It was in late spring of 1970 when a vibrant, exciting song came out that really got everybody’s attention. It was “Make Me Smile” by a new band called Chicago. They had already gotten some attention with some hits called “Does anybody really know what time it is?”and some other less known pieces. But it really got everbody’s attention with “Make me Smile”. It wasn’t long before I got my first Chicago album and started enjoying a band I still do today.
Make Me Smile was part of a longer piece of about 22 minutes duration that also included a classic, favorite love ballad called “Color My World”. The longer form song was “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon”, and it splashed in, trumpets blaring, cymbals crashing, and gave us all a wild musical ride through a medley of several songs. We had already recently had a good taste of musical medleys from the Beatles’ memorable “Abbey Road” album. But none of those medleys, classic as they were, was anywhere the length of the “Ballet”. While the ballet opens with trumpets leading, it closes with trombones in the lead. The end of that song is an inspiration to many other brass bands trying to emulate that sound, catch that excitement.
Such was the beginnings of my experience with Chicago. This band of former jazz musicians and unique voices made their mark on America with “Saturday in the Park”, “25 or 6 to 4”, and “Fancy Colors”. Such was their wide berth of musical styles. They would go on from that point to maintain their position as a premier brass band in the national musical scene.
On their first album, Chicago Transit Authority, they had established their mark with perfect timing, very listenable jazz brass riffs, social statements and truly remarkable combinations of voice, guitar and brass. In “South California Purples”, they also show an awareness of other artistic contributions with a line from “I am the Walrus” by the Beatles. They seize the heart with the slow starting but accelerating piece, “Liberation, August 29, 1968”. Social statement has always been a staple in their work.
Just prior to their arrival on the music scene, another brass band “Blood Sweat and Tears” had arrived with a jazz fusion sound, which they called such, and it was more expressive as jazz, but Chicago brought some refinement in their jazziness. Chicago’s main musical point was impeccably perfect timing, and seeming ease of execution. When you can do something really well, you develop the ability to make it look and sound easy, and that’s what Chicago always did with their music. This is one reason they so captured the heart of America. Even though they are a creation of the late 60’s, they nearly always sell out their concerts.
On May 21, 1996, they played at the Mud Island Amphitheater in Memphis. This amphitheater backs up to the water in the Memphis Harbor. The Mississippi River was up to 32 feet that night, and I counted easily 50 boats beside the one I was on, listening in to their sound. With the volume of the speakers, and the concrete shell of the listening area, I was happy to just hear the bounce. It was very faithful to the original sound, and at just the right volume.
In their timing, Chicago started off on the first album with a piece called “Questions 67 & 68”, and a brass part that carried on in later years in songs like “Lowdown” and, “Saturday in the Park”, although the beat was slightly slower, swingier in “Saturday-“. It was a loose sounding, but tightly executed kind of sound that came to be known as part of their signature. “Another Rainy Day in New York City”, featured some very slick triple tongue work in the brass that was of a slightly faster and then slower tempo that went back and forth between the two like it was no big deal.
Sometimes, as in “Dialogue”, they are making a social statement about the mindlessness of the Middle American lifestyle, the “get all you can, can all you get, put a lid on that, and poison the rest” mentality. But it ends in the confronter being lulled by the thought process of the one he confronted. Chicago shows a social consciousness that speaks to its culture, especially in the compelling “When all the laughter dies in sorrow”, a prose piece found in Chicago II. “Dialogue” is a continution, as are other pieces scattered throughout their works. Accompanied by peerless musicianship of the song, they manage to get attention to their thoughts very ably.