When referencing the top 10 bands and artists from Chicago, odds are the group with the Windy City’s name will come to mind among a fan base who were fans of its brand of rock music. They may also think about the rich history of other musical genres such as blues, jazz, and R&B. Long before rock became a “thing,” Chicago was the hotbed of activity when it came to musical entertainers who strove to be the best at their craft. Whenever thinking about Chicago, doing so without thinking about “Chi-town,” “Great Gadsby,” or “Roaring Twenties” doesn’t even come close to recognizing this city as one of the most culturally influential communities the world has ever known.
All That Jazz
Before jazz and before rock, there was the Chicago blues. During the “Great Migration” that started in 1910, some of the poorest members of the black community headed to cities like Chicago, Illinois, with the hope of at least earning a decent living as an entertainer specializing in blues music. Among the best and most recognizable blues artists that served as the musical beating heart of the American midwest city at first were Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, and Howlin’ Wolf.
There were also two different Sonny Boy Williamson singers who made names for themselves. Right on the heels of the influence of blues music was jazz. This key contributor to the “Roaring Twenties” included the talent pool of Gene Ammons, Nat King Cole, Bud Freeman, and Benny Goodman. Chicago also became well known for making gospel music more popular going into the early 1930s, thanks to Thomas A. Dorsey. This was also the city that became well-known for its soul music.
Over time, as new musical styles began to take shape, Chicago kept itself at the top as one of the most entertaining cities in America as folk, hip-hop, punk, and rock increased in popularity. Chicago was also well known for its orchestras such as the Chicago Sinfonietta, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. This was also a city known for introducing house music, which got its start at The Warehouse nightclub. DJ Frankie Knuckles has been credited as one of the pioneers who popularized this style of rock that would use clubs, garages, and houses to generate what was deemed as an “underground music” scene.
The recordings at that time openly embraced concept music that would play longer than what mainstream radio stations normally allowed. House musicians would use analog sequencers and synthesizers to combine live music with previously programmed beatboxes and electronic synthesizers. Some of the most influential musicians who fueled the Chicago house music scene from the 1980s forward include Adonis, Felix da Housecat, Steve “Silk” Hurley, Curtis Jones, Jesse Saunders, and Ten City.
Chicago’s infamous jazz scene began after 1917 when the migration of musicians from the South continued to head north to Michigan’s fastest-growing city. They brought with them the influence of New Orleans music, otherwise known as “Dixieland.” This brand of music was meshed with the influence of blues, turning Chicago into one of the jazziest cities the United States of America has ever known.
When King Oliver brought Louis Armstrong to Chicago in 1922, these two performers quickly became icons whose names would carry on even today as they instrumentally brought in the “swing” era. While the Roaring Twenties was known for its surge of jazzy musical styles, it was also an era when gangsters ruled cities like Chicago. Legends such as Al Capone became friends with Louis Armstrong as the mobster often paid off jazz clubs so he and his closest associates could enjoy Chicago’s music scene privately.
All That Soul
As the American music industry continued to evolve with new musical sounds, the energy of blues and jazz continued to make their impact. Starting in 1947, Aristocrat Records began as a label that would spawn Chess Records in 1950. Established in Chicago, this was the label that specialized in blues and R&B music. Over time, Chess spawned subsidiary labels such as Checker and Argo/Cadet. This was the label that had its location at Michigan Avenue become immortalized by the Rolling Stones after “2120 South Michigan Avenue” was recorded by the UK-based band in 1964.
Today, that particular location that belonged to Chess serves as the home to Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation. Joining Chess as one of Chicago’s key influencers in the music industry was Vee-Jay Records. Starting in 1953, it made history as the first label owned by a woman (Vivian Carter) as she and her husband, James C. Bracken founded the company in Gary, Indiana, before it was relocated to Chicago. It was also among the first owned by an African American. This label’s specialty focused on the production of blues, jazz, R&B, and rock music.
Starting in 1965, Chicago’s latest musical movement included a pop-rock horn sound that began to make nationwide exposure by The Buckinghams. The first string of hits the band had came from Chess Studios as it brought forth brass arrangements as part of the group’s distinct sound. Also doing the same was a certain rock group that started out as The Big Thing in 1967 before undergoing its name change to Chicago Transit Authority in 1968, then as Chicago in 1969.
Over time, as rock music developed new sounds that became speedier and more aggressive, Chicago’s finest had no trouble keeping up as recording artists and concert performers who knew how to draw in a worldwide audience. When hip-hop and rap music began to increase in popularity, Chicago earned a new nickname in the music industry, “Chi-town.” Among the cities in the United States, Chicago’s legacy continues to make its mark as one of the most influential contributors at a worldwide level.
Top 10 Bands and Artists from Chicago
#10 – Curtis Mayfield
Born on June 3, 1942, in Chicago, Curtis Mayfield spent the majority of his childhood with his mother and grandmother after his father left the family when he was five years old. He, along with his four siblings, lived in the city’s housing projects before moving to find a stable home in Cabrini-Green. While growing up, Mayfield was taught how to play the piano by his mother while his grandmother encouraged him to listen to and perform gospel music.
When he was ten years old, he received his first guitar. It was an instrument that he’d take to bed with him as he taught himself how to play it as an admirer of Andres Segovia and Muddy Waters. As a teenager, he began to form his own bands, starting with the Alphatones. This came about after his fellow Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers decided to go to downtown Chicago but stayed in his own neighborhood out of respect for his family. However, in 1956 he joined his high school buddy’s group, The Roosters. This was a lineup that featured the brothers of Arthur and Richard Brooks, as well as Jerry Butler. Mayfield wrote and composed music for a band that would become The Impressions in 1958.
While with The Impressions, Mayfield earned a name for himself as a songwriter who focused on political and social issues pertaining to the influence of soul and African-American music. He earned “Gentle Genius” as a nickname while he, along with the rest of The Impressions lineup performed during the Civil Rights Movement that began to take place in the late 1950s. 1965’s “People Get Ready” served as the greatest hit The Impressions experienced as a recording group. In 1998, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
The song was also recognized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll. In 2015, the National Recording Registry had “People Get Ready” selected for preservation for its cultural, historic, or artistic significance. As far as Martin Luther King Jr. was concerned, this became the unofficial anthem behind the Civil Rights Movement as it was used often to either rally up the people when it was time to make a stand or to comfort them when the political and social clashes became too much.
Several recording artists have covered “People Get Ready’ over the years, including Bob Dylan’s version in 1975 and the 1985 versions by Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart. Until 1970, Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions made a profound impact on the American music industry, as well as the rest of the world. After this, Mayfield opted to embark on a solo career that featured an impressive collection of albums. The first was his debut, Curtis, an album that was released in 1970.
Its prized single was “Move On Up,” another song that would be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, this time in 2019. Considering the single didn’t even chart in the United States after it was released, this was a great achievement. It was a number twelve hit on the UK Singles Chart, though, and it sold enough copies to become certified platinum by the British Phonographic Industry (BPI).
