Seven Questions With Chicago’s Robert Lamm

The singer/keyboardist on the band's early days, the surprise of its biggest single and the longevity of the Stones

Robert Lamm

Robert Lamm

In 1967, DePaul University students Walter Parazaider, James Pankow, and Lee Loughnane went to Roosevelt University to lure you in. Did you have an inkling they were coming?

I didn’t know them. I had no idea who they were, no idea how they got my number. I later found out [they had seen] the little quartet I had been playing with on the North Side [of Chicago]. Nothing more than a cover band. Nothing special. I guess they were looking for a guy who could sing and a guy who could play keyboards. They wanted to know if I was interested in trying to put this thing together, with horns, and I was fascinated by it. For me, the whole key of my fulfillment … I was constantly just writing and experimenting, trying to learn something every time I wrote a song. And these guys were willing to play it. For me, that was just the greatest situation, regardless of whatever success resulted.

Have you ever pondered what your life might have been like had those three lads not come calling for you in college?

My reality has been so skewed by my life. I can only imagine how different my life would have been. I’d like to think I would have been a musician, anyway. But I could not have imagined, or had any way to know, what was about to happen. Of course, nobody does. But the places I’ve gone, the people I’ve met, the experiences I’ve had, the life that I’ve had is all, just … it’s like taking a stroll on the most beautiful path you could imagine, or couldn’t imagine!

Of 35 Top-40 singles, “If You Leave Me Now,” which came out in 1976, garnered the group’s lone Grammy Award. When you first heard it or rehearsed it, did you guys believe it would be such a success?

Just the opposite. The manifesto of the band was to be edgy. We started out as an organic, jazzy, funky psychedelic band. It was the late ’60s and early ’70s. That’s what we were doing, what was working. By [late 1975] we were recording in Colorado. Our producer, Jim Guercio, built a studio outside Boulder. Our thing was eclectic pieces, which included a lot of horns. When Peter Cetera contributed this song, we just kind of looked at each other and said, “Well, we don’t know about this. This is kind of not what we do.” The very soft, tender ambience of the track … it was not anything we couldn’t play. It’s just, we weren’t used to that kind of thing. So, honestly, nobody thought anything would happen. It was the last tune on the Chicago X album to be recorded; we ended up in L.A. doing the string sessions to give it that finish.

So its fabulous reception was surprising?

Yeah. We were stunned. And what we really didn’t realize, at the time, was there was a whole spectrum of people who suddenly were listening to Chicago who had not listened to us before, even though we had sold tens of millions of albums. So, yeah, the 10th  album … it was not just No. 1 on the Billboard charts; it was No. 1 all over the world. I think we went to Europe twice that calendar year; it was such a big hit. And when we got the Grammy … we thought, “This is great!” and, “Let’s not do this again; let’s continue doing what we set out to do.” It changed the way people saw Chicago; it wasn’t what we set out to do, but it was very successful. We still play it at virtually every [concert].

You all have always wanted to be experimental, anyway, so romantic ballads fit that, no?

You know it. I mean, not that we were wanting to prove anything. But the guys in the band have always been accomplished musicians. We’ve continued to grow. As musicians, we can pretty much play anything we put our minds to. So, in that way, it was fulfilling and challenging on some level, which is always good. Most musicians like that; they like to be challenged.

How did “If You Leave Me Now” alter the way people looked at, and heard, the band?

Well, there was a sort of vortex at the end of the ’70s, which is when punk rock and new wave began to emerge. What we had been doing, since the beginning of the band, was kind of a jazz-rock thing, a little more edgy, a little more challenging. We had been doing political-message stuff, commentary. So all of a sudden here was this big romantic worldwide hit. Radio loved it; radio always loves ballads, at least at that time. The record company now wanted more of that, which is what they do. Radio wanted more of that. It wasn’t particularly what we wanted to do. And if you jump to 1981, 1982, we had “Hard to Say I’m Sorry/Get Away,” “You’re the Inspiration” and “Hard Habit to Break,” all in that power-ballad thing. That really kind of made the second coming of Chicago. It changed the way people thought of Chicago, at least in terms of radio play. So here we are, 30 years later, we’re still playing all over the world. And when people come to the shows, a lot of them are a little shocked at how hard we rock. They love it, but they don’t walk in expecting it to be that way.

“We’re on the road [frequently], ordering room service at 3 in the morning. I think that we are far beyond … we’ve accomplished more than the Stones have. [But] I love the Stones.” – Robert Lamm

How about that paradox, doing something you didn’t exactly want to do, but it’s popular, and the radio and record company want more, and that’s popular, but it’s not exactly what you want to do?

Yeah, it’s a paradox. The thing is, what we want to do most is play. We just want to play. So this enabled us to play … well, next year it will be 50 years!

