Fort Lauderdale Magazine: So tell me how in 1968 a group of talented musicians came up with this amazing concept and blend of great writing, great vocals and horns?
Robert Lamm: Well, the band first sort of rehearsed in somebody’s basement. A gentleman named James William Guercio was a staff producer at Columbia Records and had gone to school with one of the guys in Chicago. [He] came out to see us play at a club and got the ball rolling by putting us all together. As a band, we moved from Chicago to LA — the married guys shared one house and single guys shared another. We began writing songs and rehearsing. Within another year or so (maybe 1969), the first album came out.
FLMag: It was definitely a great name. You had a steady stream of hits as one of the most successful, best-selling groups of all time — selling 100 million records. I haven’t interviewed anyone who sold more than that. That’s a substantial amount of records.
RL: It is! I think they lost count there somewhere but 100 million is plenty.
FLMag: Going into the accolades, 23 of the 38 albums have been certified gold, 18 platinum and eight multi-platinum; 21 top-ten singles, 11 number-one singles, five gold singles and five consecutive number-one albums. In 2014, you were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and in 2016, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Why did they wait so long? [Laughs]
RL: Well, I guess we were busy [both laugh]. I think a more meaningful award — maybe not as grand as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — was when Jimmy Pankow and I (separately and together) were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. I’ve always considered myself a songwriter, so for me, that was the biggest thing of them all. I’m sure Jimmy feels the same way.
FLMag: The band was different enough for people to notice. With your hard work, great writing and amazing vocals, you still faced a lot of hurdles. In spite of that, you had staying power. What do you attribute that to?
RL: I don’t want to be flip by saying that’s all we knew how to do, but that’s not exactly true. I think that we all felt individually separate and together. It was such great music that we had yet to record. It was something that needed to be said but we didn’t know it at the time. It was always kind of like you’re on a hill and you want to know what’s on the other side of the hill.
FLMag: And then you had to respond to the changing sound of the early ’80s and inspire yet another generation with a second big wave. Some very powerful and gorgeous ballads were created. Changing your sound in itself had to be difficult.
RL: Well, one of the demands of the musical trends was using violins (which we had never done) and also writing music that was appropriate to a beautiful ballad. We had great luck finding our producer, David Foster, who is a big fan of the band and those several songs he wrote and produced have lengthened our fan base.
FLMag: Yeah, I’m sure they did and I loved “Hard to Say I’m Sorry.” The sound of the horns is just a different feeling than hard-core rock and roll.
RL: In the world of music you never know what to expect, and never expect a song from your record to be a success. We have been very lucky that way!
FLMag: Yes, maybe lucky but talent goes along with it. In that time between the big waves, did you yourself produce many solo albums? You worked by yourself during that lull.
RL: Yeah, you’re right, there was a time the band as a whole was not very enthusiastic about recording a new album for several years. As a songwriter, I needed and wanted to see how far I could get. The more you work at something, the more you learn about music and that was an important phase for me. I needed to see what else I could do. A loss of decision is being made as you record a group album, but I wanted to make and record music on my own to see what else there is to learn.
FLMag: Who was your idol growing up?
RL: The great Ray Charles, for sure. I was there kind of when the Beatles emerged. I was like any other musician that wanted to be in a band like the Beatles and I still feel that way.
FLMag: When would you say your big break occurred or snowballed back when you had hit after hit after hit? Was there something in particular?
RL: I don’t know if anything happened but when the first album came out, I think it was such an original talent having a rock band with horns but also writing songs that were not necessarily rock and also not anything else. As a result, we must have played around 300 concerts in North America and Europe in just the first year that we toured. I think we made a lot of friends those years and it was a thrill.
FLMag: Not only did you play at Carnegie Hall, but you sold out — that in itself had to be an honor.
RL: It was and my mother was very proud.
FLMag: Yeah, that’s an honor not many can say they have done. I know you have written the majority of the band’s songs. What inspired your feelings? Just life in general?
RL: Yeah, I think songwriters are basically writers. We sort of daydream quite a bit [laughs]. Sometimes we see something inspiring and sometimes hear what somebody says that is inspiring. All of that is really my experience growing up as a writer. I still love writing music and I still love playing. I’m very proud of the work we have done.
FLMag: What else does the band have in store?
RL: [Laughs] Did you know we are doing a special concert on November 17 and 18 called Chicago and Friends? It’s kind of a special grouping of rock bands doing a tribute to our original guitar player, Terry Kath. Robin Thicke, Chris Daughtry, Robert Randolph, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, VoicePlay and a couple other artists. It’s going to be a two-day video shoot live performance in Atlantic City. We will be performing songs from the album Chicago Transit Authority – which is celebrating 55 years.
FLMag: Congratulations on your latest album, Born for This Moment. I love how the song called “Our New York Time” re-creates the start of your 1969 hit “Beginnings,” which is one of my favorite tunes. Bravo for that! That’s your song and 54 years later, it’s still going strong.
On a different subject, one close to my heart: You’ve given back in many ways, such as generating an enormous amount of money for medical societies. It also warms my heart to hear about your involvement with Safe Schools for Alex after the Parkland shooting.
RL: It was such a horrendous and terrifying moment for those families and kids. We just felt we had to do something, and it wasn’t just a matter of throwing money at a problem. We wanted there to be an awareness that this is a very awful trend in the violence of America. We were very proud to meet some of the surviving families. It continues to be a problem and we will always be available.
FLMag: We all recognize that and it takes people like you to do something about it. Well, to conclude, I would like to say that our era was the best era in music. I have so much appreciation for the strong vocals, amazing writing and determination, and I want to thank you very much for continuing this legacy of music. Because without these bands, I don’t know where we would be.
RL: Well, music has a way of breaking through and creating new trends. Usually it is the changing of the generation who is making new music.
FLMag: Although it’s been a crazy ride, this better not be farewell, I listened to the song “If This Is Goodbye” with Brian Wilson and yourself on your latest album, and I just hope that it’s not a real goodbye.
RL: No, we are already planning a tour in 2024.