The band originally known as Chicago Transit Authority, which was shortened to just Chicago after their first album, are finally being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April. After forming in 1967, the band has gone on to sell over 100 million albums world-wide including five #1 albums and 21 top-ten singles. The band has been very active touring, playing both solo and co-headlining shows with Earth, Wind and Fire. Chicago will be playing a sold-out show at the Packard Music Hall in Warren, Ohio on February 28th.
Chicago’s long time bassist and lead vocalist Jason Scheff recently called NEO Music Scene to discuss his career, the bands induction into the Rock Hall and, of course, their upcoming appearance at Packard Music Hall.
Greg Drugan: First of all, congratulations on Chicago finally getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! It’s been long overdue!
Jason Scheff: Yeah, isn’t that something? Over the years, there have been a lot of other bands that are in the same situation where they certainly deserved to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame based on their body of work. Any hall of fame has to look at the who, what, where and when and it’s not an easy task. At the end of the day, when a band like Chicago or any other band that gets in, all is right with the world.
GD: You have been in the band for over 30 years. I don’t know what the Hall of Fame’s reference point is, but I feel that your name should be on the list as an inductee as well as the original guys in Chicago. Based on the songs you’ve written and your contributions to the band, it doesn’t make sense to me that you are not being inducted. What are your feelings on that?
JS: That’s a great question. When I was a kid growing up and first getting exposed to music, if you were to ask me as a kid here’s what’s going to happen: you are going to get an opportunity at 23-years old to join a legendary group at the peak of their commercial success, and you are going to be the guy that replaces the voice of the band at the time. You are going to sing on one of the biggest hits the band has ever had in “Will You Still Love Me” and you are going to write some pretty big songs for the band like “What Kind of Man Would I Be” and you are going to have this phenomenal run. Then all of a sudden, they’re going to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and they decide that they are going to go with that original lineup but they leave you off. Really, that’s the trade off. Your name won’t be on that list, but you’re going to be a part of it. Think about this for a second. Go back as a twelve-year old kid, or even as a twenty-two year old kid, the year before I joined the band and they said “Here’s how it’s going to be played out.” I think most of us would say “Where do I sign?”
GD: Exactly! Sign me up!
JS: All those years the band wasn’t in the Hall of Fame, I thought: ask so many (bands) that are in, that maybe were only together two, three or five years. Ask them if they could only choose one, you can be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or you can have a thirty-year career with all of those things that I mentioned. What’s your choice? I say give me my career. So it really doesn’t bother me. I’m just excited to go and be a part of this event. Keep the perspective about being a team player. It’s not about you, it’s about the band! That’s really a great question and I’m glad you asked.
GD: Well, thanks! I am also I coach and I’m all about being a team player so I can appreciate that! Peter Cetera has publically stated that he would like all current and former members of Chicago to perform at the induction ceremony. Is that going to happen?
JS: The four original members that are still in the band as well as Peter and Danny; it’s really between those guys. I’ve heard some things going back and forth. I look at it as what the fans want and I hope we are able to give them what they want. But that’s really not my area! (Chicago just announced that Peter Cetera has chosen not to attend the ceremony.)
GD: Final question on the Hall of Fame. I think with this year’s class the Hall has righted some wrongs by inducting some overdue bands like Chicago, Deep Purple and Cheap Trick. Is there someone out there that you would like to see get in that isn’t currently in the Hall of Fame?
JS: You know, I haven’t really paid a lot of attention to who is and who isn’t in. I think it got almost comical for bands like Chicago who have been eligible for more than 20 years to not to be even on the ballot. Some of the other guys in the band and me personally haven’t been following it. Although it looks like this year they have righted the ship. Not putting in someone who is super trendy or slick and cool which has been Rolling Stone’s sort of shortcoming. I think maybe some board members have changed and maybe they started thinking: “Hey, this is the Hall of Fame and let’s make sure this is accurate.” As far as who is eligible, let’s start with Yes; they were up for it this year but it didn’t happen. Yes deserves to be in there!
GD: I agree.
GD: Your father was a renowned bassist who played with Elvis. Did you ever go on tour with your dad?
