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Thema: Robert Lamm Interview - (Contemporary Keyboard '79)
Can you remember your first contact with the piano?
I began being near a piano when I was singing in our church choir in Brooklyn. It was a good choir, about 40 voices. The boys had to rehearse Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays with the men, and then of course there was Sunday service. We performed not only in church, but in concerts and things like that. We were singing the works of Bach and Handel, so the choir master took it upon himself to teach us how to sight-read, and just by being near his piano I began to sit down and play things that kids play by ear. I had no indication at the time that that was what I would want to do.
Was there a piano in your family's house?
When I was in the choir I was living with my grandparents, and my Aunt was studying the piano. But I didn't really study or even play that piano much, because I knew only a couple of things and it would drive everybody crazy. The piano that I played most was probably the one that was at the church.
When did you start playing in public as a keybordist?
I moved to Chicago when I was about 15, and after a year or two I began playing in a Chicano rock and roll band. The repertoire was pretty much Buddy Holly, the Ventures, and stuff like that; it was 1960, or '61. I was playing one of the first Wurlitzer electric pianos at the time, the one with the speckled paint. That was my first electric keyboard.
Did you own an acoustic piano then?
I eventually bought an upright for about $75.00, but that was after I'd stopped playing with the rock and roll band because I was feeling a little frustrated. I heard more things than I was technically able to play, so I began studying with a private teacher in downtown Chicago., and I bought the upright so I could practice. I learned things like "The Gravy Waltz" and "I Cover The Waterfront" from the George Shearing books [now presumably out of print], learning how to use my left hand.
So you were getting into jazz voicings at a pretty early age.
Yeah, and for some reason the records I was buying were jazz records. I don't know if I was buying them because it was hip, but anyway, I listened to them a lot. Thelonious Monk really had an effect on me. He had a sort of irreverent approach to the harmonies and to left-hand comping, with elbow chords and that sort of thing. I loved it!
Do you think of Monk or Shearing mainly as composers?
Yes, I do. In fact, I tend to listen to composers in general more than performers.
Were you feeling a bit disenchanted by what was happening in rock at that time?
Yeah. It was that terrible in-between time --Bobby Vee, and all that. What I beagn getting tuned into was rhythm and blues. Our band was made up of Chicanos from the South Side of Chicago, and we went to high school in pretty much of a lower-class neighborhood, so we were exposed to a lot of people like Ray Charles and Jimmy Reed. I even called myself Bobby Charles for awhile, because I learned so much from the early Atlantic releases by Ray Charles. The black radio stations were playing Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye until the Beatles came.
Did they have a strong influence on you?
No, because I was hanging around with minorities, and they tended to pooh pooh the Beatles as something real wimpy. But in those days everybody was playing Beatles. I remember one group that was really into it, the Valentinos, and I think Bobby Womack was part of that band. He wrote "It's All Over Now," which was the Stone's first hit. Even the black stations in Chicago were running polls asking if the listeners wanted to hear the Beatles or the red-hot blues. The red-hot blues eventually won out on most black stations.
Were you playing gigs fairly regularly in those days, with a number of different bands?
Yeah, I would say so. There weren't that many bands - maybe a half-dozen total, with various combinations of the same individuals. I kept a little ledger from the first gig, which was with that Mexican band. We played for record hops, and when we could get away with it we'd play a club now and then, even though we were all underage. For me, 18 or 20 bucks a night was great! I stopped playing with Roland and Victor, the Chicano dudes, moved out of the neighborhood, got in trouble, spent some time in jail, got out of jail, and started playing with a bunch of other guys, who were WASPs. That's when I started playing more of the Top 40 stuff - Donovan, the Beatles, the Stones - because that's what people wanted to hear onstage.
Keyboards weren't too prominent in rock at that time. Did you ever find it hard to fit yourself in?
No, I just played. I was still playing a Wurlitzer with a big extension speaker. I was so unelectronic, much worse than I am now. I was working in a club with just a bass player and a drummer, when a musician came up out of the audience and said, "Hey man, that speaker in the back of your piano is totally blown and shattered." I couldn't hear it, and I couldn't tell. Certain notes were repeating back, but I couldn't figure out why.
Do you ever regret not taking more time to practice in those days?
