One of the longest running and most successful U.S. rock groups, Chicago is second only to the Beach Boys in terms of singles and albums sales.
Since forming in 1967, their record sales have topped 100 million, including 21 Top 10 singles, five consecutive No. 1 albums, and five No. 1 singles.
The group’s many hits, from “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?,” “25 or 6 to 4,” and “Beginnings,” to “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” “Baby What A Big Surprise” and “Wishing You Were Here” still resonate with audiences today.
“It’s amazing how familiar people are with Chicago’s music all over the world,” says founding vocalist/keyboardist Robert Lamm. “We recently returned from Asia and we were playing in places we’ve never played before. We try to stay busy. We’re always on the road.”
Besides Lamm, who composed a number of their signature hits, Chicago features founding members including trombonist James Pankow, trumpet player Lee Loughnane and woodwinds player Walt Parazaider, with Jason Scheff on bass and vocals, drummer Tris Imboden, guitarist Keith Howland, keyboardist Lou Pardini and percussionist Walfredo Reyes, Jr.
Chicago’s unique, hard-driving, horn-propelled, complex rock sound was influenced by their city’s rich musical heritage.
“We were a band with horns and that was inspired by being in Chicago and being aware of rhythm and blues and soul bands, especially the Memphis bands, and feeling we could do more of a rock jazzier version,” Lamm explains. “The horns were an integral part of the arrangements and that was a unique approach.”
From their earliest days they were known for recording lengthy songs that often necessitated releasing double albums. Their experimental double debut, “Chicago Transit Authority,” was a rarity at the time, and only allowed by their label after the musicians agreed to a royalty cut.
Released in 1969, the record became an underground radio hit first, and by the end of 1972, it had remained on the charts for 148 weeks, making it the longest-running album by a rock group up to that time.
With the release of their second album in 1970, featuring the hit “25 or 6 to 4” and “Make Me Smile,” the band was off on a run that was remarkable for its musical and commercial success.
By the mid-’70s, they began releasing a series of hit romantic ballads spotlighting vocalist Peter Cetera. The hits continued through the 1980s with “Chicago 17,” released in 1984, selling more than 6 million copies.
“From time to time, we tried to fit in to what was trending, whether power ballads in the ’80s or disco at the end of the ’70s,” he notes. “But we always found the best thing to do was to try and remain ourselves both in song writing and song selection, and also stay hip to technology, and that helped us stay current.”
In recent years, they re-recorded some of their early songs, available as “The Nashville Studio Sessions.”
“We became aware that it was possible for us to re-record our songs without any interference from any record companies,” Lamm explains. “So we decided to see if we could painstakingly duplicate some of the early recordings. Our music publisher could barely believe what they were listening to was not our original recordings. Now we have the ability to market our own masters.
“When I was doing the keyboard parts, sometimes I couldn’t imagine what I was thinking 40 years ago. Sometimes I impressed myself how good it was, and sometimes I was aghast at how bad it was. So many of the songs have morphed into modern versions of the originals. I had to relearn old things.”
Staying current, Lamm’s terrific new solo album, “Living Proof,” features a bunch of great songs that could easily grace a Chicago album. Part of its appeal lies with guest Polish vocalist ZoSia Karbowiak, who duets with him on a number of tracks. “ZoSia is incredibly talented,” he notes. “She was working in a factory and writing and recording songs when I first met her and I became a fan right away. She’s a star waiting to happen.”
And he’s made a fascinating detour into contemporary electronica with the album “Robert Lamm Songs: The JVE ReMixes.”
Imagine some of Chicago’s rock classics like “Beginnings” and “Saturday in the Park” completely deconstructed and transformed by producer John Van Eps into cool, chill-out dance tunes.
“I’m a fan of electronica and DJs,” he says. “So it was something I definitely wanted to do, whether it was Chicago’s music or, as it ended up, just songs of mine.”
For the upcoming year we can expect some new Chicago tunes.
“I’m always pushing the guys to think about another album, and thankfully we’re on the edge of posting new singles on our website,” he reports. “One of my recent songs was influenced by all the turmoil in the Middle East. From where the Arab Spring will take us as it progresses and the mistakes that the U.S. has made in the Middle East all have informed a song I wrote called ‘Naked in the Garden of Allah.’ We’ll be posting new music by the middle of 2013.”
* Chicago performs at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s A&B Amphitheater. Gates open at 6 p.m. Tickets are $45, $55, $75 and $125, available at the box office, by calling 242-7469 or online at www.mauiarts.org.
Relishing focusing on the blues these days, Willie K felt it was high time to honor this essential Americana style with a fest on Maui, and thus he’s hosting his own “Blues on the Blue BBQ,” on Saturday at Mulligans on the Blue in Wailea, featuring legendary guitarist Elvin Bishop and acclaimed Austin-based singer Angela Strehli with drummer Mick Fleetwood sitting in.
“There have been combined jazz and blues festivals, but no just homestyle, lowdown blues festival,” says Willie. “After I won (the Na Hoku Hanohano Award) Rock Album of the Year for the blues CD I produced, it was time to do something.”
As for the acclaimed guitarist sharing the bill he notes, “We’ve been good friends ever since Elvin began coming to Maui in the early ’80s.”
Looking forward to the Maui gig, Bishop enthuses, “Willie’s just so super talented, a great guitar player, an unbelievable singer and such a great entertainer. There are two or three guys that I don’t understand why they’re just not totally on top of the world. There’s him and Paul Thorn.”
From his early days playing with the legendary Paul Butterfield Blues Band in Chicago to his solo career scoring hits like “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” Bishop has long loved playing the blues. Living in Oklahoma in the 1950s, he became enthralled with blues artists heard on the radio.
“That was the only way basically a white guy was going to hear blues in Oklahoma,” he says. “This was before civil rights. I just went nuts for it.”
Winning a scholarship to study physics at the University of Chicago, he was soon hanging with legends like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Albert Collins, Otis Rush and Magic Sam.
“It was a tremendous stroke of luck being at the right place at the right time,” he notes.
Joining the Butterfield Blues Band, he played on such seminal recordings as the groundbreaking, masterpiece “East-West,” featuring an amazing, Indian raga influenced title track.
“We wanted to be like our heroes and play blues,” he recalls. “At the time, we were listening to lots of stuff like Ravi Shankar, Ornette Coleman and Pharoah Sanders as well as blues. And those were the days of mind expanding drugs and that opened everybody’s ear up.”
Honoring some of the greats who influenced him, in 2008 he released the Grammy-nominated album “The Blues Rolls On,” featuring a star-studded lineup including B.B. King, Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks, George Thorogood, James Cotton, Kim Wilson and Angela Strehli.
“I looked back to the front part of my career,” he explains, “and thought of the people I loved the most and had a chance to play with and the ones who influenced me the most when I was younger, and thought of artists today who could do justice to some of those tunes. I was lucky to get guys like B.B. and James Cotton to play on it and Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes.”
Elvin is a major fan of Angela Strehli – known as the “First Lady of Texas Blues” – who sang on the album.
“Angela’s a really good friend of mine,” he reports. “She sang on some of my records. She’s the most soulful female singer I know.”
The Mulligans fest will also feature the Tom Conway Band, The House Shakers, Bobby Ingram and Mike Carroll.
“This is a whole different show,” says Willie, who is currently working on a follow-up to “Warehouse Blues.”
“This is my joy right now, what I love to do, the blues,” he says.
Tickets are $20 in advance or $25 day of show, available at Mulligans on the Blue, Uncle Willie’s Kloset in Wailuku and online at www.williekblues.eventbrite.com.