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Fifty Year Friday: Chicago Transit Authority

“Only the beginning, only just the start.”  Robert Lamm, from “Beginnings.”

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Chicago Transit Authority

Formed in Chicago in 1967, originally named the Big Sound and incorporating three horn players, a drummer, and guitarist Terry Kath, this band of talented individuals was coaxed to pick up and move to L.A. by the independent producer James Williams Guercio in 1968. Guercio provided a new name, “Chicago Transit Authority”, and ensured them of attractive gigs including the opening show at the Whisky A Go Go. Soon the group started recording their first album in January 1969, the self-titled double record set that was released on April 28. 1969.

Like many people, I didn’t hear this album until after hearing their second album.  My next neighbor first bought their second, one of the great masterpieces of 1970’s rock, and then went back and purchased their first, this generally strong eponymous Chicago Transit Authority.  Their first album, then, became a means of being able to hear additional material by the group that had released that classic double Chicago album, the group’s name change prompted by the threat of legal action by the mass transit operator for that extreme northeast section of Illinois bordering Lake Michigan, the original Chicago Transit Authority.

I am sure I would have been much more impressed by this first album, if I had heard it before their second, for it’s a fine album on its own, and the second best album of their entire catalog.  Terry Kath’s guitar work is creative and full of life, and his voice is that of a jazz or R&B singer. Robert Lamm’s  compositions, with the exception of “South California Purples”, which is a spruced up blues number, burst out with energy and sparkle and are as good as anything in rock music at that time.  The performances by the rest of the band are all excellent, and the brass arrangements, primarily by trombonist James Pankow, are effective and focused.

And yet, after Guercio arranged for CBS west coast executives to hear the band at the Whiskey, the execs were not impressed.  A second attempt by Guercio to convince the west coast CBS “brass” to sign Chicago Transit Authority met with similar results: no interest, no deal. Guercio then finally cut a demo at a small independent studio that he circulated around to others outside of CBS, and soon, when CBS Clive Davis found out, he overruled the West Coast and the band signed with CBS’s Columbia label.

With a wealth of material to record, and wishing to create a serious product, the band insisted on making a double album.  When Columbia heard about this, they would only go along on one condition: the band must give up a percentage of their royalties for a double LP.  The band agreed, and the first debut rock double album since Frank Zappa and the Mother of Inventions’ “Freak Out” was released.

Of the four sides of this album, the first two are far the strongest, with the first song composed by Terry Kath and the remaining by Robert Lamm, followed by a more exploratory third side and then a generally strong side four.  “Free Form Guitar” on side three may not be the most accessible track, but it displays Kath’s mastery of the guitar, and help provide a fuller picture of why Hendrix purportedly told Chicago sax player Walter Parazaider, “The horns are like one set of lungs and your guitar player is better than me.” While “Free Form Guitar” provides indisputable evidence of Kath’s, imagination, control, and technique, other tracks on the album, particularly the first and last tracks, convincingly showcase Kath’s musicality and artistry.  Throughout the musicianship is excellence, and the combination of strong material and strong execution makes this one of the best debut rock albums ever.

Up to this point, many would consider the Beatles the most substantial of all the 1960s pop groups, but with 1969 comes a new upsurging of talent: bands that were, to some degree or other, influenced by the Beatles, but also heavily influenced by jazz and classical music — bands that could make music equal to or surpassing the works of the Beatles.  Chicago is one of the first of such rock groups, a progressive jazz-rock group, at least initially, that produced a first and then a second album that will be listened to, like the best of the Beatles’ albums, long into the future not only by music lovers like us but by our children and the generations that follow.

 

Track listing 

LP 1
1. Introduction (6:35) (Kath)
2. Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? (4:35) (Lamm)
3. Beginnings (7:54) (Lamm)
4. Questions 67 and 68 (5:03) (Kath)
5. Listen (3:22) (Lamm)
6. Poem 58 (8:35) (Lamm)

LP 2
7. Free Form Guitar (6:47) (Kath)
8. South California Purples (6:11) (Lamm)
9. I’m A Man (7:43) (Steve WinwoodJimmy Miller)
10. Prologue (August 29, 1968) (0:58) (James William Guercio)
11. Someday (August 29, 1968) (4:11) (Pankow)
12. Liberation (14:38) (Pankow)

Production

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