Constantly. But I'll tell you, over the years I've found that I learned more about playing and developed more technique by being under pressure of having to perform in front of a lot of people, than through any sitting down and practicing. For awhile, though, I stopped playing music altogether. I got married when I was about 19, and the girl and her family didn't think I should play music; they thought I should get a straight job. So, for about a year and a half, I didn't play, and I almost went crazy. Finally, I got a divorce, and I enrolled at Roosevelt University in Chicago, where I studied the classical techniques.
Did you find it easy to perform classical pieces in your studies there?
No, I was real nervous, because the professors did want you to use proper fingerings, and by then I think I was too far gone as an ear player. It was easy for me to learn a piece and play it so it sounded right to me, but most teachers at the university level can hear you play from across the room with their backs turned, and still tell you if you've used the wrong fingering. That didn't matter too much to me at that time, though. It was my good fortune to pick up a couple of real pretty pieces for my jury performances.
What did you play for your juries?
There was something by Rachmaninoff or Prokofiev, and a Bach piece - both were pieces that I like. Also the Prelude No. 4 In E Minor of Chopin. I loved working with all these pieces, and I think the repertoire I picked all kind of chimed in a little bit, even though I didn't play that well.
What were your musical ambitions then?
Basically, I wanted to write sort of a jazz-type symphony, something that took elements of Stravinsky and Varese into an orchestral jazz thing. You have to understand that this was before I knew myself. I was older than some of the other people in my classes, so I was sort of a loner. There weren't that many people I could relate to musically. Most of them were music education majors or piano majors. I knew they all either to be teachers or be married to teachers.
What was your major at Roosevelt?
I actually only made it through the first two years, but I was aiming for a composition major, because for some reason that interested me, even though this was before I'd really composed any tunes. My minor instrument, by the way, was string bass. I just felt that I already knew a lot of the theory that they taught in the first year, though I didn't know it in the ords that were being articulated by the professors. The sight-reading and ear training were good for me too, but unfortunately this was all happening about a year after my band, Chicago, started rehearsing and playing. I have to say that during my second year at school, my studies suffered somewhat. We'd be up until two in the morning playing gigs in Milwaukee, then I'd have eight o'clock classes, and it took a lot of will power just to get on the bus and get to school the next morning. But I was living music, and I was really much more interested in learning the composition techniques than I was in mastering any particular instrument.
Was Chicago your first horn band?
The last band I played with before Chicago was four pieces, but a couple of the guys tried to bring in 2 horn players. We rehearsed with them for awhile, doing things like "Got To Get You Into My Life," but the whole thing fell apart, and we stayed four-piece after that. Chicago got together in January '67; I think that the Beatles had just come out with Sgt. Pepper. Jimmy, Walter, and Lee had just left DePaul University. They were playing in Dick Clark's road band, travelling in a bus with the Shirelles, Brian Hyland and people like that. After they came back and the school year started, I got a call from Walter - it was either Walter or Danny, saying they were going to put together a horn band. From step one it was impossible to get six guys to come to rehearsal at the same time.
Everybody had a job on the side?
Yeah. One guy was driving a bread truck. Anyway, I’d just finished saying to this
four-piece group I’d been working with, “This horn thing ain’t going to work.” I hadn’t
played with them for awhile, because I’d been disappointed by what had happened,
although I had gone back and worked with them for about a month when I got the call. I
don’t even know why I said, “Yes, I’m interested.” I had just bought my first Hammond
organ, and I’d just started writing - I’d finished the basis of what turned out to be “Wake
Up Sunshine,” and a couple of other things. So, in January ‘67, we all rendezvoused at
Walter’s house; it was Walter, Jimmy Pankow, Lee Loughnane, Terry Kath, Danny, and
me. We were all going to meet each other, but I was really the only outsider. I knew of
them and they knew of me, but I didn’t actually know any of these guys. They said, “We
need a guy who can sing mellow things, sing in the background, and play foot bass
Were you playing pedals at that time?
I’d never played them before, because I had just spent five years playing the electric piano
before buying the organ. I told them that and they said, “Are you willing to try?” I said I
was, and the next thing I knew, we got together in Walter’s basement. It was about an
eight-by-eight room, and we set up everything in it, then we ran down “Papa’s Got A
Brand New Bag,” the James Brown song. Pretty soon the six of us started working on a
repertoire - a couple of James Brown tunes, a couple of Otis Redding tunes, things by
Sam and Dave. It was pretty much the soul stuff, because that’s where it was at then. If
you wanted to play in Chicago clubs, that’s what you had to play, so that people could
What was it like during the early years of Chicago?
