I was a teenage fanatic for the band Chicago in the late 80s, just as they were reaching the end of their second commercial heyday – a near-decade-long reign on the charts fueled by David Foster (and David Foster surrogate) produced power ballads – and were on the cusp of becoming crusty fixtures of summertime state fairs. The first three concerts I attended were all Chicago concerts (though, tellingly, the last of those concerts found them co-headlining with the Beach Boys – the reigning kings of the oldies circuit), and somewhere between the release of Chicago 18 in 1986 and Chicago 19 two years later, I’d acquired on either cassette or CD (or in some cases, both) every single Chicago album released since the band’s 1969 debut Chicago Transit Authority, on which they presented themselves as an idealistic jazzy-art-prog-rock band with horns and a social conscience that ran counter to the distasteful Nixon connections of Blood, Sweat & Tears, their chief competitors in the idealistic jazzy-art-prog-rock sweepstakes.

While my junior high and high school peers were busy carefully carving Metallica and Megadeth logos into their study hall desks, I would proudly sport my Chicago “Victorious Tour 1989” t-shirt; and where the unwashed masses on my school sang the praises of Jimi Hendrix, I defiantly extolled the virtues of Terry Kath whose distinctively rhythmic wah-wah-isms (best exemplified by the extended solo on the group’s iconic 1971 single “25 or 6 to 4”) were much admired by The Hendrix himself. It may not have been the most socially advantageous band to fall in love with – by that time, Chicago was an unabashedly corporate entity headed up by a cabal of wealthy, middle-aged ex-hippies. Nevertheless Chicago 19 proved to be arguably the best, and certainly the most successful album of their second act, earning multiple platinum certifications and yielding no fewer than five hit singles including “Look Away” which Billboard magazine eventually anointed the #1 single of 1989.

It’s a far cry from where the band had been ten years earlier when they released Chicago 13. This was a band adrift both artistically and commercially – a band still reeling from the sudden, tragic loss of their visionary singer and guitarist Terry Kath (who’d accidentally shot and killed himself at a party in 1978), and struggling with some newfound autonomy following the firing of their longtime manager-producer-svengali James William Guercio.

Heralded by the nine minute disco opus “Street Player”, the band’s last truly horn-driven single which, despite the band’s appearance on an SNL episode, didn’t really do much chart-wise, but gained notoriety in the 90s when it was liberally sampled by the Bucketheads for their club hit “The Bomb”, Chicago 13 – “The Highrise Album” – was the second in a trio of transitional, wildly unfocused, and mostly hitless late 70s albums which found the group experimenting with, among other things, actual album titles (the band’s 12th album was called Hot Streets), and ill-advised (and, indeed, sort of racially insensitive) studio gimmickry like P.C. Moblee, a manipulation of Peter Cetera’s otherwise clenched-cheeks, clenched-jaw white-boy whine made to sound like a wax-museum version of a vintage Chess Records bluesman.

Also unique to these “lost years” for the band was the voice of singer-guitarist Donnie Dacus who’d been recruited to replace Kath despite having virtually nothing in common with Kath stylistically. As a singer, Kath’s soulful howl was often compared to Ray Charles (best exemplified on Chicago’s neglected 1975 single “Brand New Love Affair”), his guitar playing was funkified and percussive with an innate sense for scale and detail. Donnie Dacus, on the other hand, was merely a serviceable, unsubtle country-rock guitarist (his resume included work with Stephen Stills), an adequate studio musician who, with his flowy, Frampton-esque blond locks and wistful tenor projected a youthful naivete completely antithetical to Kath’s lusty spirituals. As mismatched with the band as he was, he was actually central to a couple of the best moments on Chicago 13, including the record’s second single, a hard-driving, southern-rock flavored stomper called “Must Have Been Crazy” (which nicked the Billboard Hot 100 peaking at No. 83) and the upbeat album-closing pep-talk “Run Away” in which Dacus and Cetera tag-team the verses before rallying together in harmony on a triumphant chorus.

Dacus, who, in 1979 appeared as Woof in Milos Forman’s film adaptation of the musical Hair, was fired from the band after Chicago 13, and though he joined an 80s-era incarnation of the power-pop institution Badfinger, he has been virtually absent from music ever since. Time has been unkind to Dacus’s contributions to Chicago, and he is, to my mind, unfairly maligned by many of my other fellow Chicago fanatics. The major problem is that Dacus’s tenure fell squarely in between the band’s two heydays, and, only appearing on a couple of decidedly unsuccessful singles, his voice, unlike Kath’s or Cetera’s or, later, Bill Champlin’s (who sang lead on three of Chicago 19’s singles including “Look Away”) never had a chance to become one of the recognizable voices of the Chicago. Hearing Dacus singing “Must Have Been Crazy” – really one of the strongest singles Chicago released in the 70s, despite the fact that the band’s signature horn section had gone suddenly M.I.A. – you’d never mistake this Chicago for the band that recorded either early hits like “Saturday in the Park” and “If You Leave Me Now” or latter-day power-ballads like “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” and “Hard Habit To Break”.

Fortunately – or unfortunately – another of the band’s “lost years” experiments was their somewhat prescient (though, in hindsight, probably misguided) decision to film an extended promotional video for Chicago 13 which included clips for “Street Player”, “Must Have Been Crazy” and “Run Away”, featuring groaningly cheesy footage of the band hanging out and performing in a secluded mansion – watch as trombonist James Pankow hunts down a fugitive cat and drummer Danny Seraphine gets stranded in a tree, and oh yes, that’s a shirtless Peter Cetera sunning himself on a raft in the swimming pool… ewww – with saxophonist Walt Parazaider providing a Dan Ackroyd-noir voice-over narration. Tellingly, most of the band’s 80s videos would be bland performance clips, although they were much more successful with the comparatively high-budget, three-minute action-flick in song they put out for “Stay the Night” in 1984.

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