Saturday, February 2, 2019

Interview -- Danny Seraphine (Chicago)


"It gets stronger and stronger and stronger and it's relentless."
~ Danny Seraphine ~

The importance of Danny Seraphine, the original drummer for over two decades with the iconic RnR HoF band Chicago cannot be over-emphasized.  Nor should it be.  Danny's presence was felt on every song.  Driving the band through the heavy rock poundage one minute and bopping and dancing off the jazzier moments the next.  Often in the same song.  Of course, that's what really great drummers are supposed to do.  Smash the odd time signatures out of the park.  And then, of course, let’s not forget the long string of top-40 hits.  Danny performed on 16 studio albums. (4 of them were freakin' double albums.)  His drums always sounded fresh and exciting...and way ahead of the curve.  He made it all seem easy.

And Danny is a good songwriter, as well, having penned six charting songs while with the band which often gets overlooked.  When one steps back to look at the high-level body of work while behind the traps...Danny Seraphine was arguably the best and certainly the most versatile and absolutely the most underrated drummer of his time.  Danny Seraphine.  Go get you some.

Danny Seraphine Interview -- February 2019
Danny Seraphine

Casey Chambers:  One of the songs you penned that I've always enjoyed was your gentle, and sorely underrated, "Little One" from "Chicago XI." (1977)  Such a beautiful song.  What do you remember about that one?

Danny Seraphine:  Well, it was during a pretty turbulent time of my life. I was going through a divorce from my first wife, Rose, who's now passed away.  A wonderful lady.  But it was really a tough time for myself and my two daughters, Krissy and Danielle.  It was kind of the tale of two cities for me.  On the one hand, I was riding high with Chicago as a rock star...while on the other my personal life was pretty low.  Really low as a matter of fact. As low as you can go almost.

Anyway, we were scheduled to go on a promotional tour over to France and I thought that would be a good time to take my daughter because both of us could use a little spending time with one another.  So we traveled to Europe together and it was on the Concorde which is one of the few times I ever flew in the Concorde. And ironically, I had the worst jet lag I ever experienced even though I got there in like...three and a half hours or something ridiculous. (laughs)

But we were sleeping in the same place and I woke up very early one morning and my daughter...she was a young child y'know...and this ray of light was shining on her face and it was like...it really struck me then how much she looked like her mother.  And then all the words just started coming out and I just got up and wrote the lyrics.  The song was very, very inspired which most of them that I write are...when I do write.  And my songwriting partner, "Hawk" Wolinski helped put some chords together and we would jam, just the two of us, with a set of drums and the keyboard and we came up with the arrangement.  And that's how "Little One" was born.

"Little One" - Chicago / "Chicago XI" (1977)


And the song was written for Terry Kath's voice and of course, when Terry heard it, he really wanted to sing it because he could relate to it, too.  Your life is dedicated to music but the price of that is...you have to spend a lot of time away from your family.  You know, it's painful.  And it's not about wanting people to feel sorry for us, but there is a price to be paid for the success and the fame and fortune and the most...the most costly is your personal life.  Your kids.  Your marriages.  Your families.

And so "Little One" is just me explaining to a child that I'm always with you and always will be there for you and someday, you know, as the world revolves...someday you'll have your own little one and you'll understand how I feel.

Casey Chambers:  Yeah, it's really sweet.

Danny Seraphine:  Yeah, it's one of the best things I've ever written for sure. And not that I've written that many because I haven't.  I am a songwriter by pure inspiration. But that was one time when I really captured the genie in the bottle.  Couldn't have done it without "Hawk." He's a brilliant songwriter and should get more recognition than he has. And it's a magical song to this day and having it be Terry's last vocal makes it even more meaningful.

Casey Chambers:  Oh yeah, Terry was the man.  Good stuff.  Switching gears, and this is going back to the early days, do you recall hearing Chicago on the radio for the first time and what that was like?

Danny Seraphine:  (laughs) I was driving in my Volkswagen Beetle that had 150,000 miles and had so much play in the steering wheel that you'd have to turn it about a quarter of the way before it would turn, ya know? And I'm driving on the 405.  The San Diego freeway. Beautiful sunny day in California, newly transplanted from Chicago. And we didn't mind the fact that it hadn't rained for six or seven months, because there's nothing but sunshine and flower power and hippies. (laughs)  I'm driving and we had just finished our second album.  If you know the second album, we had a song...it was a whole suite of songs called, "Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon."

