Chicago, “South California Purples” from Chicago Transit Authority (1969): Saturday in the Park

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Following the apocalyptic “love song” known as “Free Form Guitar,” Chicago hits us with the in-your-face eight-note riff that begins “South California Purples,” a heavy blues track. Guitarists, bassists and keyboard players that I performed with in high school cover bands in the mid-late ’70s used to warm up on this riff. Even musicians who hated Chicago knew this riff and would jam to it. It is a living, breathing force of nature no one can stop.

Keyboardist/Vocalist Robert Lamm’s sting of incredible compositions on 1969’s Chicago Transit Authority continues with “South California Purples,” which is part Paul Butterfield Blues Band, part Electric Flag and part Chicago (the city) blues rolled into something all the band’s own. One imagines that Lamm is being funny, ironic or whatever by calling this “Purples” instead of “South California Blues.” Maybe it has something to do with the acid-soaked environment of California? Who knows?

The lyrics deal with a love affair gone sour, pretty much standard blues fare. However, the arrangement, horns and solos are so awesome, who cares about lyrical shortcomings? Lamm starts out in his usual mellow voice, but after the excellent Terry Kath guitar solo and Lamm’s own B-3 solo, he’s practically shouting the lyrics. Who knew the mellow guy of “Beginnings” had it in him? This goes to show just how versatile the original band was, both instrumentally and vocally.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the middle section where Robert Lamm quotes the Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus.” All of a sudden, he breaks into the classic “I am he is you are he is you are me and we are all together,” complete with the same vocal phase-shifting effect John Lennon used on the original. Chicago often stated that their goal was to be the “American Beatles.” The band covered a lot of Beatles tunes in their bar band days and would occasionally pull out “Got To Get You Into My Life” as late as the 1990s for an encore. In the 1970s, Chicago would come very close to that original goal.

It all starts here with this gem of a first album and this powerhouse blues song, something the John Lennon of “Yer Blues” would be proud of.

Bob Helme

Bob Helme

Bob Helme, a contributor to our weekly song-by-song series on Chicago called Saturdays in the Park, is a father of two with an MBA who still plays jazz part-time. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Bob Helme
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