Danny Seraphine: Making Us Smile
Quarter-Note = 114
Count off: One… Two… Three… Four…
D-dig dig. Docka-dooba
Sing that just right — make the BOPs sound like horn hits and the nonsense syllables sound like drum fills — and nine out of ten of us percussion dweebs will say, “Chicago. Badass intro to the radio edit of ’Make Me Smile.’ 1970. Duh.” But not quite as many of us will remember the name of the performer, which is a crime, because ex-Chicago trapsman Danny Seraphine should be acknowledged as one of early jazz-rock’s most vital percussionists.
A born-and-bred Chicagoan, Seraphine began playing drums at the age of nine. “I was always pretty crazy, energy-wise,” he explains, “and drums were a great outlet for me. My parents were always supportive of my playing, because it helped me channel all my unbridled energy.” In the beginning, Seraphine was all about swing drummers (for example, Cozy Cole and Buddy Rich) but his primary early influence was another Windy City native. “The first drummer I started listening to was Gene Krupa. I used to play along with [the film] The Gene Krupa Story. Ironically, I still play some of those licks today.”
The seeds of the band Chicago — which began its professional life under the moniker Chicago Transit Authority — were planted when Seraphine was only 16. While bopping in and out of local cover bands, he met up with guitarist/ bassist/vocalist Terry Kath and woodwind wiz Walt Parazaider. The trio recruited some of the city’s heaviest musicians — keyboardist/vocalist Robert Lamm, trombonist James Pankow, and trumpeter Lee Loughnane among them — and decided to form what Seraphine calls an all-star group. “We didn’t want a frontman. We just wanted players. We wanted to be pure, to be just about the music. We made a pact with one another that nobody would get fired from the band. The only way you would leave is of your own accord, or you’d be carried off when you died. It was kind of like Knights Of The Round Table.”
The band signed with Columbia in 1968, and Seraphine spent most of the next 22 years on the road and in the studio. He appears on Chicago’s first 19 albums, but his imprint is most strongly felt on the first six, which feature such enduring drum-stravaganzas as the propulsive “25 Or 6 To 4,” the flat-out funky “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” and the aforementioned tour de force “Make Me Smile.” In 1990, the whole Knights Of The Round Table thing went out the window when Seraphine was unceremoniously dumped from the group, something he prefers not to discuss at length.
Devastated, he barely picked up a stick for the next 16 years. “I’d go months and months without touching my kit. I had a production company, and sometimes I’d play on some demos — people always wanted me to play with them — but my heart wasn’t into it. It wasn’t until [mid-2005] that I jumped back in with all my heart and soul.” It was Seraphine’s close friend, keyboardist/composer/multiple Emmy-winner Peter Fish, who pushed him back into the woodshed. “Peter calls me out of the blue one day and says, ’My New Year’s resolution is that before I die, I want to play in a band with Danny Seraphine.’” And thus was born the vehicle for Seraphine’s reintroduction to the world of pop music, California Transit Authority.
On their debut, Full Circle, Seraphine and Fish are joined by Tower Of Power vocalist Larry Braggs (who sounds at times as if he’s channeling the late Terry Kath) and chops-heavy guitarist and former Keith Emerson associate Marc Bonilla on an album laden with Chicago covers. Highlights include breezy renderings of “Happy ’Cause I’m Going Home” and “West Virginia Fantasies,” as well as a reworked — and thankfully hipped-up — arrangement of the hoary wedding staple “Colour My World.” And if Danny Seraphine is going to do an album filled with Chicago songs, “Make Me Smile” has to be there; he cannily recorded it here as an instrumental, which makes the tune come across less as an homage, and more as an entity unto itself.
What with Seraphine’s new record and positive, almost giddy attitude toward music, California Transit Authority is only the beginning for him. “I’m still a work in progress,” he muses. “There’s always something new to learn, or a different way to do something you already know. You can always be better.”