By the Way

Only the beginning — Robert Lamm talks 50 years of life with Chicago

Robert Lamm performs “Beginnings” at Bluesville in Robinsonville in 2014 with Chicago. Chicago will be at the Saenger Theater in New Orleans on Tuesday.
Robert Lamm performs “Beginnings” at Bluesville in Robinsonville in 2014 with Chicago. Chicago will be at the Saenger Theater in New Orleans on Tuesday. jclark@sunherald.com File

I told Chicago founding member Robert Lamm the thing I’m almost certain that he’s heard many, many times.

“I love ‘Just You and Me’ — I was four years old when I heard it for the first time in 1974.”

His response regarding the band’s hit, which was written and composed by trombonist Jimmy Pankow, was endearing.

“I love that song, too,” Lamm said in a phone interview with the Sun Herald. “It’s my favorite Chicago song — it’s a really great song.”

For 50 years, Lamm and his “brothers” in Chicago — Pankow, Lee Loughnane and Walter Parazaider, have been writing and composing, releasing, at last count, 36 albums along the way. And those albums have sold more than 40 million copies, making the band one of the all-time top sellers and cementing them a place in music history with an induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2016.

Although the band has seen many changes over the years, from the death of founding member Terry Kath in 1978, to the departure of tenor singer and bassist Peter Cetera and, most recently, Jason Scheff, who replaced Cetera more than 30 years ago, the one constant in Chicago has been the band’s desire to perform live — Lamm, Pankow and company have been on the road for most of its existence.

Chicago returns to the Gulf Coast on Tuesday for a performance at the Saenger Theater in New Orleans, the band’s first show in New Orleans since an appearance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2015. Tickets start at $66 and are available at Ticketmaster.com. JD & The Straight Shots will open the show.

Tuesday’s show will also be the band’s first appearance in New Orleans with new bassist and singer Jeff Coffey, who replaced Jason Scheff in 2016 after filling in for him for most of the summer, including a tour with Earth Wind and Fire.

In an interview with the Sun Herald, Lamm discusses the possibility of some new music from Chicago and why he’s still having fun in the band after more than five decades.

A few years ago, Chicago released “Chicago 36 (“Now”),” which is one of my favorite late period Chicago albums. Any plans to make a new record with the current lineup?

Yes. We’re actually writing songs and sending things back and fourth to each other. Jeff is quite a good writer, as it turns out, and he writes with good people. That’s the plan. The plan is to start recording sometime this spring, actually.

I think we’re just going to take it a couple of tunes at a time and see if there’s some sort of direction. Quite frankly, Chicago gets so much radio play from it’s “classic” repertoire that it’s really difficult finding a space on radio these days for Chicago. Producers and the major record companies are not that thrilled with the idea of a new Chicago album. But a single here and there is something they are more amenable to, at least starting out. We’ve taken the temperature of the industry and that seems to be what it indicates.

I really liked “Now,” which was recorded remotely while you were on the road. I thought your tracks, like “More Will Be Revealed,” was an extension of the solo work you’ve been doing recently. Were you happy with the album?

Yeah, I was happy with it, but it was a difficult chore because we had agreed to record as much of it while touring as possible. It wasn’t fun, but we were pretty happy with the result. I thought it sounded pretty good. As you said, the songs that I contributed were very much in the vein as what I have been doing on my solo albums lately, so it was satisfying for me.

I don’t know where things are going to head, musically, going forward with the band, but I think we’ve all decided to do the next thing in a studio or a couple of different studios.

You’ve had such a diverse career outside of Chicago — everything from jazz to bossa nova to French dance music. Are you still composing music for your personal projects?

Yes I am. And frankly, I’m not a guy that likes to write while I’m traveling, so it depends on when I have time to settle in at home and start doing some work. I do enjoy it. It’s something that I love doing and I love writing music.

I’m very interested in the David Bowie cover of which you were a part, “This Is Not America,” which he recorded for the “Falcon and The Snowman” soundtrack. Was that a tribute to Bowie or a way to sort of lament the American political climate?

