Singer-bassist Peter Cetera's smooth tenor and precise delivery fueled some of the biggest soft rock and adult contemporary hits of the 1970s and 1980s, both as a member of Chicago and as a solo artist with such mellow ballads as "You're the Inspiration," "The Glory of Love" and "After All." Cetera toiled in a variety of Chicago area garage bands before joining The Big Thing, a jazz/rock outfit that found fame as Chicago in the early 1970s. Cetera soon established himself within the band's ensemble arrangement with his blue-eyed soul inflection and penchant for gentle ballads like "If You Leave Me Now," which became the band's first No. 1 single in 1976. By the early 1980s, Cetera would become the dominant force in Chicago due to heartfelt hits like "You're the Inspiration" and "Love Me Tomorrow," which eventually prompted him to split with the group and launch a solo career. He proved immediately successful in this regard, earning a Grammy and Oscar nomination for "The Glory of Love" from the "Karate Kid Part II" (1986) soundtrack before mining more chart gold with such polished fare as "The Next Time I Fall" and "After All." Changing tastes in pop tastes ushered Cetera away from the charts in the early '90s, though he remained a much-loved concert attraction, where he recounted his biggest hits to a faithful audience. Cetera's distinctive voice and talent for memorable pop ballads preserved his status as one of the most popular romantic singers of the Seventies and beyond.
Born Sept. 13, 1944 in the Morgan Park section of Chicago, IL, Peter Cetera (pronounced se-TERR-a) was one of six children by parents of Polish and Hungarian descent. His first musical instrument was an accordion, presented to him at the age of 11 by his parents, who thought it a better choice than the acoustic guitar he wanted. Four years later, he was inspired to correct that situation after seeing a band called the Rebel Rockers. Cetera later switched to electric bass for his tenure in several local acts, including the Exceptions, which released a handful of singles in the late 1960s. In 1967, Cetera left the Exceptions to join The Big Thing, a six-piece group that combined brass and jazz arrangements with Top 40-style rock-n-roll. By the following year, the band had relocated to Los Angeles, where they changed their name to Chicago Transit Authority for their eponymous double LP on Columbia Records, which reached No. 17 on the Billboard albums chart. Cetera's soulful tenor vocals and crisp, clipped delivery - the result of learning to sing with a jaw broken during a brawl at Dodger Stadium in 1969 - meshed well with the baritone voices of singer Robert Lamm and guitarist Terry Kath, and was featured on three songs from the album, including "Questions 67 and 68," a No. 71 hit on the singles chart.
After changing their name to Chicago in 1970, the band released their eponymous breakthrough record, which vaulted to No. 4 on the albums chart on the strength of "25 or 6 to 4," a Top 5 single sung by Cetera. The record also featured "Where Do We Go from Here?" which marked his debut as a songwriter for the group. Cetera soon became one of the group's key songwriters, penning their first No. 1 single in the U.S. and U.K., the melancholy "If You Leave Me Now," in 1976, as well as the Top 5 hit "Baby, What a Big Surprise" the following year. When Chicago's fortunes plummeted with the rise of disco at the end of the decade, Cetera decided to try his hand at a solo career, but his eponymous debut LP on Chicago's new label, Warner Bros., failed to find an audience. He soon returned to the band for its 1982 comeback album, Chicago 16, which rose to No. 9 thanks to three songs penned by Cetera and the group's new producer, David Foster. The No. 22 single "Love Me Tomorrow" and "Hard to Say I'm Sorry," which reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, announced the band's new direction in sound, which eschewed horns and R&B arrangements in favor of synthesizers and polished soft-rock production. Chicago's next record, Chicago 17 (1982), proved to be the biggest-selling album in their history, thanks largely to three Cetera-Foster compositions, including "Stay the Night," which reached No. 16, as well as the No. 14 single "Along Comes a Woman" and "You're the Inspiration," which soared to No. 3.
By this point, the group dynamic within Chicago had shifted to a R&B orchestra arrangement, with Lamm, Cetera and guitarist-vocalist Terry Kath assuming lead duties while sharing the limelight with other players, to a frontman-and-band scenario, with Cetera as the voice and face of the group and the other musicians working behind him. Lamm had retreated to the keyboard position, and Kath's death by accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1978 left Cetera as Chicago's most prominent voice, as well as the architect of the group's most recent hits. The time seemed right for Cetera to again try his hand at a solo career, but the notion clashed with the band's desires to launch a second tour behind Chicago 17 after the first one wrapped in 1985. He offered to stay in the band while also recording his solo album, but Chicago's management refused the deal, prompting Cetera to leave the group in the summer of 1985. His first offering as a solo performer was "Glory of Love," which was featured in "The Karate Kid, Part II" (1986). The sweeping romantic ballad, penned by Cetera and David Foster, was an unqualified success, reached No.1 on the singles charts, while also reaping a Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Male Artist and an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song, among numerous other honors. The single was also featured on his second solo album, Solitude/Solitaire (1986), which generated a second No.1 hit with "The Next Time I Fall," a duet with Amy Grant that reaped another Grammy nomination for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.
Cetera would continue to produce chart winners throughout the late 1980s, including the Top 5 pop hits "One Good Woman," from his third solo album, One More Story (1989), an all-star affair that featured contributions from Pink Floyd's David Gilmour and Bonnie Raitt, as well as a duet with Madonna, who recorded "Scheherazade" under the moniker "Lulu Smith." The album also contained the single "Save Me," which served as the theme song for "Baywatch" (NBC, 1989-1990; syndicated, 1991-2001) during its initial seasons. His final chart success of the decade came with the No. 6 single "After All," a duet with Cher that was included on the soundtrack for the film "Chances Are" (1989). A lengthy hiatus preceded Cetera's fourth solo album, World Falling Down (1992), which also marked the end of his tenure with Warner Bros. The album was significantly less successful than its predecessors, stalling at No. 163 on the Billboard 200, while minting Cetera's last chart-topping adult contemporary track, "Restless Heart." Three years later, he returned to recording with a new label, River North, which released his fifth solo album, One Clear Voice (1995), which featured a remake of "Happy Man," a single he originally cut with Chicago. He would continue to rewrite his own history in subsequent releases, cutting new versions of "Baby, What a Big Surprise," "You're The Inspiration" and "If You Leave Me Now" for the solo greatest hits compilation You're the Inspiration: A Collection (1997). Prior to these releases, Cetera had never embarked on a tour behind any of his solo albums, despite his wealth of hits from the 1980s and with Chicago. However, he soon took to the road for a number of live performances, most notably between 2003 and 2007, when he toured with a 40-piece orchestra. However, he returned to the rock band format for a 2007 tour to promote his holiday record, You Just Gotta Love Christmas (2004).
By Paul Gaita