And the first time I heard us on the radio, some disc jockey goes, 'And now this is from this new band, Chicago. This is their latest song..."Make Me Smile."' And I almost shit in my pants. (laughs)  Now you must understand, "Make Me Smile" is actually the beginning and the end spliced together.  So I pulled off the freeway.  I got to a payphone and I called our manager, Larry Fitzgerald and started cursing him out like...'Larry, what the 'f' did you do?  What the 'f' did they do to our song?  Why did you let them?  How could you let them do that to our music?'  And Larry said, 'Danny, 75 percent of the radio stations in the country are playing it. We have a hit song!'  I said, 'Larry, can I go buy a Mercedes now?' He said, 'Yep.' (laughs)

"Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon" - Chicago / Tanglewood (1970)



"Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon" continued - Chicago / Tanglewood (1970)


And the next day, Howard Kaufman, at that time the band's accountant and who later became a legendary manager...he and I went to a Mercedes dealership and I bought a new Mercedes.  So, that just goes to show the mentality of musicians, right? (laughs)  But that's the story.  Did I like it?  It worked.  It was Clive Davis' brainchild.  And Jimmy Guercio ended up doing the proper edit.  And it had four bars of me soloing which was playing Buddy Rich/Gene Krupa licks. When did that ever happen?

Casey Chambers:  One of the greatest songs ever.  Just killer.  I remember driving through Buchannon while visiting my grandfather one summer and ordering a sack of pepperoni rolls and we all started talking about that song.  It was kinda cool.  Anyway, you guys were blessed with three great singers.  And everybody in the band was writing songs.  How challenging was it to balance all of that talent?

Danny Seraphine:  Well, it was kind of like a primary election, y'know? (laughs)  Everybody was jockeying and politicking for their songs and in the end that's what it turned into.  In the beginning, it was basically Robert (Lamm) ...of course, he was called Bobby then...and Jimmy (Pankow) who were the main writers.  Robert especially.  He really carried the band on his shoulders for the first few.  But ya know, "Make Me Smile" is a James Pankow composition.  And then Peter (Cetera) got into writing more and he helped me write my first song called, "Lowdown."

Casey Chambers:  Sure, off of "Chicago III." (1971)

Danny Seraphine:  Yeah.  So it was kind of a brotherly thing at first. (laughs)  And then once I became a little more prolific, it became a little more...it was somewhat political.  But that's just the way the band was.  It was like a big family.  Everyone grabbing attention...trying to get their songs on the record.  But sometimes the songs weren't that great, y'know?  You don't necessarily know that when you first write it. You think it's your baby and it's the best thing since sliced bread.  But 50 percent of the time it's shit.  The other 25 or 30 percent of the time it's okay,  And maybe 20 percent or 10 percent is great.  So it was just a process of weeding out.

The guys that were the original writers usually had kind of...seniority.  But as we got further down the line, I began writing.  I wrote "Little One" and "Take Me Back To Chicago" and "Street Player" and "No Tell Lover."  But I never really considered myself to be the writers that James Pankow and Peter Cetera and Robert Lamm were. Or Terry Kath. Terry wrote some really good things too. Terry wrote some really great musical things...like "Introduction" and "An Hour In The Shower" and a bunch of really cool, deep odd cuts. That's where Terry was more in line.  So, it was just the process.  It wasn't always fair.  But that's life.

Casey Chambers:  Brothers in a small room.  Whaddygonnado? (laughs)  2016 and Chicago finally were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.  Congratulations.  It was great to see you and the guys receive that love.  Long over-due.

Danny Seraphine:  Oh, thank you.

Casey Chambers:  What do you recall most about your induction night?

Danny Seraphine:  Well, saying 'fuck' ten times during my speech. (laughs)  And watching the shock of the people in the audience and then feeling myself...'oh my God, what did I just do?' (laughs) After the first time I said it, I think I even said, 'Did I just say that? Oh my God.'

2016 R&R HoF Chicago Induction - (Danny Seraphine @ 10:47mark)


Casey Chambers:  I'll take a speech like that any day.  Whenever I see someone at a podium and their hand starts reaching for notes, I'm usually making a quick raid to the refrigerator 'til the next person steps up to the mic. (laughs)

Danny Seraphine:  Yeah. (laughs)  The only regret I have is I didn't thank my wife and children.  And they all sacrificed so much for me to get there.  I got rushed off the stage.  I mean, I could feel those guys throwing daggers at me and I hadn't seen 'em for 25 years.  So you know, it was a very emotional night.  But it was a great night.

It was a great night, but playing with a click track with "25 Or 6 To 4" and the other songs... ("Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is" and "Saturday In The Park")...I didn't like that at all.  That was pretty unfulfilling.  But, y'know, I think we pulled it off.  I would have loved it if Peter would have come but it didn't work out.  Peter and I are good buddies from a distance. We text and we talk on the phone once in a while.  I did get to see him the last time he was in L.A.  It was a really great reunion.

Casey Chambers:  Who were some of your influences as a drummer?

Danny Seraphine:  Well, some of the obvious ones. My very first drum hero was Gene Krupa and I still play a lot of his licks. And, of course, Buddy Rich was very influential.  I even got to know Buddy.  I didn't get to know Gene and I really regret that because he was still alive when Chicago was happening and I would've loved to have met him.

