Rock And Blues International Speaks with Robert Lamm

From the July issue of Rock And Blues International magazine – Written by Kevin Wildman

The year was 1969 and I had just left the movie “Easy Rider.” I walked across the street to the local record store to see what new arrivals were in. After looking around for a few minutes, I stumbled across this new album whose cover had caught my attention. On one side was a large logo of the band and on the other was the same logo, but a little bit smaller. I had never heard of the band before, but what struck me was that this was a double vinyl album. Not very many double vinyl albums were being issued in those days, so this was a bit of a rarity. Being a 16-year old kid, finances were a bit slim for me, but I thought, ‘wow, two records for the price of one.’ That’s right, not only was there two records in this release, but it also was the same price as a single album. I immediately bought it and when I got home, I put it on the turntable and began hearing a new kind of music filled with great rock songs filled with horns. The first two sides were packed with some great tunes, such as “Introduction,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is,” “Beginnings,” and “Questions 67 & 68.” By the time I got to side three and heard Terry Kath tear it up on “Free Form Guitar,” and “South California Purples,” I was hooked. Since then I’ve been a Chicago fan, so I’m very happy to see Chicago on the road again.
Since the day I picked up their first album, Chicago, originally known as Chicago Transit Authority has gone on to sell over 100 million albums worldwide, garnering 21 Top 10 singles, 5 consecutive Number One albums, 11 Number One singles, and 5 Gold singles. With 37 albums under their belt, 25 of them have been certified platinum or multi-platinum. The band has received a total of 47 gold and platinum awards. They have also had 20 Top-Ten singles on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart.
Chicago has gone on to release many great songs, including: “Make Me Smile,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?,” “25 or 6 to 4,” “Saturday In The Park,” “Beginnings,” “Questions 67 and 68,” “(I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long,” “Introduction,” “Old Days,” “Free,” “Just You ‘N’ Me,” “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” “If You Leave Me Now,” “Hard To Say I’m Sorry,” “Wake Up Sunshine,” “Hard Habit To Break,” “Baby, What A Big Surprise,” “Colour My World,” “You’re The Inspiration,” and many, many more.

Today’s Chicago lineup: (left to right) Walfredo Reyes Jr., Keith Howland, Neil Donell, Lou Pardini, James Pankow, Robert Lamm, Lee Loughnane, Ray Herrmann, Ramon “Ray” Yslas, Brett Simons

