On November 3, 1979, basketball great Bill Russell hosted "Saturday Night Live" in the third entry of that show’s misbegotten fifth season, and the musical guest was introduced as Russell’s favorite band: Chicago. (The show did feature one of the best sketches from that season: Russell coaching a high school team of white kids in “The Black Shadow.”) No one could have anticipated it at that moment, but it turned out to be a very awkward time to be celebrating Chicago.
After charting 22 Top Forty hits throughout the 1970s, ending with “No Tell Lover” the previous January, Chicago was about to disappear from the charts for more than three years. The first song they played that night in New York, a cover of the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man,” was a bizarre choice, having been a B-side for one of their first singles back in 1969. It didn’t even have the group’s signature horn charts; all those guys played little handheld percussion instruments instead.
The first phase of Chicago’s career was definitively over by then. They had released many pleasant if not quite Hall-worthy singles – “Saturday in the Park,” “25 or 6 to 4,” the charming “Old Days,” the majestic “Questions 67 and 68.” “If You Leave Me Now” went to Number One on October 23, 1976, giving the band its only chart-topper of the 1970s.
Post-Bill Russell, the band spent three years in the wilderness, before deciding that “If You Leave Me Now” should serve as the template for the rest of the group's career. They finally returned to the charts with another solidly Adult Contemporary single, “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” which spent two weeks at Number One in September 1982. From that moment on, jazz-inflected, horn-saturated pop was out, and Peter Cetera-soaked big ballads were in.
Cetera left the band in July 1985, which somehow goaded them into becoming even goopier, culminating in the egregious “Look Away,” the band’s third and final Number One single in December 1988. It’s hard to overstate how bad this record is. Lobo think it’s unmanly. Michael Bolton thinks the vocals are overwrought. Peter Gabriel thinks it’s pretentious. Dave Matthews thinks it’s poorly composed.
Chicago’s string of hits petered out in 1991, leaving the band with a very impressive track record of 35 Top Forty singles and 20 Top Tens. That’s as many Top Ten hits as the Supremes, and more than the Beach Boys. And if they were all at the level of “Questions 67 and 68,” or even “Alive Again,” they’d be an easy choice for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
But it’s my judgment that the second half of Chicago’s career is without merit, even though I kind of like “Hard to Say I’m Sorry.” I think I’m doing them a favor by pretending their career ended that night onstage with Bill Russell. And as nice as those early singles are to hear on the radio, they’re more on the level of the Steve Miller Band catalog or the Hall & Oates catalog than the Beach Boys’.
Baseball fans sometimes discuss whether it’s possible to play your way out of the Hall of Fame. If Albert Pujols hits .190 over the next three seasons, with 17 homers in total, does that detract from his case for Cooperstown? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know how you can play your way out of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: record “Look Away.” With my deepest apologies to Kurt Blumenau, I’m going to have to vote NO on Chicago.