In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The year before Chicago first hit #1, the band already had enough big songs that they released a greatest-hits album. Chicago were the type of band who don’t exactly need the pop charts. They did well on the pop charts — 10 top-10 singles before they scored that first #1. But they more or less existed as their own unit, one that could ignore pop-music trends and still sell vast numbers of albums to the mysterious American record-buying public. That first #1 single was practically an accident. They would’ve been fine without it.
Chicago had a context when they first started. The group came together in the city of Chicago in 1967, calling themselves the Big Thing and playing top-40 covers in local nightclubs. Eventually, their college producer James William Guercio convinced them to move out to Los Angeles, where he became their manager and producer. The group — now renamed the Chicago Transit Authority — became the house band at the Whiskey A Go Go and attracted enough record-label interest that Columbia Records, the label that signed them, let them release a double album as their debut.
That Chicago Transit Authority debut came out in 1969, and a whole lot more albums, most of them doubles, followed. They changed their name to just plain Chicago a year later. (Place-name bands, for whatever reason, were huge in the ’70s: America, Kansas, Boston.) Early on, Chicago were part of a wave of bands — like Electric Flag and fellow Guercio collaborators Blood, Sweat & Tears — who played diffuse and vaguely jazz-inflected rock. Chicago didn’t improvise, and their records were largely sterile background music, but they had a lot of horns and clearly weren’t funk, so the jazz label stuck.
I did not grow up with Chicago records in the house, and I am not a fan, so there’s a chance I’m getting this whole phenomenon all wrong. But as far as I can tell, the appeal of those Chicago records was something like this: Those records were what we’d call lifestyle music today. If you were throwing a dinner party and wanted to put on some music that was unobtrusive but also nebulously sophisticated, you might reach for one of those bigass Chicago double albums. They’d play for long enough that you wouldn’t have to worry about what music was on, and you could go about your life. We have chill-vibes playlists that serve the same utilitarian needs today.
Before “If You Leave Me Now,” Chicago didn’t have a clear frontman. The different members of the band all wrote songs, and most of them sang, too. 1972’s “Saturday In The Park,” the band’s highest-charting single to that point, basically summed up the kind of thing they did. It’s a song that manages to be both upbeat and mellow, folding in a slight patina of Latin influence and a gritty-ish vocal from pianist and songwriter Robert Lamm about spending a pleasant afternoon in a park. “Saturday In The Park” has a lot of tempo switch-ups and tricky backup harmonies; the musicians in Chicago were clearly eager to show off their chops. But it also breezes by without leaving much of an impression. (“Saturday In The Park” peaked at #3. It’s a 5.)
“If You Leave Me Now,” on the other hand, is memorable, though that doesn’t necessarily make it good. Bassist and singer Peter Cetera wrote the song, and it’s a breezy ballad about attempting to stave off a breakup: “How could we end it all this way/ When tomorrow comes and we’ll both regret/ The things we said today?” Cetera sings the song in a high, feathery tenor, and there’s not really a chorus; the whole thing is basically one extended soft-focus hook. There are horns on the song, but they’re buried in the mix, and the various Chicago guys don’t really get too many chances to show off.
Cetera shows off, though. He sings the hell out of the song, hitting inverted-eyebrow blue-eyed-soul sincerity notes all over the places. His best hook on the song is wordless; it’s a climbing “ooh-ooh-ooh” moan-sob. Underneath him, the music — a slow horn riff, some acoustic-guitar flourishes, a sad-bastard string section — blurs into an indistinct soft drone, a puddle of feelings.
Cetera sells the wounded sadness of the song’s sentiment, but he never finds room for urgency or need. The song is soft and gooey enough that it never even sounds like a possible-breakup song. Instead, it comes off as a simple love song, a prom slow-dance kind of thing. It probably served that function just fine in its day. Indeed, “If You Leave Me Now” resonated in ways that no other Chicago song has ever done; it is, for instance, Chicago’s sole UK #1.
The other members of Chicago all seemed to be pretty pissed off that the song did as well as it did. Over the years, a bunch of them have made passive-aggressive statements about the track, and about how Columbia immediately demanded a whole lot more ballads after its success. Guitarist Terry Kath, in particular, was evidently not too happy that producer Guercio played guitar on the song; Kath would always refuse to play the song during Chicago shows. But that one huge ballad begat more huge ballads — most of them from Peter Cetera. Chicago kept making hits, and we will see them in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: “If You Leave Me Now” pops up a couple of times during David O. Russell’s 1999 war movie Three Kings, including in a scene where Ice Cube and Spike Jonze argue over whether they should be listening to “If You Leave Me Now.” Here it is:
(Ice Cube has no top-10 hits. His highest-charting single, the 1993 masterpiece “It Was A Good Day,” peaked at #15. Spike Jonze has never directed a video for a top-10 hit, either, at least as far as I can tell. I’m pretty sure the highest-charting single with a Jonze-directed video is Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Otis,” which peaked at #12 in 2011; it narrowly edges out Ludacris’ “Get Back,” which peaked at #13 in 2004. But Cube and Jonze’s Three Kings co-star Mark Wahlberg will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: “If You Leave Me Now” also triggers a Simon Pegg breakdown in Edgar Wright’s 2004 movie Shaun Of The Dead. Here’s that scene: