Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Champlin Leaving Chicago

I guess there aren't many American rock bands that have been recording as long as — or longer than — Chicago.

You could probably mention the Rolling Stones and the Who in that exclusive group, although the personnel for each has changed over the years. And they are British groups — a subtle distinction, perhaps.

Among American bands, Chicago is second only to the Beach Boys in terms of commercial success (albums and singles). That's what Billboard says. For that matter, when one speaks in terms of longevity, the Beach Boys probably don't belong in the conversation, having disbanded in the 1990s.

Chicago was formed in 1967, going by the name "The Big Thing" at the time, but its first album was released two years later, in 1969, a few months before man first walked on the moon, hundreds of thousands of people descended upon a rural part of New York for the Woodstock Festival and the Manson family killed seven people in a two–day rampage.

From that debut double album — "Chicago Transit Authority" — emerged some of the songs that I most associate with Chicago to this day — "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" "Beginnings" and "Questions 67 and 68."

There have been other songs, of course, many other songs, that are uniquely Chicago, and they made the band the top–selling American group in the 1970s.

You could hardly switch on your radio in those days without hearing Chicago, and if you were hearing songs like "25 or 6 to 4" or "Colour My World" or "Saturday in the Park" for the first time, you didn't need to wait for the end and the disc jockey's confirmation that you had been listening to Chicago. You already knew.

Subsequent albums gave listeners more of a taste of their jazz–rock style, a unique sound at a time when it seemed everyone was trying to emulate the Beatles or the Stones or the Who.

But time marches on and, by 1981, original guitarist Terry Kath was dead from a self–inflicted gunshot wound and musicians like Laudir de Oliveira and Donnie Dacus, both of whom joined the band in the 1970s, had departed. By the mid–1980s, another original member, Peter Cetera, was gone.

In 1981, vocalist/keyboardist/guitarist Bill Champlin joined the band, and there he has remained for nearly 30 years. During that time, he has made important contributions to the band's continued success, not the least of which was providing the vocals for "Look Away," the chart–topping song on Billboard's year–end Hot 100 in 1989.

But today, it was announced that Champlin is leaving Chicago to pursue a solo career at the age of 62. The Champlin era is ending.

Four original band members — Robert Lamm, James Pankow, Lee Loughnane and Walter Parazaider — still remain. No doubt they will reinvent Chicago, as they have done many times before.

It won't sound the same — it never does. But I wouldn't bet against Chicago making it work.

And I wouldn't bet against Champlin, either.