This year, Chicago again returns to the road to perform for their vast fan base. In fact, 2021 marks Chicago’s 54th year of touring. I’m happy to say that I’ve seen just about every Chicago concert that has come through Houston, Texas. Yes, like I said before, Chicago is one of my favorite bands and I just couldn’t wait to see them this year. In fact I saw them again this past month. It was a fantastic concert as I expected.
I had a chance to sit down with original keyboardist and principal songwriter of the band, Robert Lamm, this past month and we discussed the past along with the current tour and what he has been doing during the pandemic. Of course, I shamelessly started out our talk with the same story that I told at the beginning of this article, and he replied back, “Well, you know, that’s great to hear because at that time, we were very aligned with our producer at the time. We were very determined. We were sort of anti-record company, even though we were on a very big label ourselves. We were really interested in trying to give people as much music as we possibly could and later on, music plus posters. We stuffed as many posters as we could into each of the first few albums. It kind of drove the music company crazy, and it definitely cut into their profit margin. That’s for sure.”
Chicago definitely kept up with that for quite a while. When they reached their fourth album, it was a live album. Not just a live album, but a 4 record set, Chicago Live At Carnegie Hall. That was unheard of then. They filled that up with paraphernalia as well… a couple of posters, and even a small booklet. I asked Robert how the record company took that request… Did they look at the band funny? “Yeah,” said Robert, “That was a great album. Fortunately we had a record producer for the first dozen or so albums who really, really, faced those guys down whenever they got a little nervous. But I think that the thing that enables us to do that was that we were very lucky and those albums were very successful. One after the other, they were very successful and that kind of enabled us to continue on to do that for as long as we could. When our sales began to slip some albums later, then all bets were off.”
Record labels seem to have a formula that they work with that makes them demand a top ten single out of just about every band that they work with. Chicago was no exception, they were just cogs in the wheels of the record company. “Yeah, it’s could be almost the same single that you did in the previous album that was a big single. That would be better,” adds Robert. Despite all of the lineup changes that Chicago has gone through all these years, they have barely deviated from the original sound that made them so popular. That’s quite a feat for a band that formed some 54 or 55 years ago. Considering the different backgrounds that all the musicians have come from all these years, Chicago has managed to keep that ‘Chicago sound’. As Robert tells us, “Well luckily I think, whenever we did have a personnel change, usually they were a year or two or a few years younger than we were. So they were already familiar with the music and most of the time anybody who is interested in joining in with us really badly wanted to continue the sound and the tradition that we had started. Replacing Terry Kath was difficult obviously, but the other changes that we had to address by and large were okay and were easy enough to do because as I said, most people coming in more familiar with the music and they really wanted to be a part of this going forward. That was really it. A friend of mine in another band, and I won’t mention the name of the band, who has had had a long career said, every time they had a personnel change, the band got better.” And Robert feels pretty much the same way, with very few exceptions.
Probably one of the hardest things for a band to do after all these years is maintaining their sound and also making the new music sound fresh. “Well, we’ve always been a working band. We very rarely have taken a lot of time off. We love performing and part of staying fresh as a musician and really as a songwriter is to do it… Don’t stop doing it, don’t rest. And I think that, fortunately, we’ve had people in the band who are songwriters including myself. There’s always some curiosity about what else can I learn by writing something new, and that’s it, that’s really essentially what keeps it fresh.”
With the Covid pandemic still looming, I asked Robert about what he has been up to and what has kept him sane throughout this whole process. After touring the world for 54 years, and loosing the last year and a half because of this pandemic, what has he learned about himself. Robert was very candid about this and tells us that he has been working on unfinished pieces and being there with his wife of over 30 yeas has helped him greatly. “Well, the really important thing about it is that I’ve been with the same woman for over 30 years and I realized quickly that I married the right woman. She has made such a difference in my life and I’ve had a year and a half of the most incredible experience of a relationship. I wouldn’t say that I took it for granted before that, because I didn’t, but that’s been the big revelation. Other than that, you know, having a lot of time to really sit down and play and also look at unfinished pieces of music, and really get into serious steps with my lyrics. All of that was made possible by being home and doing a lot of writing. I did a number of co-writing using file sharing, which turned into kind of a demo for the new Chicago Album, which we are now working on.”
The prospect of having a new Chicago album out soon is really exciting for Robert and the rest of the members of the band. However, with Chicago catching up on their touring schedule, they will have to wait a little bit for it. He’s looking at the beginning of next year for the new release “I would say the first quarter of 2022 because when we’re really on the road, we can’t to stop and do the finishing. So we do have a bit of a producer who’s currently mixing the first half of it, and we will be continuing to add parts and decide on what songs are going to be part of the album. Everybody is doing a good job of writing and arranging. Our producer is Joe Thomas, who’s just a great producer and a great musician. So we’re in good hands.”
Robert has stayed in constant contact with the other members of the band throughout the pandemic. Of course, they didn’t hang out as Robert lives in California, James Pankow lives in Nashville and Lee Loughnane lives in Arizona. The rest of the band is even more spread out. “ We didn’t hang out or anything like that,” says Robert. “I live in Southern California, Jimmy (Pankow) lives in Nashville. Lee (Loughnane) lives in Arizona, and the other guys are really all spread out. We would have conversations. We would have conference calls, that kind of thing. We did a lot of chatting about this project. You know, what is it? What’s it going to be? And then some other topics that come up? When you’re in a band, you got to stay in communication. So fortunately, we’ve always had a knack for being pro-band and pro-each other’s happiness as musicians.”
Robert tells us that he and the rest of the band have been preparing for this tour. Each of them has been rehearsing their parts individually at their own homes. Robert tells us that, “ I cannot depend on muscle memory, with the large repertoire that we play. So, about a month ago, I started to play some scales and listen to live recordings from the last time we were out in 2019 and just really listened to what the guys are playing. You know, am I playing too much? Do I need to lay back, you know, that kind of stuff. So I’m really kind of refining and remembering the approach and keeping a big mindful of the music, rather than how I feel about it. So yeah, it does take a little bit of warming up. So I’m basically in the last two weeks of being home. Probably every day out I’ll play a little bit. Just kind of randomly jump around in the 20 or 25 songs that we pull our shows from, and try to be familiar with the material and be ready, you know? Basically, I’m going to be ready.”
In addition to rehearsing on their own, the band will get together a couple of days before the first gig and spend some long hours together rehearsing their show over and over again. When it comes to the individual rehearsals, Robert tells us that, “Everybody’s Honor Bound to do that or not do that, but we will set up a couple days before the first gig we’ll spend some long hours rehearsing, getting back on the same page.”
With the popularity of their repertoire, Chicago has to play a huge percentage of their hits all the time. When people go to their shows, they want to hear certain songs, and Chicago is definitely in tune with their desires. Because of all the hits that they have, there are always songs that the band would love to perform, but find it hard to get them into the show. As Robert reflects on this, he tells us that, “ Yes, that’s kind of been a two-sided coin. I’m glad that people love these songs and it’s too bad that we can’t play more of what I guess you would call the album cuts. We tried from time to time to ignore playing the more popular songs in favor of the some of the album cuts, but the audience and most audiences, would rather we play songs that they hear on the radio all the time. They want to hear in a live context and frankly, I understand it entirely. If I was going to see an artist whom I like, I want to hear the songs that I that I’ve heard often on the radio or off the CD or record. I want to hear that live. I want to hear that band play that live. Can they play it play it live. So I understand the feeling of most audiences. There’s always going to be somebody in the audience that’s dissatisfied or had wished we played this song or that song. We try to keep the show well paced and we try to cover all the bases. We almost always start with the first song that you heard when you first got the first album, ‘Introduction’ by Terry Kath. We almost always start the show with that song
because that’s where we started and it’s also a tip of the cap to Terry Kath.”
Well, Chicago hit the road on the 23rd of last month and their tour of the United States is well under way. Here’s a band that has had their shares of ups and downs, mainly ups… Despite what the world has to throw at them, deaths, illnesses, pandemics, this band continues to tour and produce great music. Personally, I just can’t wait to hear their new album when it comes out this next year. In the meantime, I’m going to go now and put their first album on my turntable now and start listening again and remembering the first day I heard Chicago Transit Authority after I walked out of Easy Rider. (And yes, I still have that same album that I bought in 1969 – not a scratch on it – rock on!).
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