Street Player: My Chicago Story By Danny Seraphine Wiley, 304 pp., $24.95.
From their 1967 founding to his unceremonious ouster from the group in 1990, Danny Seraphine provided the pounding backbeat for Chicago, both for the early, raucous jazz/rock material and the later, mellow Top 40 hits.
In Street Player: My Chicago Story, Seraphine writes about his early days running with gangs, his wild ride with the group, and his life afterward. Currently the leader/drummer of California Transit Authority (which has released one record, Full Circle), Seraphine also gives drum clinics around the country and has an upcoming DVD, The Art of Jazz/Rock Drumming.
Rocks Off spoke with the skin-thumper about the book and why Houston has provided two not-so-great memories for him.
RO: Musicians sometimes embellish a shady past, but you actually ran with some pretty tough street gangs. What would your life have been like if you never got that call to join [pre-Chicago] band Jimmy Ford and the Executives?
DS: No one knows, but it wouldn't have been pretty. I quit school, I was confused, and I was with a violent crowd. I wasn't headed in a very good direction, and that call sort of pulled me out of that and put me into music.
RO: I was surprised to read that you know [Mafia figure] Tony "The Ant" Spilotro pretty well. What can you tell me about him that might surprise someone who saw Joe Pesci as a Spilotro-based character in Casino?
DS: He was always really nice to me and cordial. I knew how vicious he could be, because he had that reputation in the neighborhood. He was even proud of me [after Chicago's success] that I came from the neighborhood. But you knew you were around dangerous people. At one point, the FBI came after me [looking into possible band/mafia ties], but I was more scared of the mob than the FBI!
RO: Technically, Blood, Sweat, and Tears was the first major rock act to have horns and jazz leanings, but to me they always simply layered them on top, whereas Chicago wrote the material from the start with horns in mind. Did it seem like a radical combination at the time?
DS: No, because the band that some of us used to be in had horns and we were used to it. And James Pankow's arranging skills and the evolution of my drumming and Terry Kath's blazing guitar and the level of musicianship in the band made it way past the norm. They were a jazz band playing rock, and we were a rock/funk band playing jazz. I always liked them, but they didn't have a guitar player on the level of Terry Kath.
RO: You were the only band member to actually see Terry right after his accidental suicide by pistol, a mental image I can't even fathom ever recovering from. Yet for all his talent, you never hear his name among the top guitarists of the '60s and '70s. Why?
DS: Your guess is as good as mine. He doesn't get the credit he deserves, and I do my part to make sure people never forget about him. I talk about him in my concerts. He's one of the Top 5 rock guitarists who ever lived right up there with Hendrix, Clapton and Jeff Beck. He died way too young and flew under the radar. But I want to keep his memory and his music alive. He's an unsung hero.
RO: Houston is mentioned specifically twice in the book: Once when you were here on a tour about the same time that an impostor Danny Seraphine had burglarized a house.
DS: This guy was doing a lot of bad things in my name around the country, but he was more brazen [in Houston] and it pissed off some powerful people who wanted to get me. I had to have a police escort outside my room. I even went on the radio and said it wasn't me. But I was mad and wanted a piece of this guy. I felt like I was in a movie.
RO: Then Chicago played the 1990 Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, and when you arrived at the hotel, you said it was the first time you'd felt like an outsider in your own band.
DS: I knew something was up when I got the call from [keyboardist Bill] Champlin telling me not to fly in for rehearsals. Now if you're playing big arenas, especially the Houston Astrodome, that's not a normal venue and you have to be prepared for it and have your chops ready.
I felt like it was a set-up. Guys that I had spent the better part of my life with and was comfortable and trusting with...it's hard to describe. I felt like I was on slippery thin ice, and I wasn't confident of my playing. Practicing by yourself with show tapes is not the same as practicing with a live band.
RO: You mention that other members had problems with drugs, alcohol, marriages, even mental issues, and yet were welcomed back. With 20 years of hindsight, do you think it was a foregone conclusion you'd be fired regardless of your playing ability at the time?
DS: No. I understand that Bill and [singer/bassist] Jason [Scheff] were the guys who started the movement to get me out of the band, and [saxophonist] Walt [Parazaider] was angry with me because I'd gotten his brother-in-law fired from the organization and he later he had a stroke and died and Walt blamed me for that.
Everybody had a reason to be pissed off at me, but I had to step on some toes to get things done and keep the band moving forward. Guys were making decisions without clear minds, and I became the de facto leader.
But it turned into a mob scene. [keyboardist/singer] Bobby Lamm even told me later that if he had to do it again, he wouldn't have voted me out of the band. Interestingly, I'm really good friends with Champlin today, and he apologized to me and said that six months after it happened, he knew they'd made a huge mistake. The band went in a different direction, and never recovered. But I realize that I was the master of my own destruction.
RO: More recently, you founded California Transit Authority. And while you do some jazz pieces and originals, a lot of the set list is early Chicago material. How does it feel to revisit those songs?
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DS: It feels good. The guys I'm playing with now have the raw power and energy of the early Chicago. And Marc Bonilla is an amazing guitarist, in a class with Terry.
RO: Finally, Chicago is one of the more glaring omissions from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. If you eventually got inducted, could you play with those guys again?
DS: Oh yeah, definitely. I let it go, as long as they let it go. And I would like Peter to do it as well. He's got to get off his stubborn thing! (laughs). If a reunion [tour] was ever put out there, we should leave our guns and ammunition at the door. We're all still capable of doing it!
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