founding member Walter Parazaider retired from touring in 2017 due to heart problems, and in April of this year he announced via the band’s website that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

The current lineup includes three founding members Robert Lamm, Lee Loughnane and James Pankow and the group is still headlining major venues across the country. After 53 years, and all the challenges, Chicago still appears to be getting stronger every day.

Thom Jennings covers the local music scene for Night and Day.

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