For the past 50 years, Robert Lamm has been a singer, songwriter and keyboardist for the legendary rock band, Chicago. He is still going strong with the band, which in 2016 was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Now in 2017, Lamm has received another top honor—he has been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame (along with current Chicago member James Pankow and former member Peter Cetera).
Lamm wrote and sang lead vocals on many of Chicago’s hit songs. He wrote such classic songs as “25 or 6 to 4,” “Saturday in the Park,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”, “Beginnings,” “Questions 67 & 68,” “Free,” “Dialogue (Part 1 & 2),” “Harry Truman,” “Another Rainy Day in New York City,” “Wake Up Sunshine” and “Getaway.” Notably, he wrote seven songs on the group’s breakthrough debut album, Chicago Transit Authority, which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2014.
Chicago’s lifetime achievements include two Grammy Awards, multiple American Music Awards, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a Chicago street dedicated in their honor, and keys to and proclamations from many U.S. cities. Total record sales now top the 100,000,000 mark, and include 21 Top 10 pop singles and five consecutive #1 albums. Impressively, 25 of their 36 albums have been certified platinum.
The group has continued to write, record and release new material. Their most recent studio album, Chicago XXXVI: Now, was released in July 2014. The album contains seven songs that were co-written by Lamm.
Chicago, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, has toured every year since its inception. The band’s current lineup includes four original members: Lamm, Pankow (trombone & songwriter), Lee Loughnane (trumpet & vocals), and Walt Parazaider (woodwinds). The group recently announced a co-headlining, North American tour with the Doobie Brothers, which starts in California in early June.
Notably, an excellent documentary film about the band has been made, called Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago. The film was originally shown at the Sedona International Film Festival in February 2016, and won the festival’s Best of Fest Audience Choice Award. Two months later, the film won the top documentary award at the Fort Myers Beach Film Festival. Then in January (2017), the film premiered on CNN, and is now available to watch on-demand.
In addition to his work with Chicago, Lamm has recorded and released nine solo albums, including seven studio albums, a live album and a remix album. Here’s his solo discography: Skinny Boy (1974), Life Is Good In My Neighborhood (1993), In My Head (1997; reissued in an expanded edition called Too Many Voices in 2004), Like A Brother (2000; with Gerry Buckley & Carl Wilson), Subtlety & Passion (2003), Leap Of Faith – Live In New Zealand (2005), Living Proof (2012), and Robert Lamm Songs: The JVE ReMixes (2012).
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Robert Lamm. He tells how Chicago was formed, how he wrote some of their classic songs, and he discusses some of his solo albums.
DK: Last year, Chicago was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and now you’ve been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. What has it meant to you, to be honored by both Hall of Fames?
Robert Lamm: For sure, it’s surprising, and it’s gratifying. I always wanted to be a songwriter, and be a composer. I was lucky enough to back into the rhythm section of a great band very early in my career. But I’ve always sort of had my head down in the work, and not really paying attention to or thinking about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame or Songwriters Hall of Fame as a goal. I’ve always been more interested in writing the next song, and trying to make something better than the last one. But at the same time, I am most grateful for both honors. Both honors are very flattering, because mostly it comes from our peers.
DK: Going back to the early days of Chicago, how did Chicago form as a group?
Lamm: Chicago was founded in the city of Chicago. The three horn players (James Pankow, Lee Loughnane and Walter Parazaider) were all music majors in college—two were at DePaul University and one was at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. I was at Roosevelt University, and Terry (Kath), Danny (Seraphine) and Peter (Cetera) were working in cover bands around the city. But it was really Walt and Terry who had the idea of doing a rock band with expanded instrumentation. They had played together in a band that backed up all the rock acts on Dick Clark’s Cavalcade of Stars show.
Somehow, I think that that one of them, or both of them, had come into a club where I was playing with a quartet on the North Side of Chicago. I think I was also in school at the time. One of them got a hold of me, and described the idea of [a band] doing pop songs, doing cover songs, and being able to do tunes with horns. All of that sounded great. I said “Wow, I would love to do that.” So I was invited to come and jam with them, and then I was invited to join the band. Then about a year later, we invited Peter Cetera to join the band as the bass player. This all happened in the city of Chicago.
DK: I read in your bio, that you were originally from New York. Is that correct?
Lamm: Yeah, I grew up in Brooklyn. I did my first two years of high school in Brooklyn. My mom remarried and so we resettled in Chicago. So I finished high school in Chicago and I then went on to college there.
DK: On the band’s first album, Chicago Transit Authority, you wrote 7 out of the 12 songs. Did you write some of the songs before the band was formed?