JS: I never went on tour but my dad did arrange a great experience for me and my brother. They were playing Vegas, and it was the last time Elvis played Vegas before he passed. My dad flew us out there and he said I got you guys a great seat in the percussion stand. So Darren went to the first show, and we had to buy black shirts so we looked like we were in the band, and I went to the second one. Back then he did two shows in one day. We walk up to the percussion stand and the percussionist said: “Do you want to look like you’re doing something? Here’s a tambourine.” So I actually played tambourine with the opening acts but I didn’t play with Elvis. I got nervous and was afraid that Elvis might spin around and say (in his best Elvis voice) “Who’s throwing my time off like that?” So the truth is I played with the first two acts, but I was on that stage. Now, Chicago has played several times on what was the Hilton Hotel back then. Where I was standing is where Robert Lamm stands for our shows and it’s kinda neat to catch that vibe again.
GD: Wow, talk about coming full circle. Who were some of your early musical influences?
JS: Yes, my mother had a bunch of 8-track tapes and I remember hearing The Carpenters, Bread, Elton John and Led Zeppelin- the one with Black Dog on it. So that was early on but when I started to play music, certainly it was Elton John. Then I wanted to be tough and cool so I got into KISS for awhile. Then I graduated into some hard hitting funk so Earth, Wind and Fire became a big part of my life along with The Average White Band. Then I discovered Stanley Clark and Chick Corea then Jaco (Pastorius) came on the scene. My three biggest influences as bass players are Dee Murray from Elton John, Verdine White from Earth, Wind and Fire and Jaco Pastorius. As far as singers, I would say Elton John, Maurice White- rest in peace, and Philip Bailey.
GD: Those are some great ones. Do you remember the first record you bought with your own money?
JS: Yes, I do remember but I don’t think it was with my own money. My grandmother gave me the money to go buy the 45 single of “Rocket Man” and I wore that out!
GD: I read that you were hanging out with some guys who eventually formed Ratt. Who were some of the guys that you were hanging out with and playing with in the late 70s and early 80s?
JS: I was in a band called Coco Blue when I was 15 and there was one kid named Todd Howard who went on to play with Cheap Trick and Ted Nugent. There was a rival band from Claremont, CA with a name like Excalibur which was a classic rock cover band. They ended up becoming Mickey Ratt. So I barely met those guys hanging out at parties but I do remember this one kid who was tall and real good looking, a rock-star-looking-guy, named Robin Crosby (Ratt’s guitarist). A few years later I ran into him in California and they were huge rock stars; I was in Chicago by then but people get weird sometimes and standoffish. But Robin was so sweet to me. We were laughing saying can you believe two guys from San Diego that used to go to parties together, now make it to this? He struggled with substance addiction and it brought him all the way down. I hated hearing about that because he was such a sweet man. So he was the only person I knew who had any real connection to Ratt.
GD: How did end up auditioning for Chicago in 1985?
JS: I was playing in Top 40 bands and a friend of mine got a publishing deal in the A&M publishing division. When he got his publishing deal, they started connecting him to all these amazing artists. So I saw that we both started to have opportunities to get some demos and some (possible) record deals. I decided that I needed to do this for myself, so I signed a publishing deal with the idea that I wanted someone to talk about me. Within three months, Warner Brothers, who happened to have Peter Cetera and Chicago, called my publishing company asking if they had any songs for Peter Cetera’s solo album and/or somebody to write with him. As the story goes, they sent my three songs over there (to Warner Bros.). They (publishing company) got a phone call back asking who was singing those songs. They said the writer was. So they hung up and my publisher called me and said that something was going on, they didn’t know what it was but I should be prepared! I thought: prepared for what? A week later, the tape got over to Warner Bros. and everybody from management to all the members of Chicago listened to it. Then we got a call saying we think that you are a great prospect to be the new lead singer for Chicago.
Can you believe that?! So here I am at 23, dealing with my own substance abuse problems. This opportunity comes up, and I was getting the reps, and taking vocal lessons. I was preparing for this opportunity that I had no idea that was coming up, but I was ready for it. So we go in and record Chicago 18 and I was ready for it! I wasn’t ready for some of the other stuff, such as touring full time. Then I had to take care of this substance issue and I did. We did the first tour and I decided I had to deal with this, so I went to rehab. Now I have been clean and sober for 29 years.
