Gary James' Interview With Robert Lamm Of

In 1967, Chicago musicians Walter Parazaider, Terry Kath, Danny Seraphine, Lee Loughnane, James Pankow, Robert Lamm and Peter Cetera formed a group with one dream - to blend all the musical diversity from their city Chicago into a new sound - a rock 'n roll band with horns.

That band, "Chicago" and their dream turned into twenty Top Ten singles, twelve Top Ten albums (five of which went to number one) and sales of more than 120 million records.

Robert Lamm wrote many of the group's most famous songs, including "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?", "Beginings", "25 or 6 to 4" and "Saturday In The Park". Robert and Chicago are back on the road, not that they ever left, touring the world. 2004 saw Robert Lamm tour behind his fourth solo album, "Subtlety And Passion" (Blue Infinity).

Robert Lamm talked about his solo album, his early days, Chicago and the business of being a rock musician today.

Q - You know, Chicago played the War Memorial here in Syracuse, N.Y. back in 1972.

A - It sounds right. I can't actually say I remember it.

Q - I think you would remember your opening act. It was Bruce Springsteen.

A - Oh, that guy. Yes I do remember that. That was a very nice tour. It was a great pairing if only to hear Bruce kind of start to come into his own. It was always a great band. So, we got to hang out a little bit. It's one of the benefits of teaming up with another act. You really get to hear somebody as committed to music as you might be.

Q - Besides Springsteen, who else opened for Chicago over the years?

A - The Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, Seals and Crofts. Let me think...

Q - That's good enough. That's a pretty good track record. How is it determined what your itinerary will be?

A - The management and booking agency try to lay things out. We have a very good agency and a very good manager we've had for our entire career. They understand the value of routing tours in a logical manner so that you're not jumping from one time zone to another, back and forth. Although, we have had a little bit of that recently.

Q - And this CD of yours - "Subtlety And Passion"...

A - It's my fourth solo CD. We're about to release a single to Smooth Jazz Radio, which is where I guess people like Michael McDonald, Don Henley, Sting and I are thriving right now because Smooth Jazz instrumentals is not the strength that it once was on these stations. So, now they're looking for guys like us who actually write songs and sing them. So, this first single is actually the first cut on that album, "I Could Tell You Secrets".

Q - You're telling me there are radio stations out there that play only Smooth Jazz?

A - It's a misnomer. As I said, Smooth Jazz at one time was just that. It wasn't traditional jazz. It wasn't modern jazz. It was guys like Kenny G and David Benoit. Younger cats were kind of mixing pop stuff with a kind of jazz sensibility. I'm talking the last ten years. Now the reason it's a misnomer is that these stations are not just playing that kind of music any more. They're playing cuts off the Sting album, Don Henley's stuff, Michael McDonald and now Robert Lamm.

Q - Since you do have a "name", is it harder for you to get airplay or easier?

A - For a solo artist, me, myself, yes it is hard. I don't fit into Adult Contemporary. I don't fit into Top 40. As you know, radio is really segmented now...the way radio stations are programmed. And there are a lot of people clambering to get on tighter and tighter playlists, as you must know.

Q - Thank God for AM radio. They were in part responsible, I would guess, for breaking Chicago. I don't even know how record companies survive anymore.

A - Well, they don't. My album is on an independent label. Almost everybody I know who's been making music for the past twenty to twenty-five years, most of these artists are not being handled at the major companies any more. So, independent labels have taken their place and the advent of digital downloading of music like on Apple iTunes and similar websites. There's a certain amount of piracy on the internet as you know. It's been in the papers ever since the beginning of Napster. By and large, the record companies and artists have realized that, in a sense, it's really the next format. After CDs, music being delivered on the internet is the new format.

Q - So, how do you make money when as fast as one site is shut down, another springs up?

A - Well, I think that probably affects younger bands more than it does established bands. I think our fan base, Chicago and mainstream rock bands, still like to either buy CDs or not break the law. They'll go to a website like Apple 'cause iTunes is incredibly successful. All of my stuff is available for download on iTunes. If someone was to go to Apple iTunes website and download a couple of my songs, I actually make more money than if it were a royalty being paid by a record company.

