Chicago, IL

Robert Lamm on Chicago's New LP 'Born for This Moment' and Tour With Brian Wilson

Frank Mastropolo

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Chicago, the self-described "rock and roll band with horns," does everything big. Formed in 1967, Chicago celebrates its 55th anniversary this year with the release on July 15 of a new album, Born for This Moment, their first LP of original songs in eight years. Its first single is "If This Is Goodbye," performed by vocalist and keyboardist Robert Lamm and vocalist Neil Donell.

Chicago's current lineup, 10 members strong, includes three founding members: Lamm, trombonist James Pankow and trumpeter Lee Loughnane. In June the band kicked off its co-headline summer tour with Brian Wilson, whose band includes Beach Boys Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin. It's a reunion of sorts; Chicago first toured with the Beach Boys in the 1970s. Chicago's "Wishing You Were Here" featured vocals by the Beach Boys' Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson and Al Jardine.

Lamm wrote many of Chicago's biggest hits, including "Questions 67 & 68," "Saturday in the Park," "Beginnings," "25 or 6 to 4" and "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" We spoke with Lamm mid-tour about Chicago's resurgence.

After eight years, what jumpstarted the process to get the new album recorded?

Robert Lamm: We were touring the beginning of 2020 and then like everything else, we were stopped in our tracks when Covid-19 emerged. We were doing a residency in Las Vegas at the time. So we all went home and waited for someone to call us and tell us when it was over.

But obviously that was not going to happen. What I realized was that I had never, ever in the years we've been together been home that consistently for that length of time. I just migrated over to the piano in my little studio at home and I just started playing.

I spent most days playing the piano, reviewing music, reviewing my unfinished things. And then I began to reach out to friends and people whom I always wanted to work with or had worked with, writing and whatnot.

Mostly friends. We — this group of people that I migrated to — started writing songs. We were file-sharing back and forth for a couple of years. At some point, towards the middle of 2021, I had forged a relationship with Jim Peterik from the Ides of March, a Chicago guy, and Bruce Gaitsch, who had played guitar on a couple of Chicago projects.

We began writing and doing demos. Jim Peterik and I released a single called "Everything Is Gonna Work Out Fine," which was a real positive ditty that got some play. And this is all without ever being in the same room with Jim or on any of the other projects.

Did you and Peterik click because Ides of March was a horn band?

I think so. It's funny, I had never met Jim Peterik except he was an opening act a few years ago. We traded CDs and that really was the beginning of us. We began writing before there was the pandemic or even the prospect of Chicago doing an all-new album.

Somehow a producer, Joe Thomas, who had worked with Jim Peterik and worked with us at his video studio in Chicago on a couple of projects, heard what we were doing and through Jim he asked, "Would Chicago be interested in a project? I'm a producer for BMG Records and we all think this could be a good late-career project for Chicago."

I said, let me ask my partners. Jimmy Pankow and Lee Loughnane are the remaining partners in the original band.

Like everything, it's like pulling teeth, trying to get the ship going in the same direction. One thing led to another, we did a conference call with the producer, a conference call with management and it was agreed that we would try to record a Chicago album.

I'd done a number of solo projects just to get some oxygen because working in the context of a band like Chicago, with all the touring and all the different philosophies and tastes in music, it's not an easy or comfortable way of working.

"If This Is Goodbye" by Chicago

Chicago's longevity is amazing considering many duos don't even last very long.

We were so lucky to have all the success we had starting in 1969. The band for 10 years was very productive, very active. We were fortunate to have Terry Kath, who was really the driving force right from the get-go.

We had all this success, we had a lot of hits, we were very creative, I thought, and that all ended when Terry died. We were trying to keep it together, which we were able to do, for a couple of decades. But it was never what it once was.

What's the biggest change in its musical approach has the band made in the new album?

First of all, there are only three members who are calling the shots. The rest of the band are great guys, contracted players, top-notch guys. It wasn't as free-flowing as I thought it should be. That's the biggest change now.

To a certain degree it was fun examining what new songs were brought into the project. And working with a different producer. In our career we had major producers, Phil Ramone and David Foster, all great guys and all of a sudden we had someone we were unfamiliar with. For a recording project, we've always needed to have a producer who had our respect and who had respect for what we do. It's a big change.

"Firecracker" by Chicago

I've only heard the first two songs released, "If This Is Goodbye" and "Firecracker." What does the rest of the album sound like?

That's unfortunate because I haven't heard the entire album either. None of us have. I have no idea what the sequence is except I think that "Born for This Moment" is the title track. I know what that one sounds like because it's one of the ones that I wrote.

