Next Wednesday, July 11, out at Casino del Sol's Anselmo Valencia Tori Amphitheater, the most successful American band of all time that isn't in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will take the stage.
Chicago, which still features some of the core members after more than 40 uninterrupted years of recording and touring, has sold tens of millions of albums. Along with the Beach Boys and Metallica, it's among the top three album-selling American bands of all time. (Various websites differ as to which is actually No. 1. Chicago has 22 gold, 18 platinum and eight multi-platinum albums, including five that went to No. 1. The band also has 21 Top 10 singles.)
Those of you who are fortunate enough to have been around when Chicago first hit the scene (and doubly fortunate to still be upright) will recall that they were out there. Their first two albums (both double albums), Chicago Transit Authority and Chicago, had blues and jazz and protest music, rock and classical, and always the horns. They were must-have albums in everybody's collections and remain classics to this day.
The music was creative, exhilarating and, yes, sometimes somewhat pretentious; indeed, it was quite perfect for the time. When Chicago Transit Authority was released in April 1969, it became a staple of the new, free-form (and avant-garde) FM radio. Songs like "Beginnings" and a Latin-flavored version of Stevie Winwood's "I'm a Man" were much too long for regular rock radio, but they caught on big on FM. By the time the second album, Chicago (also known as Chicago II), came out, the band had shortened its name (under legal threat from the actual Chicago Transit Authority), and Chicago was a monster success and among the hippest of the hip.
Chicago III was a mess, and the live album at Carnegie Hall certainly won't make anybody forget the Allman Brothers' live album At Fillmore East, or James Brown's Live at the Apollo, but the band regained its footing with its fifth album and its signature single, "Saturday in the Park." There's this part of the song on which Robert Lamm seems to be singing in Italian. A bunch of my friends went to my mom (who spoke Italian) to ask what the lyrics were, but she broke their hearts when she said that it was gibberish. (In later live shows, Lamm would sing, "Eh Cumpari, ci vo sunari," which roughly translates to, "Hey, buddy, what's that sound?")
By the mid-1970s, the band's political edge had been ground down by the changing times, and Chicago was producing absolutely perfect pop tunes. Chicago's sixth and seventh albums included "Just You N' Me," "Wishing You Were Here" (with background vocals by the Beach Boys) and one of my all-time favorites, "Happy Man."
I'll be the first to admit that I became increasingly disillusioned as the band turned to safe and sappy ballads. Maybe the loss of guitar-player Terry Kath from an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound was too much for the other guys to handle, or maybe they found safe and sappy ballads to be easy money. All I know is that the last new song of theirs that I listened to on a repeated basis was "Street Player," the driving horn intro of which is the sampled basis of Pitbull's "I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)."
Despite (and a little bit because of) all that, it is my unflinching contention that Chicago belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You can't hold where they end up against an act that once burned brightly. The king of Rock and Roll ended up a bloated lounge singer. Jerry Lee Lewis married his cousin.
Chicago deserves the honor, especially when you consider some of the acts that are already in the Hall of Fame. Sure, Robert Lamm slurred a few words on "Saturday in the Park," but Tom Waits fashioned an entire career out of unintelligible lyrics. Even if Chicago is only considered for their first two great albums, that's still 1 1/2 more great albums than Guns N' Roses ever produced. (Former Guns frontman Axl Rose sent the Hall of Fame a rambling, drugged-out letter declining the honor. Rose is currently best known for falling off stages at the rate of about one per week, and for his no-talent, half-his-age girlfriend, Lana Del Rey.)
For cryin' out loud, Lynyrd Skynyrd (which had maybe two good songs) and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (who had only one) are in the Hall of Fame. The Sex Pistols, who had no good songs and were famous for about a week and a half (and only for being able to maintain a fake-ass, screw-you attitude), got the nod a couple of years back. Darlene Love, whose professional apex was playing Danny Glover's wife in the Lethal Weapon movies, got in last year.
The selection process is apparently a tad arcane, and there is an air of faux gravitas about the whole thing, as the snobs who get to do the selecting say, "We only take acts that we feel were important ... like Fleetwood Mac." Yuck!
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame appears to be a rather large tent with the occasional low clearance. How is there not room for Chicago?