1972’s Super Fly had a movie soundtrack that featured Mayfield’s knack for socially conscious themes that continued to address issues revolving around members of the black community. As a solo artist, this was regarded as his best work. In total, Curtis Mayfield recorded and released twenty-two studio albums as a solo artist. In the movies, he appeared as himself in Super Fly, as well as 1973’s Save the Children.
In 1991, Mayfield was inducted into the Rock and Hall of Fame as a member of The Impressions. Eight years later his name would be inducted again, this time as a solo artist. It was the same year he passed away due to diabetic-related complications on December 26, 1999. This came about nine years after he was paralyzed from the neck down when stage lighting equipment fell on him while he was being introduced at a concert in Brooklyn, New York.
Not even an accident as horrific as this was enough to keep the man from doing what he loved most. Even while lying on his back, he sang the second verse of a remade version of “Let’s Do It Again.” Although the days of playing the guitar were now behind him at this point, he was still able to compose and sing as he learned how to use the laws of gravity to work in his favor. 1996’s New World Order was his final recording. This came about two years after he won a Grammy Legend Award. In 1995, he also earned a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
#9 – Roger McGuinn
Born as James Joseph McGuinn III in Chicago on July 13, 1942, the man fans remember as Roger McGuinn was the frontman of the 1960s rock group, The Byrds. He also enjoyed a successful career as a solo artist who also collaborated with other musical legends such as Bob Dylan and Tom Petty. Fans may also remember his prized possession was a 12-string Rickenbacker guitar he used to perform in concert and in the recording studio.
Before teaming up with The Byrds, Roger McGuinn’s musical inspiration came as a fan of Elvis Presley. After listening to “Heartbreak Hotel,” he asked his parents to buy him a guitar. At the time, he was also a fan of country music, thanks to the influence of Johnny Cash, The Everly Brothers, Carl Perkins, and Gene Vincent. When he was a teenager, he became a student at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music. He would learn how to play the banjo and the guitar there.
After graduating, Roger McGuinn became active in the folk music circuit which would lead to working with popular folk musicians such as Judy Collins, the Limeliters, and the Chad Mitchell Trio. This run continued until he met Bobby Darin in 1962 and agreed to sign up as his backup guitarist and harmony singer. Bobby Darin looked to Roger McGuinn as a folksy influence on his musical style as he wanted to cash on the growing popularity of folk music. However, this ended in 1963 when Bobby Darin retired from singing for health reasons.
The retirement of Bobby Darin gave Roger McGuinn cause to co-found The Byrds in 1964 while he was in New York, recording with Judy Collins and Simon & Garfunkel as a studio musician. This came about after hearing about The Beatles as he wondered how one of the leading bands behind the musical British Invasion would impact folk rock.
After observing George Harrison perform with a Rickenbacker in the 1964 flick A Hard Days Night, Roger McGuinn sought to buy one for himself. He used it to learn how to play music from the Beatles, which became a part of his act when he worked at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, California. Roger McGuinn merged folk and rock together and won over the attention of fellow Beatles fan, Gene Clark. Together, Clark and Roger McGuinn developed a musical style that had Roger McGuinn use his electric guitar to generate ringing arpeggios that were based on the finger-picking styles he learned as a banjo player.
This served as a key influencer to folk rock as a genre. He also merged the jazzy style of saxophonist John Coltrane with the sitar as another musical style that became his own. This can be heard with the 1966 single, “Eight Miles High.” This wound up becoming one of the songs that would influence the era of psychedelic rock.
Learning how to use his Rickenbacker to work with different electric guitar sounds, McGuinn’s influence can be heard in The Byrds’ first single, “Mr. Tambourine Man.” This was a 1965 release that served as a pivotal movement in his career, as well as the launch to stardom for The Byrds. Also released in 1965 as a single was “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” which was written by Pete Seeger.
He used biblical scripture from Ecclesiastes as part of the lyrics that became the signature song most fans identified The Byrds with. On the US Billboard Hot 100, it became a number-one hit, just as “Mr. Tambourine Man” did before it. As for “Eight Miles High,” it was a number fourteen hit on the same chart and became a cult classic despite the fact the radio stations at the time had issues with its content.
It was assumed the song made reference to the use of recreational drugs so it was banned at one point. All that did was spike the song’s popularity even further. However, it wasn’t quite enough to keep The Byrds on top of its game as 1967 witnessed a gradual decline in its popularity as a rock band. It was still able to produce hits such as “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” and the Bob Dylan cover, “My Back Pages.”
Adding to Roger McGuinn’s legacy as a songwriter and recording artist was 1968’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Released by The Byrds, this album was credited for the rising popularity of country rock as a genre. This was followed by McGuinn’s 1969 solo performance of “Ballad of Easy Rider,” which was featured in the iconic Easy Rider movie.
The Byrds would also have this song recorded and released in 1969 as the title track for its eighth studio album. This was followed by 1970’s Untitled, an album that performed an extended version of “Eight Miles High.” After Roger McGuinn’s run with The Byrds was done, he focused on his solo career through the 1970s. He often collaborated with Bob Dylan which included the 1973 release of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” when the two worked together on the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid soundtrack.
The two also toured together, most notably between 1975 and 1976 when McGuinn took part in Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. Today, the legacy of Roger McGuinn continues to shine as one of Chicago’s brightest stars to globally influence the music industry.
#8 – Liz Phair
Technically, Liz Phair was born in New Haven, Connecticut on April 17, 1967. She was adopted at birth by John and Nancy Phair, a couple that relocated to a suburban Chicago neighborhood when Liz was nine years old. After graduating from high school in 1985, Liz Phair attended and graduated from Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. She graduated in 1990 with a B.A. degree in art history.
It wouldn’t be until she met guitarist Chris Brokaw that she began to look at becoming a musician as a career choice. At one point she moved to San Francisco, California, before moving back to live with her family in Chicago. While there, she began to write lyrics and play the guitar. She’d credit the work to Girly Sound in the recordings of her songs that would become her ticket to playing alternative music in the Windy City.
During this process, she became friends with bandmates two upstart bands also playing in Chicago, Material Issue and Urge Overkill. During this time, she met John Henderson and Brad Wood who ran the Feel Good All Over independent label in Chicago.
In 1992, Liz Phair called Gerard Cosloy of Matador Records to see if they’d be interested in producing a record from her. Fate had it Cosloy just read over a review regarding Girly Sound’s Chemical Imbalance. This led to the 1993 recording and release of Exile in Guyville. This debut album earned Phair a string of positive reviews and it served as one of indie rock’s finest as she earned critical acclaim for the blunt honesty in her lyrics.
In 1994, Phair released her second album, Whip-Smart. This one featured “Supernova” as a single, which became her first hit as it peaked on the US Billboard Alternative Airplay chart at number six. On the US Billboard Hot 100, at number seventy-six. The album itself achieved gold certification by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) after it sold over five hundred thousand copies.
However, it wasn’t enough to serve as Phair’s big breakthrough at the time. 1998’s Whitechocolatespacegg also failed to meet commercial expectations, despite it also receiving positive reviews from the critics.
