When I was in high school and college, music majors – and the high school kids who planned to become music majors – weren’t supposed to like rock and roll.
But the music kidz were always given a pass for Chicago. The band’s pseudo-jazz roots made Chicago sort of a safe space for young people in the seventies who wanted to be accepted by both their music teachers and their rock’n roll-listening friends.
And so every time a new Chicago album would come out – for the first eleven albums, they were just numbered – the music kids would flip rhetorical cartwheels; “it’s like rock and roll, only better!“, I remember our high school stage band’s star sax player hyperventilating. “Terry Kath is one of the great guitar players!”, others would exclaim as I practiced windmilling a la Pete Townsend.
I didn’t buy it – not even at the depths of my need to be accepted. Oh, the part of me that appreciates technical skill could listen to Robert Lamm (keyboards), Terry Kath (guitar), James Pankow (trombone), Peter Cetera (bass), Lee Loughnane (trumpet), Walter Parazaider (reeds), Danny Seraphine (drums) and Laudir D’Oliveira (percussion)  and go “there’s some musical skill going on here”, all right.
But when it came to the part where the music was supposed to grab me in the liver, Chicago did not. Part of it was that jazz, at least jazz from after about 1950, has always bored me stiff; how is a watered-down second-generation copy an improvement? To be fair, it was the same problem I had with Blood, Sweat and Tears and all of the other jazz-rock fusion experiments; neither needed the other to be valid music.
Part of it was Peter Cetera’s soggy contralto voice. There. I said it.
As to those who said Terry Kath was one of the great guitarists ever – in a league with Hendrix, Beck, Page and Clapton?
Terry Kath was a great guitar player in the same sense that I was a “great aeronautical engineer” because I’d built a nifty model of a Supermarine Spitfire. I was not! I had simply pieced together a bunch of plastic parts to make a scale facimile; Reginald Mitchell was the engineer. Likewise, Terry Kath took the bits and pieces of a bunch other great guitarists’ styles, mixed in some technical chops of his own (all respect due), and put it on a record. Oh, Jimi Hendrix once told Parazaider that Terry Kath was better than he was; Hendrix had a bit of a drug problem, you know.
“But Mitch – have you heard “Free Form Guitar”, off of the first Chicago album?”
Yes. Yes, I have. I have not only heard it, but I played something exactly like it, or maybe much better, in Voorhees Chapel at Jamestown College in January of 1985, at three in the morning, with an Ibanez SG with a Duncan “Jeff Beck” pickup, hooked up to Fender Deluxe and a Big Muff fuzz pedal and room and space to crank my amp to 11, after six or seven cans of Strohs. And so has every other guitar player, given the chance.
So when the music majors, and music majors-to-be jabbered on about Chicago, I usually mentally checked out.
Except, of course, when I didn’t.
All of Chicago’s worst ingredients – the soggy droopy horns, Danny Seraphine’s indifferent drumming, and of course Peter Cetera, full stop – are on display in this live version of “I’ve Been Searching So Long”:
And yet I have always loved the song. Why? The vocal interplay in the bridge? A part where the droopy, treacly horns actually complement the song itself? Terry Kath’s guitar fills during the big finish? Sure, why not?
Because every once in a while, skill plus craft breaks the right way, and you get decent music. Because Terry Kath may have just assembled other guitarists parts into his own songs, but sometimes it just plain worked.
Oh, it’s been a long time since Chicago had “decent music”; after Terry Kath’s death in 1978, the band turned into a hit machine; after Cetera left in 1984, it turned into an adult-contemporary elevator music production house; since about 1990 it’s been a nostalgia act (only Lamm and the horn section remain from the band’s heyday).
And the music majors? They were wrong. No genre needs to be “better than” another to have merit; no genre’s merit is measured by the degrees its practitioners have.
 – Yep, I can’t remember my kids’ social security numbers, but I can recall all the members of Chicago’s “definitive” lineup by name and instrument without going online.