For more than three decades, Jason Scheff was the voice of Chicago. Taking over for high-profile Peter Cetera in 1985, the bassist was only 23 when he joined the massively popular group. But Scheff’s skills as a vocalist, musician and songwriter immediately established him as a key to the band’s ongoing success.
Scheff left the group in 2016, but his musical career – already well-established before he joined Chicago – has continued in earnest. On a rare break between recording sessions and live performances – and ahead of his participation in an all-star golf tournament in Tahoe, NV – Scheff sat down with Musoscribe to talk about his career, past and present.
You were only 23 when you joined Chicago, but you already had a great deal of experience in music. Tell me about that.
I joined a band in San Diego called The People Movers in 1979, replacing Nathan East who had just moved to Los Angeles. I was 16 years old, and the band leader said, “You have to sing, because Nathan sang.” I was like, “Okay, I’ll give it a shot.” That was the beginning; I was just trying to experiment and see what worked. I never really saw myself as a world-class vocalist.
I was just playing in Top 40 bands and starting to sing more, starting to write songs. Everybody was like, “Let’s write!” And I’m going, “Um, okay, whatever that is. I guess it’s ‘making things up.’” [At that point] I was never a writer in the sense that I was an artist with something to say. I was just doing what everybody else was doing to try and go to the next level. But as it turned out, I was good at it.
You were still a relative unknown when you joined Chicago, and you were taking over for the band’s most recognizable member. What was that experience like?
Howard Kaufman – who was managing the band at the time – asked me on the phone, “How old are you?” I said, “23.” And he goes, “Uh oh. Can’t you say you’re older?” And I said, “Sure! I’ll say I’m 90 if that’s what you want.”
I went to meet with him, so he could make sure that I didn’t have two heads and that I was a nice guy. And it was really amazing; all of it was just very comfortable. Walking in on the first day of vocals with David Foster was pretty unnerving, but it all flowed beautifully. The [other] guys were just turning 40 years old when I joined the band. I thought, “Wow! Those guys are old!” But they were just always so supportive: “You’re our guy.” They gave me the shot.
When you joined, how much of your brief was to pick up where Peter Cetera left off, and how much leeway did you have to bring your own identity to the band?
I’ve seen people struggle with joining bands and wanting to be recognized for their artistry. That was not me. I was a guy who was very happy. Again, remember I was a Top 40 musician coming into that band, so it was like the best Top 40 gig I could ever have, although there was only one band, one style.
I was not trying to copy anybody. If you saw me in a Top 40 band six months before I joined Chicago, and we were doing a Michael Jackson song, I’d be leaning towards that. One of the blessings that I have is the gift of really adapting to a sound. I’ve sung on Poison records, Gino Vannelli, Kenny Rogers records; I always adapt myself. That’s the function of a background vocalist: they wrap themselves around the sound and phrase with them.
So, when I was doing Top 40 work, I was not trying to copy anybody, but this is the way I heard the music. I couldn’t do it any other way. And Chicago was exactly the same. I came in and just had certain phrasings that Peter Cetera had. I’ve heard people ask, “Didn’t David Foster tell you to [play and sing] like Peter Cetera?” No, because that’s virtually impossible anyway. There’s only one. It’s the gold standard.
But, I think the reason that it worked was that, again when we performed the live stuff, I was treating it as Top 40 music and leaning towards whatever I could do to make the song sound as much like what the audience was expecting. What was amazing was to join this band, and then all of a sudden feel comfortable that I was able to contribute to the recorded body of work. I thank my lucky stars for them believing in me to be the future of the franchise.
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