Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Chicago: “Foster”-ing the hits

It is amazing how the influence of one person can profoundly affect the sound of a band. It can be a singer, a songwriter, a musician. In the case of Chicago, a band that had a lot of success fusing jazz and brass instruments with pop music in the 1970s, it was a producer – and a Canadian one at that.

The success of Chicago exploded when David Foster came on board, and that was the Chicago that I grew up with. He seemed to know exactly how to best utilize the talents of the band, especially lead singer Peter Cetera.

Never did I think my association with Chicago would be as long as it was, given the way I first heard about them. The band is one of the most prolific in pop music history, set apart by the fact they sequentially number their albums. Few have actual names beyond “Chicago 16”, “Chicago 17”, and so on.

Back in 1985, after I got a ghetto blaster for Christmas, I started listening to the radio after bedtime. It was on the floor beside my waterbed, turned as low as possible but still loud enough for me to hear.

The usual station of choice was LA-107 FM out of Lethbridge. It was an album-oriented station that had a variety of interesting features. One was an hour-long feature weeknights at 11 p.m. called “Profile”. That was when I first heard about the band Chicago.

The band had such a long and prolific history, it actually spanned two nights, a Thursday and a Friday. There were a lot of names thrown about, and dates, and places. I only remember a few things. One was the band was initially called the “Chicago Transit Authority”. However, it ran into static from the actual Chicago Transit Authority, shortening the name to “Chicago”.

The other thing I remember was they had a lead singer named Terry Kath (I first thought I heard “Calf”) who died of an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound. I also recall hearing the names Robert Lamm, Jimmy Guercio, James Pankow, and Peter Cetera, but that was about it. Nothing else really stuck out for me.

Chicago 17
About that time, I really was getting interested in music. I had started watching “Solid Gold” on Saturday nights. I usually had a bath, then settled in to watch TV for the rest of the night. Often they would play a kind of feature video. One night it was a song by Chicago, where the lead singer kept chasing after a girl risking life and limb, almost dying several times. He even got run over by a car. I was stunned that Chicago had a new album out because, according to “Profile”, they seemed like an old band. The song was called, “Stay the Night”, and it was the first of several singles.

After I got the ghetto blaster, I began to tape songs off the radio. One of the first was a fantastic slow song called, “Hard Habit to Break”. Soon after, they released “You’re the Inspiration”, which was another slow song that really struck a chord with me. Eventually, there was a fourth single, “Along Comes a Woman”, I remember best for its black and white video patterned on the movie “Casablanca”.

The album these songs came off of was “Chicago 17”. However, I had not yet started spending a lot of money on new music. Instead, I plumbed around the discount bin at Eaton’s. After a few weeks of humming and hawing I finally bought a kind of Chicago’s greatest hits compilation called “If You Leave Me Now”. When I listened to it the first time, I recognized most of the songs: ”Saturday in the Park”, “25 or 6 to 4”, “If You Leave Me Now”, “Does Anybody Really Know What Time it is”, “Baby, What a Big Surprise”, and so on.

What really stuck out was that, with the exception of “If You Leave Me Now”, none of the songs sounded like any of the tunes I heard on the radio coming off “Chicago 17”. There was a simple explanation. David Foster had arrived, reducing the reliance on horns and increasing the number of ballads, which had the same sound as “If You Leave Me Now”.

A few months later I joined Columbia House and “Chicago 17” was one of most first choices. It did not disappoint, including some other really good songs including my favourite, another Cetera-sung ballad called, “I Remember the Feeling”. The other thing that struck me about the album was there were some songs with that trademark Chicago sound, featuring the brass instruments.

Discovering “Hard to Say I’m Sorry”
As with so many other things, the songs of “Chicago 17” were my entré into the music of Chicago. It was a few months after, just after the start of Grade 11, the I was listening to a radio request show on 1090 CHEC, an AM station broadcasting out of Lethbridge.  It was called “Rock and Roll Your Own”, and someone called in requesting a song called, “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” by Chicago. My first reaction was that they had misspoke and meant to say “Hard Habit to Break”.

Boy was I wrong. The song that played was one of the best ballads I ever heard. It was awesome. After that, I seemed to hear it every night on “Rock and Roll Your Own”, and liked it more and more. That summer, I read a book on Billboard’s number one singles, and it had hit number one.

It was off the album “Chicago 16”, the first album David Foster produced with Chicago. His arrival made them even more successful then they had been before.

Eventually, I bought a used copy of “Chicago 16”, and discovered another hit it produced: “Love Me Tomorrow”.

That just cemented my love for Chicago, and especially the sounds of Peter Cetera.

The end of an era
One Friday night, I was watching “Good Rockin’ Tonite” on CBC, and the special guests were Peter Cetera and David Foster. After the interview, which had been taped, had ended, host Terry David Mulligan said Peter Cetera had announced he was leaving Chicago.

It was the end of an era.

And a new beginning – for Cetera and for Chicago.

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