Drumming in the Windy City
By Michael Aubrecht
As a Gen-Xer my original introduction to Chicago came courtesy of Peter Cetara’s hit “The Glory of Love” from the 1986 film The Karate Kid Part II. As a singer and bassist, Cetera left his original band in order to pursue a solo career. Despite his departure Chicago was still respected as one of the top bands of the 1970’s. Being a budding drummer with an interest in unique 70’s music, I examined this rock/jazz fusion band. I was instantly drawn to their classic hits including “25 or 6 to 4” and “Make Me Smile,” as well as their more recent and softer recordings “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” and “You’re the Inspiration.” Satisfying my curiosity I moved on. Like many things experienced in our youth I did not fully appreciate Chicago until many years later. This was especially negligent as the band was second only to The Beach Boys in terms of Billboard singles and albums chart success among American bands.
Fast forward thirty years. I’m driving in my car and the oddly familiar groove of “25 or 6 to 4” comes across the radio. I find myself tapping along on the steering wheel and as soon as I walk through the door I’m upstairs, scrolling through YouTube, looking up Chicago songs. I’m particularly searching for live performances. I find several videos of the band jamming on stage playing all sorts of odd time signatures. As a much older and mature drummer, I try to play along. It’s a lot harder than it looks. The band’s drummer immediately stands out to me and I quickly look up a drum solo that is a flawless mix of rock and jazz. I then move onto a more recent performance of the classic Chicago song “I’m a Man.” Next I discover a teaching video from Drumeo called “The Art of Jazz Rock Drumming.” Finally I find the drummer’s biographical and instructional DVD produced by The Drum Channel. All four instances showcase a monster player that was the backbone of a band that is still immensely respected.
A little while later I’m on Facebook. Due to my writing ventures I have online friendships with all kinds of drummers both professional and amateur. I do a search for that drummer from Chicago who had impressed me. I type in “Danny Seraphine” and there it is…his Facebook page. Looking at an opportunity I “Like” his page and send a “Message” to see if he would be interested in doing an interview. Usually it takes a few days, or weeks, to get a reply. Danny answered the same day. This prompted me to dig in deep to Chicago’s catalog in preparation for the interview. What I found was a unique band that rode a powerful wave of music much different from other groups of that era. Think adding a horn section to a rock band makes it strange? No way. Can a band play in odd time and still hold the audience’s attention? Absolutely. Unlike many of their peers, Chicago did things their way and assembled a legacy of music that is still relevant today. Danny took some time out of his schedule as a drummer and producer to discuss his experiences as a founding member of an epic band.
MA: I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me today Danny. I’m a big fan of your work.
DS: Thank you. It’s my pleasure.
MA: Starting with the obvious, what initially brought you to the drums?
DS: I started really young and I think I was a natural candidate. I had a lot of energy and fire coming out of the womb. My uncle Dominic was a drummer and I remember watching him play. He only played weekends because in those days it was difficult for drummers to make a living as musicians. He was a part-time drummer, but he was very good and serious about it. After watching him play it lit a spark and I started banging on pots and pans, the usual drummer story. My mom recognized my passion for hitting things and signed me up for drum lessons. The rest is history. From there I stayed with it and grew as a player. That was the initial spark, but then I saw “The Gene Krupa Story.” The soundtrack to that film really stuck with me. Gene’s influence really affected my playing. Later it was Buddy’s [Rich] and Elvin’s [Jones] and Tony’s [Williams] playing that changed my entire approach to the drums. All the jazz greats. Then Ringo came along, then Dino Danelli, Mitch Mitchell and the great rock drummers. They all had a profound impact on me. Looking back, they were great influences and they rounded out my playing.
MA: It sounds like you started very young. Did you participate in any school music programs?
DS: No. It is ironic. I did study privately. My first teacher was very good. He really cemented the fundamentals, like traditional grip, technique and the rudiments. He recognized that I was a natural. Later on I went over to matched grip. After Ringo hit the scene everyone wanted to play like him. Ironically it sounded like my playing was related to marching band and school band but I didn’t play in either.
MA: I understand that you studied music frequently as you got older. Can you tell us about that education?
