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Chicago's Robert Lamm Shares Story Behind Writing 'Saturday In the Park,' Talks Ray Charles' Influence

Robert Lamm of Chicago poses in the press room at the 31st Annual Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony at Barclays Center of Brooklyn on April 8, 2016 in New York City.
Nicholas Hunt/FilmMagic

Robert Lamm of Chicago poses in the press room at the 31st Annual Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony at Barclays Center of Brooklyn on April 8, 2016 in New York City.

Chicago songwriter, keyboardist and singer Robert Lamm penned many of the venerable band’s biggest hits, among them "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?,” "25 or 6 to 4" and "Saturday in the Park.” As he prepares to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame next week with bandmate Jimmy Pankow, Lamm talks songcraft and teases a few upcoming projects.

Joining Lamm and Pankow at the June 15 SHOF induction gala are fellow 2017 class members Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Berry Gordy, Jay Z, Max Martin, and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis of The Time. Also to be honored at the June 15 celebration are Ed Sheeran, Alan Menken, Carlin America CEO Caroline Bienstock and Pitbull.

Who were some of your songwriting inspirations when you were coming up?

Obviously Lennon and McCartney. At the time I was becoming conscious of music and pop music, I think Lennon and McCartney gave all of us who were in little rock bands permission to write our own music. That’s something a lot of us would not have considered prior to that. Although I was really a fan of early Ray Charles. When I was still in high school and in bands, I called myself Bobby Charles, I was such a fan of Ray Charles. Anybody, everybody who had heard “What’d I Say” for the first time -- it was like getting an electric shock to the brain because it was so different and riveting and amazing compared to what was going on at the same time. This was pre-Beatles.

Later on as I began to feel like I wanted to be a songwriter, I listened to of course Burt Bacharach. I listened to Antonio Carlos Jobim, and then really I began to appreciate the music of my contemporaries and there are so many, it would be boring for me to run down the list.

I’d love to hear about your own songwriting process, and your take on the collaborative process that occurs in the band.

When the band was forming, when I went to meet Walter Parazaider, who was maybe the founding member, to even talk about doing this idea I brought with me some of the songs I had already written. That kind of impressed him. If you look at the first album, which was a double album, The Chicago Transit Authority, I think I wrote seven of the 11 songs or maybe more. I continued to write as much for each album as I could, but as we began to rehearse and get ready to record, I think I benefited from the enthusiasm and creativity of the band as a whole. Everybody would throw out arrangement ideas as we would get ready to record, arrangement ideas more than songwriting ideas, but the arrangements enhanced the recordings. And when you think of a song like “Beginnings,” I can remember people throwing out ideas about how to improve it as we were recording it. I would come in with the parts written out as well as I could and we would just sit down in a circle and I would give out the parts and we would play it down and suggestions would start flying around. So I regarded all of that as the collaboration that really enhanced the songs rather than co-writing the songs. The collaboration occurred in the arrangement and recording of the songs.

What’s one Chicago hit you wrote that you feel really exemplifies your songcraft?

“Saturday in the Park” is a prime example of how I take from what I experience in the world. It was written as I was looking at footage from a film I shot in Central Park, over a couple of years, back in the early ‘70s. I shot this film and somewhere down the line I edited it into some kind of a narrative, and as I watched the film I jotted down some ideas based on what I was seeing and had experienced. And it was really kind of that peace and love thing that happened in Central Park and in many parks all over the world, perhaps on a Saturday, where people just relax and enjoy each other’s presence, and the activities we observe and the feelings we get from feeling a part of a day like that.

How about a song that didn’t achieve the commercial success but is particularly meaningful to you?

I consider the songs I’ve written in the last 25 years far better in every way than any of the songs I’m being honored for. I’ve evolved, and I’ve lived a life. My songs are very much autobiographical, and inspired and informed by living in the world. On the most recent Chicago album, Chicago XXXVI: Now, there’s a song called “Naked in the Garden of Allah” I wrote in response to what’s been going on in the world before 9/11 and after 9/11. It’s not a piece of music that would ever had been played on AM or FM hits radio. It’s something I worked very hard on - the lyrics and the way that the music sounds. There’s another one called “More Will Be Revealed,” and that’s really about falling in love and being aware of my own self-doubt because I think entering into a relationship is a scary thing and if you’re wiling, you trust yourself and your emotions rather than the messages you’re getting in your brain.

Of course those classic hits come out on tour…

Yes. It’s literally impossible to play our whole repertoire live. We’re touring this year and we’re starting 40 dates with the Doobie Brothers, which we’ve done several times before, going back to the ‘70s. So the Doobies are good friends, dear friends at this point, and we just love being able to give an audience an evening of so much music and to some people it will be reminiscent, and to other people it will be like reading history, especially to younger audiences who somehow have found Chicago.

Any upcoming projects -- with the band or solo -- you can share?

There are some things in the works -- of course new recordings is one of them. Over the years we’ve had a great relationship with Rhino Records, and there’s a project that we’ve been talking about where Chicago will reimagine what we consider great songs [by other artists] from the millennium, from the beginning of the 21st century. Another entity has come to us with that idea. Nothing’s going to happen until probably next year, we’re all booked this year.