Danny Seraphine
Photo by Tom Copi

At a time when jazz and rock drumming camps were largely polar, Danny Seraphine integrated his skills in both genres into a fresh, vibrant sound that launched megahits. Gregg Bissonette called him “one of my drumming heroes,” and Steve Smith told MD, “Chicago was one of my favorite bands when I was in high school; I bought all of the early records and used to practice to them all the time.”

When the brass-rock unit Chicago burst out with its 1970 sophomore release, Chicago II, the multiple hit singles rotated on the radio as frequently as weather updates. The now classic-rock staples, including the infectious “Make Me Smile,” the rock-riffing “25 or 6 to 4,” and the slow-dance prom favorite “Colour My World,” filled the airwaves. Subsequently, several singles from the group’s 1969 debut album, Chicago Transit Authority, were released, and the hits gushed forth again. In the following decades, that unstoppable multiplatinum momentum eventually made Chicago one of the highest-selling rock/pop acts of all time.

Drummer and cofounder Danny Seraphine was key in creating the sound and success of the long-lived ensemble, and he remains one of rock’s most distinct drum voices. “In addition to blending styles,” Seraphine says, “I wanted to be more than a timekeeper. I wanted to play musically within the song—to be a musical contributor, an integral part of the song.”

Chicago’s sound was branded “jazz rock” partly due to its prominent brass section. More important, Seraphine’s conceptual approach helped give the band its organic heart and soul. Although his grooves were structured from rock and R&B, Seraphine employed the swinging pulse, ensemble interplay, nimble chops, dynamics, fills, and breathing flow of a drummer steeped in jazz.

At age nine, Danny began playing drums in his native Chicago, gathering his earliest inspirations from jazzmen such as Cozy Cole and Gene Krupa. A self-proclaimed “street kid,” the scrappy drummer quit high school and freelanced around town, plying his rock/R&B grooves. His first professional break came at fifteen years old, when he joined Jimmy Ford and the Executives, a local band that backed artists on Dick Clark’s “Caravan of the Stars” road shows. At his first huge trial-by-fire road stop in Pittsburgh, the nervous teen drummer backed Chuck Berry and Lou Christie, among others. He was eventually let go, along with guitarist Terry Kath and reedman Walter Parazaider—an event that turned out to be great fortune. The dismissed musicians promptly recruited their own band, and by 1967 that core evolved into Chicago.

Parazaider introduced Seraphine to DePaul University percussion instructor Bob Tilles. Highly impressed with the budding drummer’s talents, Tilles took Danny under his wing. Seraphine credits his mentor with helping him incorporate jazz into his rock concepts. “He saw something in me that I didn’t see myself,” he remembers. “He’s the person I’m most grateful to.” That concept bloomed further through Seraphine’s later studies with Chuck Flores.

Casual fans may think of Chicago as a “singles” band, but the group’s original signature format was double-LP releases featuring lengthy extended suites. Seraphine showed brilliance for orchestrating the dramatic arc of the lengthy pieces and also transferred that mastery to three-minute singles.

Seraphine demonstrated a wide variety of drumming strengths that defined classic Chicago tracks. His gritty in-the-moment vitality jumps off the vinyl on cuts such as the driving seven-and-a-half-minute workout “I’m a Man,” which also features his pumping solo. On “Free,” he proves himself thoroughly at home with funky R&B. “South California Purples” showcases his funk/rock acumen, including a snapping syncopated bass foot. And his ease with odd time signatures is heard in the daunting 19/8 sections of “Introduction.”

“Saturday in the Park” is a prime example of Seraphine’s artistry in creating imaginative orchestrated parts. On the monster hit “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” Danny straddles an irresistible shuffle/ straight hybrid feel, while “Make Me Smile” opens with a soul syncopation setup, then drives ahead with an irresistible to-the-edge pulse. And on the later pop hit “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” he lays down a clean, grooving mid-tempo pocket.

Digging beyond the hits, fans will also enjoy the drummer deftly steering complex arrangements on progressive cuts such as “Now That You’ve Gone,” and “A Hit by Varèse.” An especially impressive drumming showcase is the album Chicago VII, which includes “Devil’s Sweet,” a number Seraphine cowrote. The ten-minute-plus opus captures the rare sound of the jazzy, colorful brush soloing that Danny honed via studies with the great Jo Jones. The track eventually morphs into fusion territory and climaxes with a probing solo employing sticks.

Also a master of fiery, effective fills, Seraphine has created multiple-bar setups that are often signature features in Chicago’s arrangements. The drummer’s tension-and-release licks snap the band into a higher gear much in the manner of a kicking big band drummer. An especially famed example is the four-bar mini-solo fill from “Make Me Smile.” The unexpected broken-up syncopations suspend tension until finally releasing in quick, cathartic power triplets. It’s an electrifying moment.

A twenty-three-year-long ride with Chicago stretched until 1990, when Seraphine parted ways with the band due to a strained web of musical, personal, and business tensions. His tenure had earned eighteen gold and thirteen platinum albums, including fifty Top 40 hits. Disillusioned and burned out by the music industry, the exhausted drummer took a fifteen-year hiatus from performing.

But in 2006, Seraphine became revitalized and doggedly resharpened his skills. He formed CTA, or California Transit Authority, a stellar lineup performing originals as well as reworkings of Chicago gems. Back in top form, he made a legendary appearance at the 2006 Modern Drummer Festival that was met with an overwhelming response. Soon after, CTA issued its aptly titled debut, Full Circle (2007), followed by Sacred Ground (2013).

Seraphine’s contributions continue to inspire drummers of all ages. As an architect of the enduring, world-renowned Chicago sound, Danny has a legacy that holds a lofty place in the pantheon of rock drumming.