DS: I started to study drums at the age of 16. I had plateaued. I had a teacher early on that was very good and then he moved out of town. Unfortunately the next teacher that I had was not inspiring. I went on my own for a few years. I was cruising along pretty good. Again I had plateaued at a certain level. It coincided when I first started playing with Walt Parazaider and Terry Kath. That was the first real serious band that I was ever in. It was a horn band and Walt was studying at DePaul University. The head of percussion there was Bob Tilles, a renowned educator and session player in Chicago. He told Bob about me and he came out to one of our gigs. Bob actually transcribed a drum part I was playing. During the break he came up and showed me the sheet music. He said “Do you know what you are doing?” I said “no,” I didn’t think about it while I was playing. Bob told me that I could be very special which of course was a huge compliment. He said I’d like to take you on as a student. I had already quit high school so I was a drop-out. There was no way that I was going to go to college, but he took me on as a private student. After he was done teaching for the day at the university he would teach me. Bob was a game-changer. He really elevated my playing. He basically turned me from a drummer into a complete musician. That changed me entirely and really molded my style.
I also studied with a big band drummer named Chuck Flores and I did two years of study under the great jazz drummer Jo Jones. Talk about an remarkable experience. Both of those drummers were brilliant. That’s when I really dug in and began the process of fusing jazz and rock together. That was my goal. It was very clear to me that you could successfully fuse the two together. There were other drummers that were trying to do it. Jazz drummers at the time were trying to play rock but there was no pocket. Rock drummers were trying to play jazz but it had no swing. It was my goal to do both, play in the pocket and swing. That’s been my legacy. I’m a good rock player and a pretty good jazz player so consequently I play both. Quite often I have to play both at the same time.
MA: Do you have a preference between the two?
DS: [long pause] No. I really don’t. I like them both equally. Absolutely not. I have no favorite because when I play “straight rock” like in R&B I enjoy that. When I’m playing “straight swing” with a be-bop feel I really like that too. I really enjoy creating one feel out of the two. It’s become so much a part of me that it’s my thing. That’s my style.
MA: You’ve been able to successfully bridge the gap between the two. Was it difficult?
DS: It took a lot of work. For all the years coming up in Chicago and playing clubs and doing shuffles. You can’t play a good shuffle unless you can swing. Once I could play that it was simple. There are so many elements that cross barriers, especially in music today. Before it was really bad, like when jazz guys tried to play rock, it was terrible. There was no pocket at all and vice versa. It is so gratifying when I can hear players today that can swing. Of course there are many others who can’t. There is so much emphasis today on chops. So much of today’s drumming is focused on playing as fast and as hard as you can. That part disturbers me a little bit. The state of the art of drumming is pretty interesting. Some of the things I see are really great but most of these flashy drummers can’t play in the pocket. There’s no groove. That worries me. You’ve got to remember it’s all about time. That’s our job as drummers.
MA: So it’s fair to say that the level of diversity or well-rounded playing is often overlooked. The focus is elsewhere.
DS: They’re learning on YouTube. There certainly is value to that but the downside is that you have no idea where it’s really coming from. Who’s providing this? Is their technique wrong? Do they have bad habits that you can pick up on? There is also a disconnect from the past. Kid’s today have no idea about the history of drums, the great players, the great performances. Make no mistake. Players like Ringo were a game changer. There are no Ringos around today. I look at Modern Drummer’s Readers Poll. These are all great drummers, but there is no way they are better that the Krupas and the Richs. When I see things like that I scratch my head because there is so much you can learn from those early players. You gotta’ look up to them too.
MA: Drummers today don’t look back far enough. They like a particular drummer, but they don’t research who influenced them, and so on and so on. Kids will look up to someone like Alex Van Halen but they won’t discover Gene Krupa who influenced him.
DS: I wish they would because I think it is important for them. Maybe someday they will because they need to. You see all of these drummers becoming famous on YouTube, but none of them have ever played with a band. That means they never get to play with other musicians. That’s the big disconnect today that bothers me. I don’t dwell on it, but I still recognize it. The lack of pocket, the lack of diversity and the lack of knowledge, that’s what needs work.
MA: Speaking of diversity you have a background of playing all kinds of music, especially with Chicago. I think that approach is what made the band stand apart from its peers at the time. Can you tell us about the founding of Chicago?
