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Peter Cetera Gets Real

Ex-Chicago frontman talks about splitting ways, picking bass up again

By David Sands

July 29, 2015

Peter Cetera’s many talents should be readily apparent to those familiar with his powerful contributions to the beloved brass-laden rock band Chicago.

His distinctive tenor vocals and memorable bass work helped the group secure its own special place in the rock and roll imagination. In addition to his singing and musicianship, he also composed many Chicago favorites, including “Wishing You Were Here,” “Baby What A Big Surprise,” and “If You Leave Me Now,” which topped U.S. charts in 1976.

After leaving the band somewhat acrimoniously in 1985, Cetera quickly found his own way, achieving success in the Eighties and Nineties with solo albums like Solitude/Solitaire, One More Story and World Falling Down. Over the course of his solo career he’s released six hit singles, two of which jumped to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100.

Other highlights from those years include writing the theme songs for Baywatch and The Karate Kid: Part II and being nominated for a Grammy for a duet with singer Amy Grant. During the 2000s, he began making orchestral appearances, performing his music with the Chicago Pops Orchestra on PBS and later with a 40-piece orchestra. Lately he’s been playing with the Bad Daddies, his seven-piece electric band.

Cetera graciously took time to speak with FBPO’s Jon Liebman recently, opening up about his musical background, his break with Chicago and the intriguing story behind his Pat Wilkins bass guitar.

While every musician’s musical origin is unique in its own way, Cetera’s story is certainly nontraditional. Like many prospective musicians, he pined for a six-string as a youth. Growing up in a Catholic family on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s, however, his parents didn’t think that was a proper instrument, so they put an accordion in his hands instead.

“I was kind of a polka prodigy,” he quips. “I was really good at it. But it wasn’t really my first love.”

At around 15 years old, he decided to follow his heart and bought a guitar at a local department store. As a sophomore in high school, he befriended a guitar-playing senior he refers to as the “last of the beatniks,” who provided him with guidance on playing the instrument.

“He was a little strange guy—didn’t fit in—but he was a great guy,” says Cetera, “and he really turned me on to Bo Diddley and Jimmy Reed and that kind of stuff.”

After a while, they got the itch to start a band, and it was decided that Cetera would pick up the bass. He bought himself a Danelectro Shorthorn bass and began learning the basics of the instrument that would help make him famous.

His enthusiasm to embrace the rock and roll life was also inspired by a trip to Popples, a youth club in Chicago where he saw his first band, the Rebel Rockets.

“They had a very cool singer who wore shades, and then the bass player and the guitar player stood on their amps on either side of the stage,” he says. “That was just the coolest thing I’d ever seen.”

With this imprint in his mind, Cetera leapt into the music scene, taking on vocals and electric bass, first with several high school friends and then in a succession of local groups, including a popular local band called The Exceptions.

In 1967, he left that band after being seduced by the brassy sound of a rock group called The Big Thing. After Cetera joined forces with them, they changed names, first to The Chicago Transit Authority and later to Chicago.

Early on, Cetera found inspiration in James Jamerson and Motown. Although he started off finger-picking, he later discovered playing with a pick was more his thing and stuck with it.

Though the well-traveled bassist says he finds a lesson in nearly everything he hears—good or bad—he names Paul McCartneyJaco Pastorius and Nathan East as three of his favorite bass players. He also adamantly identifies as a rock and roll player with a penchant for melodic bass lines.

His story with Chicago came to an abrupt end in 1985, though. At the time, he wanted a pause from relentless touring and an opportunity to work on solo material. He vocalized this to the group’s management, who, he says, promised him a break after another tour and album. After the tour, however, Cetera tells FBPO he got a notice in the mail asking him to do the album and another tour.

“At the bottom of this letter, it says: ‘If you don’t, it will cause us to consider looking elsewhere,’” he says. Cetera contacted management, and they reiterated this ultimatum, so he decided to go his own way.

“They sort of backed me into a corner, and then gave me a little doorway to get out,” he says. “And then I took it. Was I fired or did I quit? I think it was both.”

Though his corresponding solo efforts connected with the public, he grew frustrated with his label, Warner Bros., feeling they failed to push his work in hopes of reuniting him with the band. His interest in music dimmed for a while in the late Nineties, but reawakened in 2002, when keyboardist and producer David Foster, who’d collaborated with him in Chicago, asked him to sing an orchestral version of his songs for The Concert for World Children’s Day in Chicago. That led to several years of orchestral performances, which rejuvenated his career.

Over his impressive time in the music industry, Cetera has played virtually every bass guitar he could get his hands on. That said, he has a special place for his Pat Wilkins custom bass.

Cetera first heard about guitar maker through his friend Joe Iaquinto, who plays bass with his brother in a tribute band called Kenny Cetera’s Chicago Experience. In 2007, the famous bassist and singer endorsed Republican Mike Huckabee for president. Knowing that the politician is also a bass player, he decided to send him a token of his appreciation. Having heard Iaquinto rave about Wilkins, he decided to have the instrument maker create a custom bass for the presidential hopeful.

“I had Pat make a bass and send it to Mike Huckabee, and along the way Pat and I talked about making me a bass,” Cetera says. “I sort of always liked my white Fender Precision Bass, and so I had him make a Wilkins version.”

“It’s just really sweet, and it’s beautiful,” he continues, “and Pat’s a hell of a guy, and he’s a heck of an artist with instruments.”

These days, Cetera enjoys playing with his band, the Bad Daddies. He’s also happy to share that he’s back on the bass. It’s something he stopped doing around the time David Foster started playing the Moog Synthesizer on Chicago’s 1980s albums. His new band gets a special thrill, he says, whenever he plays the “dum, dum, dum” riff on the Chicago song, “I’m A Man,” since they all grew up with it.

Performing on bass again is still a pretty new development for him. So far, he’s only done two gigs with the Bad Daddies this way, both times with backline basses.  “I haven’t had the heart to take my Wilkins on the road and beat it up just yet,” he confides.

This summer will be a busy one for Cetera, who’s looking forward to several North American shows with the Bad Daddies and some gigs in Kuala Lumpur with David Foster.

As for a Chicago reunion, the group’s former bassist and vocalist says that’s just not in the cards.

“You know there might be a lot of money in that, but I just can’t perform that emotional surgery,” he says. “I’m having too much fun out there right now with my band and doing what I’m doing.”

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