Chicago, “If You Leave Me Now” from Chicago X (1976): Saturdays in the Park

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Maybe it was written in the stars. Maybe it was absorbed through the amniotic fluid or via the umbilical cord: I was a Chicago fan even before birth.

After all, the No. 1 song the week I was born was “If You Leave Me Now.” Years later, when I started my musical journey through Chicago’s back catalog, those opening strings were instantly familiar to me. It was as if I’d been humming the song my entire life, and when I heard it again I was still in sync with the music.

Damn! Those strings, those silky smooth Peter Cetera vocals. Even the band knew this was a hit before it was ever recorded. For years, it got pushed aside by Chicago. They knew what this would do to them. They knew that this would forever associate them with ballads. It was their kryptonite.

I’ll see their kryptonite and counter: Really?! The reason the band was able to put this song off for a few albums was because the other material for 1974’s Chicago VII and 1975’s Chicago VIII was strong enough and there was enough of it for them to keep telling Peter, “Hey, maybe next album.” In hindsight, I’d be surprised if much of the rest of 1976’s Chicago X wasn’t a colossal embarrassment for them.

Producer James William Guercio needed one more song. Even if he hadn’t, considering some of the songs that actually made it onto X, “If You Leave Me Now” was and is strong enough to have replaced almost any other song on the album – and the band would not have had a leg to stand on to defend much of that material.

In fairness, there’s a difference between the Chicago ballads that Peter sang on and the ballads the band recorded after he left. Peter was, and is, a ballad singer. Ballads are what he enjoys singing, what he wants to sing. Right or wrong, good or bad, both his career with Chicago and his solo career afterwards bear witness to that.

Peter’s ballads carry with them credibility and conviction. He put his heart and soul into all of those songs, because they were the songs he wanted to sing. After he left, the ballads Chicago recorded lacked that conviction. It wasn’t the music they wanted to make; it was the dollar or chart position that they were chasing. They lacked that credibility.

“If You Leave Me Now” works because it has conviction, because Guercio and Cetera threw their all into it. The song is so inherently Peter Cetera’s that, try as they might, Chicago has never been able to find the right voice to sing it since Peter’s departure. Sure, they let Jason Scheff and Keith Howland have a crack at it. When they toured with Earth Wind and Fire, Chicago even let Philip Bailey have a go. More recently, Jeff Coffey offered up a respectable version, but his tenure turned out to be very brief.

Still, no performance of that song has ever had the same level of conviction that it had when it was sung by Peter Cetera. Some may even argue that given the lack of the rest of the band’s involvement, that “If You Leave Me Now” was and is essentially Peter’s very first solo track. Maybe out of respect for Peter, they should put this song to bed. After all, it’s Peter’s.

I know it was Chicago’s first No. 1 hit, but if they never really wanted to be a ballad band, maybe they should strike it from the setlist permanently. This song should be left to Peter to sing and perform live, not Chicago. To both continue playing it (especially since the others weren’t part of the studio recording) and hold Peter Cetera responsible for the group’s “ballad turn,” is tantamount to talking out both sides of their mouths.

‘Saturdays in the Park’ is a multi-writer, song-by-song examination of the music of Chicago. Find it here at Something Else! each weekend.

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