DS: The band was made out of musicians that I had played with before. Chicago Transit Authority was formed in ’67. Going back, the band was actually my idea. Walter at the time was working toward getting his degree in clarinet and being groomed for the Chicago Symphony. And Terry had played bass but we knew what a great guitar player he was. He was going to join a band called “Rovin’ Kind.” Their name was changed to “The All Night Steam Press” who were signed to a producer out of Chicago that was a friend of ours named James Guercio. He had produced The Buckinghams and Chad and Jeremy and later became our manager. At that time I was scared that I was going to lose my musical soul mates. Those guys helped mold me into the drummer I was at the time. I went to Walt and said “Let’s do this one more time.” And “I really don’t want to lose you as a collaborator. Let’s put together and all-star band with horns.” Both of us had missed playing with horns because the first band we had played in together had a horn section. He agreed and it took us about five minutes to talk Terry into not going to LA. That was really the beginning of Chicago, which was formed by the three of us. That was the beginning of the band.
MA: Looking back, you had played with horns, which was different from most other bands in the rock genre. What was it like to play for a band that had a rhythm and horn section?
DS: First you have to remember who my first drum hero was in Gene Krupa. Right? I learned to play with “The Gene Krupa Story” LP which was already big band music. It moved me. Of course Bob Tilles turned me onto Buddy Rich. Soon after I became a “Buddy Apostle.” I loved how Buddy musically kicked the band. He set up the horn hits and solos. I tried, and still do, apply that approach to my drumming and the band that I was in. It worked and the guys wrote material that I was able to implement that style for. I like to believe that my playing influenced how they wrote. I don’t think they give me much credit for that but that’s the way it goes. It was like a rock big band. That was my vision and my goal. Obviously the band was deeply seeded in R&B. It was a great combination of players and vocalists that truly, to this day, are members of one of the greatest bands of all time. The original line-up of Chicago was put together that way. It wasn’t formed by accident. We came together to be a machine. A force to be reckoned with of which it was.
MA: You guys formed a cohesive unit. I think everyone who ever heard Chicago’s music would agree. It’s very impressive that a large of a rock band would be able to sound so tight.
DS: We really became close friends as well as band mates. Being in a band requires friendship. That in my opinion is what makes it work. It’s not a perfect relationship. There’s friction, but that makes it work too. Like a family, sometimes you get along and sometimes you don’t. Friction creates tension which drives the music. The friction was not as strong as the friendship. When you have a band that big, you naturally have a lot of referees in your fights. They can step in and put an end to it or call someone out on their bullshit. Back in the day it was truly a together band and there is nothing like that. When you have the collaboration of seven guys in sync with one another it makes for a powerful statement.
MA: In regards to the music, you guys composed songs that used some really unusual time signatures. Other than the “Frank Zappa and Prog bands” of that period, no other rock bands were doing that. Was that intentional or did it just manifest itself in the music?
DS: That was intentional. I mean the writers would do that. Sometimes it would evolve and sometimes it was written right on the spot. For the most part the writers put in the time changes because we listened to so many different kinds of music that used them. As you correctly said, we were influenced by Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention. His use of odd times was inspiring. It made its way into the music and I liked the challenges of playing them. I lived for the pocket, but liked stepping out and exploring other paths. That probably made me stand out from other players at the time.
MA: I listened to a lot of Chicago’s music in preparation for this interview and some of that stuff just confounds me. Your ability to manipulate time signatures is very impressive. The one thing that struck me was that you never went so far as to lose the listener.
DS: Thank you. I appreciate that. The one thing I always tried to do was to make it feel like 4/4. You can’t always do that, but making it feel in a way the audience can still understand works better than going way off on some tangent. My challenge was to make it swing. That is something that I am really proud of and hopefully people see that.
MA: Was there any songs like that which stick out in your mind as being particularly challenging?
DS: Yes. There was a song called “Hit By Varese” off the fifth album I think. There is another song off that same album called “Now That Your Gone” that has a really great Gene Krupa’ish jungle intro. It’s in 5/4 then 3 goes into 3. The introduction off the first album probably has the most recognizable odd time part that starts off in 4/4, the goes to 3/4, then goes to 19/8, then back to 4/4. That is all a direct influence from Don Ellis. His orchestra played in incredibly unusual time signatures. Honestly being able to play odd time signatures is an important part of drumming especially if you have the opportunity to do so. Play in 5. Play in 7. Seven is something that I have always liked playing in. The challenge of playing in odd time is something I really enjoy. Making it so people can still feel the pulse is the challenge. I’m not one of these guys that likes to get so far out that nobody knows where one is. There may be instances where there is value to that but I like to keep the pulse pretty obvious so people can groove. Play across the bar, but keep the band together. You gotta’ be able to make them dance.
