By the late 1970s, the successful rock/pop/contemporary jazz fusion band Chicago was at a crossroads. Original guitarist, lead vocalist, and leader Terry Kath died tragically in 1978, forcing the group to rethink their sound and image. They hired guitarist/vocalist Donnie Dacus and recruited hit making producer Phil Ramone to helm the 1978 album Hot Streets, which spawned two top 40 hits: "No Tell Lover" and "Alive Again." For their followup, Chicago 13, the band and Ramone reteamed to create an album fitting the then-dominant disco sound. Critics despised the material, and longtime Chicago fans expressed horror at the group straying from their trademark rock-oriented sound. However, the Chicago 13 track "Street Player" has shown surprising staying power, being sampled by hip hop and dance acts alike.
"Street Player" dates to 1978, when Rufus and Chaka Khan recorded it for their album also named Street Player. Cowritten by Rufus member Hawk Wolinski and Chicago drummer Danny Seraphine, the original version prominently features drums, bass, guitar, and keyboards, with less emphasis on the horns. Khan mainly sings backing vocals, while lead singer Tony Maiden uses a more laid-back approach on an otherwise funky tune. The arrangement differs greatly, retaining the track's danceability yet sounding smooth.
Chicago's take on "Street Player," however, sounds more aggressive and firmly places the horn section in the foreground. Peter Cetera's clear yet powerful voice pierces through the song, further energizing the track. Chicago adds a decidedly sophisticated spin in the almost 10-minute album version, adding flashes of jazz and R&B as well as disco . While primarily known for his vocals, Cetera's bass playing is also a standout here, pulsating throughout the track while accenting the strong beat. He seems to enjoy stretching his vocals, letting his voice fluctuate wildly on lines such as "And I'll play you a song" and "Carry on." The middle eight contains disco hallmarks such as popping bass, but is quick followed by a jazz-inflected squealing trumpet solo. Unfortunately the full length version of the track also features a percussion-only section (accented by handclaps) that sounds straight out of a Village People record--an element Chicago did not need.
The real star of "Street Player," however, is the glorious horn section. That one section has been the sample of choice for several artists, including the Bucketheads' "The Bomb (These Songs Fall into My Mind)" (the subtitle originating from a Cetera-sung lyric) and Pitbull's 2009 hit "I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)." Rating it at number 24 in the "30 Best Disco Songs That Every Millennial Should Know," Spin notes its "huffing, puffing horn chart" and dubs it "one of house music's go-to memes." The remastered version of Chicago 13 includes a "dance mix" of "Street Player," which differs chiefly in extended percussive sections.
Chicago may be primarily known for their early rock-oriented tracks, or for their 1980s adult contemporary sound. However, their R&B side remains lesser known, and is worth exploring (a recently uncovered clip from a 1970s TV special, where Chicago backs up Al Green, further illustrates their soul prowess). "Street Player" certainly reflects the disco trend, but Chicago's superior musicianship and inventive rearrangement transcend the genre.