With over 130 million albums sold worldwide, Chicago became one of the world’s biggest rock and roll bands thanks to their signature horn-driven, jazz/rock sound.
Throughout the ‘70s, Chicago were a hit-making machine, delivering radio friendly stalwarts like 25 or 6 to 4, Beginnings, Make Me Smile, Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?, Just You ‘N’ Me, Colour My World, Searchin’ So Long and Feelin’ Stronger Every Day.
By the turn of the ‘80s, however, the hits dried up and the band was rocked by creative and personal differences. Enter producer David Foster, who helped reshape the band’s sound, trading the horn-driven sound for a more slick, middle-of-the-road approach. It worked beautifully.
Foster’s astute commercial sense and artistic vision rejuvenated Chicago as a commercial force, helming a succession of multi-platinum albums and a string of mega hits, primarily power ballads sung by bassist Peter Cetera. Since then, while the band’s commercial fortunes are not as rosy, the group still tours regularly – selling out arenas and sheds nationwide.
And the most exciting news of all is the band’s looming long awaited induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in April, an honor that eluded them for years and has thankfully been rectified.
We spoke with founding drummer Danny Seraphine, who unravels the fascinating story of a musical phenomenon, routinely dismissed by critics and embraced by a legion of fans around the world.
What does it mean to you that Chicago is finally being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?
Danny Seraphine: Well, for all these years that we got passed over eventually I had given up, I didn’t think it was gonna happen. So when we did get on the ballot, I felt like, “Wow, this really cool and looks like it could happen.’
We were the overwhelming favorite and we broke all the records with 37 million popular votes. We won the popular vote by 13 million votes over Yes and Steve Miller; Deep Purple was really high up there too. So when we finally got in and everybody in the band felt the same way, even Peter (Cetera).
We were all excited and so proud. I was on cloud nine for a few days. It was so amazing to see how excited to see the fans were; they wanted it worse than us. I think the fans are the reason we got this. Lee (Loughane), Jimmy (Pankow) and I were really excited about reuniting with Peter. Sadly it’s not gonna happen but I’m gonna be there with a big smile on my face.
What are you most looking forward to about the induction?
Danny Seraphine: What I’m most looking forward to is hopefully putting all this bad blood that’s gone on between us to rest forever. To be able to enjoy our legacy together in a very positive way is something I’m really looking forward to.
What was the original vision for the band?
Danny Seraphine: The vision for the band was pretty broad strokes at first. This was a little bit before Blood, Sweat and Tears. I don’t think the plan was that deep at the beginning.
We just wanted to be a great band, we weren’t even thinking commercially. Then it evolved form there.
We were a great cover band at first and after Jimmy Guercio signed us we started doing original material. Before Peter (Cetera) joined Jimmy Guercio came to one of our rehearsals and said “This is the best band I’ve ever heard in my life, I wanna sign you guys. I wanna take you guys to L.A. and make a record.” He told us, “Why don’t you start doing original arrangements?”
We’d already done a couple but we really jumped into the original arrangement thing like the Vanilla Fudge. They had that hit with The Supremes song, You Keep Me Hanging On.
When Jimmy (Guercio) heard we were gonna bring Peter (Cetera) into the band he was a little concerned because Peter had a little bit of a rugged reputation in the city as being hard to get along with. He was worried how he was gonna blend into the band. I told him, “Don’t worry, it’s gonna work.”
I really wanted Peter in this band in the worst way because I knew how good he was. Peter and I always got along well. We had a real good bond. It took about a week for Guercio to finally agree in allowing us to bring Peter into the band. We were great before Peter joined but once he got on board, it was like, “Wow! We were gonna go places.
After the band moved to California, how soon did you starting recording your first album?
Danny Seraphine: We got out to L.A. in the summer of ’68. We moved into a house on Holly Drive in Hollywood and rehearsed for six months. All seven of us lived in a two-bedroom house for a while. Jimmy (Guercio) paid our rent and gave us some stipends for food.