MA: You mentioned that some players today are lacking in some areas. Most rock players today wouldn’t even attempt to play that way. Odd time seems like a thing of the past. You have fusion players and guys like Stewart Copeland keeping it alive but it’s not too prevalent in mainstream music.
DS: The problem is that they don’t have the opportunity. There is so much performing going on YouTube with drummers playing along with somebody else’s track. They are getting millions of views but they never played with a band. There are lessons being posted out there by very technical drummers but they tend to be narrow in their scope. Don’t get me wrong. There are tons of great drummers and teachers out there that are doing great things and providing valuable information. Many are teaching the classics like the half-time shuffle, which is now the “Purdie Shuffle,”and the Moeller Technique. They are spreading the story. You have to carry the torch and it is important to carry on the legacy of guys like Max Roach and Jo Jones and the list goes on. Those guys have to be remembered and honored for their contributions. Guys like Joe Morello who had great chops, but knew when and when not to use them. I want to see drumming taken to a whole new level, but still hold on to its past.
MA: I agree that those player’s legacies have remained in the minds of those who have studied them. I wonder how many of the drummers today will be remembered with such reverence years from now.
DS: The one problem that I perceive is that the music business has become somewhat dysfunctional. It doesn’t allow them to be in situations where they can collaborate and create their music. There aren’t very many bands left out there. Musicians now support artists. Being an accompanist is the gig. That is important, but it doesn’t give the drummer room to participate in the process. You just have to hope that these guys start bands of their own. I don’t know the answer to that question. Maybe a lot of them will emerge and create their own following and build a legacy of their own. Nature has a way of correcting itself. You have to believe that the idea of a band, not just a band, but one that lasts comes back. I’m not all doomsday. I am hopeful for the future. There are good musicians out there that no one even knows about.
MA: You co-wrote several songs, including a Top-20 Hit. Where did you find your inspiration for song writing?
DS: Well, most of my musical inspiration, even though I had a lot of ideas, came with a partner. I didn’t play a melodic instrument, so I was dependent on someone with a keyboard. The beginning of my creativity for songs came out in lyrics. I used life experiences about my life and about other people’s lives. That’s where it would start. Of course my strong musical background had a big influence on the musical direction. Especially with time changes and groove. A hit song like “No Tell Lover” was one that I didn’t originally write, but was brought in to do the lyrics. We had done a poor job with the melody and the lyrics weren’t coming out right. I redid the lyrics and Peter rewrote the melody. That was my contribution to that song. After we redid it, the song came out great
Now I had other influences in songs like the background vocals. Peter was such an amazing singer he could pretty much sing anything you could hear. “Take Me Back to Chicago” was written about a friend of mine who was with that band the “Rovin’ Kind.” They were next door to us in LA when we both came out from Chicago. He and I became dear friends and he died very young. No one knew from what, but it was a rare blood disease. That song was written about him. “Street Player” was autobiographical. That was written about me and my experiences growing up on the street. It was about me surviving the trials and tribulations. I probably don’t write enough, but I’m really more of a player than a composer. I’m very proud to have written some things that have turned out really good. Of course that has helped enable me to live because of the royalties.
MA: Speaking of accolades…you have been ranked by Rolling Stone Magazine as one of the top 100 drummers of all time. You received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Cape Breton Drum Festival and a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Montreal Drum Festival. In 2015, the City of Chicago dedicated a block on Chicago’s northwest side as “Honorary Danny Seraphine Way.” And perhaps most importantly, you’ve been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What does all of that mean to you today?
DS: It means a lot. Obviously it is very gratifying to be recognized for your contributions. The Cape Breton was the very first one they had given out. That was a great honor. It was special as it is given by your peers. The same thing with the Montreal award. To get the respect of Bruce Aikens and Ralph Angelillo means a lot to me. Being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a great moment. It’s a great night. It’s a bit of a crowning achievement to a great career. I think I’ve got a Hall of Fame award from Drumhead Magazine too. Being recognized for your drumming is more than I could have ever hoped for. I’m very proud of every award the band and I have received. I’m very lucky to have been a part of all that. I still have ambitions. I’d love to get another cover in Modern Drummer, but in reality I’m not as active as I used to be. They did a nice write-up on my work with Chicago which is really great. The new re-mix of Chicago’s music really brings my drums up front and center. I’m really proud of my performances. Chicago 2 was so conceptually right on the money and well executed. On the first album I was a scared kid. I’m surprised it came out as good as it did. On the second album I came into my own. I figured it out. Sometimes I listen to some cuts across all the albums and I’m pleased to hear some really good drum parts. You can tell I’m embracing the recording studio. Chicago 5 and 7 were also on the mark.
