Danny Seraphine, Bill Champlin open up about the complicated legacy of Chicago 18

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With 18, Chicago finished a run of three straight platinum albums alongside producer David Foster — a period that included a stunning seven Top 20 hits. Two of them, the No. 3 “Will You Still Love Me?” and No. 17 “If She Would Have Been Faithful,” were plucked from 18, released on September 29, 1986.

Unfortunately, however, even those successes — 18 eventually reached the coveted million-selling status — paled in comparison to what came before, and even what came immediately after. The Foster-produced 17 actually went six-times platinum in 1984, while 1982’s 16 was a two-times platinum seller. Fast forward to 1988, and Chicago’s Ron Nevison-helmed follow up 19 launched a trio of Bill Champlin-sung songs into the Top 10 — No. 3 “I Don’t Wanna Live Without Your Love,” No. 1 “Look Away” and then No. 10 “You’re Not Alone.”

As such, 18 often tends to be ignored, but for all of the wrong reasons. It wasn’t a disappointment because it failed to live up to Billboard expectations, because it was their first without Peter Cetera or even because it marked the end of a tenure for Foster that’s typically criticized for its focus on sleek pop hits at the expense of the flinty jazz rock that initially helped establish the Chicago brand at the turn of the 1970s.

In fact, into the MTV era, those days were long past. The sudden 1978 death of Terry Kath had sent Chicago into a freefall: 1979’s 13 struggled to gold, while 1980’s XIV finished at an embarrassing No. 71. But Foster was hardly to blame for their more radio-ready shift. Careful listeners need only return to Chicago’s 1976 charttopping Cetera feature “If You Leave Me Now” and 1977’s “Baby, What a Big Surprise,” which went to No. 4. Both not only arrived before Foster’s tenure, but long before Kath’s tragic passing. Clearly, Chicago was already moving in this direction.

The truth of why 18 has fallen through the cracks is far more complex. Let’s agree that Foster’s arrival, in no small way, saved the band. But by 1986, he was killing them all over again.

“There’s a bittersweet element to that period,” co-founding drummer Danny Seraphine admits in an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown, “but at the same time, I brought David in. It was my idea. I knew what I was doing. The Foster stuff, I like it a lot. It turned me off a bit a times, but he was a really instrumental in bringing the band back. We had gone so far off track, it was scaring me. I thought: ‘How are we going to recover from this?’ Looking at the landscape, and looking at what was going on, we really needed David.”

Prior to joining Chicago in 1981, Champlin had worked with Foster as Grammy-winning co-composers of “After the Love is Gone,” later made into a hit by Earth Wind and Fire. Foster arrived with a resume already dotted with similar succcesses. And, at least initially, his unique perspective — and exacting attention to detail — buoyed a flagging franchise seemingly lost in a new age.

“I told the band: ‘You’ve got to be ready to throw every song you have away. It’s got to be good songs, or he’s not involved,’” Champlin tells us. “That’s when things started to change; that’s when they started to hate him. But Foster really put some life back in that band. Everything he touches is awesome.”

Foster’s knack for collaborating with Chicago’s quickly emerging frontman Cetera, plus the newfound blending of Champlin’s voice into the mix, helped the group score Top 20 hits on six of its first seven Foster-helmed singles. The 1982 No. 1 “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” was, in fact, Chicago’s first song to crack the Top 50 since “No Tell Lover,” all the way back in 1978. “Look, the blend of vocals, mostly on 16, was fucking awesome,” Champlin adds. “We sounded great together. And the combination of all of that, on 16 and 17, it just took off.’

If Foster’s string-powered, largely horn-free sound, or his way of doing things, rubbed people the wrong way? Well, his success was undeniable.

“He started co-writing with Peter, and he wrote these really great songs,” says Seraphine, who defends the period even though it saw a move toward period-piece electronic drums, as well. “We had a few run ins, but that’s going to happen when you’re working together. Your ego gets stepped on, whatever. It can be that way. But the bottom line is, there were a lot of great songs. Musically, it wasn’t nearly as challenging for me, nor as rewarding. But it’s still rewarding in the sense that we got to experience that level of success.”

An unintended side effect would alter the trajectories of both Chicago, and 18, forever: By the mid-1980s, Cetera had taken so many lead vocals that it meant he could begin to focus on his own solo career. Chicago found an instamatic replacement in Jason Scheff, who would share the mic for both of the best-known songs on 18 with Champlin. But the gap between one and the other was revealed on the stark black-and-white pages of Billboard. By the time 18 arrived, the Foster co-written “Glory of Love” had already become Cetera’s first No. 1 single in 1986. Meanwhile, Chicago’s album only managed to reach No. 35.

Something was missing, of course. But it wasn’t just Cetera. Somehow, the chart magic of Chicago’s collaborative stint with Foster had vanished, as well. 18 actually wasn’t without its charms, beginning with “Niagara Falls” — another Scheff/Champlin vehicle which barely cracked the Top 100. In fact, 18 actually boasts better song-to-song material than did the Cetera swansong 17. It’s the paint-by-Foster-numbers production, almost a caricature at times, that makes this follow up feel so unconvincing. They went back to the well one too many times, and found it dry.

Of course, Foster’s exit didn’t prove to be any kind of panacea for Chicago. After 19, which was best remembered for songs by outside composers, Seraphine unhappily departed — even as the band slipped into an extended slumber. They released XXX in 2006, representing Champlin’s final outing, and then nothing new again until this year’s XXXVI: Now. That comeback was trumpeted as a return to their pre-Foster way of doing things, as Chicago worked to distance itself from a period that 18 — this underperforming zenith of everything that was good and bad about their time together — can’t help but personify.

Nearly three decades later, even members of Chicago struggle to frame that era.

“Look, a lot of people thought we were finished, including some people in the band. We proved everybody wrong, and came back bigger than ever,” Seraphine concludes. “David Foster really tried to maintain the integrity of the band. 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

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, 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 U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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