Originally known as the most popular among the late-1960s “horn bands,” Chicago cranked out numerous Top 10 hits throughout the 1970s and ’80s, and continues to record and tour more than 55 years after forming in their hometown.
They’ve had more popular albums than “Chicago V” — particularly in the early 1980s, when Peter Cetera stepped into the spotlight (before leaving soon afterward) — but Chicago’s fifth album, released in 1972, marked a key transition for the band and contains two of their greatest songs.
And since this column comes out a day after “Saturday” and a day before “the Fourth of July,” we’ll have fun remembering “Saturday in the Park,” “Dialogue (Parts One and Two)” and the other songs on Chicago V
Let’s start with the packaging — because nothing says early 1970s like paneling, long hair and a free poster, all of which are featured with this album.
Beginning with their second (and perhaps best) album, “Chicago II,” the group started using a distinctive cursive band-name logo, which continues. That cursive “Chicago” graced album covers ranging from blurry psychedelic colors to a map of Chicagoland to a Hershey bar wrapper.
But “Chicago V” had wood paneling on its cover, backside and double-folding sleeve, with lyrics printed in white over the dark brown background. If you grew up in the 1960s or ’70s, chances are you played this record in a room featuring paneling on the walls — a décor this music fan and homeowner thoroughly enjoys, both for its rustic look and its ease of installation. Who wants to cut and paste wallpaper, or smell the fumes of new paint, when you can just cover up your interior walls with paneling, easy-peasy? (My wife may not share this opinion.)
And what better to thumb-tack onto those paneled walls than the free poster included with the purchase of “Chicago V” back in 1972. I was fortunate enough to find one inside the used LP that I bought at a record store in the 2000s. Pictured with this column, it includes the seven shaggy-haired members of Chicago in color photos, with a group shot that, for some unknown reason, is printed in black and white.
Speaking of the band members. … For those who might not remember the mid-1970s “Chicago in the Rockies” TV specials, here’s some history. The group began in 1967 with students from Chicago’s DePaul University: Walter Parazaider (woodwind instruments), Lee Loughnane (trumpet) and James Pankow (trombone). They joined forces with Robert Lamm (keyboards and vocals), a student at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, and Parazaider’s colleagues from cover bands, Terry Kath (guitar and vocals) and Danny Seraphine (drums and percussion).
Needing a bass player and a tenor vocalist to balance the midrange and deep vocals of Lamm and Kath, the group lured Peter Cetera away from another Chicago band in late 1967, and the classic lineup of Chicago was set.
They signed a contract with manager and producer James William Guercio, a fellow Chicagoan who had moved to Los Angeles and was producing hit records for fellow horn bands The Buckinghams and Blood, Sweat and Tears. While those groups had some late-1960s pop success, it was Chicago (originally called the Chicago Transit Authority) who would become Guercio’s most successful group.
“Chicago V” is the album that accelerated that success. The band moved to Los Angeles in 1968 to record and perform under Guercio’s direction, and over the next three years released four double-LP albums, the debut “Chicago Transit Authority” and afterwards using Roman numerals to name each subsequent record.
The first four records — especially “Chicago IV,” which was a double-live album — mirrored the high energy and strong musicianship of the band’s live shows. According to Seraphine’s autobiography, Chicago toured small, mid-sized and large markets across the US and Europe, playing hundreds of shows each year to boost their popularity. A few top-40 singles, such as “Make Me Smile,” “Beginnings” and “25 or 6 to 4,” were among the tracks on the first two albums.
With their fifth album, Lamm stepped to the fore as a songwriter, writing and singing “Saturday in the Park,” which became Chicago’s biggest hit to date, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard Top 100 charts. Lamm’s memorable piano chords combine with smooth sounds from the horn section and lyrics about people enjoying a summer day in a park, just like “it was the Fourth of July.”
Chicago was quite vocal (literally) about the late 1960s anti-war and other political movements on its first four albums, and those sentiments continue on “Chicago V.” The closing track on side one, Lamm’s “Dialogue (Parts One and Two),” features a musical conversation between a young activist (voiced by Kath’s deep baritone) and a naïve college student (voiced by Cetera), with lyrics such as:
Kat: “Will you try to change things, use the power that you have, the power of a million new ideas?”
etc.: “What is this power you speak of and this need for things to change? I always thought that everything was fine.”
After a few more rounds of questions and answers about the war, starvation in cities, etc., the group breaks out into a long jam (Part Two) with the simple chorus, “We can make it happen, we can change the world now , we can save the children, we can make it better.” It includes one of Kath’s stinging guitar solos, Seraphine’s usual array of great drum fills, and a rollicking finale from the horn section.
Despite the blatant political message, “Dialogue” would hit No. 24 on the Billboard charts, and the song would remain a highlight of Chicago concerts throughout the 1970s — until, tragically, Kath was no longer around to sing it after his accidental death in 1978 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Synthesizers, ballads and cetera’s compositions would keep Chicago on the charts into the mid-1980s with hits like “You’re the Inspiration” and “Hard for Me to Say I’m Sorry,” but in the minds of many early fans, the band never was the same after Kath’s death.
“Chicago V” catches the band at its peak, just as it starts to transition from lengthy jam sessions to musically strong hit singles. The music still sounds great and the inspirational lyrics from Robert Lamm and the group’s other songwriters always leave me “feeling stronger every day.”