Here’s a video of Chicago performing their hit, “Saturday In The Park.”
Lamm: There is a song, “Wake Up Sunshine,” on the second album that was written before Chicago was a band. But all the other songs that were written for Chicago were pretty much written after the band was formed.
We had gotten together in ’67, and we were gigging around the Midwest until mid-’68. Then we moved to the West Coast and continued to gig around locally. But while we were doing that, we were writing songs. Most of the songs for our first album were written after we moved to California. And in the meantime, our producer Jim Guercio was doing the business stuff, and he was trying to get us a record deal. We were playing at The Whiskey A Go Go club a lot, so some record guys came in to listen to us, and eventually we got a deal.
DK: Your band did something unusual at the time, which was to release several double albums. How did the group decide to release double albums?
Lamm: We had this great producer, Jim Guercio, who also was from Chicago. He already had his foot in the record business. At the time, he had a presence at Columbia Records, which is where we ended up. He was privy to our rehearsals, and what we had been writing and what we had been listening to, and he was [figuring out] some kind of structure for these songs that we were writing.
This was 1968, going into 1969, and at the time there was a lot of psychedelia. There was the beginnings of jazz/fusion. There were extended solos happening all of a sudden in rock and pop records. So Jim already was thinking…this music won’t be able to be contained on a single album, to get an overview of what this band was doing. You couldn’t really capture what this band was doing on one (vinyl) LP, which held maybe 34 minutes of music on it. So I think that when he went in to negotiate with Columbia Records, he said, “These guys are doing extraordinary work—it’s not your normal pop band.” So Jim was able to negotiate the freedom and the logic of recording a double album, which we continued to do until they made us stop (laughs).
DK: Let’s talk about some of your songs. “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” is such a classic. What inspired you to write this song?
Lamm: You know, I’d have to answer that question, as I would answer any question about my songs, with “Who knows where that stuff comes from? But definitely, all of my songs are, if not autobiographical, are at least a result of my observing…you people. (laughs). So I sort of had this story in my head, to draw upon for the lyric.
I’ve written many songs that (music) critics and I call…quirky. I think “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” is not a complicated song, but it’s certainly a quirky song. But that was my intent. I wanted to write something that wasn’t ordinary, that wasn’t blues-based, that didn’t have ice cream changes (traditional chord progessions), and would allow the horns to shine and give (trumpeter) Lee Loughnane a solo. So all that was the intent.
Here’s a video of Chicago performing their hit, “Beginnings.”
DK: Chicago is known as the “rock band with horns.” So when you were writing for the band, were you envisioning the horn parts as you were writing the songs?
Lamm: Yes, always. In the beginning, it was mostly Jimmy Pankow and myself doing the writing. We’d just come out of school, so we were into scoring all the parts. So when it came to rehearsals and even recording sessions, we always had the music in front of us. So while I was writing songs like “Questions 67 & 68” and “Beginnings,” I always had the horn parts sketched in.
[In the band] I was in close contact with three, really good players who knew their horn. Pankow was already a very good arranger, so I learned a lot from him. I also learned a lot by making mistakes. If I was writing three-part stuff, occasionally when I was scoring it, I would be writing in the wrong range for let’s say, the tenor sax. Or too high for the trombone, which is in the bass staff. So those were all things I learned by doing.
DK: Some of your songs like “25 or 6 to 4” and “Free” are harder-edged rock songs that featured electric guitar riffs. Do you also play guitar, and did you write those songs on guitar?
Lamm: I have written songs using a guitar, but I’m not (really) a guitar player. So on “25 or 6 to 4” or the opening riffs to “Free” or “Beginnings,” I wrote those on guitar. I just kind of taught myself how to play. So I would play those changes, and then I showed them to Terry (Kath, original lead guitarist), and he’d say “Oh yeah, okay,” and he made it look easy. It was just a way to make sure that he saw how I was voicing things on the guitar. He was seeing the voicings and the range that I was hoping he would, and he got it right away.
DK: Your song “25 or 6 to 4” has a unique title. How did you come up with this title and song?
Lamm: This song is about writing the song. I wrote the song in the middle of the night, in the a.m. The 25 or 6 to 4 is about the hands of the clock, when one hand was between the 25 and 6 on the clock, and the other hand was near 4 (o’clock). So I would be looking at the clock while I wrote this song.
DK: When you were writing songs, did you usually write the music first, or did you sometimes write the lyrics first?
