Peter Cetera Legendary Bassist


Peter Cetera Videos


Old Days - 1975

Felling Stronger Every Day - 1974

If You Leave Me Know - 1976


Peter Cetera’s lively-yet-locked bass lines and melodic upper-fret forays influenced a generation of privy peers and subsequent budding bassists, including Will Lee and Nathan East. Notes Lee, of The Late Show and hundreds of New York sessions, “Peter had an R&B-rooted style marked by great taste and tone, plus a real McCartney-esque quality. He was the polish in the whole Chicago picture, adding sweetness to the vocal harmonies, while providing a gorgeous sound on the top and bottom. Very few days go by that I’m not thinking about him somewhere in my playing.” A long-time Eric Clapton sideman and L.A. session master, East adds, “Peter was one of my very first influences as a young bass student. I was just becoming familiar with the instrument and I grabbed a bunch of Peter’s licks for my arsenal because he had such great ideas. I used to sing ‘Questions 67 and 68’ in a church group I was in, with my brothers, and then I played all the big hits in Top 40 bands. I got to back up Peter recently at a David Foster charity event, and I realized how much influence his playing still has on my approach.”

Born and raised in Chicago ’s Morgan Park section, on the South Side, Cetera recalls radio transitioning from the Hit Parade to the early rock & roll of Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and Ritchie Valens. At age 11, unable to convince his parents to buy him a guitar, he instead was given accordion lessons. A few years later, some older friends took him to a teenage nightclub outside of town. He recalls, “I walked in and a band called the Rebel Rockers was playing. I remember the guitarist and bass player were standing on their amps, rocking back and forth. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen—I was hooked.” As a 15-year-old high school sophomore, Cetera got a Montgomery Ward acoustic guitar and learned some open chords. Upon meeting and jamming with a guitar-playing senior who wanted to form a band, Peter moved over to bass, buying a Danelectro Short Horn. The two added a drummer and saxophonist, split vocal duties, and made their mark on the weekend dance scene.

Cetera stayed the course, moving on to better Top 40 bands and hitting the club and concert trail all over the Midwest . “By the time I was 18,” he admits, “I was making more money than my dad.” Eventually, he joined the Exceptions, staying six years with the Chicago area’s “best sound-alike” band. The group gained invaluable experience as a rare white band on the chitlin’ circuit, opening for and becoming the Dells’ backup band, and signing with a Chess subsidiary, Tollie Records. For the opening of a new club in December 1967, the Exceptions were booked opposite the Big Thing—a six-piece horn band that played some original music, but relied on organ pedals for bass lines. The unit was looking to add a singing bass player, and Cetera, digging their sound, look, and hippie headspace, accepted the role. So began a 17-year, 16-album journey with the newly named Chicago Transit Authority.

By the time Cetera left Chicago in 1985 to pursue a solo career, he had left his indelible mark not just as a bassist, but also as a lead-singing frontman and composer. That’s his unmistakable high tenor (part of his four-and-a-half-octave vocal range) on “25 or 6 to 4,” “Questions 67 and 68,” “Just You ’n’ Me,” and “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day.” As a writer, he penned such hits as “Wishing You Were Here,” “If You Leave Me Now,” “Happy Man,” and “Baby What a Big Surprise,” and he co-wrote the band’s biggest singles, “You’re the Inspiration” and “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” with producer David Foster. The pair also combined for Peter’s own No. 1 hit, “Glory of Love.”

Bass took a backseat in Cetera’s solo years (which yielded seven albums), but it has begun to re-emerge of late. Explains Peter, “Bass remains in my heart; I read Bass Player to keep up on the latest players and gear, and I played on a track [“Something That Santa Claus Left Behind”] for my latest CD, You Just Gotta Love Christmas.” Now based in Idaho , Cetera will play bass live for the first time in over ten years when he and his “unplugged band,” the Baad Daddies, embark on a December U.S. tour in support of the disc. With his friendly and engaging Midwest manner, Peter was happy to talk about his life and times as a low-ender, starting with his bass beginnings.

What do you recall about your initial bass experience?
It was pretty funny; I got my Danelectro Short Horn and I asked somebody in our band how to tune it. He said, I think it’s tuned like the first four strings of a guitar. So, that’s what I did. I started playing, and I’m thinking, gee, it doesn’t sound real bassy. A few weeks later, a famous local bassist came and sat in at our club gig. He put the bass on and went, What the hell?! He quickly tuned it down the right way and I had to learn all over again; I was lucky the neck hadn’t snapped! From there, I went on to a Fender Precision, with an Ampeg B-15 flip-top. That was a big step up, sound-wise. Another bad habit I developed was fingering some notes on the E string over the top, with my left thumb.

Who were your early influences?
Well, the guitarist in my band taught me some Bo Diddley and Jimmy Reed tunes, and I was still playing with a pick, having come right from the guitar. Then R&B and soul took a more modern turn, and Motown was all over the radio. I didn’t know who James Jamerson was, but when I heard his parts I thought, Oh, my God! I knew I needed to start playing with my fingers. “My Girl” really solidified that for me; I would anchor my thumb on the P-Bass thumbrest and alternate my index and middle fingers, but I also kept a pick wedged in behind the pickguard, and I’d switch between styles. Seeing James Brown and his band a few times influenced my technique and approach, too, as did the bassists we played opposite on the chitlin’ circuit.