In 2002, Phair took to acting as she co-starred with Robin Tunney for the comedy-drama, Cherish. After this, she sang backing vocals for Sheryl Crow’s 2003 hit single, “Soak Up the Sun.” In the meantime, now with Capitol Records, she released her fourth studio album, Liz Phair. Unlike her previous recordings, she unleashed a more polished collection of songs that included “Why Can’t I?” and “Extraordinary.”
The first of these two singles peaked as high as number thirty-two on the US Billboard Hot 100. It also became certified gold by the RIAA. On the US Billboard Adult Pop Airplay chart, it peaked as high as number seven whereas “Extraordinary” peaked as high as number fourteen afterward. Although this served as her breakthrough, some of the critics at the time felt Phair was selling out, failing to recognize she was simply spreading out her wings as a songwriter and recording artist.
Phair recorded and released one more album for Capitol before moving on. 2005’s Somebody’s Miracle adopted the rock sound that was Phair’s trademark sound on her first three albums. Again, she received mixed reviews from the critics as one felt she lost her creative edge while another praised she had returned to her roots as a performer.
Unphased, Liz Phair signed with ATO Records in 2008 and released Exile in Guyville a second time. In 2009, “Faith and Tenderness” was a song featured on a compilation disc that was exclusively sold at the Banana Republic chain stores. This was the same year she began to work as a composer for television after she was invited by a childhood friend, Mike Kelley. Swingtown was a CBS drama series Kelley wrote and produced that was loosely based on the lives of people calling Winnetka, Illinois their home.
Located in Cook County, this community is sixteen miles north of downtown Chicago. Additional television shows that featured her musical contributions include The Weber Show, The 100, In Plain Sight, and the 90210 reboot. The reboot ran from 2008 until 2013 with Phair winning a 2009 ASCAP award for Top Television Composer. In 2014, she’d win again for “Super Fun Night,” the theme song for the television series that ran as a sitcom for one season. ABC canceled the show after one season.
In addition to writing and composing music for television, Phair continued her recording career as a solo artist. 2021’s Soberish became her seventh studio album. “Spanish Doors” was a single released from it that peaked as high as number thirty-one on the US Billboard Adult Alternative Airplay chart. She was critically acclaimed for her recording as an artist whose brilliance was finally earning the recognition that was due to her.
#7 – Nils Lofgren
One of Chicago’s finest musicians was Nils Lofgren. He was born in Chicago in 1951 but moved with his family when he was a young child to Bethesda, Maryland. This was a suburb belonging to Washington, D.C. When Lofgren was five years old, he began to learn how to play classical accordion. Lofgren’s musical niche was focused on classical music and jazz before switching to rock and playing the guitar and the piano.
In addition to his love for music, Lofgren’s high school years had him compete as a gymnast. This served as an influence as he titled his 1985 album Flip. However, before this, Lofgren formed his first band, Grin, in 1968. It would be during this time he’d meet Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young and the two quickly became friends and colleagues. Young invited Lofgren and his band to move to California.
At nineteen years old, Lofgren played the guitar and piano as a member of Neil Young’s Crazy Horse band for the 1970 album, After the Gold Rush. After this, Lofgren was able to secure a record deal that would lead to the production of four studio albums credited to Grin. Lofgren’s Grin bandmates at the time were Bob Berberich and George Daly.
However, Grin’s lineup would experience a change when Daly left the group to become an executive for Columbia Records. Lofgren replaced him with Bob Gordon. Grin recorded and released four studio albums between 1971 and 1974 that were well-favored by music critics as they commented the highlight of the albums came from Lofgren’s guitarwork and songwriting skills.
Unfortunately, none of them were commercially successful enough to serve as the band’s breakthrough. The first three albums, 1971’s Grin, 1972’s 1+1, and 1973’s All Out were all Spindizzy label releases while 1973’s Gone Crazy came from the A&M Records label. The run Lofgren had with Young as a member of Crazy Horse ran from 1970 until 1971, then again from 2018 onward.
Once Grin was done in 1974, Lofgren embarked on a solo career that began with a self-titled album that met with critical success. His biggest hits as a recording artist at the time were “Back It Up,” “I Came to Dance,” and “Keith Don’t Go Home.” Another popular single of his was “Bullets Fever,” which was a tribute to the 1978 NBA Washington Bullets after the professional basketball team won its championship.
Lofgren’s influence as a guitarist and songwriter earned him critical acclaim and was favored by many recording artists such as Foreigner’s Lou Gramm. 1987’s Ready or Not listed Lofgren as Gramm’s lead guitarist, while 1989’s Long Hard Look had him listed as one of the guitarists.
Prior to teaming up with Lou Gramm, Nils Lofgren also performed as a member of the E Street Band. He replaced Steven Van Zandt in 1984 on guitar and vocals just before Bruce Springsteen embarked on his Born in the U.S.A. Tour. In 1987, he performed with Springsteen’s backing band for the album Tunnel of Love. He also toured with Springsteen and the E Street Band for the Tunnel of Love Express and Human Rights Now! tours. Lofgren returned to his career as a solo artist after Springsteen broke up the E Street Band in 1989.
In 1995, along with Van Zandt, Lofgren joined the E Street Band again as Springsteen brought them on to record new songs for his Greatest Hits album. From this point forward, Lofgren’s involvement with the E Street Band has kept him busy with a string of recordings and tours. In 2014, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the E Street Band.
#6 – Quincy Jones
Born on March 14, 1933, in Chicago, Quincy Delight Jones Jr. would enjoy an incredible career run that has spanned over seven decades. The man has earned twenty-eight Grammy Awards for his sheer brilliance as a musician, as well as 1992’s Grammy Legend Award. Starting in the 1950s, Jones earned a name for himself as a jazz arranger and conductor before he began to work on pop music and film scores.
Lesley Gore’s massive 1963 hit, “It’s My Party” was produced by Jones. This was a man who could perform songs of any genre at the time with a brand of excellence that few musicians could hope to accomplish. What Jones also accomplished was a series of firsts for members of the African-American community.
In 1968, he became the first African-American to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song when he performed “The Eyes of Love” for Banning. It was also the same year he was nominated for Best Original Score for his musical work for the 1967 flick, In Cold Blood. This would lead to Jones becoming the first African-American musical director and conductor for the Academy Awards three years later.
Jones was also the producer behind three of Michael Jackson’s highly successful albums as a solo artist. First was 1979’s Michael Jackson: Off the Wall, which was followed by 1982’s Thriller, and then 1987’s Bad. In 1985, when some of the biggest names in the American music industry came together to perform “We Are the World,” it was a charity single Jones produced and conducted. As far as many critics and fans are concerned, Quincy Jones is one of the most influential jazz musicians of all time.
This all started in 1953 when Jones traveled with Lionel Hampton for a tour in Europe with the bandleader and his orchestra. It was a life-changing moment it changed his perspective on certain social issues that would play a factor in the development of his career and as a person. When he returned to American soil, he began to work with a stage show for CBS that was hosted by Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey. Known as New York City’s Studio 50 at the time, he performed as a musician for a handful of recording artists such as Elvis Presley and Dizzy Gillespie.
Between North America and overseas, Quincy Jones toured different nations that would sharpen his knowledge of how the music industry worked. In order to survive as a successful musician, Jones needed to learn the importance of budgeting and other business-related decisions in order to avoid bankruptcy and other disasters. By 1961, Jones became the vice president of Mercury Records.
