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Mike Stahl Recalls: Mixing Chicago Live In The 1970s

The engineering approach with a seminal fusion group, along with anecdotes and experiences from a unique time...

Coming Together

Once the band got comfortable with the new mic and monitor setup on stage, and also with me, everyone started to relax and enjoy the shows. As soon as that comfortable feeling is attained, everyone can concentrate on what they do best—performing. I started getting a dynamic mix of the band, and both the road manager (Jack Goudie) and the personal manager were pleased with how everything was progressing.

We had just performed a show in Memphis and had traveled to our next stop in Nashville. Jack forgot to re-set his watch to the new time zone so the band came in for sound check an hour early, so afterwards, they had an hour to kill because the hotel was too far away to go back to, and then turn around again to return for the concert.

I knew that Danny Seraphine was starting a production company and was looking for some fresh talent, and I thought this might be a good time to introduce the work of two of my friends from Scranton, PA, who were playing in a local band (Jerry Kelly) and becoming a great unit. They had perfect pitch harmonies (like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young), a resounding guitar-based foundation, and were writing excellent songs.

I was convinced these guys were going to make it.

I had a cassette recording of four of their songs and was looking for the perfect opportunity to sequester Danny away from the touring fray and play it for him, so I now asked him if he wanted to come to the back of the bus to hear the tracks; much to my surprise, he said yes. And once he heard the four songs, he wanted me to play them again!

He heard what I knew all along: this group had the sound and they were going to make it! Danny took the tape and that became a three-record deal. The group re-named themselves “Dakota” and had Danny and Hawk Wolinski (of Rufus fame) as the executive producers. It was an exhilarating time for Dakota and for me.

While Chicago had recorded their fair share of hits and had achieved both gold and platinum records for all of their previous album sales, they had never had a number one song on the Billboard charts until Peter wrote “If You Leave Me Now” in 1976. Recorded at James William Guercio’s Caribou Ranch Studios in Colorado, it was the first worldwide number one hit for the band. We toured Europe twice, Australia, and New Zealand to sold-out arenas.

Adding that song to the group’s huge catalog of hits ensured Chicago of many continued years of live performing. It was truly amazing how the band and the public became re-energized because of that song. But every time they were about to perform the song live, Terry would set down his acoustic guitar and quietly walk off stage. I couldn’t figure out why. Not that Peter was bad on the guitar, but when you have a player like Terry… I just couldn’t understand why he wasn’t playing the lead part.

When I asked him about it, he said that for whatever reason, he had not even been present at the studio on the day when the band recorded it. Someone else had played the solo part on the record and Terry was peeved that he hadn’t played on it, and what was worse, this song went on to become the biggest song Chicago had ever recorded.

Since he wasn’t on the recording, he told me he would never, ever play it live. And as long as I was there, he never did.

Changing Times

When I got the news about Terry accidentally killing himself with a handgun in 1978, I made plans to come out for the funeral. I thought I was going to be okay until I saw Terry lying in the casket, this musical genius so needlessly gone from everyone’s lives. I’d just been with him two weeks earlier when we finished our last show of the tour at the Oakland Coliseum. It was so un-nerving that I went back to my hotel room and just sat alone by myself all through the night. That memory still haunts me today.

Chicago was in turmoil over Terry’s loss; not only because he’d been one of the founding members of the band but also because of his spirit and dedication to the band’s music. I didn’t think the band was going to recover from the pain of Terry’s death, but I totally discounted the resilience of the rest of the guys. Through all the gloom hanging over them, they made the decision to start recording and touring again, which meant that they had to audition new guitar players.

As a result, I was summoned to Los Angeles to set up a small sound system at Danny’s house so everyone could hear the auditions and see how the new players sounded and interacted with the rest of the band. I can’t imagine how difficult it was for them; the first time they had played together in months and now it was with some new guitarists who’d learned the three songs needed for the audition; especially “25 or 6 to 4,” which was a Terry Kath classic with all of his solos throughout. It was incredibly emotional to say the least.

After numerous auditions and countless players, the band settled on Donnie Dacus. He had just finished filming a part in the movie version of Hair and was a solid player with a decent voice. Donnie was young and energetic with long blond hair; he not only looked the part, but also had great stage presence. Once he was selected, the band started writing songs for their new album.

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