Here is where the hate mail will start: Rock in this city pretty much sucked through the ’60s and ’70s.
In the 25 years that followed the fertile mid-’50s, Chicago had far less influence compared to lesser cities such as New York, London, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, and Detroit, to name a few. There is a paucity of enduring recordings from that time, especially in comparison to the impact that had been made by blues, gospel and early rock ’n’ roll artists who recorded for Chess.
Chicago had to import the MC5 from Detroit for musical innovation and social impact during the fateful Democratic National Convention in 1968. Can you imagine the pathetic Beatles imitations of homegrown rock bands like the Buckinghams, the Cryan’ Shames, the Flock or New Colony Six inspiring anyone to do anything but scoff — much less celebrate rock ’n’ roll, dope and fornicating in the streets? (Look up live videos of those bands on YouTube, or the 2001 TV special How Chicago Rocked the ’60s, show them to anyone under age 60, and be prepared to have your nostalgic rose-colored glasses knocked off by their reaction.)
And don’t even get me started on Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah, whose 1971 hit “Lake Shore Drive” is beyond weak musically — and just plain silly lyrically with its wink, wink/nod, nod to the acronym for Chicago’s lakefront boulevard. (You want a veiled reference to LSD, stick to John Lennon’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”)
None of the bands just mentioned are included below, and the last three of these five entries on our list are here only reluctantly because I’ve set out to chart “50 Chicago Artists Who Changed Popular Music,” not necessarily “The 50 Best Chicago Artists in Popular Music.” The commercial success of some of these mediocre to downright despicable sounds did, sad to say, have an impact beyond the shores of Lake Michigan, mostly for the worst.
But let’s start with two acts that do deserve to be lauded.
14. The Shadows of Knight
“The Stones, Animals, and the Yardbirds took the Chicago blues and gave it an English interpretation. We’ve taken the English version of the blues and re-added a Chicago touch.”
Formed in 1964 by four high school students in Mount Prospect enthralled with the sounds of the British Invasion, the Shadows of Knight released three albums in their first five years, though they are largely remembered as a one-hit wonder during the first golden age of American garage rock. Curiously, their snarling hit cover of “Gloria” isn’t the track included on the original vinyl version of Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965 — 1968, the Lenny Kaye compilation that was a tremendous influence on ’70s punk. The compilation instead featured the group’s cover of Bo Diddley’s “Oh Yeah.”
So, no, originality was not the group’s strong suit, and it’s hard to forgive them for cleaning up the already masked sensuality of Van Morrison’s brilliant “Gloria” to garner airplay. (In their version, “She comes to my room / Then she made me feel alright” becomes “She called out my name / That made me feel alright.”) But for rock ‘n’ roll attitude — and unrefined raucousness — this was as good as things got in Chicago until the indie-rock ’80s. (The reunited surviving members of the Shadows of Knight perform at Reggies on June 16.)
15. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band
“A lot of people relate me to the blues but I don’t think it’s a hindrance at this point. I’ve been doing it long enough that I can do different things and be accepted.” — Paul Butterfield
As great recordings go, there are at least 100 albums by the electric innovators of Chicago blues that I’d recommend before anything from the second generation of young (mostly white) bluesmen who followed in their wake, including the combo formed by singer and harmonica player Butterfield in Hyde Park in 1963.
But his group makes this list because of the incredible work of guitarist Mike Bloomfield, whose soaring sounds, especially on the hugely influential “East-West,” propelled the possibilities of blues guitar into the psychedelic-rock stratosphere. Butterfield died of a heroin overdose in 1987, after a drug overdose had taken the life of Bloomfield in 1981. The latter’s impact and innovations are best remembered in Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero, the 2016 book by pioneering rock critic and musical historian Ed Ward.
“You guys look like a commercial for safe sex.” — Comment by Chicago onstage to its fans
Formed in 1967 by a group of students at DePaul University, some rock critics (most notably my Sound Opinions partner Greg Kot) will defend the early recordings by the band initially called Chicago Transit Authority based on the work of guitarist Terry Kath. Few will defend the pandering mediocrity of most of the group’s later, more popular recordings, however, despite the ubiquity of hits such as “Colour My World” at several generations of high-school proms and an inexplicable 100 million records sold.
