Chicago used their short-lived name for their double-length 1969 debut album, Chicago Transit Authority. From the inception, the seven member group fused brass, jazz, soul, and blues-based rock and roll and, with three lead vocalists and composers, the group’s sound was as diverse as their influences. Producer James William Guercio had just come off a big commercial success with the group Blood, Sweat, and Tears and was able to convince a skeptical Columbia Records to release a double album for this then unknown group. Furthering the mystique of this album are the hard rock experimental tracks, which are at times intriguing and at times superfluous.
The roots of Chicago come from two distinct lines in and around the city which gave the group its name. The three primary members of the horn section, trumpeter Lee Loughnane, reed player Walter Parazaider and trombonist James Pankow were all music students at DePaul University. When the trio began playing in the clubs of the city, they encountered the rock and blues musicians which made up the other “side” of Chicago, primarily guitarist Terry Kath and drummer Danny Seraphine. By early 1967, the group was in place and rehearsing in Parazaider’s basement under their original name “The Big Thing”.
During the summer of 1968, Guercio moved the band to Los Angeles. As manager and producer, he set the pace for the band, making living arrangements, setting the practice schedule, and eventually changing their name to Chicago Transit Authority. The recordings for this double LP were made in short order in January 1969 and included the synthesis of electric guitar rock and deeply rooted blues and jazz arrangements. This brave foray into primal rock and free form jazz led to a unique water mark in the progression of rock and roll.
Chicago Transit Authority by Chicago
|Released: April 28, 1969 (Columbia)
Produced by: James William Guercio
Recorded: Columbia Recording Studios, New York City, January 1969
|Side One||Side Two|
Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?
|Questions 67 and 68
|Side Three||Side Four|
|Free Form Guitar
South California Purples
I’m a Man
|Prologue, August 29, 1968
Someday (August 29, 1968)
|Terry Kath – Guitars, Vocals
Robert Lamm – Keyboards, Vocals
Peter Cetera – Bass, Vocals
Lee Loughnane – Trumpets
James Pankow – Trombone
Walter Parazaider – Woodwinds, Percussion, Vocals
Danny Seraphine – Drums
Chicago Transit Authority contains four sides with three songs each. Kath’s “Introduction” has a simple title for such a complex song with multiple parts and passages, almost like the group wanted to throw everything at the audience right up front. The long middle section between verses contains vastly diverse sections, albeit has rather routine phrasing, and is driven by the terrific drumming of Seraphine.
The most prolific writer on this first album is keyboardist Robert Lamm.”Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” is the first popular, radio-friendly song on the album. While an infectiously classic piece of popular music which showcases all aspects of the group’s refined sound, the song is also a very philosophical piece lyrically. In all, everyone brought their ‘A’ game on this song, from the great lead and backing vocals, to the potent horns, melodic piano, and pleasant rhythms. On “Beginnings” Lamm switches to acoustic guitar for a pleasant and upbeat folksy feel. Seraphine’s interesting drum variations complement the overall drive of the acoustic and bass and he adds a long percussion outro to a crescendo of horns in the “only the beginning” section, which only serves to heighten the romanticism of this song.
Side two begins with “Questions 67 and 68” where we first hear Peter Cetera, the future “voice” of Chicago. He sings melodic vocals and tradeoffs with Lamm and the song itself is so melodic and pleasant to the point where it seems like the horn section is a bit extraneous (or at least, a little over-used). The song was released as a single and reached #24 on the US charts. “Listen” is a succinct, driving rocker with sustained guitar feedback, funky bass, organ, and more horn accents along with a good rock guitar lead by Kath. Lamm’s extended “Poem 58” is really two tracks fused as one. With a total funk guitar riff intro, the over five minute power-trio jam among Kath, Cetera, and Seraphine, sans-lyrics. Deep into the track, the rather disorganized jam becomes a proper song with vocals and horns above the basic guitar riffs by Cetera and Kath.
The oddest track on the album, Kath’s “Free Form Guitar”, begins the third side as a one take guitar expression. According to the album’s original liner notes, the solo performance by Kath was created without the use of any pedals or effects. “South California Purples” contains a very basic blues groove, driven by Cetera’s bass guitar. This leaves plenty of room for casual musical flourishes, first by Lamm’s Hammond organ and later Kath’s electric guitar. Although very repetitive, the song is interesting in its unique approach to traditional blues progression. The side ends with the only cover song on the album, “I’m a Man”, originally recorded by the Spencer Davis Group. The most interesting part of the over-seven minute song is the very potent intro groove by Cetera and Serephine. While similar to Deep Purple’s unique rock reinterpretations on their 1968 albums, there really isn’t much here beyond the brilliant intro.