That same year he was approached to compose music for Sidney Lumet’s movie, The Pawnbroker. Its 1964 motion picture debut was a success and it was enough for Jones to pick up and move to Los Angeles, California. While there, he began to compose music for more movies, starting with 1965’s Mirage. This led to the man becoming one of the most desired composers in Hollywood as he put the music for about forty movies altogether, as well as an impressive collection of television shows such as Sanford and Suns and The Bill Cosby Show. He also wrote music for the opening episodes of Roots and Mad TV.
The momentum of Jones’s work as a music composer and arranger continued in the 1960s and included working with some of the greats such as Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, and Frank Sinatra. He also had solo recordings as a performer with songs like 1962’s “Soul Bossa Nova.” In 1997, this song was used as the theme for the 1997 comedy Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.
In 1975, he founded Qwest Productions and it was this label that produced a string of successful albums for recording artists such as Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, and Frank Sinatra. In 1978, it was his company that produced The Wiz, a musical adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. Over the stretch of time, Jones won a long list of nominations, awards, and accolades that included honorary doctorates from schools such as Boston’s Berklee College of Music and London, England’s Royal Academy of Music.
In 1984, his close friend and musical colleague, Ray Charles, presented Quincy Jones a Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement. He has won twenty-eight Grammy Awards, as well as its Trustee Award, Legend Award, and MisiCares Person of the Year Award. He, along with Beyonce and Georg Solti, are in the top three of the most amount of Grammies won so far as he took home twenty-eight trophies.
Of the twenty-two singles Quincy Jones released as a recording artist, “The Secret Garden (Sweet Seduction Suite)” was his best-seller as it became certified gold by the RIAA. In 1990, this song became his third number-one hit on the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and it peaked as high as number thirty-one on the US Billboard Hot 100. It was a collaborative effort he shared with El DeBarge, James Ingram, Al B. Sure, and Barry White. This one came from his 1989 album, Back on the Block. As a songwriter, Quincy Jones was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. He is still celebrated as one of the music industry’s most influential contributors of all time.
#5 – Fall Out Boy
Straight out of one of the suburbs of Chicago, Fall Out Boy started out as a hardcore punk band in 2001 with four men. Founded by bassist Pete Wentz and lead guitarist Joe Trohman as a side project, Patrick Stump was first brought on board as a rhythm guitarist. After going through a handful of drummers, the group finally settled on Andy Hurley.
In 2003, Fall Out Boy made its album debut with Take This to Your Grave. This became an underground success that would lead to a busy tour schedule as the four men served as one of the key influencers of early twenty-first-century pop punk. With Stump as the main composer and Wentz the primary lyricist, they put together the group’s second studio album, 2005’s From Under the Cork Tree. This served as the band’s major breakthrough, thanks to the hits “Sugar, We’re Goin Down” and “Dance, Dance.” The album became certified platinum twice over by the RIAA and it served as the catapult that would launch Fall Out Boy into stardom.
In 2007, Infinity on High was released as the group’s third studio album and it debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200. This one also produced two hits, “This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race” and “Thnks fr th Mmrs.” After this impressive run of success, the momentum of success Fall Out Boy enjoyed came to a stall after the commercial failure of 2008’s Folie a Deux. Things didn’t get any better after 2009’s Believers Never Die – Greatest Hits and it was enough for the band members of Fall Out Boy to look into taking on side projects individually.
In 2013, Fall Out Boy reunited with Save Rock and Roll. This served as the punk band’s big comeback as it became a number-one seller on the US Billboard 200. This was the album that featured the hit single, “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light Em Up).” After this, it was 2015’s American Beauty/American Psycho, which became the third studio album Fall Out Boy released that would peak the US Billboard 200 at number one.
This one spawned two big hits, “Centuries” and “Uma Thurman.” After this, 2018’s Mania would be released as Fall Out Boy’s seventh studio album, which also became a number-one seller on the US Billboard 200. In 2023, So Much (for) Stardust became the group’s eighth studio album, demonstrating the men from Chicago are not quite done releasing music for its worldwide collection of punk fans.
The legacy of Fall Out Boy includes the inspiration of other recording artists such as Panic! at the Disco, a group Wentz signed to his own record label, Decaydance Records in 2004. The band’s songs have also been covered by popular musicians such as Taylor Swift and You Me at Six. It was also in 2004 Fall Out Boy won the MTV Woodie Award for “Grand Theft Autumn.” In 2015, the group became the first inductee to the MTvU Woodie Awards as a tool to further develop its career as one of the most influential and recognizable punk rock bands that would usher in an era of upcoming artists striving to do the same.
#4 – The Smashing Pumpkins
Coming out of Chicago in 1988 was The Smashing Pumpkins, a band originally founded by Jimmy Chamberlin, Billy Corgan, James Iha, and D’arcy Wretzky. What made this group stand out was its musical diversity which danced into a variety of genres such as electronica, heavy metal, pop, progressive rock, and psychedelic rock. Throughout the group’s career as a recording artist, Corgan primarily served as the band’s composer.
With over thirty million albums sold all over the world, The Smashing Pumpkins are among the most successful and critically acclaimed bands who played an instrumental role as alternative rockers of the 1990s. This began after The Smashing Pumpkins made a 1989 appearance on a compilation album, Light Into Dark. This was a compilation album featuring some of Chicago’s alternative bands.
The single, “I Am One,” was the group’s contribution and the copies of it sold out in the Windy City very quickly. After this, The Smashing Pumpkins recorded and released another single, “Tristessa.” This came about after signing up with Caroline Records. This led to the 1991 recording and release of the group’s debut album, Gish. It was an album Corgan played all of the instruments instead of the drums.
This didn’t bode well with his bandmates and the album met with mediocre success, as did its single, “Rhinoceros.” 1991 also marked the year The Smashing Pumpkins released the EP, Lull. At the time, Iha and Wretzky were an item that went through a nasty breakup while Chamberlin found himself a victim of substance abuse. In the meantime, Corgan found himself in a state of depression and it was reflected in his songwriting material.
Prior to The Smashing Pumpkins, Corgan performed as a gothic rocker in Florida before moving back home to Chicago. He met James Iha while working at a record store and the two began to write songs together as they were inspired by the music laid out by New Order and The Cure. After meeting with D’arcy Wretzky, what started off as a duo act performing locally became a trio.
At the time, The Smashing Pumpkins used a drum machine in its performances before meeting with a club owner who agreed to book them if hired a real drummer. This is where jazz drummer Jimmy Chamberlin came in by a recommendation by one of Corgan’s friends. When Chamberlin signed up, he didn’t know much about alternative music so this played a factor in a new distinct sound that would serve as one of the factors that would make The Smashing Pumpkins famous.
Upon its rise to fame, The Smashing Pumpkins were often compared to Jane’s Addiction, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam. There was also tremendous pressure for the band to achieve the mainstream success that was expected from them by critics and fans who paid attention, as well as among the bandmates who seemed to work tirelessly to make that big breakthrough. After Gish, Siamese Dream was the next studio album, which sold over four million copies in the United States after it was released in 1993.
