35 years after the release of Chicago 13, the public tends to look at the album differently than it originally did, but not in a wide sense. Fans of Chicago can be very divided over their friendliness towards the group, with fans loving the Terry Kath era, fans that don’t mind the pop craft that they engaged in in the second half of the 1970′s, and those who are not afraid to embrace the lush pop that lead them to radio and many hits throughout the 1980′s. Yet if there’s still an album that continues to make people question its existence, it’s Chicago 13.
The band had replaced original guitarist and vocalist Terry Kath with Don “Donnie” Dacus, who seemed to look and embrace the feel of other pop stars of the era like Rex Smith and Leif Garrett. He had long blonde hair, so there were some who saw his youth and looks as something that was different from what Chicago had intended. Nonetheless, the man could sing and he could play a damn good guitar, and no one said anything when their 12th album, Hot Streets, gave the world hit songs like “Alive Again” and “No Tell Lover”. It was just new Chicago music, and by that point, original bassist/vocalist Peter Cetera was becoming the band’s primary face.
What made Chicago 13 different was that Columbia Records decided to give the band a chance to film music videos for the songs, or what were called “promotional film clips” back then. There was no music video cable networks in 1979, so the only way you could see these film clips were on public access, in between movies on HBO (maybe), or at record stores which made a special section which involved nothing but a TV with the videos running continuously. Well, at least that’s how music videos were presented in the late 70′s in the U.S,. as England were utilizing music videos as part of a promotional tool for artists, songs, and albums. Here in the U.S., it was extra, if not strange, but Columbia Records were making an effort. The videos made were for the songs “Must Have Been Crazy”, “Run Away”, and “Street Player”, and while the video seemed to get limited exposure on TV, it seemed people were not impressed by what the videos showed. “Must Have Been Crazy” showed the group jokingly lounge at home while a black cat caused terror wherever it walked. “Run Away” involved a master reel of tape going around Los Angeles as the band were practicing at a venue, while “Street Player” showed the inevitable performance. The videos showed a sense of humor that people didn’t expect from them, and perhaps it was way too strange for those who just played “Another Rainy Day In New York City” or “If You Leave Me Now” in front of their couches and fantasized all day.
“Must Have Been Crazy” was Chicago 13 first single but fans didn’t seem to take to it, or more specifically, hearing Dacus take a lead vocal. Chicago were known not only for Cetera, but also pianist/keyboardist Robert Lamm and guitarist Kath before he died in 1977. So who was this blonde guy singing… a Chicago song? People didn’t like the mood, or it didn’t catch on, or radio programmers felt it sounded different than what was going on the radio at the time, which was a whole lotta disco, or at least the last end of disco’s fame and (mis)fortune. Cetera did do background vocals in the song and could be heard in the last minute, but that was not enough. It also had a pleasant guitar solo from Dacus too so if radio tried to push it while a video made tried to let people know who Dacus was, it failed.
“Run Away”, written by trombonist James Pankow, was a great song too, complete with a wicked solo from Dacus that now reminds me slightly of Toto’s Steve Lukather or Journey’s Neal Schon, as he plays throughout and including the fade. But since radio didn’t take to “Must Have Been Crazy”, “Run Away” didn’t have a chance.
As for “Street Player”, fans praise this song for its use as a primary sample in The Bucketheads’ “The Bomb! (These Sounds Fall Into My Mind)”. Released 15 years after the release of Chicago 13, The Bucketheads knew that the song and the album it came from were one of the band’s biggest failures, but the song was funky in its own right and managed to turn it around and bring it its rightful majestic power. “Street Player” was co-written by drummer Daniel Seraphine, detailing his life as a rough kid in Chicago who almost lived the life of a punk, had he not had music to turn his life around. Seraphine’s primary voice before the release of the song was his drums, playing amazingly in songs like “25 or 5 To 4″, “What’s This World Coming To” and of course their cover of the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m A Man”, but this shined the spotlight on the drummer that most people tended to ignore, or at least not grab the light that Cetera, Lamm, Kath, Pankow, or the rest of the horn section had claimed over the years. The song also gave the spotlight for a solo to jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, identified by some of the man’s high pitched horn squeals to let everyone know he was in the studio. As Cetera sang “I’m a street player…and I’ll play you a song”, the band continued to play their disco groove, which got slightly Brazilian in feel, leading to two horn breaks in the second half. This then leads to another powerful guitar moment for Dacus, all before Cetera sings “street player, what you do, gotta make you groove” and the rest of the band are pumped in ecstasy, figuratively and literally. Ferguson comes back briefly before they all fade the song, running close to nine minutes. To be honest, it remains one of Chicago’s brightest moments and yet the band suffered in the same way The Rolling Stones did with “Miss You” and Kiss did with “I Was Made For Loving You”, in that once they were identified with something disco, they were dead. It would’ve been true had they not continued once the 1980′s started, but the bad luck streak told in the promotional film clips for Chicago 13 were essentially a bit of wishful thinking that, for a few years, they thought was a bit too close to home. Fortunately, Chicago were not ready for home base, at least not yet. Years later, when Chicago kicked Seraphine, one of the band’s founding members, out of the band, he had the last laugh when the “Street Player” sample helped him out significantly in the publishing department. Considering how many Chicago songs became hits, “Street Player” is the one that people know as a sample, even if they might not realize it is a Chicago song, primarily because of its no hit status.