Q - You found out at a very early age that you could sit down at the piano and pick out songs - play by ear. How unusual is that?

A - It's very normal in rock 'n roll and jazz. Most guys like me, once you start playing, then you realize you start to hit the wall with what you can do instinctively and then, if you want to continue having a life in music, then you begin to study seriously, which I did.

Q - Writing a "hit" song, and notice I emphasize "hit", is that something that comes effortlessly to you?

A - Writing comes not effortlessly because you're sourcing something both from your intellect and from some emotional place. So, it's not easy. It takes work. It takes time. Personally, I'm always trying to do something I haven't done before.

Q - How do you approach songwriting? Do you sit down at a certain time of the day and write? Or do you wait for inspiration to strike?

A - When I know I'm going to have a month at home or I'm writing for a specific project, I like to work in daylight hours. I get up in the morning and start playing and start seeing what's there.

Q - So, you can turn it on and off, more or less?

A - It's kind of like someone who's a sculptor or painter. You walk into your studio and you just start drawing. You sketch something out. Maybe you pick up the paint and start taking that to the canvas. Songwriting is very similar.

Q - When you made the move from Illinois to California, it was reported that the band was making $15 to $20. Is that per man?

A - $15 to $20 a week per man.

Q - How did you survive in California on that kind of money?

A - A lot of grilled cheese and Pepsi.

Q - No one had a day job?

A - No. There were enough of us living in one place to be able to chip in. It's kind of an age old story in any field, whether it's an artist or an actor or a musician. When you're determined that's what you're going to do, you spend all the time that you can doing it. Now, we were also gigging so we made a little bit of money...very little, but, enough to survive. Fortunately, Chicago and the talent that makes up the band, was acknowledged in an ever increasing way from the beginning. By the second year we were together, we were recording our first album.

Q - Did you think of music as a long-term career or was it your intention to just make some money for however long it lasts?

A - Well, you know money never was and still is not the motivating factor. The motivating factor has always been to play music, kind of discover what's there to be found and enjoy the process and enjoy being a musician. That's really always been the motivating factor. That's why we're still together.

Q - When you started the band in 1967, you probably had no idea that this would be your career...or did you?

A - No, I didn't know that this was going to be my career. I was doing what many young men do, just start down a road and see what happens.

Q - How did you handle the pressures that went along with fame? Did you ever lose contact with reality? Did you ever feel like you were invincible?

A - (laughs) I'm sure all that happens. That's classic. All that happens to anyone who has any kind of success in any field. So, yes, all those things happened at various times.

Q - You laugh, but Chicago was and is a big act. You're doing the singing. You're doing the writing. You turn on the radio and there you are. You can get a big head.

A - The benefit of being in a band made up of eight guys who have a pretty good sense of themselves, pretty solid thinking, we basically keep each other from going over the edge in that know, completely losing it.

Q - Are you able to perform your solo material in a Chicago concert?

A - Chicago traditionally has not done any of the solo material that the various members have done over the years. I will be doing my first solo gig in New Zealand, in Auckland. I'm gonna see how that feels. Depending on the success of this next single and the success of the album, I would definitely entertain it. My first loyalty is to Chicago. I have a very serious commitment to being available always for anything Chicago does first. Really, without Chicago, there wouldn't be a Robert Lamm. I've always known that. So, having said that, if I have the time and if there are invitations to perform my solo work, I'll definitely consider them, whether they're in this country or Japan or Europe or wherever.

Q - How different would Chicago be without Robert Lamm?

A - Well, it would be different. Every band is dependent on the chemistry of the individuals. We've certainly had band members leave and the chemistry shifts. There's no escaping that. I think the strength of Chicago is the fact that we have this body of work. We have all these songs that are constantly being played on the radio and television all over the world, constantly. So, in a sense, the band itself is kind of like the New York Philharmonic in a way. It almost doesn't matter who the players are, as long as the music is executed in an admirable way and that's really what we've accomplished.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.

* Chicago has placed 35 songs on The Billboard Hot 100 between 1970 and 1991*

Robert Lamm
Photo from Gary James' Press Kit Collection