Casey Chambers:  I read somewhere that Buddy Rich was a really big fan of yours.

Danny Seraphine:  Yeah, I know. That's like having God endorse you. (laughs)  As far as rock drummers go...Mitch Mitchell with Jimi Hendrix.  Hal Blaine is another one I love.  Hal was very influential in his tastefulness.  Then there was Tony Williams.  And the bebop guys.  Papa Jo Jones.  I got to study with him for a period of time.  He taught me how to swing and that's such a signature part of my playing.  So much so that people don't call me because they don't realize I can play straight rock really well too.  And Elvin Jones. Max Roach.  Many of the black R&B drummers.  The Motown guys.  The Motown guys had a big pocket and I feel like my pocket is really based from the Motown era. So, you know, it's been a great ride. It's been a great ride.


Casey Chambers:  It was very cool to learn that you have a book on the shelf that fans can pick up.  "Street Player: My Chicago Story."  So...now an author, too.

Danny Seraphine:  Yeah, I am. (laughs)  It's an autobiography I wrote with the help of Adam Mitchell.  It's all about my life...and time with Chicago.  It reads more like a novel than a biography.  A lot of stories.  If you like Chicago, and the story behind it, it's my perspective.  If you ask each guy separately, there'd be seven different stories in there, but this is mine.  It's a very easy read.  At least that's what people tell me.  They can't put it down.  It's really honest.  Especially about myself.  I left some things out and...I don't regret it.  I think that it rings true for people and they like it.   You can find the book on Amazon in hardcover, paperback and digital.  I don't know what the digital form is these days. (laughs)  But Kindle and books.  And also, if you order it from my website, I'll personalize and autograph it.

Casey Chambers:  Excellent!  Another huge favorite of mine was from "Chicago VI"... "Feelin' Stronger Every Day." (1973)  I love the way you tear into your drums when it speeds up during the coda.  Just killer.  That hits a groove that could go on and on...and I'd let it!  That was also the first album you guys recorded at Caribou.

"Feelin' Stronger Every Day" - Chicago / "Chicago VI" (1973)


Danny Seraphine:  Yeah, it was.  The song was written by Peter and Jimmy and the way we used to work at the ranch was we would first meet for breakfast.  It was breakfast for some guys and it'd probably be lunch for me.  In the mornings, I was usually up earliest 'cause I didn't party that much.  At least not that way.  And I would go out and ride my horse in the mountains.  Just to, y'know, keep me grounded.  It was so serene.  They had a mess hall where they served breakfast, lunch, dinner and then we'd all go over to the studio, which was walking distance because it was all a part of the ranch.

At the studio, we'd start running the tune down.  That's where people would introduce songs and like I said, it would go through a metamorphosis.  In those days, there weren't demo tapes.  And basically Jimmy was playing it on a piano 'cause he helped write it and Peter was singing it and then we would formulate the song...and "Feelin' Stronger..." just kind of evolved.  Then at the end of that song, I used two drum kits.  At the very end where you hear it's getting bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger.  That's me playing two drum kits.  One against each other.  Just doubling.  'Cause I did that on "25 Or 6 To 4" and it was just so, so cool.  And I did it on a few songs.  Once I did it on "25 Or 6 To 4" and people were realizing how good it was, I started doing it on more songs.  So it was extraordinary.  Definitely.  It gets stronger and stronger and stronger and it's relentless.

Casey Chambers:  Hell yeah!  And live, it's an extended jam that ends when it wants to end.  My arms got tired just listening to it. (laughs)  And thanks for letting me cherry-pick.  Probably most already know this, but for the few who don't, you guys had The Beach Boys come add some vocals to the classic, "Wishing You Were Here."  Was that the first time you had met them?

"Wishing You Were Here" - Chicago (live New Years Eve 1974)


Danny Seraphine:  No. No.  They had been hanging out at the Caribou Ranch because Jimmy Guercio had taken over their management.  He knew Dennis and Carl and Al and all the guys.  And they were rehearsing up there because I think Jimmy was playing bass with them too.  And we had already heard Peter's song when the idea came to us...how great it would be to have The Beach Boys sing backgrounds.  Peter sang with them and I think Terry was involved, too.  I got to know Dennis and it became a fun community thing, y'know?  And the song turned out beautifully.

Casey Chambers:  Real quick, what's your favorite Beach Boys song?"

Danny Seraphine:  "God Only Knows" is my favorite by far.  Absolutely my favorite song from The Beach Boys. Well, but then ya have "Good Vibrations." How could anything ever top "Good Vibrations," but "God Only Knows" comes close.

Casey Chambers:  Tell me about your band, CTA.  And I totally get it.  Very cool.  And you have a lot of shows coming up this year.