This was an amazing feat given the internal conflict and personal turmoil the band members of The Smashing Pumpkins were experiencing at the time. As popular as the album became with the fans, former colleagues and peers in the independent music community expressed their disdain for Corgan and his bandmates as they were regarded as commercialized sellouts.
Nevertheless, The Smashing Pumpkins continued with a course that kept them on top as one of the elite rock bands that continued to win over a growing fan base worldwide. From Siamese Dream, “Cherub Rock” was Corgan’s lyrical lashback against former peers of the independent music scene about their disdain for the rising success he and his Smashing Pumpkins bandmates were experiencing at the time.
After the success of the group’s second studio album was the 1994 Virgin release of Pisces Iscariot. There was also Vieuphoria, a mix of live performances and footage that was released in the form of a video for fans to watch how busily Corgan and the rest of The Smashing Pumpkins lineup were. In 1995, Corgan wrote over fifty songs that would be applied to the 1995 release of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.
This was a double album that had twenty-eight of those songs recorded and it debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200. This also became certified ten times in the United States by the RIAA. In 1997, The Smashing Pumpkins earned a Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance with the album’s single, “Bullet with Butterfly Wings.” It was one of five singles from this album that played instrumental roles in its success.
Whatever songs didn’t make the cut with Mellon Collie were applied to 1996’s The Aeroplane Flies High box set. Originally, this was a limited edition at two hundred thousand copies but there was so much demand for it by the fans that more copies were created just to accommodate.
When The Smashing Pumpkins went on tour in 1996 to promote Mellon Collie, Corgan shaved his head and wore a black shirt that had “Zero” printed on the front. He also wore silver pants as part of an overall look that became an iconic fashion statement. At the time, “Zero” became a popular merchandise item as the popularity of The Smashing Pumpkins reached an all-time high in the United States and the rest of the world. However, the bottom was about to give out as Chamberlin’s drug addiction met with tragedy on July 11, 1996, when he and a touring keyboardist overdosed on heroin in a New York City hotel room.
While Chamberlin survived it, Jonathan Melvoin did not. Between Chamberlin’s arrest and getting fired because of the incident, Corgan replaced the musicians with drummer Matt Walker and keyboardist Dennis Flemion. It would be a decision he’d come to regret as the concert tour should have been canceled instead of forcing it to continue. By the end of 1996, The Smashing Pumpkins decided to change its musical direction to favor electronic music instead of rock as the bandmates felt the genre had grown too stale for their liking.
1997 witnessed the release of “Eye,” a single that appeared on the Lost Highway soundtrack. This marked the beginning of a major shift in direction for The Smashing Pumpkins as it dropped its old rock format so it could adopt the electronic synth sounds that were inspiring Corgan and his bandmates at the time. Later in the year, Batman & Robin‘s soundtrack featured “The End Is the Beginning Is the End,” a single that shared similar musical qualities to “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” but with a strong dose of electronic influence.
This was the song that would win a 1998 Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance. As successful as the two songs were, the next album produced by The Smashing Pumpkins featured the return of songs favoring the guitar over synths. 1998’s Adore witnessed a grieving Corgan mourn over the death of his mother. He was also divorced from his wife at the time, Chris Fabian. By this time, The Smashing Pumpkins altered its image from alternative rock to a more casual look. While touring to support Adore, every stop the band made had the full proceeds of each city’s ticket sales donated to a local charity. The band opted to cover its own expenses.
In 1999, a recovered Jimmy Chamberlin returned briefly to tour with The Smashing Pumpkins in what was a short-lived reunion. Wretzky decided by September she had enough, leaving the men to finish Machina/The Machines of God without her. Replacing her on bass was Melissa Auf der Maur as the lineup toured to support its fifth studio album after it was released in 2000.
At first, the album sold well but stalled as young music fans shifted their interest away from the alternative rock sounds that made The Smashing Pumpkins so popular to begin with. Even though the band returned to its traditional rock roots, it wasn’t enough to earn another RIAA-certified platinum album. It did, however, achieve gold. It was hoped perhaps the 2000 release of Machine II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music would perform better.
When Virgin Records chose not to offer the new album as a free download for fans who bought its predecessor, Corgan decided to release it as an independent label. This was followed by a farewell concert performed in Chicago on December 2, 2000, at The Metro. Live at Cabaret Metro 10-5-88 featured the single “Untitled” as a release to coincide with the band’s final show before it went on a nearly six-year hiatus.
After reuniting in 2006, The Smashing Pumpkins underwent a series of lineup changes while Corgan remained as the only constant member since the beginning. Chamberlin and Iha have returned, though, whereas Wretzky was ultimately replaced with a new bassist, Jeff Schroeder.
It was during this time Corgan and Chamberlin worked together to produce Zeitgeist. This led to a tour between 2007 and 2008 that would have newcomer Jeff Schroeder perform with the band. In 2009, Chamberlin left the band while Corgan continued with a rotating lineup of musicians as part of his Teargarden by Kaleidyscope project. 2012’s Oceania and 2014’s Monuments to an Elegy were two studio albums that were the result of this project, along with nine stand-alone singles and two EPs. After this, Chamberlin and Iha joined Corgan again in 2018 which would record and release Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1/LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun. This was followed by 2020’s Cyr and the three-increment release of Atum: A Rock Opera in Three Acts.
The legacy of The Smashing Pumpkins carved a path for several musicians who were inspired by Corgan and his bandmates to follow in their footsteps. Some of the biggest names such as Nelly Furtado, Marilyn Manson, and Third Eye Blind all belong to an impressive collection of top stars who’ve credited the band from Chicago for triggering their interest to become recording artists themselves.
#3 – Styx
Before becoming Styx in 1972, there was a Chicago-based band called The Tradewinds. There were the twelve-year-old twin brothers, Chuck and John Panozzo, along with a fourteen-year-old Dennis DeYoung, who performed as a band together before coming up with a name that would eventually change to Styx. By this time, there was a hard rockin’ guitarist named James “J.Y.” Young who signed up with a group that went from a three-man band to four.
The name change for the band came about after they signed up with Wooden Nickel Records. While with this label, the group released Styx in 1972, Styx II and The Serpent is Rising in 1973, and Man of Miracles in 1974. The niche of straight-edged progressive rock took its form here as Styx established a solid fan base in Chicago. However, the group had yet to make its big breakthrough until “Lady” was played on the radio for the first time in 1974.
The power ballad quickly spread across the nation as a popular hit. It woke up becoming a number six hit on the US Billboard Hot 100 and sold enough copies to be certified gold by the RIAA. It was also during this time Styx underwent a lineup change with the arrival of John Curulewski.
After “Lady” earned Styx the breakthrough it needed, the group signed up with A&M and released Equinox in 1975. This was the album that featured the iconic rock anthem, “Suite Madame Blue.” As fate had it, Curulewski opted out of the lineup just before Styx was ready to go on a nationwide tour. In a last-minute search, Tommy Shaw was brought in to replace him as the band’s new guitarist.
