The band Chicago provided the soundtrack to millions of lives in its heyday. Mine was one of those lives, particularly during my college days.
Chicago 16 was released less than a month after my high school graduation, and contained the hit single “Hard To Say I’m Sorry,” with Peter Cetera’s soaring vocals. And during the final month of my sophomore year at K-State, Chicago 17 hit the shelves and we fans were treated to “Stay The Night,” “Hard Habit To Break,” and “You’re The Inspiration.”
But by the time I had started my fifth year as an undergrad, Cetera had departed for a solo career, and a “kid” just two years older than I was at the time was singing lead and playing bass for one of my two favorite bands ever.
Jason Scheff had seemingly impossible shoes to fill.
When Scheff left Chicago himself 30 – that’s right, THIRTY – years later, it was his voice that most Chicago fans most-closely connected with the iconic “band with the awesome horn section.”
For “Chicago junkies” like myself, having Cetera leave the group stung for a decade…at least. But all the while, Scheff was growing on us. No, he wasn’t Peter. No one is Peter Cetera except Peter himself.
But Jason’s work on “Will You Still Love Me” and “If She Would Have Been Faithful” on Chicago 18 WAS Chicago! The vocal quality was still raw at that point, but the energy was definitely there.
And by the time “What Kind Of Man Would I Be?” was released in November 1989 as the final single from Chicago 19, the band was his – with apologies to Robert Lamm and the three dynamic horn players (Loughnane, Pankow and Parazaider).
Scheff, in fact, was stretching himself as a songwriter as well, earning credits on both Chicago 18 and 19.
Though the group failed to release new material entirely of its own composition from 1991’s Chicago Twenty 1 until 2006’s Chicago XXX, Scheff was a road warrior, and even the material from the first 17 Chicago albums was now HIS.
That’s why when Scheff left the group in 2016 for personal reasons, it marked the end of an amazing run for one of the greatest rock bands of all time.
Sure, Chicago is still touring with a rotating cast of “guys not named Cetera or Scheff” singing lead and playing bass, but the group that’s out there isn’t MY Chicago. And much to my surprise, the Chicago with Scheff singing lead had become MY Chicago over those amazing 30 years.
Scheff’s virtual disappearance from view was something completely understandable – and yet left a void in the musical universe for fans like me.
So, when he started hinting on social media that a new album was in the works, I joined legions of his fans who were excited.
But since I’d seen the former lead singer of my other favorite rock band – Steve Perry, formerly of Journey – tease solo efforts for DECADES before finally getting to it, I wasn’t holding my breath.
But the dogged determination of Scheff’s friend Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts – who was the producer of Chicago XXX – got Scheff’s “Here I Am” LP (or CD, or whatever we call them these days) into our hands on Friday.
And as I wrote to Jason in an Instagram post to which he later responded, it is an album filled with opportunities to sing along at the top of your lungs, choke back a tear (or two), and hum along with the new stuff as you learn the lyrics.
With incredible backing vocals from former Chicago bandmate Bill Champlin – whose voice always blended well with Jason’s on the band’s late 1980s and early 1990s chart-toppers – along with DeMarcus, the new Scheff LP is nothing if not jam packed with vocal artistry.
Add Alex Lifeson (Rush), Robbie Krieger (The Doors), Tommy Thayer (Kiss) and session great Pino Palladino on guitars and bass, and you’ve got a polished presentation that those of “my generation” will absolutely love.
Scheff and DeMarcus smartly chose a combination of five Chicago songs and five new tunes to roll out here.
But the Chicago cuts the duo chose could surprise some folks. “Will You Still Love Me?” was a no-brainer, since the original version featured Scheff on lead vocal. “Look Away” was originally released with Champlin on lead vocals, but here features Scheff on lead with Bill grabbing the spotlight in just a few spots.
“Feelin’ Stronger Every Day” was a Cetera-era tune that Scheff had done thousands of times in concert, but never quite like this. And “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” was another Cetera chart-topper. But with “What Kind Of Man (Would I Be)?” also included, Scheff junkies got another chance to hear a new take on a terrific song originally fronted by Scheff himself.
Of the new material, the title track “Here I Am” is a soaring anthem, as is “Wonderful Day.” More introspective are “If You Only Knew” and “Never Even Had The Chance.” The album’s final cut, “Away,” leaves the listener hoping that Scheff’s hints that he’s not done recording – even hinting at a project with Champlin (inject that straight into my veins, please!) – aren’t just hints.
Chicago may be on its last legs. And Cetera continues to be fun to catch on tour and listen to with your eyes closed, remembering the days he fronted the iconic “band with the awesome horn section.”
But as his new album’s title track would seem to suggest, Scheff has a pretty good idea of who the “true” lead singer of Chicago is for millions of us. It’s him.
Here I Am, indeed.