Danny Seraphine:  Life is good.  I'm performing with former bandmates, Bill Champlin and Jason Scheff.  I was estranged from both of these guys for 20 plus years and we're all really good friends.  We're even talking about doing a project together.  I got a great band called the CTA...California Transit Authority.  If you haven't heard'em, you should. They're that good. And it's really reminiscent of the early Chicago Transit Authority band which to me is one of the greatest bands of all time.  We're playing at a very high level.  And in some ways, I may be a better drummer than I've ever been.  I don't know if that's completely true, but there is some truth to the maturity of where I'm at.  There are still some things I want to accomplish as a player before my days are done, so I need to get to work on it and keep working at it.  We're playing at a very high level.  CTA.  So life is good.

Casey Chambers:  What are a few of your favorite albums?  I know it always changes...but what are a few that strike today?

Danny Seraphine:  That's it.  I have so many.  I mean there was an album...it's obscure, and it's by Gary McFarland called, "America The Beautiful: An Account Of Its Disappearance." (1969)  The first Santana record is amazing.  "Pet Sounds" and "Surf's Up."  The Beatles, "Sgt. Pepper."  There's a number of Beatles albums I just love.   Then there's the first Chicago album.  The fifth album.  "Chicago VII."  The 17th and 19th albums.  Obviously Jimi Hendrix, "Are You Experienced" was a really, really influential album as far as my rock playing goes.  Mitch Mitchell.  So you can put that one in there.  "The Gene Krupa Story" was probably the first album that I bought.  And I used to play along with it.  That one's such an influential part of my playing, too.

Gary McFarland
"America The Beautiful: An Account Of Its Disappearance" (1969)

Casey Chambers:  That first album you mentioned by Gary McFarland.  That's a deep album I'll have to track down.

Danny Seraphine:  Yeah, look him up.  He was a big band arranger and he played in odd times.  If you listened to our song "Introduction"...it was a direct inspiration from him.  But if you're listening to Gary McFarland, it's way cutting edge stuff.  I mean, it's not pop music in any way, shape or form, you know what I mean?   Like Buddy Rich, "West Side Story."  It's all big band instrumental but you'll hear his influence on the early Frank Zappa albums.  "Freak Out" and other really great Zappa albums.

Casey Chambers:  Chicago namedropped Frank Zappa in one of their songs if I remember right. ("Scrapbook")

Danny Seraphine:  Oh, yeah.  Well, we performed with him quite a bit.  He loved our band and obviously, we loved him and his band.

Casey Chambers:  How did your paths cross?

Danny Seraphine:  Well, the very first time we met Frank Zappa...it was when we first came out to L.A.  It was on Venice Beach.  We were playing what's called...they used to call'em "love-ins."  It was a free concert and we were invited to play and Frank was the headliner and there was next to 60,000 people on the beach in Venice.  It was insane.  God, it was insane.  And that was the first place.  And then we went on to play the Fillmore East and the Fillmore West together.  We would talk to him and he was very cool with us.  Very complimentary.  Really loved the band.  In those days, it was really a renaissance in music.

"Saturday in the Park" & "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" - Chicago at the Caribou Ranch (1973)


Casey Chambers:  Danny, thank you so much for taking the time to share a few memory burns from the old days on the fly.  It's been really great talking with you this morning.

Danny Seraphine:  Of course, Casey.  I appreciate it.  Great talking to you, my friend.

Official Danny Seraphine Website

Official CTA The Band Website

"25 Or 6 To 4" - Chicago / Live at Tanglewood (1970)


Good stuff.

Casey Chambers
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5 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is a terrific interview.
Danny seems like a nice guy. I bought a copy of his book "Street Player" and it is a must read for all fans. You're right, their induction in the HOF was long overdue.

Bottom line. The interview is terrific. Thanks for the story.

Barbara said...

Great interview! Love Danny’s stories and great sense of humor! Also loved reading ‘Street Player, My Chicago Story’!

Unknown said...

Enjoyed the interview. Street Player is great read. If you haven't read it you are missing something great. I played drums back in the day. Was always impressed by Danny's drumming. Two drummers made me drop my jaws in awe. Dino Danelli and Danny Seraphine. Both are underrated.

Unknown said...

CTAs first two albums were fantastic. Saw them in person in NY live. They are a powerful force in music, and they were tight that night with A class musicians. Just can't wait for a third album. I hope one is in the works. Great interview and a great book for all Chicago fans.

Unknown said...

What a great interview Casey Little one was definitely one of Chicago's greater songs Danny has really shown that he is a great writer both musically and in literature...True Danny, couldn't put the book down! It always frustrates me with the archives, when I watch the archiveson YouTube of Danny and Chicago and how underrated Danny has always been but I'm sure it's just because he's such a gentleman and was always just moving over for the other guys and letting them shine.
Well done you both :) x