Wishin’ You Were Here

Above: Wishin’ they were here…Chicago frontman Terry Kath, left, and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, right.

In late 1974 the jazz/rock supergroup Chicago released one of the most stunning ballads of that group’s long and storied career. It was a hastily written song by Peter Cetera, added to the Chicago VII album at the last minute.

Cetera, bassist in the original Chicago line up, is often loved or hated by many fans of the band. Cetera was not a jazz musician, and his compositions are regarded as the “schmaltzy” side of Chicago. Indeed, some of his songs are much more commercial-sounding than the free-flowing jazz/blues pieces that the group’s reputation was built upon.

The song came together in the autumn 1973 when the group was in residence at James Guercio’s Caribou Ranch recording studio. The project at hand was the new Chicago LP, which the majority of group members intended to be a jazz concept album. The original song line up left Cetera out of the songwriter loop, which had him concerned. The bassist went to producer Guercio — a fellow bass player — who empathized and agreed to convince the rest of the band to add two Cetera compositions. The second, and final song added to the album was “Wishing You Were Here.”

The late Terry Kath was recruited to sing lead, and Cetera would take the middle eight. To make the song “perfect” in Cetera’s view, he asked three members of the Beach Boys to sing harmony. Carl and Dennis Wilson and Alan Jardine happened to be at Caribou to lay down finishing vocals for some unfinished Beach Boys tracks. The three jumped at the opportunity to add vocals to a Chicago song, especially since their own group was in the midst of a long dry spell on the charts. Cetera claimed he always wanted “to be a Beach Boy,” and for one night in 1973 it happened. The finished track was a masterpiece.

The finished song somehow ties together three disparate types of vocal performance. Kath is strong yet understated and laid back, the Beach Boys segments are silky smooth, and Cetera is almost overly enthusiastic. Yet it all worked. Released in 1974, the song went top ten on the pop charts, peaking at number 9. Today the song receives little airplay, although the melody is instantly recognizable to most adults over age 45.