MA: Is there a particular song on any of those albums that personifies Danny Seraphine?
DS: I really have a hard time focusing on one song. If you go to the second album, “In The Country” is one that really stands out in my mind. On the first album “Introduction” really brings alive my playing. There is another one called “Movin’ In.” It’s jazzy and has a half-time shuffle on it. It’s got swing and time changes. I feel like I really nailed it and did something unique. They all kind of personify me. There are some hits and some deep cuts. That’s a rough question.
MA: Looking at the 80’s how did you feel when the band turned toward a lighter direction?
DS: That was an entirely new challenge for me. Playing minimalistic parts can be just as hard as playing the complex and more technical ones. It took a while for me to really embrace and master it. I’m very proud of the drum parts on those lighter songs like “Hard to Say I’m Sorry.” I think the drums still remained important parts of the songs. They are very simple. I think it is very important for all musicians, not just drummers, to play for the song. Taking the approach of having your voice heard appropriately to the composition makes for better music. That comes from listening to all of the great session drummers. Ringo is the perfect example. He played each and every beat that was needed. No more. No less. Charlie Watts is another great example. That’s what makes those guys so great. When you are doing a project like that you need to tap into those drummers. Playing simple beats instead of intricate drum parts worked at that time. Was it as much fun? No. Listen to a song like “Goodbye” or “If You Leave Me Now” and you’ll hear that approach. Once I did it I was very satisfied with it.
MA: Taking a different direction, tell us about your gear. Past or present.
DS: I’ve always been a gear head. I grew up close to the Slingerland factory. My first recording drum kit was a set of Rogers and they were great. I wish I still had them. I’m pissed that I let them go. The first two Chicago albums were recorded using a Rogers kit with a dynasonic wood snare. Sometimes I would also use a piccolo snare. I also used calf heads on the first two albums. That really gave the drums a beautiful tone. I’ve always been a guy that really went after tones. I spent a great deal of time finding that special sound. Back then, if I was going for a deeper sound I would use bigger drums. If I wanted a tighter sound I’d use smaller drums. I’d use different drums for ballads than for up tempo songs. I’d loosen my snare almost to the point of buckling in order to get that huge back-beat. For the third album I started using Slingerlands and I loved it. I would also use Gretch from time to time but those Slingerlands were exceptional. Today I am playing DW which make incredible sounding drums. I’ve been with Drum Workshop since 1987. I absolutely love their snare drums. I still have a couple old Slingerlands that I’ve held on to. They are in great condition.
MA: Did you tour with the same kits that you recorded with?
DS: Sometimes I did. I toured with the white Rogers kit and the copper Slingerland set. I also toured with the black Slingerlands. In the 1970’s I had some white Slingerlands that I used. I had one set-up that had all of the concert toms. So the answer is yes.
MA: You have your own signature drums sticks. What is unique about them?
DS: They have a recessed area in the balance point of the stick. That feature is to help with the grip when your hands are sweating. They were designed for traditional grip but they are almost better for matched. It just keeps your grip on the balance point of the stick.
MA: What kind of projects are you working on now?
DS: Right now the project that I’m working on is on hold. We have a band member who is having some health issues. It’s called “Chicago’s Finest.” It’s me, Bill Champlin, Ray Parker Jr. and Rob McDonald and Bill’s son Will. It’s going to be celebrating the music of the City of Chicago. Obviously there is going to be a lot of Chicago the band in it, but there is also going to be music from all of the bands of Chicago. And the legends. There will be a Gene Krupa cut in there. Sam Cooke and Muddy Waters too.
MA: Is there any chance of the original line-up of Chicago getting back together?
DS: No. I don’t think so. The closest we came to that was at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony. We haven’t been together since and no one has talked about it. It’s unfortunate. I’m really excited about what I’m doing now. It should be really interesting as it is combining music and history. Like I said before, you have to carry the torch. I’m carrying on.
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