I could say this: Of the 14 tracks, I wrote or co-wrote 7 of them. And those songs are songs of a veteran singer-songwriter — me. I've spent a lot of years, especially the last 30 years, really off in my own little world of getting a taste of what the newer artists are doing.

The music that's in this new album is worth listening to. For the most part it is different from what you might expect from a Chicago album. We finally have a lead singer, Neil Donell, who is amazing and would remind some people of the tenor that [Peter] Cetera was. He has really hoisted the band on his back and is really delivering as a lead singer. Live audiences responded to him and I hope that if anybody hears this album, you or me, they'll be able to hear what I'm talking about.

Do you sing lead on the songs you've written?

No, Neil and I sing on "If This Is Goodbye," the single, we both sing on "Born for This Moment." I sing a tune called "Our New York Time." But it's Neil. There's a great song called "For the Love" I did and another one, a Brazilian tune called "'The Mermaid' Sereia Do Mar."

Let's talk about the tour. How is working with Brian Wilson again?

Well, we're not really working with Brian Wilson. We're touring with Brian Wilson and his, I'll call his band not the Beach Boys but Brian's Boys. It's a ten-man band. In the last decade or so, Brian tours with guys who had passed through various iterations of the Beach Boys.

They do it very well, they sound great. Brian just turned 80 years old and I think that the audience always loves the Beach Boys repertoire. So it's fun. It harks back to the '70s when the two bands toured together, the original Beach Boys lineup and Chicago. And subsequently a few other tours, the two bands together. But once Carl passed and the Beach Boys were sort of suing each other [laughs] we had very little communication with them.

But this tour, it was really just trying to find a touring artist who could be comfortable touring with Chicago. Brian's was. Brian was comfortable with us.

I've read that Al Jardine and other vocalists joined Chicago on "Wishing You Were Here." That must be a highlight for the audience.

We're in the first month of a two-month tour. The first night we did "Wishing You Were Here" with the Beach Boys and then during our set we did the Beach Boys' "Darlin'" with just our horns playing the horns as they were on that track. But after the first night of "Wishing You Were Here," Brian didn't want to do it because I think he sensed that it wasn't working.

Why does the band never appear on its album covers?

In the beginning with our first manager and producer, Jim Guercio, it was a very conscious effort to try to keep the focus on the music and not the images. Granted, there are tons and tons of photos of the band performing. I think there was one album where we did [Hot Streets] but I don't think it helped sell any records.

I just wondered if anyone in the band said, "My mother would like to see me on an album cover."

Not like that. I'd say when Cetera left the band, I think that was one of the reasons that he left the band. He was really an amazing vocalist and after about 10 albums he started writing songs with David Foster and that was a good move for us and for him. But he wanted some recognition for that. So he wasn't, I guess, comfortable being part of the band. So he went on to have a solo career.

Let's do a lightning round. Favorite keyboardist.

I've always loved Bill Evans.

If you were not in Chicago, what band would you have been a good fit in?

I don't know how good a fit I would have been, but I love Steely Dan. But they already had a keyboard player.

Is there a song you think Chicago could do a great cover of?

Listen, we were never afraid, we used to occasionally do an encore of "Got to Get You Into My Life," the Beatles version. We used to do "Magical Mystery Tour" too.

Why did you choose those songs?

When we were first coming up we were basically doing covers of the Stax/Volt artists. We were doing as much rhythm and soul because we had the horns to do it and the guys to sing it.

What is the best cover of a Chicago song that you've heard?

I don't think I've ever heard a great Chicago song. The thing about the Chicago songs, I'm talking about the repertoire that we started out with, the songs that we still play, whether it's "25 or 6 to 4," "Saturday in the Park" or "Make Me Smile," all these are songs that really require a band like ours to play. The thing about Chicago is the horns are not in the background. The horns are in the front. That's the ticket.

This story appeared in Rock Cellar July 12, 2022.

Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever and the What's Your Rock IQ? Trivia Quiz Book series.

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Frank Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever, one of Best Classic Bands' Best Music Books of 2021; New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make NYC Rock; the What's Your Rock IQ? Trivia Quiz Book series; Ghost Signs: Clues to Downtown New York's Past, winner of the 2021 Independent Publishers Book Award; and Ghost Signs 2: Clues to Uptown New York's Past. Mastropolo is a journalist, photographer, and former ABC News 20/20 producer, winner of the Alfred I. DuPont–Columbia University silver baton. His photography is featured in the Bill Graham Rock & Roll Revolution exhibition.

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