Gimme Five: Danny Seraphine on ’25 or 6 to 4,’ ‘Full Circle,’ ‘Hard Habit to Break,’ others

As Danny Seraphine celebrates a birthday today, we look back on a career that started and continues with CTA. Of course, there’s a notable distinction between the two, separated by some 45 years.

The drummer and composer co-founded Chicago Transit Authority in the late 1960s, helping guide it through a name change to Chicago even as the group built a reputation for muscular jazz rock — and multi-album releases, one after the other after the other — into the 1970s. Through the next decade, he would play a key role in shepherding Chicago toward multi-platinum pop success by introducing producer David Foster to his bandmates.

By the 1990s, however, Seraphine had gone his separate ways with Chicago, though he never lost a passion for the horn-driven rock that they’d help pioneer. That led to the second CTA, this time standing for California Transit Authority. The groups share more than name; they share an essential aesthetic. More recently, Seraphine has re-connected with fellow Chicago alum Bill Champlin, strengthening the connection in his new band.

Now that you’re caught up, all that left to do is dive into the music. Here are five key moments from throughout his musical career, with comments from Seraphine from an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown …

“FULL CIRCLE,” with CALIFORNIA TRANSIT AUTHORITY (SACRED GROUND, 2013): Much of this remarkable album sounds like a lost classic from Seraphine’s days in Chicago, simply because of the brawny horn charts — courtesy of long-time band member Marc Bonilla. But none comes closer to capturing the power and the glory of days gone by like this cut, which finds Seraphine once again working with the R&B-inflected Bill Champlin, who served as a vocalist with Chicago from 1982’s 16 album through 2006’s XXX. It’s perfectly named.

DANNY SERAPHINE: There was a coming back together, of sorts, because Bill and I hadn’t talked for basically 20 years. It was part of a healing process that was good for me, and I think good for him, too. I wouldn’t say we’re becoming a band again, but Bill and I are doing some performances together again. It feels good. He did “Full Circle” at the release party, and it sounded amazing. He did a great job on it. I could tell he was having fun, because he loves this band. it’s a very powerful band. What’s not to love?

“LOWDOWN,” with 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 newly founded band quickly made a concert staple out of this signature horn-driven rocker from his days with Chicago. And why not? The Robert Lamm-composed, Cetera-sung track, originally from 1970’s Chicago, ended up as a No. 4 hit. This updated version, from California Transit Authority’s debut album, illustrates 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. Seraphine realized, all of a sudden, that he was on to something.

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 (17, 1984): Released as the second single from Chicago’s second collaboration with Foster, the No. 3 hit “Hard Habit To Break” featured a shared vocal from Cetera and 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 (XI, 1977): The final studio project to feature 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 “Take Me Back To Chicago” — a smoothly effective mid-tempo No. 63 hit 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.”

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.