Mobsters, Crime And Jazz: Danny Seraphine's Chicago Story

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Street Player: My Chicago Story
By Danny Seraphine
Wiley, 304 pp., $24.95.

From their 1967 founding to his unceremonious ouster from the group in 1990, Danny Seraphine provided the pounding backbeat for Chicago, both for the early, raucous jazz/rock material and the later, mellow Top 40 hits.

In Street Player: My Chicago Story, Seraphine writes about his early days running with gangs, his wild ride with the group, and his life afterward. Currently the leader/drummer of California Transit Authority (which has released one record, Full Circle), Seraphine also gives drum clinics around the country and has an upcoming DVD, The Art of Jazz/Rock Drumming.

Rocks Off spoke with the skin-thumper about the book and why Houston has provided two not-so-great memories for him.

RO: Musicians sometimes embellish a shady past, but you actually ran with some pretty tough street gangs. What would your life have been like if you never got that call to join [pre-Chicago] band Jimmy Ford and the Executives?

DS: No one knows, but it wouldn't have been pretty. I quit school, I was confused, and I was with a violent crowd. I wasn't headed in a very good direction, and that call sort of pulled me out of that and put me into music.

RO: I was surprised to read that you know [Mafia figure] Tony "The Ant" Spilotro pretty well. What can you tell me about him that might surprise someone who saw Joe Pesci as a Spilotro-based character in Casino?

DS: He was always really nice to me and cordial. I knew how vicious he could be, because he had that reputation in the neighborhood. He was even proud of me [after Chicago's success] that I came from the neighborhood. But you knew you were around dangerous people. At one point, the FBI came after me [looking into possible band/mafia ties], but I was more scared of the mob than the FBI!

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RO: Technically, Blood, Sweat, and Tears was the first major rock act to have horns and jazz leanings, but to me they always simply layered them on top, whereas Chicago wrote the material from the start with horns in mind. Did it seem like a radical combination at the time?

DS: No, because the band that some of us used to be in had horns and we were used to it. And James Pankow's arranging skills and the evolution of my drumming and Terry Kath's blazing guitar and the level of musicianship in the band made it way past the norm. They were a jazz band playing rock, and we were a rock/funk band playing jazz. I always liked them, but they didn't have a guitar player on the level of Terry Kath.

RO: You were the only band member to actually see Terry right after his accidental suicide by pistol, a mental image I can't even fathom ever recovering from. Yet for all his talent, you never hear his name among the top guitarists of the '60s and '70s. Why?

DS: Your guess is as good as mine. He doesn't get the credit he deserves, and I do my part to make sure people never forget about him. I talk about him in my concerts. He's one of the Top 5 rock guitarists who ever lived right up there with Hendrix, Clapton and Jeff Beck. He died way too young and flew under the radar. But I want to keep his memory and his music alive. He's an unsung hero.

RO: Houston is mentioned specifically twice in the book: Once when you were here on a tour about the same time that an impostor Danny Seraphine had burglarized a house.

DS: This guy was doing a lot of bad things in my name around the country, but he was more brazen [in Houston] and it pissed off some powerful people who wanted to get me. I had to have a police escort outside my room. I even went on the radio and said it wasn't me. But I was mad and wanted a piece of this guy. I felt like I was in a movie.

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