‘The biggest album we ever had’: 30 years later, Danny Seraphine and Bill Champlin remember Chicago 17

17, released on May 14, 1984, represented Chicago’s commercial pinnacle — and not just with David Foster, who produced three straight albums for the band in the 1980s. Chicago has never had a bigger-selling album than 17, nor one that spawned more Top 10 hit singles.

Foster’s arrival in the 1980s followed a series of disappointments: Before then, Chicago had not had a platinum album since 1978. Foster not only modernized their sound, he helped the group — and the soon-to-depart frontman Peter Cetera — find previously unimagined success. They didn’t sell millions, they sold multi-millions.

“Look, a lot of people thought we were finished, including some people in the band,” founding drummer Danny Seraphine tells us, in an exclusive SER Sitdown. “We proved everybody wrong, and came back bigger than ever. Chicago 17 was the biggest album we ever had. The early stuff with Chicago was the stuff I was known for, more so than the latter albums. But those songs were crafted beautifully, too, and Peter sang them really well. Those are some really good songs.”

It didn’t have a No. 1 single, like the previous 16, but “Hard Habit to Break” and “You’re the Inspiration” both went to No. 3. “Stay the Night,” with one of Chicago’s better videos, went to No. 16. “Along Comes a Woman” reached No. 14.

“Hard Habit” also signalled the emergence of a second voice in Chicago, as the R&B-soaked singer-keyboardist Bill Champlin shared vocals with Cetera. Chaplin, a long-time studio vet who arrived having already co-composed a pair of Grammy-winning songs in “After The Love Has Gone” and “Turn Your Love Around,” would move into a more prominent role with the band in Cetera’s absence — eventually helping them to another charttopper in “Look Away.” By then, however, Chicago was receiving heavy criticism for trying to copy Foster’s formula for success. Cetera left in 1985, with Seraphine following in 1990; Champlin split with Chicago in 2009.

“David Foster and I joined just as Cetera came into his own,” Champlin tells us. “What I added was some underground stuff, something a little more dangerous. I sang a bunch of B sections on 17. Humberto (Gatica, Foster’s longtime engineer) asked me to do them, and I got one pass each. But I’ve been singing for my supper for a long time; I know what I am doing. So, it was pretty simple. Now that wasn’t necessarily what was called for at the end. What they wanted by then was a good Xerox copy of everything else Chicago had done. It’s like you were always saying: ‘Wow, we really had something back in the day.’ But why copy? Remember what you felt like, and keep going.”

Chicago may have replicated the sounds of 17 elsewhere, but they were never able to match its six-times platinum success in the U.S. The Foster-helmed 16 had gone double platinum in 1982, while 1986′s 18 — Chicago’s final project with him — sold a million copies. Sales for 17 outstripped even a pair of greatest-hits compilations released in 1975 and 1989.

That said, many long-time fans never clicked with the group’s updated aesthetic. The Grammy-nominated “Hard Habit to Break” — silky smooth, keyboard- and string-laden, largely horns-free — encapsulates everything they despised about this period.

Seraphine, who introduced Chicago to the hitmaking producer, ironically found his own role in the band’s sound becoming less prominent with the advent of computerized rhythms. Still, Seraphine remains a staunch defender of the music the band made back then.

“David Foster really tried to maintain the integrity of the band,” Seraphine tells us. “He wasn’t looking to diminish the musicality and the integrity of the band at all. Some people might say that he did. But he was going with what the times dictated. I’m telling you, there was word through our manager from radio stations saying they didn’t want anything with horns on it. How do you deal with that? Should we have stuck by our guns? I don’t know.”

Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.