Song of the Day by Eric Berman – “Poem 58” by Chicago Transit Authority
The fact that Chicago Transit Authority was the horn band of the late 1960s has obscured the fact that Chicago was also one hell of a great guitar band. Proof positive is this somewhat obscure track from their eponymously titled debut album from 1969.
(Play the track and continue reading.)
This song has it all! The track kicks off with a funky rhythm guitar pattern that quickly moves into an extended guitar solo courtesy of Terry Kath, one of the most underrated guitarists of all time. Heck, even Jimi Hendrix was a big fan of Kath, and his intuitive and imaginative playing is what sets this Chicago record apart from all of the rest.
Then there’s a breakdown of sorts right in the middle of the track leading into a monster riff that settles into a spooky boogie pattern that’s both sinister and funky. Then the golden toned vocals courtesy of Peter Cetera takes the song into another more conventional radio-friendly direction.
But being radio friendly wasn’t where the band was at in 1969. There was only one single released from the record while Chicago Transit Authority was the band’s current album, and that song, “Question 67 And 68” wouldn’t become a chart hit for two more years when it was released again as a single after Chicago II took off.
CTA’s debut album was a double record, unheard of at the time, especially for a debut album. Their manager and producer, James William Guercio, had just come off of working with Blood Sweat & Tears on their second album which was a smash hit, and he used his clout with Columbia Records to push the notion of a double album through.
This gave the band featuring Robert Lamm on keyboards, Terry Kath on guitar, Peter Cetera on vocals, James Pankow on trombone, Lee Loughnane on trumpet, Walter Parazaider on saxophone and Danny Seraphine on drums, room to stretch their musical muscle. In fact this would be the only Chicago album where the band really did stretch out. After this album, Chicago began to shorten their tunes and play up the horns, leading them to the dominance of the singles charts they’d have for the rest of the 1970s.
CTA spawned several hit singles including “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?,” “Beginnings,” “I’m A Man” and “Question 67 And 68,” but they were all released after their second album became a hit, so while the album sold well and charted at number 17, its popularity was not driven by single releases. And anyway, it’s the album cuts that weren’t released as singles where all the action is.
For the vinyl album-centric fans out there, the third side of this record is especially tasty. “Free Form Guitar,” begins this side with seven minutes in pure improvised sonic heaven featuring Kath plugged directly into his amp without the use of any pedals. When I was younger, this particular track used to leave me cold, but now I could listen to this all day long. As the first take fury of “Free Form Guitar” comes to a close, “South Carolina Purples” kicks in with another memorable opening guitar riff before settling in for some great horn and organ jamming. The track gives a nod to the Beatles by quoting “I Am The Walrus” in the opening line. The side culminates with an Afro-Cuban cover of Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m A Man.” The track became a moderate chart hit in 1971 when DJs found it on the B-side to the single “Question 67 And 68” and began playing it on the radio.
Politics were never far from the band’s mind, especially after the anti-war demonstrations that took place outside of the Democratic Presidential Convention in the summer of 1968 on the band’s home turf in Chicago. In an early use of sampling, the band took the demonstrator’s chant “The whole world is watching” and turned it into the track “Prologue August 29, 1968” which segues into “Someday (August 29, 1968)” where the chant reappears.
The album culminates with the nearly fifteen minutes of fury called “Liberation” which is another killer Terry Kath showpiece featuring even more free form guitar soloing.
Their debut album would be the only album where the group went by the name Chicago Transit Authority. Shortly after its release, the actual Transit Authority of Chicago threatened a law suit and the group was forced to shorten their name to Chicago. Terry Kath died of an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1978 while participating in a game of Russian roulette. While ultimately very successful, the band would never be the same again without him.