I think it was both. The artist I did that with, Les Deux Love Orchestra, which is Bobby Woods, is a great musician and composer and he’s got a very selective ear for songs by great songwriters like David Bowie. He and I have done some collaborations on some things by other people, but that one was definitely of the time and when we recorded it, we had no idea that we wouldn’t have Bowie around. I think it was great tribute to him, as well. Bowie was his own guy. He didn’t sound like anyone else but he always had a vibe and a very broad range of styles he liked to work in. I think we’re going to miss him.

Chicago is firing on all-cylinders — you get the much deserved Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, another Earth Wind and Fire tour — then whatever happens with Jason Scheff happens and after more than 30 years with the band he’s gone. Were you frustrated with the situation or was it easy at this point to just keep moving forward?

It was a very easy transition. I think it’s one of those occurrences where there’s a personnel change and the band improves. I think, happily, that seems to be what happened. The way that Jeff plays bass has enabled the rest of us in the rhythm section to play less. And that’s always a good thing.

Obviously this isn’t the band you started with Terry Kath and Peter Cetera but (guitarist) Keith Howland and (drummer) Tris and (keyboardist/singer) Lou Pardini and (percussionist) Walfredo Reyes Jr. seem to have really given the band a new life, especially as a live band. Do you think those guys have played a part in keeping this thing going?

For sure. Keith is very much a team player and he’s also a total Terry Kath “geek” and he’s very knowledgeable and respectful of the early music — he knows it inside and out. He’s always very “pro band” and contributing ideas. And Tris just likes to play. He’s a surf dude who plays great drums and that makes him happy. It benefits the band. He has a great attitude and he’s a great player.

In the band’s early days, was it tough being in a band with three singers — you, Terry and Peter — who were all really good singers?

When we started, we were every much influenced by the approach of The Beatles and The Beatles had three singers. A lot of times they traded vocals within a song and that’s something we wanted to do. By having three singers, it was something we were able to do.

When I was writing for Chicago, I would “cast” the vocalist and that was a lot of fun for me, too. I could place the song in a key that would benefit Terry or benefit Peter. It was always great fun for me.

When I think about Robert Lamm, I think about “Beginnings.” Were you surprised with what the song became with the Latin percussion and horn solos from when you wrote it?

Keeping in mind that was a song that was written before the recording sessions of the first album, I had no idea what it would become. We were in the studio and the approach at the time was that everyone contributes and a lot of those ideas found their way into all of those recordings.

The recording of “Beginnings” ended up being far and beyond anything I could have ever imagined. I was very lucky for that. In a lot of ways, it’s a song that is kind of the manifesto of what the band’s intent was in the beginning — guitar, horns, great vocals and the percussion breakdown — all of it. When we perform that song, I think we’re performing at a very high level.

One of the highlights of seeing you guys perform live was at Jazz Fest a few years ago. I remember so vividly when you were playing “Beginnings” and the sun was starting to drop a bit and Walt was playing that day and there were about 50,000 people there. As a longtime fan, it was a very special moment.

I have to tell you, we’re a band that loves to perform and that setting which you just described, we don’t miss any of that. We’re very present when we’re performing. We love it when the environment is beautiful and it’s sort of a “one time only” thing. We’re very cognizant when that’s the situation. We don’t take it for granted.

As a longtime fan of every period of the band, especially the early 80s stuff when I was in junior high and high school, I think the new arrangements and horn charts of “You’re The Inspiration” and “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” and the other songs from that period sound more like Chicago than ever. Have you sort of made peace, so to speak, with that period of your career?

Oh yeah. Those songs have such an impact, mainly because of the contrast with everything else. These days, we start the concerts with “Introduction,” which is the first song from the first album. Going from that era to, an hour-and-a-half later, the era to which you were refering, the contrast is very dynamic and it works in the live situation. There’s not a night when it doesn’t work. We’ve gone beyond any doubts we had about that era.

In the documentary, you said “everyone is replaceable.” Personally, I don’t want to see a Chicago without you and Jimmy and Lee. Do you want to keep it rolling a little longer?

I do. I really do. There’s nothing better. If I had to, I suppose I could do something else like write or possibly produce, but it’s Chicago at 50 years and we don’t intend on stopping. That’s just the way it is. We’ll play until we can’t.

If you go

Chicago

Saenger Theater at 1111 Canal St. in New Orleans

8 p.m. on Tuesday, March 21

Tickets start at $66 and are available at Ticketmaster.com

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