You want vaguely jazzy/bluesy pop with horns? Turn to the vastly superior first album by Blood, Sweat & Tears with Al Kooper (though nothing after that). Or better yet, listen to Earth, Wind & Fire (who we will hear more from in this series soon). Personally, I’ve never heard much of Chicago (the city) in Chicago (the band), and let us not forget that its members left town pretty much as soon as they could. But, well, 100 million records sold. So what do I know?
“As a musical group, it is our place to reflect the light that is shining on us back onto this place.”
Even harder to defend than Chicago is the absurdly overblown, pompous blandness of this watered-down progressive-rock/pop band first formed by the twin Panozzo brothers and their neighbor Dennis DeYoung in Roseland in the early ’60s. But the group scored FM-radio hit after hit through the ’70s — “Lady,” “Come Sail Away,” “Babe,” “Too Much Time on My Hands,” “Mr. Roboto” — all of which are hard to listen to now without retching, unless it’s in the context of South Park.
We can thank Styx for one thing, though: Without truly abysmal music like this (and REO Speedwagon, which formed downstate), punk never would have happened.
18. Ides of March/Survivor
“I don’t know how good it is, but people buy it, so that’s the main thing.”
A pleasant if oddly coiffed and strangely leather-pantsed man if you ever meet him, Jim Peterik has given us two musical contexts in which to dislike him. He first made his mark with yet another of those Beatles-wannabe bands formed in 1964, the Ides of March, who came together in Berwyn and scored a No. 2 hit by appropriating some Chicago-style horns with “Vehicle” in 1970. Then came Survivor, which sold a bazillion copies of the song that artistic sage Sylvester Stallone commissioned as the theme for Rocky III in 1982 (which means we’re jumping ahead a bit in this installment, but let’s just get it out of the way now).
Survivor was so lame it gives even the dreaded genre of arena-rock / hair-metal a bad name.
As noted above, this critic and fan’s biggest measures for a band’s enduring worth are how the music stands up today (does it still inspire?) and what followed in its wake. Can you imagine any group of aspiring teenage musicians gathering in the basement and saying, “We wanna be Survivor or Ides of March!”
There are other standards, like the Trumpian notion of commercial accomplishment über alles, and for those who think along those lines, here is a nod to the work of Mr. Peterik. (For more on just how lucrative writing one lousy mega-hit like “Eye of the Tiger” can be, here’s a great piece that Chicago Tribune freelancer Dan Kening wrote way back in 1994, which I found eye-opening then and still do now.)
About this series:
In my “other” role as an assistant professor at Columbia College Chicago, I was asked in the fall of 2015 to develop one of several “Big Chicago” classes intended to introduce first-semester students to the rich and diverse culture of Chicago. “Music & Media in Chicago” has made me think long and hard about the passions that have consumed my life. Last summer my editors at WBEZ said, “Hey, we should highlight your overview of Chicago music here!”
In comparison to smaller cities such as Nashville, Memphis, Detroit and Austin, Chicago pays woefully little attention to its musical history, doing little to trumpet the past or celebrate the present for residents or tourists. Mind you, this and every installment of “Chicago Music History 101” is just one critical fan’s take on what is most in need of recognition from our long and rich sonic legacy.
Limiting the series to “50 Chicago Artists Who Changed Popular Music” is completely arbitrary — it could have been 100, or 1,000 — and I’m leaving other genres such as jazz and country to other critics and fans. This overview also is entirely subjective: Every reader and listener can and should have their own list. This simply is a place to get the conversation started.
Special thanks to ace director and videographer Andrew Gill, online majordomo Tricia Bobeda, and former digital intern Jack Howard for all of their help.
Click here for Part One in this series, the Blues.
Click here for Part Two in this series, Chess Records and Early Rock ’n’ Roll.
Click here for Part Three in this series, Gospel.