During its half-century of history, Chicago has sold more than 100 million records, notched up myriad hit singles and albums, scooped multiple Grammy Awards, and secured a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, making it one of the most successful bands of all time. While softer-edged ballads constitute a number of Chicago’s hits, those slightly longer in the tooth will also remember the group as musical trailblazers who crafted a unique sound by fusing rock with a jazz-savvy horn section and politically aware lyrics to create some of the most hard-hitting and enduring popular music of the late ’60s and early-to-mid ’70s—a period considered by many to be the band’s “classic” era.
Band co-founder Peter Cetera’s bass (and vocals) were key to Chicago’s sound. His tasty 4-string style was forged through a deep knowledge of early rock & roll and R&B, bolstered by a keen melodic sense, astute rhythmic prowess, and a dexterous technique capable of issuing graded nuance and fervent oomph in equal measure.
Chicago was already a major act by the time it released its fifth studio album, Chicago VI [Columbia], in 1973. The LP was recorded at Caribou Ranch in Nederland, Colorado, owned by the band’s then-producer, James William Guercio. One of the disk’s highlights is “What’s This World Comin’ To,” an upbeat, socially conscious bubbler expertly underpinned by Cetera, who conjures a flowing yet funky 16th-based part enlivened by multiple slides, hammer-ons, and Jamerson-like use of open strings. “My primary goal was to be melodic,” Cetera said of his Chicago-era style in a December ’07 interview with BP’s Chris Jisi. “McCartney was so in my head then that I’d try to think a little out of the box—like picking my spots for the upper-register stuff. Plus, Jamerson and my R&B roots were in my subconscious, so keeping a strong groove went without saying.”
Although we can’t be sure exactly how Cetera recorded his part for “What’s This World Comin’ To,” a contemporaneous TV special, Chicago in the Rockies, shows him playing the song in the Caribou Ranch studio using a white Fender Precision Bass—likely his then-go-to ’64 model. Peter used Fender medium picks and generally recorded his P-Basses both direct and through an Ampeg B-15, sometimes with tissues stuffed under the strings for damping purposes.
The track kicks off in full-band mode, with Cetera immediately owning the intro, laying down staccato root-note downbeats counterbalanced by 16th-based movement in the rest of the bar. He primarily builds his part around the A Mixolydian mode (A-B-C#-DE-F#-G-A), making copious use of Gn’s (the minor 7th of the song-grounding A7#9 chord) and chromatic passing notes that link into the root (A) and major 3rd (C#). This latter idea, destined to become a key motif, first occurs in bar 6 with the chromatic climb from B to C# that lands on beat four.
Following the A minor pentatonic unison lines in bars 8–9 and a quarter-note ascent through bar 10, the vocals—shared between keyboardist Robert Lamm, guitarist Terry Kath, and Cetera—enter for the first verse at letter A. Here we hear Cetera in full flow, fashioning highly mobile lines that nevertheless emphasize the underlying A7 chord, such as through the use of strong root-note downbeats and the B-Cn-C# motif mentioned earlier, which he employs in bars 11, 13, 15, and 17.
Although flavored very differently, taken together, sections B and C loosely constitute the song’s bridge section. Throughout B, Cetera rocks between D and C# over the D7 chord, creating strong tension against the Cn sounded by the horns and guitar. In section C, note how he reins in the rhythm slightly by using space and a temporary reduction in 16ths to create a strong contrast with the sections that bookend it.
Letter D marks a one-of-a-kind arpeggio-based interlude that leads into the second verse (E) and bridge section (F–G), during which Peter subtly refigures earlier material. In bar 58, at the end of the extended horn-stab-heavy bridge (G), Cetera’s fingers venture north to fire off a high, ear-grabbing fill. A one-bar hold leads into a harmonically static six-bar interlude (H), which Peter initially enlivens with another high-fret foray (bar 60). Letters I, J, and K reprise the verse and bridge sections, paving the way for a lengthy organ-solo outro (L), during which Cetera issues a fluid stream of ideas that help spur the song through its fade-out conclusion.
After leaving Chicago in 1985, Cetera, now 73, went on to enjoy a highly successfully solo career. Chicago, meanwhile, continues to tour and record with a clutch of original members. “Overall, I’m very proud of my Chicago and solo careers, and I have no real regrets,” Cetera said in 2007. “To be told that I had an impact as a bass player all these years later is quite nice.”
Will Lee On Peter Cetera
“Peter’s bass playing is like a loose McCartney, but with all that Chi-town funk, and just as much taste and melodicism. I’m a huge fan of Chicago, and he’s definitely influenced my playing. His looseness is never more apparent than on ‘What’s This World Comin’ To.’ We get all that playful Chicago grooving in the spirit that the guys had always maintained since the first album that woke us all up, Chicago Transit Authority. Yeah, Peter!”