This would mark the beginning of an incredible journey Styx would find itself on as 1976’s Crystal Ball would be the first album to feature Shaw. Although the album itself was a commercial disappointment, it showcased a big star in the making and his name was Tommy Shaw. After 1977’s The Grand Illusion was released as an album, this served as the big breakthrough Styx had been waiting for. It became certified platinum three times by the RIAA, thanks to the major hits of “Come Sail Away” and “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man).” The first of these two songs came from DeYoung while the second was Shaw’s.
From the late 1970s until the early 1980s, Styx was at the height of its success. 1978’s Pieces of Eight” featured “Renegade,” “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights),” and “Sing for the Day” as three more hits performed by Shaw’s incredible singing talent. However, the best was yet to come as 1979’s Cornerstone produced Styx’s first number-one hit on the US Billboard Hot 100. Dennis DeYoung’s ballad, “Babe,” became the group’s signature song as it became certified gold with the RIAA and Music Canada.
It also became certified silver by the UK’s British Phonographic Industry (BPI). In 1980, Cornerstone won a People’s Choice Award for Best New Song as “Babe” stood out as the overall favorite. This led to DeYoung pushing Styx to achieve a stronger mainstream influence but he met with a bit of opposition by Tommy Shaw and J.Y. Young as they preferred sticking to solid rock. It was an ongoing battle between the musicians going into 1980 as the creative differences continued to grow.
In 1981, Styx released Paradise Theatre as a concept album that would become the group’s biggest hit as it topped the US Billboard 200. It also produced five hit singles, including DeYoung’s “The Best of Times” and Shaw’s “Too Much Time on My Hands.” It became the fourth time in a row Styx would experience an album that would become a multi-platinum seller. The concept behind this album was based on a historic theater in Chicago that was built in the 1920s, only to become a victim of the times thirty years later.
This album was supported by a tour that became one of the year’s most popular and visually dramatic. While the majority of the fans loved it, certain critics felt Styx’s “Snowblind” was a song that used a Satanic backmasking technique, despite the fact the lyrics spoke against cocaine. In response, Styx pointed out it was too busy putting forth quality rock music to even think about tampering with its content with anything other than its straightforward lyrics.
Still going strong with strong momentum, DeYoung’s leadership of Styx brought about 1983’s Kilroy Was Here. This was another concept album that had the group venture into rock opera. The music was designed to lay out a futuristic storyline where rock music was banned by a fundamental religious group and its evangelist, Dr. Everett Righteous. This was a character that was assigned to J.Y. Young. Dennis DeYoung cast himself as Kilroy, a convicted rock star who was in prison.
Tommy Shaw’s character was Jonathan Chance, the young rocker who fights on Kilroy’s behalf in the quest for freedom and to remove the ban against rock music. “Mr. Roboto” was a song that came from this recording as the futuristic world was a society run by automated robots. What inspired DeYoung to do this album came from the criticism he and his Styx bandmates received with the previous album.
This was an album that became platinum after it was released, thanks to the success of “Mr. Roboto” and the power ballad, “Don’t Let It End.” During the elaborate concert tour supporting the album, each band member was dressed up as his assigned character while on stage. Ideally, this could have been Styx’s finest moment but it was becoming increasingly clear the musical direction of Dennis DeYoung was no longer meshing with Tommy Shaw and J.Y. Young.
Shaw opted out in favor of a solo career while DeYoung’s Styx moved forward in 1984 with its first live album, Caught in the Act. It produced one studio hit, “Music Time,” which became a number forty hit on the US Billboard Hot 100. However, by the time it was released, Styx’s run as one of the world’s most popular bands at the time was done. The bandmates went their separate ways until there was a partial reformation in 1990.
At that time, Glen Butnik was the new guitarist as Tommy Shaw was still enjoying his success with the Damn Yankees. Edge of the Century was the album released with Dennis DeYoung’s ballad, “Show Me the Way.” Prior to the startup of the Persian Gulf War, some of the radio stations edited this song to feature the voices of children as their parents were sent to Saudi Arabia between 1990 and 1991. This song became a number-three hit on the US Billboard Hot 100 and the US Billboard Adult Contemporary Songs chart.
What started out as a promising comeback for Styx in 1991 was cut short after A&M Records was purchased by PolyGram Records. This came at a time when grunge rock became the latest musical trend and as far as PolyGram was concerned, there was no need to keep Styx around. The label dropped the band that would give Styx cause to break up a second time.
In 1995, Styx reunited again, this time with Tommy Shaw returning to re-record “Lady” for the Styx Greatest Hits album. This also came at a time when John Panozzo was replaced by drummer Todd Sucherman due to liver issues that would claim his life before the year was over. In 1996, Styx went on a tour that would be released in 1997 as a two-disc live recording set. There was also a DVD that was released that documented the tour event. Return to Paradise came as a surprise success as it became certified gold by the RIAA. “Dear John” was a song that paid tribute to the late Panozzo and it has since become a cult favorite among Styx fans.
#2 – Earth, Wind & Fire
Earth, Wind & Fire is a musical group put together in Chicago by Maurice White. The band got its start in 1969 and would specialize in a mix of genres such as disco, funk, jazz, Latino, pop, R&B, and soul. With over ninety million records sold worldwide, EWF has become one of the best-selling recording artists of all time. Its primary niche was its kalimba sound which was mixed with dynamic horn sections and raw energy that came pouring out every single time they performed in concert.
The most prominent band members that made the group so popular include Philip Bailey, Roland Bautista, Robert Brooks, Larry Dunn, Sonny Emory, Ralph Johnson, Ronnie Laws, Al McKay, Fred Ravel, Sheldon Reynolds, Verdine White, and Andrew Woolfolk. One of the biggest highlights for fans was hearing the vocal contrast between Bailey’s falsetto and Maurice White’s baritone.
During the span of Earth, Wind & Fire’s career, it won six Grammy Awards and four American Music Awards. It was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, the NAACP Image Award Hall of Fame, and the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The group became part of Hollywood’s Rockwalk. EWF’s legacy also includes a BET Lifetime Achievement Award and a Soul Train Legend Award. Earth Wind & Fire became a group that was credited for changing the sound of black pop as one of the music industry’s greatest bands of all time.
Before all this, Maurice White founded Earth, Wind & Fire in 1969 after he opted to expand his horizons as a musician. He was a member of the Ramey Lewis Trio, as well as a session drummer for Chess Records before he decided to go into songwriting. He did this with two of his Chicago-based friends, Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead.
Together, they wrote commercials in Chicago before winning a recording contract with Capitol Records. At the time, the men called themselves The Salty Peppers before Maurice White took this act from Chicago to Los Angeles. In the quest to form another band, he recruited Sherry Scott and Yackov Ben Israel, both of whom were also from Chicago. He also recruited his younger brother, Verine White, to join in. Verine joined Maurice in LA in 1970 as the band’s bassist.
While on the hunt for a recording contract that would to Warner Bros. Records, Earth, Wind & Fire got its name from the astrological sign Maurice White used to put it together. He was a Sagittarius, which featured fire as its primary element, along with the seasonal qualities of earth and air. Auditions were held to build on Earth, Wind & Fire as a band. Once that was established, Joe Wissert from Warner Bros. became the band’s producer.
