by Patrick Berkery
“If you think Chicago is your mom’s band, then, man, I want to party with your mom!” So said Matchbox 20 singer Rob Thomas upon inducting Chicago into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April 2016. And even a short amount of time spent listening to the blistering performances on the band’s 1970 sophmore release, featuring a young and hungry Danny Seraphine on drums, supports RT’s sentiment.
Dismiss Chicago as lite-rock mom-core at your own peril. Discerning mothers, fans of deep classic rock, and Rob Thomas all know that long before singer/bassist Peter Cetera and producer David Foster steered the band toward dullsville in the ’80s with ballads like “You’re the Inspiration” and “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” Chicago was a seven-headed musical force. Jimi Hendrix recognized it too. He famously said that the Windy City band’s three-piece horn section sounded like one set of lungs, and that force-of-nature guitarist Terry Kath was better than he was. When one of the most innovative and influential musicians of all time gives such glowing props, you know the shit is legit.
Early on especially, Chicago mirrored its hometown’s diverse musical influences, ambitiously merging jazz, soul, rock, and blues into a series of howling rockers, sweet ballads, intricate song suites, and pop gems that stood out among the many strains of rock (psychedelic, heavy, progressive, folk) taking hold during the late ’60s. Helping to glue together these pieces of a unique musical puzzle was Danny Seraphine, a jazz-rooted drummer who could whiz around the kit like Mitch Mitchell, lean into the groove like Bernard Purdie, and make it swing like Buddy Rich.
Chicago’s breakthrough 1970 sophomore album—a double, like many of the group’s early releases—was recently reissued (again) as Chicago II: The Steven Wilson Remix, featuring a new stereo mix. Another fitting subtitle would be Danny Seraphine’s Greatest Hits, Volume 1, as the record compiles much of the drummer’s best work with the band in one handy place.
Seraphine had a tall task with Chicago in the early days. He had to make this big band—with its horns blaring, its lead guitarist melting faces, its shifting time signatures and feels, and its three lead vocalists singing the works of several distinct songwriters—swing and sway; he had to make the group rock and roll. This called for something more sophisticated than standard rock drumming. And circa 1970, the rule book on how to hold it down for a band with skin in the rock, jazz, and soul games was still a work in progress. So Seraphine made up his own rules. And not much was out of bounds on Chicago II, be it overdubbing messy fills to flesh out the caveman stomp of “25 or 6 to 4” or flipping and subdividing a 6/4 feel while deep in the weeds of a seven-part song cycle like “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon.”
Busy drumming was also fair game and features throughout Chicago II, though it’s not as if Seraphine was overplaying just to place himself atop the sonic dog pile of seven instruments. He routinely picked sweet spots to cut loose, like his classic solo breaks in “Make Me Smile.” They fit perfectly, and they’re as fluid and melodic as any horn line on the record. Slick licks like those fortified Seraphine’s integral role in Chicago’s unique sound, as did his graceful transitions.
On “Movin’ In,” Seraphine moves seamlessly from smooth grooves in the verses to a free and easy swing feel in the jazzy instrumental breaks before digging in hard on the 6/8 coda as the shape-shifting song screeches to a cold stop. In “Poem for the People” Danny is grooving and filling along squarely in the pocket, when out of nowhere he’s piloting the band through a double-time bridge that shifts between four, five, and seven. It’s a change you never see coming, and he turns it so naturally that before you know it he’s slipped back into the main groove. These are tricky maneuvers, and the young Seraphine pulls them off like a guy who’s been in the drumming trenches for years.
As the ’70s wore on and Chicago’s music steered more toward the middle of the road, Seraphine’s playing became decidedly less adventurous. And by the time of the band’s commercial renaissance in the mid-’80s, the drummer was chained to a click track keeping straight time for a safe-as-milk pop band that had become a shadow of its former self. But back when Chicago was in the business of taking risks and making bold musical statements like the ones on II, Seraphine’s skills were put to excellent use.
Giving the guitar player some. Seraphine definitely digs in a little harder on the Terry Kath tunes. How could he resist, playing behind someone who could sing like Ray Charles and was a certifiable guitar god? He tears it up on Kath’s “In the Country,” slamming out a fatback groove and ripping off some daredevil fills.
Psychedelic swing. Chicago might have been a band of the ’70s, but songs like “Fancy Colours” betray the members’ roots as children of the ’60s. Seraphine puts a groovy swing to this swirling waltz and caps it with a fill for the ages—an eleven-second solo snare-and-toms combination that falls into one looped dissonant note for the fade. Yes, this is the same Chicago that did “Hard Habit to Break.”