Much like we concluded in our assessment of the Beatles’ White Album (another double length album), side four is unfortunately the weakest part of the album where the sound is the least fresh. “Prologue, August 29, 1968” is an odd montage of recorded chants from the 1968 Democratic convention protests in Chicago without very good editing. It acts as a lead-in for “Someday (August 29, 1968)”, co-written by Pankow, and featuring a doomy start before it breaks into a decent and melodic tune over the course of two verses. After meandering for about a half minute with studio ambiance, the closer “Liberation” breaks into a good upbeat jam, first led by the horn section until Kath takes over for a very extended guitar solo. However, just about four minutes in the jam begins to lose focus (and Kath’s guitar starts to sound out of tune) – and we still have ten minutes to go at this point! In all, the nearly fifteen minute song does little more than fill in the final side of the album.
In spite of this weak conclusion, Chicago Transit Authority is a fine album and an historic debut. It originally charted in the Top 20 on both sides of the Atlantic and found renewed success as the group’s popularity rose through the early 1970s. Shortly after this album’s release, legal action was threatened by the actual Chicago Transit Authority, and the group decided to simply reduce their name to Chicago, which they still use to this day.
Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1969 albums.
My father passed away 1 yr ago today. He took me to see Chicago Transit Authority on Venice Beach, CA sometime late 60s….68/69? I was born in 62 & was told I was 5/6 maybe 7 but I believe it to be more like 5/6 since I don’t remember that early.. Anyway, 30 years later in mid 90s, while we were both living in TX., different cities, I took him to see Chicago in the Woodlands….It would be our last concert together. I have been trying to search for the approximate date CTS played a free concert at Venice Beach late 60s…My question is, do you happen to know that date? Thank you for your time & consideration
Lisa, I don’t know the answer but I know who does: check out Nanette Hayes facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/nanette.haynes.77?fref=nf)…she’s “all things Chicago” and is an incredible resource!
Lisa. It’s just speculation but my guess would be autumn 1968. They were very much a fledgling band based in LA at that time and probably were playing some free shows in that day. They hadn’t landed a recording contract yet either.
I stumbled on this story and your question tonight.
I am highly confident that you are speaking of July 14, 1968. There were several bands there at the pier, including The Chicago Transit Authority. Zappa and The Mothers of Invention were there as well. This place is where Zappa “discovered” Alice Cooper and his band (The Nazz). Chicago released a song on their Chicago X album in 1976 called “Scrapbook.”. Robert Lamm wrote the song, a brief recap of the band’s history and includes these lines:
“We played the pier on Venice Beach,
The crowd called out for more,
Zappa and the Mothers next,
We finished with a roar…”
Hope that helps.
The whole album was brilliant. In reading the review above: Liberation at 4 minutes in lost focus? Not to me. The song was long and I get it. But: Kath was the best, and if you consider it just filler for the album, this is your opinion. 1969-1977 was CTA thru Chicago XI and this is the “Chicago” I know and love. They had some good songs after the last album with TK – But after he passed the band went in a new direction and that was it. Things change over time. TK was heading towards a solo career or at least a power trio. Imagine Terry, Danny, and Pete playing more songs like the “O Thank You Great Spirit”. How about “Takin It On Uptown”.The 80’s, 90’s, and beyond was not the magic they had in the 70’s. Overall – Great group – My boys. I listen to them everyday. One of my favorite songs is: “All of Them” – But one in particular is: “Loneliness Is Just A Word”. I am done. My take on both the group and a man of greatness in that of Terry Kath. Rolling Stone not having TK as one of the greatest ever – A sad statement. God rest the soul of Terry Kath as he was a brilliant talent. God bless the remaining members for giving us great music during a special time in the 1970’s.
Agree, Kenny. Classic Rock missed on the details. Even something so simple when the article read: “Shortly after this album’s release, legal action was threatened by the actual Chicago Transit Authority, and the group decided to simply reduce their name to Chicago, which they still use to this day.” It was CLEARLY stated in the original’s album’s release, when you opened the gatefold album, “…call them CHICAGO.”
Their comments on the final song, Liberation? Apparently, CR must have gotten distracted and missed the lengthy solo and Terry Kath’s incredibly frenetic guitar work near the close. Liberation has been in several top “live” guitar solo lists of all-time (since that track was captured live). Digital Dream Door had it at #186 among all live AND studio solos. The much more familiar solo from “25 or 6 to 4” was #10 on that list, btw.
This album, a highly unusual double-LP for a debut, was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2014.
It is included in the book, “1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.”
It also broke the “then record” for most consecutive chart weeks on Billboard.
CR can do better.