Gimme Five: Danny Seraphine on Chicago, his new band and David Foster

On this special edition of Something Else! Reviews’ One Track Mind, we hand the reins over to Chicago co-founder Danny Seraphine, who’s preparing his second album with a new band, California Transit Authority.

Seraphine had a direct impact in each of Chicago’s key musical moments, both as the boisterous beat behind its early jazz-rock triumphs and the person who introduced the band to David Foster – the superstar producer who Seraphine says saved Chicago after a listless period following the death of original guitarist Terry Kath.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Legendary jazz-rock drummer Danny Seraphine talks about the beginnings of Chicago, and the end, then how he finally emerged with a new band, California Transit Authority.]

Seraphine goes in depth on both periods, discussing two signature tracks he co-wrote while in Chicago, a rambunctious remake of one of its best-known early rockers, and two cuts from its period of charttopping dominance with Foster …

“LOWDOWN,” with Chicago (CHICAGO III, 1971): The band was coming off a nearly year-long tour in support of its second consecutive double-album release, and their creativity remained at an all-time high. “Free,” which Seraphine cowrote with Robert Lamm, Terry Kath and Walt Parazaider, became a Top 20 hit on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 – as this musically diverse album, yet another two-disc set, went to No. 2. “Lowdown,” the second single released from III, was a collaboration between Seraphine and Peter Cetera that peaked at No. 35.

Danny Seraphine: “III” was adventurous; I really like “V,” too. It kind of fell into some different genres. Peter Cetera was such a great bass player. I’m not sure he even plays anymore. Really, when you look at Peter, he distances himself from the early Chicago stuff – and I’m not quite sure why. That’s Peter. He’s an unusual character. He’s a great guy, and he’s a great talent – but I just don’t understand why he would ever distance himself from all those songs. Other than, they broke his heart, the way they treated him.

“25 OR 6 TO 4,” with California Transit Authority (FULL CIRCLE, 2007): Seraphine’s new band, California Transit Authority, has made this signature horn-driven rocker from his days with Chicago a concert staple. (The Robert Lamm-composed, Cetera-sung No. 4 hit originally appeared on 1970’s Chicago.) An updated version also appeared on the Seraphine group’s debut album – illustrating not just the drummer’s often-forgotten role in propelling Chicago’s early sound, but also how completely CTA recaptured that gritty early-1970s jazz-rock attitude from the very start.

Danny Seraphine: We were going to do an actual big band, with a big horn section. And certainly, a couple of labels were open to it. But I did a benefit show with a few guys, including Marc Bonilla and they had grown up on Chicago music – in particular, the early stuff. We jammed on a couple of things, and there was a connection. I haven’t had that with a guitar player, since Terry (Kath, the late Chicago co-founder). Marc had a great idea for an instrumental version of “Make Me Smile.” Larry Braggs (lead vocalist for Tower of Power) was there, and he volunteered to sing “25 or 6 to 4,” and that kind of gave us our lineup. We didn’t have horns, so (bass player) Mark (Mahan, a sideman with Pat Benetar, Sophie B. Hawkins and others) and Peter Fish – who’s such a great arranger, he knows all the voicings – played all of those parts. We played the gig, and took a bow. When I looked up the whole place was standing. It really, really grabbed me. I realized this was where I belonged. It’s meant so much embracing something that was such a big part of my life, and that I helped define and that helped define me. There was no escaping it.

“HARD HABIT TO BREAK,” with Chicago (CHICAGO 17, 1984): Released as the second single from Chicago’s second collaboration with David Foster, the No. 3 hit “Hard Habit To Break” featured a shared vocal from Cetera and Bill Champlin. In many ways, this Grammy-nominated song – silky smooth, keyboard- and string-laden, largely horns-free – encapsulates the often-maligned 1980s-era Foster sound. Though Seraphine introduced the band to the hitmaking producer, he soon found his own role in the band’s sound becoming less prominent with the advent of computerized rhythms. Still, Seraphine remains a staunch defender of the music Chicago made back then.