In 1971, Earth, Wind & Fire debuted as an album and it became a certified gold hit in France. At the time, some of the critics looked upon the group as a multi-genre act that fused together Afro, blues, gospel, jazz, and rock into one. Also in 1971, the group supplied the music to the Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song movie soundtrack. The music was composed by Melvin Van Peebles and it showcased the talent of a group that was quickly winning over the music critics and a wave of R&B fans.
Before 1971 was over, Earth, Wind & Fire released its second studio album, The Need of Love. The mix of uniquely blended sounds in this recording released “I Think About Lovin’ You” as a single that would become a modest hit at number forty-four on the US Billboard Hot Soul Songs chart. This would later be relabeled as the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.
Although the group’s popularity was increasing, especially among college students, the lineup at the time shrunk down to just Maurice and Verdine as the only two members left. Unphased, Maurice White recruited six new members who would become part of the star lineup that would launch Earth Wind & Fire into superstardom. Starting in 1972, they worked with Maurice and Verdine which would lead to the introduction of Clive Davis. At the time, he was the president of Columbia Records.
He was so impressed with the roster that he bought EWF’s contract from Warner Bros. which would lead to the CBS/Columbia release of 1972’s Last Days and Time. This served as a groundbreaking recording that would inspire a surge of recording artists who became big fans of White’s group and this album in particular.
After the release of Last Days and Time, Bautista and Laws left the lineup. Philip Bailey recommended Woolfolk as a replacement for Laws while McKay came in to replace Bautista. 1973’s Head to the Sky became Earth Wind & Fire’s most successful album yet as it would become certified platinum by the RIAA. The popularity of the group continued to increase, thanks to singles such as “Evil” and “Keep Your Head to the Sky.” 1974’s Open Our Eyes would be the next album and it stood out for its jazzy flair that mixed Afro and Latino music together. This one also became certified platinum, this time thanks to “Mighty Might” as a hit, as well as “Kalimba Story,” and “Devotion.” After this, Maurice’s younger brother, Fred White, joined the group.
In 1975, Earth Wind & Fire was approached to record a soundtrack for Sig Shore’s film, That’s the Way of the World. Recognized in the movie as “The Group,” EWF’s music appeared in the film which has a character played by Harvey Keitel impressed by its performance. Keitel’s role in the movie was a record producer and when White’s band saw the movie they were convinced it would be a flop.
As it turned out, they were right. The soundtrack, which was released before the movie, performed much better as it became a number-one seller on the US Billboard 200 and on its soul album charts. This was considered a soulful masterpiece and it proceeded to sell enough copies to become certified platinum three times by the RIAA. “Shining Star” was the number one single from the album that peaked at the very top of the US Billboard Hot 100 and the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.
It also won a Grammy Awad for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals. “That’s the Way of the World” was released next and it became a number twelve hit on the US Billboard Hot 100 and a number five hit on the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.
The success of the group’s album enabled its own horn section. The Phenix Horns was a collection of musicians whom Maurice White was already familiar with when he was a session drummer with Chess Records. In 1975, Earth Wind & Fire recorded and released a double album known as Gratitude. It produced another big hit, “Sing a Song,” as well as “Can’t Hide Love.” The album went on to sell enough copies to become an RIAA triple-certified platinum seller.
This was followed by 1976’s Spirit, an album that paid tribute to Charles Stepney, a friend and colleague members of Earth Wind & Fire were close to. He passed away earlier in the year due to a heart attack at forty-five years old. This album would sell enough copies to become double platinum with the RIAA. “Gateway” was its star single, as well as “Saturday Nite.” By this time, the influence of disco was making its impact and it was a genre White’s group capitalized on with great success.
In concert, Earth Wind & Fire became more theatrical with magicians taking part in shows that also featured pyrotechnics and other production tricks that gave the audience more to see as they enjoyed the music. 1977’s All ‘n All became EWF’s eighth studio album and it featured a brand of Latino music. This became one of the band’s best albums as it became triple platinum with the RIAA as well as a Grammy Award winner for Best R&B Vocal Performance By a Duo or Group. “Serpentine Fire” and “Fantasy” were among the biggest hit singles from the album while “Runnin'” won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Instrumental.
In 1978,Earth Wind & Fire appeared in the 1978 film, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This is where EWF covered the Beatles classic, “Got to Get You into My Life.” This was the biggest hit from the soundtrack as it peaked at number one on the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and at number nine on the US Billboard Hot 100. The soundtrack also became certified platinum by the RIAA.
It was also in 1978 that The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1 would be released as a compilation album. This one became certified platinum by the RIAA four times as “September” became yet another big hit for this group. This was the song that became a worldwide phenom and was favored in 1979, along with ‘That’s the Way of the World” for the Music for the star-studded UNICEF Concert which was a world broadcast from the United Nations General Assembly. After this, it was the 1979 release of I Am and its hit singles, “Boogie Wonderland” and “After the Love Has Gone.” The second of these two songs won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group.
When 1980 started off as a new decade, Earth Wind & Fire released a double album called Faces. It was certified gold and regarded as one of Maurice White’s personal favorites. As far as he was concerned, it was an opportunity to explore new musical territory as a band. “Let Me Talk,” “You,” and “And Loves Goes On” were its prized singles that continued to achieve charting success.
After this, the musical adventures of EWF continued as White steered its direction to incorporate electronic sounds into its repertoire. 1981’s Raise! was an album that demonstrated White’s musical vision was still on par as it became certified platinum by the RIAA. “Let’s Groove” was its prized single, as was “Wanna Be With You.” The second of these two songs earned Earth Wind & Fire another Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.
The steady run of EWF continued with additional albums released, namely 1983’s Powerlight and Electric Universe. Both also met with great success but it was concluded by this time by Maurice White that it was time to take a breather as a group. In 1987, Earth Wind & Fire was ready to give another go that would release Touch the World. It proved the group still had it in them to produce hits, even as members from the old gang were paired up with new ones.
It sold enough copies to become certified gold by the RIAA. One of its star singles was “System of Survival,” which became a number-one hit on the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and a dance club favorite. The other was “Thinking of You,” which topped the US Billboard Dance Club Songs chart and peaked as high as number three on the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.
One would think after the 1980s that Earth Wind & Fire would show signs of slowing down going into the 1990s. However, this wasn’t the case at all. The albums kept coming and so did the hits. The lineup changed as new talents would come in to replace some of the older ones. This pace continued going into the twenty-first century with the most recent studio album being 2015’s The Classic Christmas Album. The legacy of Earth Wind & Fire deservedly puts this group that got its start in Chicago at the top as one of the best bands ever to grace the music industry.
#1 – Chicago
On February 15, 1967, a team of musicians named Terry Kath, Robert Lamm, Lee Loughnane, James Pankow, Walter Parazaider, and Danny Seraphine decided to band together as the Big Thing. These six men started off playing in Chicago nightclubs as a band that covered a series of top forty hits before inviting Peter Cetera to join the lineup in an effort to add to its musical sound. Going into 1968, the lineup of the Big Thing moved to Los Angeles, California to sign up with Columbia Records.
