I don’t remember what lead me down this particular rabbit hole, but I read just earlier this week that Jason Scheff had left the band Chicago after serving as the band’s bassist and one of its lead singers for 30 years. Scheff left in May of this year after having apparently taken some time off due to health concerns and he’s now been officially replaced by another singer/bass player, Jeff Coffey.
What’s striking is that the band now has two positions – bass guitar and lead guitar – that are in at least their second generation following the original lineup. Coffey replaced Scheff who replaced Peter Cetera, of course, when he left in 1985. In the guitar slot, current member Keith Howland is actually the fourth guy to hold that position after the death of founding guitarist Terry Kath, who was followed by Donnie Dacus, Chris Pinnick and Dawayne Bailey. (Note that for the purposes here I’m not including Bill Champlin since when he joined in 1982 he didn’t really replace any of the founding players. Yeah, he sang a lot of Kath’s songs but as keyboardist primarily he wasn’t actually taking anyone’s place. Even there, though, Champlin was replaced in 2009 by Lou Pardini.)
The news also got me doing a little math. Chicago recorded their classic “25 or 6 to 4” in 1970, with the song appearing on the double-album Chicago II that year. So between recording and his leaving the band, Cetera sang lead on the song for 15 years. Scheff has been singing it live since that time, including recording a new version of the song for 1986’s Chicago 18. So Scheff has been putting his mark on the song for almost exactly twice as long as Cetera did, at least with the band.
Does that make Scheff’s the definitive version of the song? Sure, Cetera has continued to perform it in solo concerts, so he still has the longest tenure with the song along with the other original members. But Scheff’s touring with the band brings with it some level of “official” designation or assignment. One could argue that’s enough to make the version of “25 or 6 to 4” that has been performed by Scheff the longest lasting interpretation.
That categorization is largely dependent on considering live performance to be more valuable or important than original recordings. No, I’m not recommending Cetera’s Chicago II version be thrown to the wayside. It’s still superior to both of Scheff’s recordings, both the Chicago 18 edition of the song and the re-recorded version that appeared on 2013’s Nashville Sessions album, which featured the current band (at the time) cutting new versions of some of the band’s classic tunes.
This is just a bit of reflexive theorizing. The Chicago II original will still be the gold standard against which everything else is measured. But Scheff’s long history with making the song his own within the band environment should count for something. He’s added a lot to this and other parts of Chicago’s catalog while not being able to forge much of his own path as the band stopped regularly recording new original albums six years after he joined. He deserves credit for putting his own stamp on it and other songs and, while I’m not familiar at all with his replacement Coffey, he’ll be missed from the band by fans.