Chicago…& Horn Rock

Sure horns were a part of Rock & Roll in the ’50’s and ’60’s, but those horns were mostly played by session musicians and backing bands, not by actual members of rock bands…at least not by bands that were making it on the national stage.  That would change in the late ’60’s.

Chicago was the home of some bands that featured horns on their recordings.  According to Billboard Magazine, the most listened to American Band of 1967 was The Buckinghams.  This Chicago group had five major hits that year…”Kind Of A Drag” (#1), “Don’t You Care” (#6), “Mercy Mercy Mercy” (#5), “Hey Baby, They’re Playing Our Song” (#12), and “Susan” (#11).  Although their popular songs and albums heavily featured horns, there weren’t any brass players in The Buckinghams; however, one of the producers on “Kind Of A Drag” was a big band leader and ballroom owner.

After “Kind Of A Drag”, The Buckinghams signed with Columbia Records and a major figure in the future of “Horn Rock”, James William Guercio.

Guercio was a session bassist in the 1960’s, toured with Chad & Jeremy, and wrote their single “Distant Shores”.  When he became the Producer/Arranger for The Buckinghams he used innovative brass arrangements on the last four of the above hits, and on their two most popular albums…Time & Charges and Portraits.  The Buckinghams split with Guercio…and had no more Top 40 hits.

James William Guercio took on two bands that did have excellent horn players as members…Blood Sweat & Tears and Chicago Transit Authority.  Both were on the Columbia label, and they both had important releases in 1969.

The self titled BS&T album was huge, with the hits “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy”, “Spinning Wheel”, and “And When I Die”…all three of which made it to #2 on the Billboard singles chart.  All of a sudden, the term “Jazz Rock” was  born.  Blood, Sweat & Tears won the Grammy for Album Of The Year.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Transit Authority album was fairly successful in 1969, reaching #17, but there were no hit singles at that time.  Even though the two groups were often lumped into the Jazz Rock category, the CTA album arrangements were much more Rock than Jazz.   Plus, the album featured some fierce rock guitar played by Terry Kath.

Here’s the original line-up for Chicago:

Chicago’s second album, in early 1970, was the big breakthrough.  It was simply called Chicago, because the real Chicago Transit Authority mass-transit company didn’t want their name used.

The Chicago album, which would later be designated Chicago II, had the hits “Make Me Smile” (#9) and “25 or 6 to 4” (#4), plus popular album cut “Colour My World”.  It also featured what I believe is their defining moment, the 13-minute seven-song medley “Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon”:

  1. Make Me Smile” (3:32) [Lead Vocal Terry Kath]
  2. “So Much to Say, So Much to Give” (1:04) [Lead Vocal Robert Lamm]
  3. “Anxiety’s Moment” (1:00) [Instrumental]
  4. “West Virginia Fantasies” (1:34) [Instrumental]
  5. Colour My World” (2:58) [Lead Vocal Terry Kath]
  6. “To Be Free” (1:21) [Instrumental]
  7. “Now More Than Ever” (1:27) [Lead Vocal Terry Kath]

Most of Chicago’s early hits were written by Robert Lamm, but this medley was written by trombonist James Pankow.  My original memory of the medley was hearing it played in it’s entirety on an FM station in Memphis, Tennessee in early 1970.  We were outside on a break from electronics school, and someone had a transistor radio.  The medley played for nearly the whole break.  I love those horn instrumentals as much as the two hits in the medley.

Once Chicago became a smash, the singles from the Chicago Transit Authority album were re-released as hits…”Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” (#7), “Beginnings” (#7) and “Questions 67 & 68” (#24).

Chicago III came out in 1971.  It included modest hits “Free” (#25) and “Lowdown” (#35).  Easily my favorite cut is the one that sounds like CSN&Y doing “Teach Your Children”…”Flight 602”.  No horns in this one, but lots of vocal harmony, and even a steel guitar.  James William Guercio had used the same style with the little known group Illinois Speed Press for the song “Bad Weather”.  The singer and songwriter, Paul Cotton, went on to success with Poco.

Unlike Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chicago continued their success in the the 1970’s and through the 1980’s with hit albums and thirty-five Top 40 hits.  The hits included “Saturday In The Park” (#3), “Just You ‘N’ Me” (#4), (I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long” (#9), “Call On Me” (#6), “Old Days” (#5), “If You Leave Me Now” (#1), “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” (#1),  “Hard Habit To Break (#3), “You’re The Inspiration” (#3), and many more.

In the middle of their recording success, in 1978, two important events happened that greatly affected Chicago.  Lead guitarist and sometimes lead vocalist Terry Kath died from an accidental gunshot from a gun he thought wasn’t loaded.  The band also parted ways with producer James William Guercio who they felt was taking too large a percentage of their earnings.

The loss of an excellent rock guitarist & vocalist, along with the change in production made a huge difference in the sound of the band.  Peter Cetera also became a more prominent songwriter, and he had an affection for ballads.  Throw in Pop producer David Foster, and Chicago became more of an Adult Contemporary band, rather than a Rock band.  The public didn’t seem to mind, because some of those big 1980’s ballads were very popular.  But, their softer sound was probably why it took Chicago until 2016 to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Despite the success of Chicago, “Horn Rock” never developed into a major category of Rock & Roll.  We have to enjoy what they gave us, and be happy when we get a saxophone now and then, or maybe the rare horn section for a live concert.  I guess “rock trumpet” doesn’t have the same ring as “rock guitar”.

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