Interview: Robert Lamm of Chicago

Chicago’s Brooklyn Boy Comes Home: Super Group Returns With XXX
By David Chiu

For someone who has been in a successful rock band named after the Windy City, and has played to audiences all over the world, singer, keyboardist and songwriter Robert Lamm still holds Brooklyn close to his heart.

“The reason I’m back in New York,” said Lamm, 61, “was because I always carried images of growing up [in Brooklyn] with me. They’re still very much alive.”

A large part of Lamm’s musical career has been with Chicago, the horn-powered rock group who scored 21 top 10 hits, including three Number One songs, and sold 100 millions records worldwide since 1967. Songs such as “Saturday in the Park,” “If You Leave Me Now,” “Hard Habit to Break,” and “Just You and Me” have been familiar staples on radio.

Chicago’s longevity extends into 2006 with an upcoming show at Radio City Music Hall on May 9. The band recently released its 30th album titled XXX—its first new album of original material in 15 years. The group had originally planned to release a new album, Stone of Sisyphus, in 1993, but it was considered unmarketable by the band’s then-label Warner Bros., and was eventually shelved. Ironically XXX is being released by Rhino, which is part of Warner Music.

The new album was produced Jay DeMarcus of the country group Rascal Flatts, and recorded in Nashville, miles away from Chicago’s home base of Los Angeles. It started indirectly about three years ago when Lamm was recording his solo album, Subtlety and Passion, which featured several members of Chicago.

“Part of why I invited them on my album was to rekindle the flame a little bit,” said Lamm, “to remind them it was fun to make new music.”

XXX’s first single, “Feel,” with Lamm’s distinct baritone lead vocals, might be considered Chicago’s most aggressive and heartfelt song in a while. It was so emotional for Lamm that when the band performed it on the road last year, he almost couldn’t get through the song.

“People just stood up and cheered,” he remembered of the crowd’s reaction. “I’ve never seen that for new material live at a concert before the album is released. I don’t know whether people who came to Chicago concerts who were so relieved that we are playing something new that they have to stand up and cheer. If that’s the case, we’ll take that too.”

One of two songs that Lamm wrote or co-wrote on the album is “Come to Me, Do,” a tender number that recalls the classic Memphis soul sound of the ‘60s.

“I love Al Green and I love that whole Stax era,” said Lamm. That’s where the band started. When we were in college playing in bars and clubs in Chicago and the Midwest, a lot of our repertoire was from that era. I was attempting to write a song that was very stripped down, kind of like an Al Green song.”

Soul music and piano playing were some of the important ingredients in Robert Lamm’s childhood. He was born in Brownsville, grew up Bensonhurst and Bay Ridge, and attended Brooklyn Technical High School. His early musical experience dates back to when he sang in a Brooklyn Heights choir. “It was kind of where I lit up regarding music,” he recalled. “It felt so good.”

The musician would later pay homage to his former home in his own music. “A few years back I wrote a song with Steve Lukather from [the group] Toto, where I kind of talked about what the summers were like in Brooklyn going up to the roof of our building. We could see all the way to Coney Island and the parachute jump. And there were still actually fireflies, and the Good Humor man coming out the block. So I carry all those images with me. I’m just very grateful that’s where I’m from.”

Lamm later moved to Chicago with his family when was 15. Originally an art major in high school, he switched to music when he attended Roosevelt University. In 1967 he hooked up with some musicians and formed a band that became Chicago (They were originally the Big Thing, and later Chicago Transit Authority). “It was a decision of, ‘This sounds interesting, let’s see where it goes,’” he remembered about joining the band.

As keyboardist and singer, Lamm wrote majority of Chicago’s popular ‘70s songs: “Beginnings,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”, “25 or 6 to 4,” and “Saturday in the Park.” He also penned socially- and politically-conscientious numbers such as “A Song for Richard and His Friends,” “Dialogue,” and “Something In This City Changes People.’” Even after 30 years, those particular songs that dealt with the human condition still resonate.

“It’s amazing how pertinent and timely those lyrics remain,” he said. “Obviously when the songs were written it was a very tumultuous time in our country and the world. That’s the time in a young man’s life that you can change things from the bottom up.”

His role as Chicago’s primary singer and songwriter diminished in the ‘80s when the band had a second string of hit songs that were mainly sung by bassist Peter Cetera, who later left the band in 1985.

“I remember when we were having all those hits where I was not being asked to sing. I remember a conversation with our manager Howard Kaufman. I asked, ‘Howard, can you ever envision my voice singing on a single? He said, ‘Not really.’”

Lamm’s solo albums were a reaction to the power ballads that became Chicago’s niche at that point. “I wasn’t going to let it keep me from writing songs and doing what I do,” he said. “When [1992’s] Life Is Good In My Neighborhood was recorded, it was really for me a stretch in learning once again that I could be independent. I knew that I would continue to do solo work on the side as long as I could.”

He is currently working on a bossa nova album, which is allowing him to expand his range as a musician. “I’m really developing a whole new dimension of what I do, and I’m singing in a different way—in a lush setting.”

In addition to playing with Chicago and maintaining a solo career, Lamm is a working artist. His art works can be seen on his web site robertlamm.org. “It’s a therapy without a doubt. It’s been really fun.”

With the new Chicago album due for release, Lamm will continue to keep himself busy on the road. He and Chicago will embark on a tour this summer with Huey Lewis and the News. Next year Chicago will officially turn 40.

“I think we had some very good guidance in the beginning, great encouragement from other musicians, and our families,” Lamm explained about the band’s longevity. “We intuitively at some point realized that the music this band created from the beginning is unique and actually more important than the individuals who make it.”

Chicago’s new album XXX is out now on Rhino Records. For more information on Chicago and Robert Lamm, visit chicagotheband.com and robertlamm.org.

Originally published in Courier-Life Publications on April 26, 2006

Here’s a YouTube clip of Chicago performing “Saturday in the Park” written by Robert Lamm:

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There is one comment

  1. keithosaunders

    That’s interesting — it sounds as if Lamm’s role in the group was marginalised in the 80s when they become a milque toast ballad band. I have often wondered how such a creative, idealistic band was able to make such a U-turn.

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