Danny Seraphine: Look, a lot of people thought we were finished, including some people in the band. We proved everybody wrong, and came back bigger than ever. Chicago 17 was the biggest album we ever had. The early stuff with Chicago was the stuff I was known for, more so than the latter albums. But those songs were crafted beautifully, too, and Peter sang them really well. Those are some really good songs. David Foster really tried to maintain the integrity of the band. He wasn’t looking to diminish the musicality and the integrity of the band at all. Some people might say that he did. But he was going with what the times dictated. I’m telling you, there was word through our manager from radio stations saying they didn’t want anything with horns on it. How do you deal with that? Should we have stuck by our guns? I don’t know.

“TAKE ME BACK TO CHICAGO,” with Chicago (CHICAGO XI, 1977): The final album to feature Terry Kath, XI reached No. 6 in the U.S., where it went platinum. The album includes the Grammy-winning No. 4 hit “Baby, What A Big Surprise,” as well as this No. 63 hit, a smoothly effective mid-tempo track co-written by Seraphine that seemed at first to be a song about reminiscing on the road.

Danny Seraphine: There’s elements of that in it, but “Take Me Back to Chicago” was written about a friend of mine named Fred Pappalardo, who played in a band called the Illinois Speed Press (a fellow Columbia Records act, also managed by James William Guercio). He always wanted to play like I could play. That sounds egotistical, but I don’t mean it that way at all. He really wanted to be able to play more sophisticated, swinging jazz type stuff. He wasn’t that style of drummer, though. He was a really great rock drummer — really solid, strong, great pocket. But he wanted to be able to do that “cha” thing. He got really, really ill. This was after we had made it. We were selling out arenas. A dear friend of mine called me and said: “Danny, Fred is pretty sick. He’d like to see you.” I was just about to go on a tour; we were leaving in two days. I said, “I’ll come by after I get back.” He said: “Danny, he might not be here when you get back.” I said: “OK, I’ll be right over.” He was in a ward, and we talked. It was tearful, very tearful. I knew I was saying goodbye to him, basically. I thanked him for being such a friend. A nurse came in and said she was going to put him on a bed pan, and he asked me to leave because he didn’t want me to remember me like that. That’s where the line “remember me at my best” comes from. That really stuck with me; it really haunted me. One night, I woke up and I just wrote down these lyrics. That became “Take Me Back to Chicago.”

“WILL YOU STILL LOVE ME?,” with Chicago (CHICAGO 18, 1986): Chicago’s first Top 10 song after the departure of long-time singer/bassist Peter Cetera, “Will You Still Love Me” was co-written by David Foster – who was producing his third, and final, album for Chicago. The track, which featured then-new member Jason Scheff on vocals, reached No. 3 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 charts in early 1987. 18, however, would only go gold, after its Cetera-led predecessor had been certified platinum six times. And Seraphine would only last through 1989’s 19, before leaving Chicago.

Danny Seraphine: There’s a bittersweet element to that period, but at the same time, I brought David in. It was my idea. I knew what I was doing. The Foster stuff, I like it a lot. It turned me off a bit a times, but he was a really instrumental in bringing the band back. We had gone so far off track, it was scaring me. I thought: “How are we going to recover from this?” Looking at the landscape, and looking at what was going on, we really needed David. He started co-writing with Peter, and he wrote these really great songs. We had a few run ins, but that’s going to happen when you’re working together. Your ego gets stepped on, whatever. It can be that way. But the bottom line is, there were a lot of great songs. Musically, it wasn’t nearly as challenging for me, nor as rewarding. But it’s still rewarding in the sense that we got to experience that level of success.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.
  • Perplexio

    There’s a lot of music I hear and enjoy but there’s not much music out there that I actively FEEL…

    Even though I was still in diapers when it came out, Take Me Back to Chicago is so evocative that I feel like I’m “there.” It’s not just the lyrics, the arrangement is so moving I can’t help but feel the song. It’s one of Lamm’s better vocal deliveries from that era.

  • Louis

    I was crazy about CTA and the 2nd album. After that, they lost me or I lost them. I must say that Cal Transit Auth has brought back some of that magic. I saw CTA on an early tour and was absolutely blown away with a rendition of “I’m a Man.” Wow, how rhythmic can a band get? I am telling my age here but I am two and a half years older than my wife and her senior prom’s theme was “Color My World” along with 1000s of other proms I would guess!