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.
Did Chicago sell out? Is that even possible? Chicago were not exactly Black Flag. They were eclectic and semi-anonymous soft-rockers who sold assloads of albums and concert tickets all through the ’70s. Chicago essentially made breezy and painstakingly orchestrated background music. Through much of their existence, they didn’t have a clear frontman. They weren’t especially interested in challenging anyone, and they did very well for themselves. They made themselves an institution.
But at the dawn of the ’80s, Chicago abruptly switched their style up, adapted to the excesses of cocaine-era power balladry, and earned themselves a new commercial lease on life. In recapturing that pop success, they basically ceased to function as a leaderless jazz-rock ensemble. They became something else.
Chicago were a chart presence through most of the ’70s, but when they finally hit #1 with 1976’s “If You Leave Me Now,” it was almost a fluke. At least a few members of the band didn’t seem too happy about it. “If You Leave Me Now” was a gooey soft-rock ballad from singer/bassist Peter Cetera. Once it hit, Columbia, the band’s label, wanted more of Cetera’s gooey soft-rock ballads. “Baby, What A Big Surprise,” another Cetera ballad, was a #4 hit for the group in 1977. (It’s a 4.) After “Baby, What A Big Surprise,” though, Chicago went five years without landing a top-10 hit, and they endured a dark period.
In 1978, 31-year-old Chicago guitarist Terry Kath accidentally shot himself to death while playing with a gun at a party. That same year, the band split from longtime manager and producer James William Guercio; they were convinced he was taking advantage of them. After a few of Chicago’s albums flopped, Columbia dropped the band in 1981. For Chicago 16, their first album for new label Warner Bros., Chicago turned to producer David Foster, a man who was in the early stages of a long career as a sort of corporate pop savant.
Foster, a native of British Columbia, had moved to Los Angeles in the early ’70s as the keyboardist for the Vancouver band Skylark. (Skylark’s one US hit, 1973’s “Wildflower,” peaked at #9. It’s a 5.) After Skylark broke up, Foster found work as a session musician, and he co-wrote, arranged, and played on Earth, Wind & Fire’s 1978 hit ballad “After The Love Has Gone.” (“After The Love Has Gone” peaked at #2. It’s a 5.) Foster co-wrote “It’s The Falling In Love,” the Patti Austin duet from Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall. He also co-wrote some pretty successful Boz Scaggs songs. He was busy. For Chicago, Foster’s big strategy was to have the band basically stop sounding like Chicago. This was a savvy move.
“Hard To Say I’m Sorry,” Chicago’s second #1 hit, is a Chicago song in name only. Peter Cetera and David Foster co-wrote the song. Cetera is one of only two Chicago members who even plays on “Hard To Say I’m Sorry.” (The other is drummer Danny Seraphine.) Foster himself plays piano and synth-bass on the record. In the recording, Foster essentially replaced the rest of Chicago with three members of Toto: Steve Lukather on guitar, David Paich and Steve Porcaro on synths. Strictly in terms of numbers, “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” is more of a Toto song than a Chicago one. (Toto will eventually appear in this column.)
On the album version of “Hard To Say I’m Sorry,” there’s an outro section, called “Get Away,” that band member Robert Lamm co-wrote, and that one has the famous Chicago horn section. But “Get Away” isn’t on the single version of the song, and it isn’t in the video, either. Band members like Lamm weren’t happy about all the changes, but those changes worked out for them.
You can see why they’d be pissed. “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” could easily be REO Speedwagon or Foreigner. It’s a big, showy corporate-rock belter. The track’s whole structure is linear, with the big crescendos arriving just when you’d expect. The big drum thunk comes in halfway through. The crashing strings lead right into the Steve Lukather guitar solo. The whole song is arranged almost entirely around Peter Cetera’s hammy groan-yelp, and Cetera belts out his own backing vocals. Melodramatic keyboards rain down all over the song.
Lyrically, “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” is one of those apologies that doesn’t quite work as an apology. Cetera’s character knows that his relationship is teetering on the edge of breaking apart: “Everybody needs a little time away, I heard her say, from each other/ Even lovers need a holiday far away from each other.” So he pleads for her to stay around: “After all that we’ve been through, I will make it up to you.” He doesn’t make much of an argument for why she shouldn’t dump him. Mostly, he’s concerned that he couldn’t stand to be kept away, for just one day, from her body. After the Lukather guitar solo, as the song is ending, Cetera suddenly bleats out, “You’re gonna be the lucky one!” It’s a weird thing to say.
As predictable as it is, “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” is some pretty satisfying cheese. It never aims high, and it doesn’t have much personality. But as far as Chicago goes, that’s not a bad thing. I tend to think that the Chicago songs that do have personality are pretty bad. “Hard To Say I’m Sorry,” at the very least, accomplishes whatever prom-ballad objectives it sets out for itself. It does its utilitarian job.
“Hard To Say I’m Sorry” is one of those weird cases where a big song ends up on the soundtrack to a movie that nobody remembers. The song plays at the end of Summer Lovers, a horny and polyamory-themed romantic comedy from Grease/Blue Lagoon director Randal Kleiser. In Summer Lovers, Daryl Hannah and Peter Gallagher go on vacation in Greece and fall into a threesome with a French woman. In the song’s big closing montage, where Valerie Quennessen chases the couple down at the airport, “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” plays, and then it cuts straight into the end-credits song, the Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited.” (A remixed version of “I’m So Excited” peaked at #9 in 1984. It’s a 7.) Summer Lovers has a weirdly compelling soundtrack. Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” is in there, too.
Critics hated Summer Lovers, and the movie crashed and burned at the box office. But Summer Lovers must’ve helped push “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” to #1, since the single, which had come out a few months before the movie, peaked shortly after the film opened. It led to another big commercial run for Chicago, who will be in this column again. Peter Cetera will be in here as a solo artist, too. But David Foster is the big arrival here. As a solo artist, David Foster doesn’t have any top-10 hits; his highest-charting single, the 1985 instrumental “Love Theme From St. Elmo’s Fire,” peaked at #15. But as a producer and songwriter, David Foster will be in this column a whole lot going forward.
BONUS BEATS: In 1997, the R&B group Az Yet released a “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” cover that David Foster co-produced with Babyface. Peter Cetera sang guest vocals. Here’s the video:
(Az Yet’s “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” peaked at #8, and it’s the group’s highest-charting single. It’s a 5.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: On his 2013 track “Time,” the Chicago drill rapper King Louie rapped over a sped-up “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” sample. Here’s the video:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a video of Tim McGraw singing a cover of “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” while backstage at a 2015 show in Chicago:
(As a lead artist, Tim McGraw’s highest-charting single is the 1997 Faith Hill duet “It’s Your Love,” which peaked at #7. It’s a 6. But McGraw is also a featured guest on Nelly’s 2004 single “Over And Over,” which is really just as much a duet as “It’s Your Love.” “Over And Over” peaked at #3, and it’s an 8.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a 2017 Twitter video of Roger Federer, with fellow tennis players Tommy Haas and Grigor Dimitrov, singing “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” while David Foster, Haas’ father-in-law, plays piano: