Chicago’s “A Song For Richard and His Friends” was first recorded for Chicago IV – or, as it’s officially known, Chicago at Carnegie Hall. In April of 1971, hot on the heels of the Top 10 release Chicago III, then manager/producer James William Guercio booked the band from the Windy City into the prestigious Carnegie Hall for a week of concerts. The resulting album contains live renditions of most of the material found on the band’s first three studio albums. In the liner notes for the Group Portrait boxed set covering Chicago’s time at Columbia, keyboardist/vocalist/main songwriter (at the time) Robert Lamm noted that Guercio was “always a man with a vision; he probably still has a vision.”
Chicago at Carnegie Hall, a four-record set containing a program with photos and two posters – one of a drawing of Carnegie Hall (!) and the other a gargantuan poster of individual pictures of the band playing at the concerts – was ripe for abuse from so-called leading critics of the time who did not “get” Chicago or any of the other bands with horn sections. If it had a horn section and some horn improvisation, it was garbage to these critics, who often were not musicians and incapable of understanding anything beyond the four-chord blues format much of rock to that time had been built upon.
I received the box in question as my main Christmas present of 1974. We weren’t rolling in money at the time and it was considered rather expensive. Carnegie Hall wasn’t made for rock music and the engineers at Columbia had a hard time getting a decent, balanced sound from Chicago. I never thought the horns sounded like kazoos (as trombonist James Pankow has often complained), but things are as clean as they are probably ever going to get on the expanded 2005 remastered set from Rhino, which featured a bonus disc of unreleased performances. The Rhino version also features mini-replicas of all the goodies in the original package.
The reason I go into such detail about the album is this will be the only article to cover it: my assignment is the only new song on the box. Chicago so hated the tapes of the shows that they begged Guercio not to release the album, but this was his “vision” at the time.
My colleague Celtic Gal gave me a good start: Robert Lamm brilliantly wrote the lyrics so they could apply to anyone or anything: a bully, a teacher, an obnoxious co-worker, a relative, an annoying neighbor, a group or organization, etc. even though the original slam was at then-President Nixon. The tune starts ominously with Jimmy Pankow playing a figure on trombone. The horns kick in with a very dissonant line and Lamm and Peter Cetera sing the lyrics of a very ominous melody in unison.
Terry Kath follows this with a reprise of his “Free Form Guitar” piece from Chicago Transit Authority (or so it sounds) before Lamm’s organ and the horns kick things into a nice funk groove. Think about it: the beginning lines are almost modern classical in their dissonance, Kath takes us into the avant-garde and now we have a funk section sung by Robert. All in the same piece!
Only Chicago’s original lineup could be so bold and pull it off. Kath’s funky blues guitar solo and Lamm’s organ workout really pour on the grease. The band finishes with a reprise of the Lamm and Cetera unison vocal and lyrics and another jarring figure by the horn section.
That’s not the end of the story: Chicago worked on a studio version of the composition that was never finished. This attempt (minus any vocals) is one of the bonus tracks on the flawless Chicago V album. They were wise to leave it alone. It’s worth perhaps one listen, but the energy and power of the Carnegie Hall rendition are missing.
The song is also performed on the 1972 Live in Japan album. Chicago is very proud of this set, often calling it the definitive live album of the original band. In this version, the beginning trombone line is cut and drummer Danny Seraphine lays down the rhythmic pattern the horns will take up. Robert Lamm’s vocal is even more funky. His organ solo has an appealing soul-jazz dirty sound to it. Chicago is tighter and the sound is a lot cleaner. You decide which performance is your favorite. I like both.
The last thing I’ll mention is perhaps the best version of the song is found as a jazz piano trio bonus track from Robert Lamm’s uneven solo debut, Skinny Boy. Lamm gets in a fine Rhodes solo in the middle of this rendition.
Those were indeed the days: Chicago mattered, knew it and delivered the goods.