We did some gigging around town and we were the house band at The Whisky. Towards the very end of ’68 we started recording our first album. I do have to say, if it wasn’t for Jimmy Guercio there wouldn’t be Chicago. That’s the absolute truth.
It’s not like he made us. The problem is when any producer thinks they’ve made us we move in and are successful with another producer but Jimmy did so many great things for the band.
When did Chicago get its big break?
Danny Seraphine: Well, there were different levels. A big break was when Jimi Hendrix saw us play at The Whisky-A-Go-Go. We’d already started making noise at The Whisky as a house band. This was all before we got a record deal.
We’d heard that Hendrix might be out in the audience but weren’t sure. Then we walked offstage and there he was in our dressing room. He said, “You guys are the best band I’ve ever heard in my life!”
I mean, talk about a compliment! We’d be getting high and listening to Hendrix’s records. He was there with Mitch Mitchell and both of them were just raving about us and couldn’t say enough good things. It was like, “Wow!” We were pinching ourselves after they left saying, “did that really happen?”
A few months after he saw us play in every interview he did he talked about us. He said, “You gotta hear CTA.” It was an incredible validation. He’d also talk about Terry (Kath) as a player. I heard he was asked in one interview, “How does it feel to be the best guitar player in the world?” And he said, “I’m not, Terry Kath is.”
Terry’s mind was blown hearing about this because Jimi was his guitar hero. It’s like when Buddy Rich talked about me as a drummer; he was my drum hero. Buddy never said many good things about rock and roll and rock drummers but he said that Steve Gadd and I were the best drummers that he’d heard in rock.
Chicago later opened shows for Hendrix.
Danny Seraphine: That’s right. It was great, he took us on the road. We’d watch him play all the time. I remember we opened for him in Charlotte, North Carolina, some shows down south and we did The Forum in L.A. with him. That was a big show for us.
He’d watch us play our shows. He loved the band. He liked the concept of the band too. At that time a lot of our songs were really long with a lot of twists and turns in them and he liked that. We never jammed with Jimi but Mitch (Mitchell) sat in with us once.
Hendrix was shy about playing with Terry. There was never any jamming which was a shame. I remember one flight had some really bad turbulence and I was barfing and he had his head on my head calming me down. See, he was an ex-paratrooper so it didn’t even faze him.
Janis Joplin also was a fan of the band.
Danny Seraphine: Yeah, we opened shows for Janis at the Fillmore West. She heard our band and she became a big fan. We became friends and she took us out on tour. She told her manager, “I want a band like that” and she fired Big Brother (& The Holding Company). And she replaced them with the Kozmik Blues Band.
Chicago was blessed not only with three incredible singers and everyone in the group wrote songs as well. Was it difficult to balance all that talent?
Danny Seraphine: Yeah, it was very tough. By Chicago VI Peter was starting to get really frustrated. It was common knowledge that he was the best singer in the band and songs weren’t being written for him that often. But generally speaking lead vocals were going more to Robert or Terry at that time.
That’s when Peter and Jimmy (Pankow) wrote Feelin’ Stronger Every Day. But that’s the way things happened. It really kind of worked. There was this push/pull kind of thing with all the styles. It was a constant struggle but it all worked. I was lucky to get some of my tunes in there like Street Player.
Throughout their career, Chicago has been unfairly dismissed by critics. How did this affect the band?
Danny Seraphine: At first it was hard on us but then we realized it was because we were successful. I suppose it would have been terrible if we weren’t successful but the fact of the matter is the ultimate validation comes from people.
When you get a good review, especially when you’re new in the game, you feel really good about it but after a while you come to realize it’s not what the critics think that really matters, it’s what people think that really matters.
Why do you think critics never embraced the band?
Danny Seraphine: That’s not entirely true, they got us at first but once we made the transition and started having hits that’s when they started tearing us apart. Also, the band was really melodic and musical, not garage-band-y, trashy, heavy rock.