The rest of Chicago 13 had some great material, and with wonderful production from Phil Ramone, who also worked on Hot Streets with the band, the band couldn’t do any harm to their career. Chicago were worthy in 1978 and with “Alive Again” and “No Tell Lover”, they were alive and they returned. Songs like “Mama Take” (Cetera) and “Paradise Alley” (Lamm) showed that the group’s pop and jazz ways were as powerful as ever. Even saxophonists Walter Parazaider and Lee Loughnane even had a joint composition on the album with “Window Dreamin’”, so it seemed the group were spirited and ready to end the 1970′s on a high note.
HBO did run a Chicago concert special in support of Chicago 13 and it was the perfect way for listeners to hear the classics from the group, along with a string of songs from the new album. One of the performances was another song written by Seraphine and David Wolinski, who also co-wrote “Street Player”. “Aloha Mama” hit me because here I am as a kid in Honolulu hearing one of my favorite bands sing one of my words. The song was built on a very nice jazzy groove, with a rhythm that is very funky, what would be called the Purdie Shuffle., in honor of Bernard “Pretty” Purdie. You may recognize the drum rhythm from Steely Dan’s “Home At Last” or partly used in Toto’s “Rosanna”. The band were not only in jazz mode, but vocalist Cetera also put himself in jazz costume as well, crediting himself in the song as P.C. Moblee. The harmonies were perfect, the feel of the song was great, it had the right to be a hit had it been released as a single but that was not to be.
Even longtime Chicago percussionist Laudir de Oliveira had his own song on the album, when he wrote “Life Is What It Is” with Marcos Valle. These days, we would call this type of laid back groove “yacht rock”, complete with added percussion from legendary musician Airto Moreira. The song is smooth, funky, exotic, and perfect to hear in any occasion. You could pop this song in a mix of songs by The Doobie Brothers, Pablo Cruise, and Kenny Loggins and no one would have said a thing. Cetera takes the lead with Dacus handling a few background harmonies and again, this song could have gained some AOL airplay had it been pushed in the right way.
Sadly, Chicago 13 ended up being bad luck for the group. Music was great, singing was great, songwriting was up to par, and people were fed up with Chicago’s magical power. They were the kings of pop radio of the mid to late 70′s, they had enough. When the group followed it up with Chicago XIV, which brought the group to legendary producer Tom Dowd, it faired worse and they eventually left Columbia Records and moved to a new label. This would eventually lead to a new hit era for Chicago in the decade, and a style of music that didn’t please the earlier fans. It didn’t matter. Pop fans loved the new material and were pleased by the outcome. Chicago stayed on the charts, they sold millions of records, and that was that, even as they too would also bring in new vocalists (keyboardists Jason Scheff and Bill Champlin, the latter a founding member of Sons Of Champlin). Cetera eventually left, and Chicago moved on. However, the group became unfashionable in the 90′s and sales for new music started to drop a bit. Looking back, Chicago 13 was not a massive failure by any means, for it allowed the group to have ten more years of pop chart success, which meant hits. Sure, Chicago fans changed during this time but the album is feared because of that disco beast known as “Street Player”. They looked at the shining light from the 13th floor on the illustrated building with the Chicago logo on the cover and said “I’m not going there. Leave me out of that building now.” Guaranteed, those who discovered the album and found a liking to it all wanted to be on that building, realizing that if you don’t believe in superstitions, you can go further in life. The music on Chicago 13 definitely, in the words of “Street Player”, made you move and made you groove. On vinyl, it’s fairly easy to find at thrift stores because those who bought it have tossed it out, and covers with cut-out marks are plentiful but if you must, don’t ignore it. Play it and hear it from a band who did their best to survive in the game and while the public discarded it, they also did so without listening. It’s your time to listen.