It’s a long way from Chicago nightclubs to Heinz Hall, but Peter Cetera has made the transition with relative ease. It helps that the singer, appearing tonight with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, is performing some of the songs he sang and wrote during his 18-year tenure with the band that bears the name of his native city.
The 71-year-old Mr. Cetera didn’t start out as a popular musician. He says that because “the nuns thought I’d make a good priest, I was shuttled off to the seminary my first year of high school.” Then, his parents steered him toward the accordion. Eventually, he took up guitar and later switched to bass. “I had a little band that played all the high school dances,” he says.
In the ’60s, he became an integral part of the Chicago club scene, and then one evening in late 1967, the Big Thing, an ambitious six-piece group with a horn section, opened a show for the Exceptions, the band Mr. Cetera belonged to at the time. When the Exceptions began falling apart, the Big Thing recruited him to play bass and sing the high parts.
The following summer the band moved to Los Angeles and debuted as the Chicago Transit Authority in 1969. But when the real CTA threatened to sue, it simply became Chicago.
Over time the band became successful in every way except that it didn’t have a single that hit No. 1. Mr. Cetera’s “If You Leave Me Now,” from the band’s 10th album, broke through that barrier in 1976. In the eyes of many, that began the metamorphosis from a hard-charging experimental band to one that intentionally focused on softer songs — something Mr. Cetera disputes.
“On every record there was a ballad,” he says. “[Audiences simply] loved the way I did ballads — we just happened to have hits with ballads that I wrote.”
Mr. Cetera had a flurry of activity upon leaving the band in 1985, releasing a number of singles, most notably “Glory of Love” from “Karate Kid Part II” and duets “The Next Time I Fall” and “ After All,” with Amy Grant and Cher, respectively. Then, his solo career slowed down.
“I seem to have a problem [making] albums,” he says, calling it frustrating “when you put in all that work and no one’s going to promote it.” That especially was the problem with his first, eponymous solo record, which came out in 1981 while he was still in Chicago.
Mr. Cetera, who has begun playing live again more recently with a backup group called the Bad Daddys, notes that he’s done a number of symphony shows over the years but fewer recently. “I think financially it’s a little harder [to pull off],” he says. His shows with orchestras are all acoustic, in contrast with “other groups, [who] tend to come with a full set of musicians. The symphony loves it because they hear themselves, and the crowd loves it because it’s unique.”
Those attending tonight’s concert will hear, in addition to songs associated with his former band, some of Mr. Cetera’s solo material.
“It gives a chance for people to put the whole thing together — ‘I didn’t realize that he wrote that’ — rewarding for everybody,” he says.
Rick Nowlin: email@example.com or 412-263-3871.