The band was formed when a group of DePaul University music students who had been playing local late-night clubs recruited a couple of other students from the university and decided to meet in saxophonist Walter Parazaider’s apartment. The five musicians consisted of Parazaider, guitarist Terry Kath, drummer Danny Seraphine, trombonist James Pankow, trumpet player Lee Loughnane. The last to arrive was keyboardist Robert Lamm, a music major from Chicago’s Roosevelt University. The group of six called themselves The Big Thing, and continued playing top-40 hits, but realized that they were missing a tenor voice (Lamm and Kath both sang in the baritone range); the voice they were missing belonged to local bassist Peter Cetera.
While gaining some success as a cover band, the group began working on original songs. In June 1968, they moved to Los Angeles, California under the guidance of their friend and manager James William Guercio, and signed with Columbia Records. After signing with Guercio, The Big Thing changed their name to Chicago Transit Authority.
The group had one dream, to integrate all the musical diversity from their beloved city and weave a new sound, a rock ‘n’ roll band with horns. Their dream turned into record sales topping the 100,000,000 mark, including 21 Top 10 singles, 5 consecutive Number One albums, 11 Number One singles and 5 Gold singles. An incredible 25 of their 32 albums have been certified platinum, and the band has a total of 47 gold and platinum awards.
Their first record (released in April 1969), the eponymous The Chicago Transit Authority (sometimes informally referred to simply as “CTA”), was a double album, very rare for a first release, featuring jazzy instrumentals, extended jams featuring Latin percussion, and experimental, feedback-laden guitar abstraction. It sold over one million copies by 1970, and was awarded a platinum disc. The album began to receive heavy airplay on the newly popular FM radio band; it included a number of pop-rock songs — “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?,” “Beginnings”, and “Questions 67 and 68” — which would later be edited to a radio-friendly length, released as singles, and eventually become rock radio staples.
Soon after the album’s release, the band’s name was shortened to Chicago.
When it was released in January 1970, the second album, instead of featuring a picture of the band on the cover and a title drawn from one of the songs, had the band’s distinctive logo on the cover and was called Chicago II. From the start, Chicago took a conceptual approach to the way it was presented to the public. The album covers were overseen by John Berg, the head of the art department at Columbia Records, and Nick Fasciano designed the logo, which has adorned every album cover in the group catalog. “Guercio was insistent upon the logo being the dominant factor in the artwork,” says Pankow, even though the artwork varied greatly from cover to cover. Thus, the logo might appear carved into a rough wooden panel, as on Chicago V, or tooled into an elaborate leatherwork design, like Chicago VII, or become a mouth-watering chocolate bar, for the Chicago X cover, which was a Grammy Award winner.
And then there were those sequential album titles. “People always asked why we were numbering our albums,” jokes Cetera, “and the reason is, because we always argued about what to call it. ‘All right, III, all right, IV!” Actually, the band never attempted to title the albums, feeling that the music spoke for itself.
Despite the personnel changes over the years, the group is still active four decades after its founding. They are one of the few major rock groups that have never broken up or even taken an extended hiatus. As of June 2010, four of the six surviving founding members (major songwriters Lamm and Pankow, plus Loughnane and Parazaider) remain providing continuity, while Jason Scheff has been with the band 25 years, Tris Imboden 20 years, and Keith Howland 15 years.
As a new century turned, the band licensed their entire recorded output to Rhino Records (after years with Columbia Records and Warner Brothers as well as their own short-lived label). In 2002, Rhino released a two-disc compilation, The Very Best of Chicago: Only The Beginning, which spans the band’s entire career. The compilation made the Top 40 and sold over 2 million copies in the US.
Chicago continues to appear in big and small venues worldwide. In 2004–2005 they toured jointly with the band Earth, Wind & Fire; a DVD recorded during that tour, Chicago/Earth, Wind & Fire – Live at the Greek Theatre, was certified platinum just two months after its release.
The group released Chicago XXX, on March 21, 2006, their first all-new studio album since Twenty 1. The album was produced by Rascal Flatts bassist Jay DeMarcus, who is a friend of Chicago bassist Jason Scheff. Seven of the 12 tracks were co-written by Scheff, and the album included a large roster of guest musicians, supplanting band members in many cases.
During March 2006, Chicago made a multi-week appearance at the MGM Grand Las Vegas, which was repeated in May of the same year. In July 2006, the band made a series of US appearances with Huey Lewis and the News. Highlights of that tour included Chicago’s Bill Champlin performing with Huey Lewis and the News on a couple of songs, members of Huey Lewis and the News contributing to Chicago’s percussion-laden song, “I’m a Man,” and Huey Lewis singing the lead vocal on Chicago’s “Colour My World.”
At the end of 2006, the band played at CD USA’s New Year’s Eve party on Fremont Street in Las Vegas. Chicago toured the summer of 2007 with the band America. On October 2, 2007, Rhino Records released the two-disc The Best of Chicago: 40th Anniversary Edition, a new greatest hits compilation spanning their entire forty years, similar to The Very Best of: Only the Beginning, released four years earlier.
June 17, 2008 saw the official release of the Stone of Sisyphus album by Rhino Records, recorded in 1993 and originally slated for a March 1994 release until being shelved by Warner Records. The album contains eleven of the original twelve tracks (the raucous “Get on This” was left off), plus four demo recordings. Its official title is Chicago XXXII: Stone of Sisyphus (it was originally slated to be album #22). Summer of 2008 also included multiple European tour dates, with members of the horn section missing at various times. This trend of fill-in players has continued into 2009, with Lamm sometimes the only original member on stage. As Chicago has existed as a “faceless” band for years, the lack of original members may not concern the audience like it would with another long-lived band such as the Rolling Stones and high-profile members like Mick Jagger.
Chicago started 2010 with a bang. On January 1, the group appeared on Brian Boitano’s NBC skating spectacular, and less than two weeks later were special guests on ABC’s hit tv show, The Bachelor. Chicago also received notice of gold certification for the Best of Chicago 40th Anniversary Edition (Rhino). This is their 22nd gold award – another milestone.
Robert Lamm: keyboards, vocals
Lee Loughnane: trumpet
James Pankow: trombone
Walt Parazaider: woodwinds
Jason Scheff: bass, vocals
Tris Imboden: drums
Keith Howland: guitar
Lou Pardini: keyboards, vocals
Drew Hester – percussion