GD: That’s a great story and congratulations on being sober. You co-wrote “Heart of Mine” which was a hit for Boz Scaggs. Why didn’t Chicago record it?
JS: Great question. That was actually one of the three songs that got me in the band. We started recording Chicago 18 and people thought that we should record it. But David Foster said that he and I were going to write something better. So he was looking for the big power ballad to follow up the hits from Chicago 17 that had “Hard Habit to Break” and “You’re the Inspiration.” So he and one of my best friends, Tom Kean, and Richard Baskin wrote “Will You Still Love Me.” So that was the song we used instead of “Heart of Mine.”
GD: Well that worked out for everyone. I watched Journey’s concert video with Arnel Pineda. I thought it was a very classy move to introduce yourself and tell Arnel you know what it’s like to replace the lead singer in a band. You really made a huge impact on him and it calmed him down for that show. Are you still in touch with him?
JS: Yeah, funny you should ask that because we just played in Manila and he came out and sang with us. It was such a neat moment before the gig, we were standing around talking and he pointed over to me and said “That’s the guy! This is the one who showed me what’s possible.” I thought that was so sweet. So let’s go back again. Thinking at a young age, and the possible impact you will have. You should stop thinking about yourself so much and worrying about your name being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but not having a guy like Arnel Pineda say that this is a guy who showed me what’s possible. Sorry, but that is an easy decision to make.
GD: Wow, I didn’t know he sang with you. What song did he sing?
JS: “You’re the Inspiration” and he killed it in a good way. It’s on YouTube.
GD: That is very fitting. Chicago recently just got done touring Asia. How do Asian audiences compare to American audiences?
JS: The differences are that cultures like Japan and Malaysia, they are a lot more reserved in showing how they feel during the songs. In Japan, they are a lot more demonstrative today but back in the day it almost seemed like they were bored. But they thought it was rude to show appreciation. It has gotten more demonstrative, but not rowdy. The one thing that they adore is the love songs, they LOVE the ballads! I’m lucky because I get to sing most of those.
GD: I know that Chicago has toured with Earth, Wind and Fire before and I think you are going out on tour with them again this spring. Did you ever have the chance to work with or play with Maurice White?
JS: I didn’t and that absolutely destroys me. He was too ill by the time we started touring together. It was one of those deals where I didn’t get to work with him directly but I did get to work with the band. He was at one of our early rehearsals about ten years ago when we first toured with them. I walked by and he stopped and said “I dig your voice, man.” That meant everything to me.
GD: You guys have toured with a lot of different bands like the Doobie Brothers and REO Speedwagon, is there anybody out there that you would like to tour with that you haven’t?
JS: Journey! Arnel is my buddy and Jonathan Cain is a very good friend of mine. Our managers have been trying to work it out and I will continue to try because I believe that would be a phenomenal tour! I believe that we have proven with Earth, Wind and Fire that the package tour doesn’t have to be genre specific. I’ve heard from their camp that Journey really considers themselves a rock band. But let’s not forget something; Journey is a huge ballad band! I’m going on record, if we can put together a tour like that, you watch and see how successful it is. Because the common ground are those power ballads!
GD: You are playing a sold-out Packard Music Hall in Warren in a couple of weeks. What can we expect from this show?
JS: You can expect a lot of music! We do a very long show with an intermission. People will hear pretty much everything they want to hear. We made it a long show so people don’t leave empty handed. We do what we call an acoustic set right before intermission. We play a big hit in a stripped-down version and that’s all I’m going to tell you so I won’t blow the surprise. You are going to love it because the band is firing on all twelve cylinders!
GD: Thank you so much for your time and I look forward to your show.
JS: Take care, coach!
Jason Scheff and the rest of Chicago will be playing the Packard Music Hall on February 28th. Chicago and Earth, Wind and Fire will be playing Nationwide Arena in Columbus on April 5. More information on Chicago can be found at chicagotheband.com