Lamm: It’s certainly happened both ways. I’d often start with a musical idea. [Also] I keep notes of lyric sketches in a separate file. And sometimes, if I had what I thought was a good verse and chorus going, then I would look through the lyric files and maybe I’d see a line or two that might lend itself to expanding upon. But a song like “Dialogue” for instance, that’s a song where I was actually on the road and I woke up in the middle of the night. I had the entire melody and the changes in my mind, so I just got out of bed and walked over to the desk, and I wrote the lyrics to what I was hearing in my head. I wish that would happen more (laughs). But that was one of the few occasions when that song came to me from some place else.
Here’s a video of Chicago performing their hit “Does Anybody Really
Know What Time It Is?”
DK: Your song “Saturday In The Park” has such a classic piano intro. Did you write the piano part first on this song?
Lamm: Well you know, I didn’t write it…I just found it. As most songwriters do, they just sit down and start playing, and it’s that old process of thinking, “I wonder what would happen if went from here to there?” And so that was very much that kind of thing. The opening passage to “Saturday In The Park” was just something I found and discovered. The voicings…my hands fell onto them, and I thought “Hey, this could be a song!” (laughs). So then I just continued on. You know, songs happen, at least for me, in a sequence where you get so far and then you’re nowhere, so you need to explore further. And then you take it a little further, and then you hit another wall, and then you look for the most interesting direction to move from this point. So “Saturday In The Park” was very much one of those. But I will say that lyrically, the lyrics came from viewing a film that I shot in Central Park (in New York City) in the summer, on a Super 8 camera. It was edited together, and once I edited the footage I had, then I just described (in the song) what I was looking at and made lyrics of it.
DK: More recently, I noticed that you wrote many of the songs on Chicago’s latest album, Chicago XXXVI: Now. Can you tell me about this album?
Lamm: It was an album that we recorded while touring. We recorded it in sections. All of the horn stuff and most of the vocals were recorded in hotel rooms. Guitar overdubs and drum overdubs were recorded during soundchecks in various venues around the world. Lee (Loughnane) wrote a great song called “America,” and that was during the Obama administration when nothing could get done because Republicans were basically stopping any initiative he had. So we wrote a powerful song criticizing that. I wrote a song called “Naked in the Garden of Allah,” which was critical of what’s been going on for at least 20 years now in the Middle East. And there are some other really great songs. As you can imagine because I’ve been doing this my entire life, my songwriting has gotten more sophisticated and the lyrics are even better than anything I could have written, you know, in 1970. So what’s interesting is that the songwriting is alive and well on our most recent albums. And actually as we speak now, as we prepare to go out on tour this summer with the Doobie Brothers, we are also now sharing files with each other, for new songs for a new album. There’s a definite arc of artistic creativity and productive energy that goes from the ‘70s right through the millennium. So that’s something that I’m very proud of, not only for the work I’ve done, but for my bandmates as well.
DK: You’ve recorded a good number of solo albums over the years. For fans of Chicago who want to explore your solo work, which albums would you recommend they check out first?
Lamm: There’s an album called Subtlety & Passion—it was written and recorded during a time when the band was not interested in recording new music for several years. So this album is sort of my homage to Chicago, because I did write some brass parts. But the arrangements and the recording and the general texture of the songs are very modern. The album came out in 2004. So I would say [if you’re] transitioning from listening to Chicago to listening to a Lamm solo album, that would be a good place to start. Then a few years later, I did an album called Living Proof, which is a little more in a singer/songwriter style. Instead of using any brass, I was doing string quartet stuff along with the rhythm section. It also had very good songs—there’s a great song called “Out of the Blue” which a lot of people have remarked about.
Here’s a video of Chicago performing their hit, “25 or 6 to 4.”
With my solo career, I can do pretty much anything that I want, so I’m now doing a retrospective of sort of the greatest hits of my solo career, and it includes a number of electronica remixes because that’s the thing I’ve been into for a while. So this new album is called Time Chill, and it’s coming out in June.
DK: Last year, there was an excellent documentary about the band (Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago) that was released. Can you discuss the making of this film?
Lamm: Well, that was a project that was initiated by the band’s manager, Peter Schivarelli, and Lee Loughnane. One of the newer guys in the band, Lou Pardini, has a nephew Peter Pardini, who is a USC film graduate. Peter ended up being the director and editor of the film; he shot a lot of the footage. Basically, he traveled with us for a couple years. I guess the time was right to do it. I was always of the opinion that it was too soon to do a documentary about Chicago, but I’ve been proven wrong (laughs), because the film has gotten great reviews and has won some awards. And it’s really kind of contributed to what started a few years ago. There started to be a general, critical re-examination of Chicago, which has been very positive. So as a result, we’re performing more than ever, and our current lineup has a new lead singer & bass player Jeff Coffey, who came in last year. It’s just the whole thing. The documentary has helped push us along into another level and into another era of the band, which is very exciting.