By David Chiu
By 1980, Chicago’s career was flagging. The hits ran dry and the band was dropped by its label of over a decade, Columbia Records. But it wasn’t the end—it was the beginning of a second era of hits that eclipsed the previous ones commercially.
Two important additions made that possible: singer and songwriter Bill Champlin, whose gritty soulful vocals augmented really well with the voice of bassist Peter Cetera; and uber-producer David Foster, who drew a punchier, if glossy, sound from the band complete with pyrotechnic session guitarists and electronic drums. In essence it was a retooled Chicago ready to take another stab at chart success.
And the band succeeded. Chicago 16, originally released in 1982, sets the formula for the rest of the band’s career to follow: synth-driven rockers (“What You’re Missing,” “Chains”) and, most importantly, power ballads (the band’s second Number One hit Hard to Say I’m Sorry/Get Away, Love Me Tomorrow) Only tracks such as “Sonny Think Twice” and “What Can I Say” recall the old Chicago sound even if the trademark horns and Robert Lamm’s singing and songwriting contributions seemed diminished. “Daddy’s Favorite Fool,” 16’s bonus selection, is typical Bill Champlin with its blue-eyed, jazzy soul sound.
It would set the stage for the band’s biggest-selling album Chicago 17, released two years later. It may not have gotten a lot of great reviews in the album guides, but 17 is a pure perfect pop album, a few steps better than its predecessor. For those who accuse Cetera as the guy who can only handle ballads, they should listen to the rockers Stay the Night, “Prima Donna” and the brilliant feel-good “Along Comes a Woman.” “We Can’t Stop the Hurtin’” is a return to the socially-conscious songs Robert Penn used to pen in the ‘70s. Chicago 17 best-known songs have since become Chicago classics: the power Hard Habit to Break (the vocals between Cetera and Champlin are killer) and “You’re The Inspiration.” Chicago 17 is a great album even if old fans didn’t like the direction the band was taking its music into by this time. (The bonus track is a lovely Robert Lamm ballad “Where We Began”).
Chicago’s second wave of hits convinced Cetera (who dominated on those two albums with his songwriting and singing) to go solo. Chicago 16 and 17 may be worlds away from the avant garde glories of 1969’s Chicago Transit Authority, but those two albums were important barometers of Chicago’s continued popularity and a willingness to change with the times.