We played a lot of clubs. We were all sort of scraggly, but we cut our hair and got in
shiny suits so we could work the clubs; we were sort of freaks in disguise. It was good,
because we earned money, paid the rent and were able to upgrade our equipment a little
When did you start moving beyond soul material?
After we’d been gigging for about a year. People were starting to smoke grass and drop
acid in Chicago, and we began doing stuff like playing one whole side of the Sgt. Pepper
album, non-stop. We’d play “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” for 45 minutes or so, then
we’d do things like “How Could I Be Such A Fool,” the one sort of straight song Frank
Zappa ever wrote. We were doing “Got To Get You Into My Life,” which we still play
now as an encore onstage. We also began fooling around with our own arrangements of
“Unchain My Heart,” “Fever,” “Going out Of My Head”; if I could find the charts I wrote
to some of those tunes, I’d pay any amount of money. They were real spacy, because we
were all taking acid and listening to Varese and Stravinsky. We were doing Jimi Hendrix
tunes with horn charts. We did “Hold On, I’m Coming,” with Bach’s Passacaglia In G in
the bass. We played it in E, actually, but it fuckin’ worked. Terry was a genius at that
stuff. So we were able to really experiment, and still play the tunes people wanted to
How did you add your bass guitarist, Peter Cetera, to the group?
Well, toward the middle of the second year, we were playing a gig at this pub called
Barnaby’s with a group from Chicago known as the Exceptions. They were probably the
hottest, best band all around. Everybody has gone on to do something better. Peter was
the bass player in the band, but he got fired when they decided to form a new group called
Aorta. Peter had never heard us, so when we opened the engagement by playing
“Magical Mystery Tour” or something like that, we just blew him right off the chair,
because he was and still is a big Beatles fan. We asked him if he’d like to b in our band,
as long as he wasn’t working, and that was probably the most important development in
Chicago. We needed another singer for me to be able to comp on my Hammond M-3 and
bass pedals. I was singing at the same time, and sometimes also playing the Wurlitzer,
and I was getting schizophrenic, just trying to do all that stuff. So we finally had a bass
player, who sang his ass off. He worked out very well. Peter was so right for us, because
he always considered himself a singer more than a player, so from the beginning he was
self-conscious about playing with us, since he thought we were better musicians than he,
even though he has an incredible ear and incredible chops. This made him push himself;
maybe he was trying to compensate in some way, but that’s basically why he was the star
of our first album.
How often were you using the bass pedals back then?
Before or after Peter? After Peter I never even looked at them again.
What are your main keyboard instruments these days?
The main axe is probably my 88-key stage model Rhodes. I play it 60 percent of the
night. For a long time I kept the old speckled Wurlitzer onstage with me all the time, just
for sentimental reasons. I’d go over and play it during a couple of tunes, just to let it
know that I remembered it.
How’s the action on the Rhodes?
I don’t play with a real light touch, so for me it’s okay.
You’re also using the Yamaha CS-80 polyphonic synthesizer now.
I started playing that prior to the recording of the Hot Streets album. I probably had one
of the first ones that were actually taken on the road. It’s a wonderful machine. I found
that I didn’t need the Hammond B-3 anymore when I had the CS-80. I use the organ
voice a lot. If I want a Jimmy Smith sound, I use the 16’ and the 2 1/2’ or 2 2/3’. Then if
I want the kind of sound I had in “Vote For Me,” I just push it down to the 2’ to bring up
the brilliance and resonance a little bit, and fool around with the upper and lower
keyboard balance. With that and the Leslies, it really growls.
When you were playing the B-3, did you work off the presets?
No, I used the drawbars.
Do you miss the spontaneity in being able to just grab new combinations?
No, because the kind of final alterations you used to be able to do with the sound on the
drawbars, you can still do pretty much spontaneously on the CS-80 with the brilliance, the
resonance, the brightness and volume of the upper and lower keyboard, and the touch
response. I just hit the upper and lower organ tabs, set the octaves and the pipe lengths on
each side, and then set the brilliance and touch response. I can do it pretty fast, and that’s
what I like about the CS-80. For me, that takes care of the whole hassle of playing
synthesizers in a live situation. Let’s face it. I’m not in the studio all the time, where you
have time to change your settings and your programs. Onstage, you’ve got to be ready.
It’s not like I’m a sideman; I’ve got to be talking to people, singing, and a bunch of other
stuff, so I’ve always needed something that was fast. I just wouldn’t have time to switch
patch cords; that’s all I’d ever do. So the CS-80 has solved a lot of problems for me.