By the Way

His former band is based in Biloxi, but now he sings for Chicago

Jeff Coffey was once involved with the Biloxi band Qrisis. Today, he’s the lead singer for Rock n Roll Hall of Fame members Chicago.
Jeff Coffey was once involved with the Biloxi band Qrisis. Today, he’s the lead singer for Rock n Roll Hall of Fame members Chicago. Courtesy

Florida musician Jeff Coffey recently celebrated a major milestone in his life. And it wasn’t a marriage or the birth of a child, as he is married and has two children. It’s more about celebrating a dream that has come to fruition, a dream Coffey had never even had. It was one year ago that Coffey received a phone call that would forever change his life — he was asked to try out to be the bassist/tenor singer for the rock band Chicago.

Although Coffey said he jumped at the opportunity, it would not come without some major risks. Chicago is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The band started with members Robert Lamm, Tery Kath, Danny Seraphine, Jimmy Pankow, Lee Loughnane, Walt Parazaider and a then-unkown vocalist/bassist named Peter Cetera. After they’d recorded a string of hits, things changed in the band drastically when Kath died in 1978. The band would bounce back, only to see Cetera leave the group at the height of its success. Seraphine would exit a few years later. But the mighty Chicago, as they were called by Lucky, Tom Petty’s character, on “King of The Hill,” kept on rolling with the help of Jason Scheff, who replaced Cetera, as well as guitarist Keith Howland and drummer Tris Imboden.

But in spring 2016, after more than 30 years together, Scheff and the band parted ways and Coffey was asked to try out for his spot.

In a recent interview with the Sun Herald, Lamm said he was very happy with what Coffey has brought to the band.

“It was a very easy transition,” Lamm said. “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.”

Before he was asked to join Chicago, Coffey spent years as a professional musician by both touring and recording his own music. In an interview with the Sun Herald, Coffey said he had seriously considered giving up his dream of playing music. But with the new life and energy he’s brought to Chicago, the band’s devoted fan base is happy he didn’t.

You have ties to the Biloxi band Qrisis, which features Woody’s Roadside restaurant owner Kevin Williams. Can you tell me how that happened?

We started that band in 1990 — myself, Kevin Williams and some other people. We first started out writing; we wrote an album and recorded it and put it out. Then we started playing around the Orlando area and we built things up. But once we kind of stopped, Kevin moved back to Biloxi and he continued on using the name, but it was all covers and stuff. I actually only played in Biloxi one time and it was in the early ’90s. I still keep in touch with Kevin.

You’ve been a musician for a long time. Then, you get the call to join Chicago for the summer.

It was pretty wild. It all happened very fast. It was exactly one year ago April 26. A few years ago, I was burned out from trying to do that thing. Four years went by and I really missed playing music. So, I started writing again and I started spending a lot of time in Nashville networking and playing with a lot of A-list musicians who were touring with big-name country artists. I went there thinking that maybe I would get a gig playing bass with a county singer.

Never in a million years did I think that it would turn into a Chicago opportunity.

It just so happened to be that Keith Howland lives in Nashville and he’s good friends with John Cowan, the bassist for the Doobie Brothers and I met John and Ed Toth, who was the drummer for the Doobie Brothers. They were a couple of the guys I got to know by going up to Nashville.

When Keith put the word out about looking for tenor singer/bassist, John Cowan recommended me to Keith and so he called me. It was a great recommendation by a phenomenal musician that got me the call from Keith.

Keith and I kind of hit it off right off the bat. It was really cool. We seemed to be coming from the same place as far as the music we liked. He sent some files to use for an audition. I played on some tracks and sent my video audition and he passed it around to the guys and management and they liked what the saw and they flew me up to Detroit. They were about to do a two-week run and they thought that would be the perfect time to slide somebody in.

I basically had two weeks to cram for the gig. I had to learn the whole show, which is 33 songs. It was quite an undertaking and I’m singing about two-thirds of the show. I also had to memorize the lyrics. It’s also intricate music with key changes and grooves. I knew that if I did well on the audition, I was going to go.

At the audition, we did the whole show and the Peter Cetera songs twice because there was another person auditioning. I thought, “Man, even if I don’t get the gig, I’m getting to play with Chicago.”

Robert (Lamm) told me he wants to do some recording as Chicago with you. Are you writing songs you hope to bring to the table? Do you look forward to collaborating with Lamm and the rest of the band?

I am writing quite a bit. I am very excited about the prospect of recording new Chicago music, whether it be singles or a new record — we haven’t really discussed what direction that’s going to be. I have shared a lot of songs with the guys so far and I’ve been doing a lot of writing with Keith. I’ve also been writing with Stan Lynch, who was the original drummer in Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. He’s had a lot of success with Don Henley and Toto. He produced the last Don Henley record.

I’m very hopeful to be a part of that legacy and do some new music with Chicago.

Peter Pardini said it best, “(Jeff) went from no one really knowing who he was to the entire Chicago fan world waiting for him to screw up — but he didn’t.” Did you try to stay away from all the social media noise during the transition?

There were some social media outlets that I tried not to pay attention to, but I did get involved to the point where I was sharing my experience with people. Honestly, going into it, I knew right away there were going to people and fans of the band who were going to come to the show and say, “Who the hell is this guy?” and I did get that. My goal was to just go in and win people over, one show at a time.

With Chicago, you obviously have your diehard fans — you have diehard Peter Cetera fans and I’m right there with them. As soon as he comes on the radio, you know who that is. But then Jason came in for “Chicago 18” and I was a big fan of that. It was a great record. I saw them when they came through Orlando with Jason and I was a big fan of his voice. You also have your diehard Jason Scheff fans, too. It’s only human nature.

I want to appeal to all of those people because I’m a fan of everyone that’s been in the band — Peter Cetera, Jason Scheff, Danny, Bill Champlin — I grew up listening to those guys. But people make decisions and come and go and it is what it is. The Chicago fans, the ones that love the music, they have been extremely warm and receptive. The band has a lot of energy right now, it’s a positive upswing. The fans have been great.

I was 16 when Peter Cetera left Chicago. It was kind of a traumatic time for me because David Lee Roth had also left Van Halen. But I think both Chicago and Van Halen made the right moves with Sammy Hagar and Jason Scheff.

I agree. I love Van Hagar. I was a senior in high school when “5150” came out. It was such a great record.

I always look forward to “Questions 67 and 68” at a Chicago show. What song do you look the most forward to during the set?

That’s a great song, and for me it’s a high one so I have to make sure I’m ready to hit those notes right before I go on stage. I like that one.

The ones where I seem to feel the most connected with the audience is when we do the ballads. The songs were a huge part of my life and they are a huge part of their lives. To be able to sing those songs with the band and connect with the audience that way is really an amazing experience.