Upon doing so, the band renamed itself to Chicago Transit Authority. At first, the team performed at a few different clubs which led to serving as an opening act for Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. So impressed by the group’s performance, Hendrix reportedly issued a comment he felt it had a guitarist who could perform better than him.
In 1969, Chicago Transit Authority was released as the group’s first studio recording as a double album. The band members did this under the name of Chicago as a means to avoid a lawsuit by the transit company which also had this same name. The double album was a rarity at the time but it was popular enough to sell over one million copies by 1970. It became certified platinum by the RIAA. The singles, “Beginnings,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?,” “I’m a Man,” and “Questions 67 and 68” were later released as singles that added good reason for it to earn a Grammy Award nomination for Best New Artist of the Year.
At one point, the band was originally scheduled to perform at Woodstock but its promoter at the time, Bill Graham, had the men scheduled at Fillmore West instead. Also managed by Graham at the time was Carlos Santana and his band. He and his team were sent to Woodstock as Chicago’s replacement act. This worked in Santana’s favor as it became the big breakthrough he needed for fans and the music industry to take notice. In 1970, a similar twist of fate happened involving Joe Cocker, then Jimi Hendrix, Chicago was sent to the Tanglewood Festival in the Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts. Fate had it Chicago was among the brightest stars at the festival which would further push the group into superstardom.
1970 also marked the year Chicago would release its second studio album. Originally titled Chicago, it was another double album that included the lengthy track, “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon,” as well as two top ten hits, “Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World.” Both of these were vocally performed by Terry Kath. “25 or 6 to 4,” written by Robert Lamm and sung by Peter Cetera, was the classic hit that would peak as high as number four on the US Billboard Hot 100.
It was the first top-five hit in Chicago’s career but it certainly wouldn’t be the last. At the time, Chicago was among several recording artists joining in on a war protest that was fueled by the series of events revolving around the Vietnam War. Overall, the album also known as Chicago II became successful enough to become certified platinum by the RIAA. In 1971, it was Chicago III and it was yet another double album release. This produced two more hits for the group, “Free” and “Lowdown.” Just like its predecessor, the album became certified platinum. It actually achieved this first in 1986 whereas Chicago II didn’t reach the one million copies sold mark until 1991.
The formula of releasing each album recorded by Chicago stuck with the Roman numeral theme was interrupted with a live boxed set that was titled Chicago at Carnegie Hall Volumes I, II, III, and IV. However, the Roman numerical system was back in 1972 when Chicago V was released. This is the one that featured “Saturday in the Park,” a song written by Robert Lamm that became a number three hit on the US Billboard Hot 100, as well as one of the most beloved classics from Chicago’s long list of hits.
Like some of the group’s previous recordings, there was a great deal of focus on political and social values that dominated the American way of life at the time. In 1973, Chicago VI would become the first album to feature Laudir de Oliveira, a jazz percussionist from Brazil. Two top ten singles came from this album. The first was “Just You ‘n’ Me,” which was written by Pankow. “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day” was written by Pankow and Cetera. After this, it was the 1974 release of Chicago VII.
This one was a double album and it featured two top-ten singles from it. The first was “(I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long,” written by Pankow while “Call On Me” was written by Loughnane. This was followed by 1975’s Chicago VIII and its political-driven single, “Harry Truman,” which peaked as high as number thirteen on the US Billboard Hot 100. Pankow’s “Old Days” performed better as a nostalgic number that peaked as high as number five on the same chart.
Each of these albums would join the ranks of Chicago’s previous albums to become certified platinum by the RIAA. Chicago VI performed even better by becoming double platinum in 1986. Also released in 1975 was Chicago IX: Chicago’s Greatest Hits. This became the fifth album in a row to peak at the top of the US Billboard 200 for the group.
1976’s Chicago X featured the ballad “If You Leave Me Now.” Sung by Peter Cetera, this became Chicago’s first number-one hit, as well as its first Grammy Award win for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus. It was also certified gold by the RIAA the same year it was released. It also marked another occasion when a Chicago album went platinum. In 1977, by popular vote by the fans, Chicago won the American Music Award for Favorite Pop/Rock Band/Duo/Group.
Before the year was over, Chicago XI was released, along with another Cetera ballad, “Baby, What a Big Surprise.” On the US Billboard Hot 100, it peaked as high as number four. At the time, New York City’s Madison Square Garden announced a brand new Gold Ticket Award. The prize would be given to performers who could draw in at least one hundred thousand tickets in sales. Chicago was among the eleven musical acts that year to win the award with a sales volume of over 180,000 tickets sold.
As Chicago was riding an all-time high in popularity as a recording artist and television celebrity, tragedy struck on January 23, 1978, when Terry Kath accidentally shot himself with a gun he thought was unloaded. At one point, the surviving band members at the time debated if they should stick together as a group or split. It was decided to carry on after a visit from Doc Severinsen convinced Chicago to stick together and move forward.
Severinsen was the bandleader for The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and a close friend to Peter Cetera and the rest of the core lineup. After this, it was now an impossible task to find a suitable placement to fill Kath’s shoes. It was decided Donnie Dacus would be a good fit as the guitarist and singer-songwriter already established himself as a performer with star quality.
It was his energy behind “Alive Again” that would help Hot Streets achieve success. This was also the first album recorded by Chicago that didn’t have a Roman numeric. As well-received as the album was, it was evident Kath was deeply missed by his bandmates. It was also noted in the musical style as the jazzy influence from Kath was missing here. The songs leaned more towards ballads and pop material. Chicago 13 would also show this as Dacus remained in the lineup before moving on in 1980.
1980 not only marked a new decade but a new musical era for Chicago. Chicago XIV was an album that didn’t quite measure up to commercial expectations and it seemed the magic that made Chicago so great was gone for good. There were additional lineup changes along the way, as well as a new label.
In 1981, Chicago was with Warner Bros. Records and a new producer named David Foster. This would be a recording that would focus on lush ballads instead of the horn sounds that originally became one of Chicago’s trademark sounds. This stark contrast served to be the recipe for success for the group. 1982’s Chicago 16 featured the powerful ballad, “Hard to Say I’m Sorry/Get Away.” This became Chicago’s second number-one hit on the US Billboard Hot 100.
In 1984, Chicago 17 became the best-selling album in the band’s history, thanks to the classic hits “Hard Habit to Break” and “You’re the Inspiration.” There was also “Stay the Night” and “Along Comes a Woman.” By 1997, this album became a six-time platinum seller by the RIAA. Going into the American Music Awards in 1986, Chicago won Favorite Pop/Rock Band/Duo/Group for the second time.
After this, Chicago’s core lineup began to experience more profound changes when Peter Cetera decided it was time to go solo. Still together as a group, Chicago continued to record and perform going into the twenty-first century. Robert Lamm, Lee Loughnane, and James Pankow still remain in the lineup. Chicago’s legacy boasts over forty million records sold that has eighteen of them certified platinum and eight of them multi-platinum. It also has twenty-three gold records to its credit.
In 2014, the group’s first album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Two years later, the original Chicago lineup was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2017, Peter Cetera, Robert Lamm, and James Pankow were each elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Most recently, in 2020, Chicago received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
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