Saturday, July 18, 2020

This Day in Rock History (James William Guercio, Producer of Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears, Born)

July 18, 1945— James William Guercio, an influential producer, manager, and songwriter who launched such acts as Chicago, Blood, Sweat and Tears and the Buckinghams, was born in Chicago.

In the 1960s and 1970s, in the wake of Phil Spector, the celebrity record producer became almost as big a force in rock ‘n’ roll as the artists themselves. Such figures as George Martin, Lou Adler, Phil Ramone, Arif Martin, Richard Perry, and Jimmy Ienner played decisive roles in shaping the sound of musicians such as The Beatles, the Mamas and the Papas, Billy Joel, Hall and Oates, Carly Simon, and Eric Carmen.

Among this group, Jim Guercio occupied a special niche: what might be called jazz rock, or, more precisely, “brass rock,” revolving around a driving horn section.

He got his start as a teenaged guitarist, sharing the stage with Mitch Ryder. After studying classical composition in college, he made his way to Los Angeles, taking on increasingly vital roles as session player and songwriter before becoming a staff producer in the L.A. division of Columbia Records, a division of CBS Records.

In 1967, Guercio foreshadowed his association with Chicago with his relationship with another band from the Windy City, the Buckinghams. After signing the band to a management agreement, the 22-year-old steered them to a string of hits, including “Don’t You Care,” “Mercy Mercy Mercy,” "Hey Baby (They're Playing Our Song)," and “Susan.” But the group, after objecting to a “psychedelic” section he added to “Susan,” parted ways with Guercio.

A college friend from Chicago, sax player Walt Parazaider, got Guercio to catch a performance by his band, The Big Thing. In short order, by the summer of 1968 he had convinced them to sign him on as producer and manager, relocate to Los Angeles, and change their name to Chicago Transit Authority, in honor of the line Guercio once took to ride to school. (The moniker was shortened to Chicago a couple of years later.)

Amid his work for Chicago, Guercio had a chance encounter that made him even busier. While helping to change the flat tire of Jim Morrison’s girlfriend at the time, he was asked by Blood, Sweat and Tears manager Bennett Glotzer to produce the band's next Columbia album.

Criss-crossing the country from Chicago in L.A. and BST in New York, Guercio brought in the latter group’s self-titled LP. The results were so successful--the monster singles "Spinning Wheel" and "You've Made Me So Very Happy"—that the disk took home the Grammy for Album of the Year for 1969, beating out the Beatles’ Abbey Road.  (Seven years later, Guercio would add another Grammy to his shelf for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s)/Best Background Arrangement for Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now.”)

The association with Chicago proved just as successful but more enduring. In the first half of the Seventies, the group enjoyed five platinum and double-platinum albums, featuring hits that have since become staples of classic rock stations: "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is," "Beginnings,"  “Saturday in the Park,” “Searching So Long” and “Feeling Stronger Every Day.”

The band really took off in 1970, when Guercio overcame radio stations’ resistance to Chicago’s six-minute album cuts by editing them down to three minutes. “Make Me Smile” and “25 or 6 to 4” became major hits, but with a price: the band became regarded as sell-outs.

Fueling the criticism was the softer sound the band pursued—partly because of the success they enjoyed with ballads such as “If You Leave Me Now,” and partly because of the heavy-handed control Guercio increasingly exercised. 

In Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, he had purchased Caribou Ranch and built a studio there, free of the distractions of L.A. and New York. While the environment was pleasant and peaceful and the acoustics were excellent, Chicago began to chafe at the direction that Guercio imposed. He did not want them to learn production techniques, and several band members—notably guitarist Terry Kath—preferred their more freewheeling early work.

Matters came to a head after Chicago XI, when the band and its longtime producer split over its sound, its rigorous touring schedule and what they regarded as a disadvantageous agreement that deprived them of a fair share of their royalties. 

(Ironically, under subsequent producer David Foster—and minus Kath, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound not long after the breakup with Guercio--the band steered even further into the waters of adult-pop contemporary in the 1980s.)

Caribou Ranch continued to lure a string of artists (including Elton John, who christened one of his bestselling LPs after it, and The Beach Boys, whom Guercio also managed in the mid-1970s) until 1985, when a fire destroyed the recording studio.

No comments: