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Dynamic Range

The 1970s: A musical decade in flux

Styx was one of the last Chicago bands of their era to have a hit single break on local radio. (AP)

The 1970s was a strange decade for Chicago music. Or at least it was the beginning of the end of an era, according to Stu Shea, a cultural historian, musician and occasional club DJ.

On one hand, Shea says, you had an incredible legacy forged by labels like Chess Records, by legends like Curtis Mayfield and Sam Cooke, even by the jobbing musicians wielding their 12-bar blues on Maxwell Street. Coming out of the ‘60s, Chicago was a musical powerhouse not to be trifled with.

On the other hand, you had a transitional moment in America’s music industry. The recording industry was moving away from central cities like Chicago, Detroit and Memphis to the coasts — L.A. and New York. As that happened, “what was lost was a huge amount of recording facilities on what used to be called “Record Row” downtown, both on Michigan [Avenue] and near Navy Pier,” Shea says. The impact on Chicago’s music scene was predictably severe. According to Shea, it was much harder for local musicians to get on the national stage. They had to go their own way and hope that “people from the coasts would notice them,” he says.

At the same time, radio began to consolidate (a trend that continues to this day). Corporate owners with stations in multiple markets cared less about individual cities, let alone individual bands. “You had much more of a commercial concentration in one or two areas,” Shea says. “There was much more homogenization.”

Chicago did produce bands in that era that proved their ability to break through nationally, despite these changes. There was Styx, for instance, the stadium-rock bad boys from Roseland who got famous with the help of WLS. The station, a regional Top-40 giant, helped “Lady,” the single from the band’s second album, become a local and then a regional smash before it was a national hit. “It was one of the last instances in which WLS was able to break a record nationally,” Shea says. Bassist John Pazdan says he also benefitted from local radio support before the homogenization that Shea describes took over. Pazdan grew up in a blue-collar part of Oak Park, and he formed a succession of bands with his classmates from Oak Park-River Forest High School. First there was Pezband; then, Off Broadway. They spent their early days playing clubs on Rush Street and touring nearby cities like Milwaukee and Aurora.

Pazdan, who spoke with Stu Shea at a recent event at the Chicago History Museum, says Off Broadway was big in Chicago. Outside the Midwest, though it was a different story – the band signed with Atlantic Records, but never achieved national stardom. In the audio above he describes what happened when the band first ventured to New York.

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Stu Shea and John Pazdan spoke at an event presented by the Chicago History Museum in March. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.

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