That song and album propelled the group into a busy touring schedule; did those travel plans include Las Vegas?

In those days it was verboten for rock bands to play casinos. We would come play [the Thomas & Mack Center] or the open-air arena at Caesars, but that was by the late ’70s and early ’80s, when the generation that was going to Las Vegas was shifting into the generation that was once the counterculture of the late ’60s, early ’70s. Caesars was first, for a number of years. That was the beginning of that thing. We would pass through Vegas once a year, or once every other year.

The band initially took the name The Big Thing, switched to Chicago Transit Authority, then dropped those last two words. Was the threat of a lawsuit by the Windy City’s municipal transit agency a shock, something to be taken seriously, or a bunch of bluster?

That was just flack, not anything real at all. I don’t want to demean the journalist. Just some flack who thought the idea of there being a lawsuit was a good idea; somebody’s idea of [public relations]. We became Chicago, but not because of a lawsuit. A guy who worked at the record company found his way into the control room, while we were listening to playbacks, and said, “Why don’t you just call yourself Chicago?” We all looked at each other and said, “Good idea.” [The lawsuit threat story] died a long time ago. Let it lie.

Has there been a particular spot on the planet where you’ve found yourself pausing, saying, “Wow!” to yourself?

I’ve had a few of those. We still tour abroad every year, sometimes to Asia, South America, Europe. … It’s just a matter of somehow slowing everything down and really being in the moment, where I was not distracted so much to where I didn’t have that thought, What a life! You just savor it. I could sort of see the sweat on my body evaporating into the air, you know what I mean? And we don’t get many of those; it’s a very distracting world that we live in.

Could you guys have imagined, when you first started out, that you’d still be touring, experiencing success, and having fun nearly 50 years later?

Yes, we’re still having fun. No, we could not have imagined it. We are sort of sprinting into our 50th year. It’s really amazing, how energized, in spite of … our average age now is somewhere in the 50s. But, you know, with the advances in medicine, diet and nutrition [he laughs], we’ve been able to stay pretty healthy.

Is Chicago out to defeat the Rolling Stones in a longevity marathon?

Well, we’re way ahead of them, other than Mick [Jagger], who is pretty much a healthy guy. They only tour, what, every five or six years? Meanwhile, they’re having their blood oxidized on machines … we’re on the road [frequently], ordering room service at 3 in the morning. I think that we are far beyond … we’ve accomplished more than the Stones have. [But] I love the Stones.

As we speak, what was your last gig and how was it typical of your show?

We played an outdoor concert last night in Portland, a venue adjacent to a zoo, with 5,000 people. They were on the lawn, in chairs. People were standing in front of the stage. What I could see was teenagers, all the way up to people who were probably our first fans. So that’s fairly consistent, no matter where in the world we are.

In some sense or spirit, is the talented guitarist Terry Kath, who succumbed to an accidental gunshot wound in January 1978, still with the band?

Yeah. We’ve gone through a number of guitarists. Keith Howland, who has been with us 25 years, grew up attending Chicago concerts with his parents and was really influenced, and absorbed lessons, as a young player will do when he hears another great player. But, yeah, I mean, when we play our repertoire, which is rather large, a lot of it comes from the first album, well, a number of the first albums, the ones Terry played on. And what he played on those recordings is, well, like when a symphony orchestra plays a Mozart piece; the string section plays what Mozart played, goddammit, and that’s it! So a lot of that happens with our repertoire. It’s become the literature.

So, yeah, Terry’s presence is there in the parts that the guitarist plays. We actually start the show, every night, with the first song from the first album, which is called “Introduction.” That was Terry’s first song. [Kath wrote it and sang lead vocals. James Pankow wrote “Alive Again,” the lead track on the April 1978 Hot Streets, as a tribute to Kath’s guiding spirit.] So his presence is right there, from the beginning. But, having said that, we don’t dwell on the past. It’s just part of our DNA.

How did manager Jim Guercio tap into the blending of the band, that no individual was bigger than the spotlight; that it shined on everyone, equally? Has that been the key to success?

Well, yeah. Jim was kind of like our Svengali. It’s something that he raised in conversation; “You know, we see rock bands come and go, and usually it’s because some young ego is out of control.” That sort of thing, with nobody keeping their eye on the ball, or, in this case, nobody keeping their eye on the music. We got that message early on, when we first hit the airwaves and people started writing about us. There was this phrase that was uttered first by him, that Chicago was a creative community … and I think that that was an accurate description. That was the intent, really, to keep it in terms of the ensemble rather than any individual. But we all knew we could contribute on some level. We all assumed the role, from album to album and song to song. That’s really one of the things that has kept us together.

Chicago

July 9, 8 p.m., The Pearl, $69-$188, Palms.com

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