The critics didn’t have that edginess to talk about, even though 25 or 6 to 4 is a great rock song, same goes for Feelin’ Stronger Every Day. The lyrics in the band admittedly were not always great but they were good lyrics for the song. From my perspective, the critics gravitated toward edgier lyrics and music.
Did the lack of critical acclaim affect the band?
Danny Seraphine: If it hurt us we pretended it didn’t with bravado. It just got to be ridiculous all the things that magazine would write about us, I mean really really bad reviews. But then you look at who they gave good reviews to most of the time and where are a lot of these people today?
Pick a few high watermark moments in your career with Chicago.
Danny Seraphine: Oh man, there’s a lot of them. Playing The Whisky with Hendrix in attendance. The success of Make Me Smile. Playing arenas like The Spectrum in Philadelphia and feeling the huge wave of energy from the crowd.
Another high watermark was playing The Fillmore West with Janis (Joplin) and numerous times with Zappa. Carnegie Hall, career-wise was a watermark, but not musically. We had a rough start there, the first two or three days were horrible. We couldn’t hear ourselves.
If you listen to the first couple cuts on the album they’re awful. But South California Purples with Terry kicks into a jam at the end of the song and from that point we really locked in. We nailed it. The first stadium tour with the Beach Boys was a lot of fun. Playing in front of 250,000 people at Chicago Fest. There were so many great moments. We played to over 150,000 people at the Atlanta Pop Festival.
One of the band’s most beloved hits, Wishing You Were Here features background vocals from three of the Beach Boys—Carl and Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine. What are your memories of the session?
Danny Seraphine: Dennis was close friends with Jimmy Guercio and he started hanging around with the band a lot. Dennis was crazy, but a lot of fun to hang around. He was like a big kid. We recorded the Wishing You Were Here track up at the (Caribou) Ranch and I said to Peter, “The Beach Boys are up at the ranch hanging out, we should ask them to sing on this.” And it happened.
We were at that point in our career where we needed diversity. We needed some things to bring in more spice. I was there when Carl, Dennis and Al tracked their vocals. They were having a rough time with it. It was a different kind of song for them. It was on one of the last takes when they really nailed it. Carl talked them into doing one more take ‘cause it was late at night and that was it.
Chicago was derided by critics as being “faceless”. While the band never truly traded on its image—it wasn’t until the Hot Streets LP that the band was pictured on an album cover—from your perspective, did that accusation of being “faceless” help or hinder the band through its career?
Danny Seraphine: It’s funny, more people recognize me now than when I was with the band. But we were a faceless band. I think being classified as a faceless band bothered some of the guys in the band because they wanted to be pop stars. But I was cool with it. The logo was better known than our individual faces. (laughs) By the time of the Hot Streets album, we were sick of our albums just having logos so we decided we’d appear on the cover. But we went back to logos after that.
At what point was Chicago at its peak in the studio and live?
Danny Seraphine: That’s a tough one. The first two Chicago albums are amazing, Chicago V is really strong. Chicago VII is also a great record. Hot Streets is a good one too. People thought we were finished as a band after Terry died. But we made a really good record. Chicago XI with Take Me Back to Chicago and Little One were great moments for me personally.
Those were the best things I’d ever written with (David) “Hawk” Wolinski. Then our comeback album, Chicago 16 was a real highlight too. People thought we were done and I felt I really had a big hand in shaping that comeback, bringing in Howard Kaufman and Irving Azoff as managers, bringing Bill Champlin into the band and getting David Foster to produce us.
And then the final album I was involved in, Chicago 19, this was after peter (Cetera) had left. We had five top 5 records on that record and then they fired me. It was very painful. It still is to a degree but I’m over it.
I’ve talked to Robert (Lamm) a few times but it’s a little bit strange and distant because I know there’s a lot of peer pressure from within the band to stay away from me.
Our peak as a live act? That’s another tough one. When we played the Fillmore East early in our career we were really good. Once we went into the bigger arenas it was a different kind of playing. But I’d have to say we really hit our peak right after the first album came out.
We started to break big and were playing all the pop festivals, the Isle of Wight.