Chicago finally gets to Cleveland

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Ron Onesti with Danny Seraphine (left), founding drummer of rock supergroup Chicago.


I can’t believe it! Rock super group Chicago finally made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! This is epic! For so many years, the fans have clamored for this moment, me among then, and justifiably so. According to Billboard, Chicago was the leading U.S. singles charting group during the 1970s. They have sold over 40 million units in the U.S., with 23 gold, 18 platinum and 8 multi-platinum albums. Over the course of their career they have had five No. 1 albums and 21 top-10 singles. The band is second only to The Beach Boys with singles and album-charting success, and is still performing over 100 shows a year!

Aside from being one of my all-time favorite groups, I am doubly excited about its induction because it represents The Windy City, an underrated contributor to the development of popular music. Cheap Trick was also selected to be inducted this year and although the band is originally from Rockford, we will claim them as Chicago’s own. So that’s a big score for us because so few Chicagoans have been invited into the inner sanctum of the Rock Hall. Aside from Buddy Guy, you would have to dig deep to find others. I could give you an hour on the subject of Chicago-based bands that dramatically influenced popular culture, but that’s a whole different column!

As my musical knowledge began to develop in grammar school, my first “new” album that I bought with my allowance money (imagine getting “paid” for cleaning my room) was the double-album all-hits compilation “Endless Summer” by The Beach Boys. “Good Vibrations,” “California Girls,” “Fun, Fun, Fun” — songs with meanings a seventh grader really couldn’t grasp, at least by 1974’s standards. My personal faves were “Be True To Your School” and “In My Room.”

Oh I just couldn’t get enough of those songs because for me they were less about surfing and more about girls, strange beings I happened to stumble upon and began to take notice of that summer. Yeah, that was the music for me, and that topic became my favorite!

Then as I entered eighth grade, my buddy turned me on to a group that was “kinda like” the smooth rock of The Beach Boys. It was called Chicago, which by virtue of its name I already thought was cool. The band formed in 1967, so by the time I found out about them, they already had eight albums out including a mammoth four-record live set recorded at Carnegie Hall. The 1975 Greatest Hits album cover featured a bunch of guys on a falling scaffold holding on for dear life in front of a halfway-painted “Chicago” logo on a building. “Chicago IX” featured popular radio hits including “Beginnings,” “25 or 6 to 4,” “Make Me Smile,” “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” “Saturday In The Park” and other smashes. “Colour My World” was the first song I ever asked a girl to slow dance to. Ahh, she was a foot taller than me and I can remember puberty setting in at that very moment. Catchy songs with power horns … Now THAT was music, and those were memories!

Just as I wore the grooves of that album down by constant over-playing while singing into a hairbrush, the band’s next album was released. Their 1976 “Chicago X” album was a logoed chocolate bar exposed by a peeled-back wrapper and featured more great songs. After a “tragic” breakup between myself and that towering vixen in the summer after grammar school graduation, the power ballad “If You Leave Me Now” really resonated, and Chicago continued to be “my” band.

I entered Weber High School in Chicago, an all-boys Catholic school that required its students to wear shirts and ties but had no actual uniform. None of us cared what we looked like, so for most of us, it was corduroy pants, flannel shirt, and some goofy paisley tie from our dad’s bad Christmas present closet. Style was not one of the electives offered there. And instead of a sweater, I regularly wore a short-sleeved Chicago concert t-shirt over my long-sleeved flannel shirt as part of my regular high school wardrobe. GQ Magazine never called.

At that time, concert shirts weren’t as prevalent as they are now, so the guys would ask where I got them. The light bulb went on! I found the guy who printed the concert shirts and made a deal with him. He had Led Zeppelin shirts, Pink Floyd shirts and RUSH shirts. I moved my books into my buddy’s locker next to me, and my locker became a concert shirt store. They were flying out of my locker! That was my freshman entry into the entrepreneurial world … thanks to Chicago!

Tragedy hit the group in 1978 when guitarist Terry Kath was killed by an accidental, self-inflicted gun wound. Despite this devastating blow to the band, its fans and the international music world in general, the guys bounced back in Kath’s honor. They continued to pump out the hits, and perform sold out concerts.

Fast forward to Aug. 1, 1981. ChicagoFest, the first major outdoor music and food festival in the city of Chicago’s history. My cousin, who was also a huge Chicago fan, was able to get us backstage passes for the band featured that night … Chicago! I got to hang with my boys and to literally be part of the band for a fleeting moment as the drummer, Danny Seraphine, let me tap on the snare for a bit during sound check!

I think back to how the guys looked then. I mean, it was the ’80s! Headbands, tight white pants, hair short on the sides but exploding on top … probably not the look they are most proud of in retrospect. I had a Pepsi I was drinking that I put down on the table to shake one of the guys’ hands. I walked away only to realize that the entertainer then picked up MY Pepsi and started to drink it as if it was his. I never had the heart to tell him it wasn’t, so I feel a special “closeness” to Peter Cetera, the band’s lead vocalist.

In 1985, Cetera left the band to pursue a solo career. That was a tough blow because although keyboardist Robert Lamm was also a lead vocalist (“Saturday In The Park”), Cetera contributed much to their signature vocal sound. But I still remained a fan, looking forward to one day possibly working with the band.

My day came about 20 years later when I was booking bands for an Indiana county fair. I booked my fantasy band, Chicago, and it was magical. By that time, Seraphine, who left the band in 1990, was gone, but the original hometown horn section consisting of Walter Parazaider, James Pankow and Lee Loughnane remained, along with Lamm. The band was still incredible!

I walked up to Robert Lamm and proudly said, “Hi Bobby!” Instead of the warm response I was expecting, I got a relatively stern, “Um, its Robert.” I hung my head low and crawled away.

Later, he was cool, and I asked him about a certain part of the song “Saturday In The Park” where he refers to “Singing Italian songs.” He does a couple of lines in what I presumed was Italian. But being able to speak the language, I struggled with understanding what he was saying. So I asked him about it.

“Oh, I just made up some words that I thought sounded Italian,” he said. With that, the secret to creative songwriting was revealed to me!

I remain a fan of the band to this day. Original band member Danny Seraphine has become one of my closest friends, an incredible guy and one of my all-time favorite drummers. We were out at a concert I was producing at the Park West one night recently. He came as my guest and was just hanging with me. Some drunken fool got a bit stupid with me, and as I foolishly beat on my chest, he stepped in and was going to take the guy out. Once a Chicago neighborhood guy, always a Chicago neighborhood guy!

I was so pleased to hear that not only Chicago will be inducted into the Rock Hall, but original members Peter Cetera and Danny Seraphine will reunite with the band on that night. And with a tip of the hat to Terry Kath, an emotional moment will be had by all us Chicago fans. Congratulations to my buddies and my musical heroes … from all of us “from the neighborhood”!

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About Ron Onesti

Ron Onesti is the president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans and the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame, chairman of Casa Italia and a board member of the Italian American Veterans Museum. He is the founder and president of Onesti Entertainment Corp., which runs five entertainment and dining venues across the Chicago area and produces concerts, special events and festivals nationwide. Among the latter are Festa Pasta Vino on South Oakley Avenue, Festa Italiana on Taylor Street and Little Italy Fest-West in Addison. He was inducted as a cavaliere into the Ordine della Stella d’Italia by the president of Italy

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