How about your vocal start and influences?
I had never sung in school or anywhere, but when we got the band together it was just, Who’s going to sing this one? “I will,” I said, and I was off. I remember the first song I sang was “Mashed Potato.” I got the obligatory shock when touching the mic and bass strings [laughs]. At that point, I was trying to sound like everyone, but one person I picked up a lot of phrasing and style points from was a pianist/singer on Chess named Billy Stewart; he had a hit with a cover of Gershwin’s “Summertime.”

There were two key early lessons for me. The first was from a friend’s father, a jazz saxophonist who took us to see people like Stan Kenton and the Four Freshman. He said, “Pay close attention to everyone you listen to. If you like them, you’ll pick up something from them; if you don’t like them, you’ll learn what you don’t want to do.” The other was seeing James Brown in a mostly empty auditorium one afternoon. He could have taken it easy, given the setting, but he was jumping around, sweating and yelling at the band, just giving it his all.

Your move from the Exceptions to what would become Chicago seems like a pivotal time.
It really was part of an awakening for me. The Beatles had come along and changed everything. I realized I was playing other people’s music, from a different era, and didn’t have my own voice yet. The Beatles showed that it could be done; it was music of my generation. And Paul McCartney’s bass lines were pure genius; it was almost like he was playing a whole different instrument. I bought a ’64 Hofner right away to use in the Exceptions, but it just wasn’t bassy and ballsy enough for
Chicago , so I got a ’63 P-Bass and had it painted paisley. I was aware of other great rock bassists, like Jack Bruce and John Entwistle, but besides Jamerson and McCartney, the guy whose playing really spoke to me for its uniqueness was Andy Fraser of Free.

Chicago quickly relocated to Los Angeles .
We discovered we couldn’t make it in
Chicago because radio wouldn’t play you unless you were famous, but the only way to get famous was to be on the radio! Our manager, Jimmy Guercio, who was a producer at CBS, moved us out to L.A. in June 1968. It was an amazing time; Jimmy got us steady Tuesdays at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go. One night Jimi Hendrix came in, and word spread across the stage. After the set he came knocking on the dressing room door and said, “You guys are motherfuckers! I want you to come on tour with me,” which we did. The same thing happened with Janis Joplin.

What was your bass approach in Chicago , and how did you come up with your parts?
My primary goal was to be melodic; McCartney was so in my head then that I’d try to think a little out of the box—like picking my spots for the upper-register stuff. Plus, Jamerson and my R&B roots were in my subconscious, so keeping a strong groove went without saying. Coming up with parts varied by who wrote the songs. Bobby’s [keyboardist Robert Lamm] tunes were fun to play; they were melodic, they had meaning, and he wouldn’t give you too much of a parameter—you would just play what you felt and he’d say, “Cool.” Terry [guitarist Kath] was more defined and opinionated as to what he wanted and didn’t want. And Jimmy [trombonist James Pankow] was really specific about what to play. But, as I say, I always tried to be melodic when the time in the track allowed for it. The only song that was given to all of us note-for-note by Jimmy was “Colour My World.”

How would you get through the band’s extended instrumental suites, which often had odd-meter figures?
That was a challenge because I’ve never been the most knowledgeable bass player; I don’t really read music and if you’re talking about chords, I don’t go much past, “Is it major or minor?” On the instrumentals, I would have chord charts to follow, and I’d just feel my way through the odd-time stuff. I also had a live bass solo in the early shows, but I can’t remember the song. It was a one-chord vamp and my main inspiration at the time was Free’s Andy Fraser’s work on Free Live [A&M, 1971].

How was your hookup with drummer Danny Seraphine?
I first met Danny during my club days, and he subbed with the Exceptions. He was a great, funky, raw “street” drummer, with a small kit, and we locked well together from the start. In
Chicago , I was a pushing kind of player, as was Terry, but Danny was laid back a bit and Robert leaned back, so we had the pocket covered from both sides! Eventually, Danny started taking lessons and his approach changed; Terry called it “lead drums,” so having Laudir De Oliveira, and later, my brother Kenny, on percussion helped solidify the overall groove.

How did you approach singing while playing on various Chicago tunes? 
I didn’t really put singing and playing together conceptually in
Chicago because the bass parts were important and they were constant, so if I had to sing lead on a tune it was something separate. Fortunately, I’d been doing it since my club days. In the beginning I was singing songs that had blues-pattern-type bass lines, so it wasn’t too bad—but in later cover bands, I had worked my way up to real rub-your-tummy/pat-your-head-type tunes, like “Good Vibrations.”

My first sing-and-play for Chicago was “Questions 67 and 68,” which, like “25 or 6 to 4,” was really high. I remember getting nervous and blowing the top notes one night at the Fillmore East because Leonard Bernstein was in the audience! “Dialogue, Pt. 1 and Pt. 2,” my duet with Terry, was my favorite sing-and-play because it was the most free. Overall, I found the key to singing while playing is to learn both parts separately and then slowly work them together though the tune, section by section. The more you perform the song the more comfortable you’ll become, to the point where you can loosen up and expand on both parts.

Apparently, there was a period of adjustment when the band first went into the studio.
That’s true. We were the greatest live band; we would blow anyone off the stage, but we didn’t have experience in the studio. When we went to
Columbia Studios in New York City , the pressure was on. We had limited time, so it was decided to record live. Well, we soon realized we had to do it separately: rhythm section, then horns, and then vocals. And in those days, we couldn’t punch, so if someone made a mistake we’d have to start over. This was especially frustrating for me; I was a live player, with two or three good takes in me. We were doing up to 50 takes! We’d get to the end of take 49 and someone would make a mistake and we’d have to go back and do it all again. It got better, but I never really felt comfortable playing in the studio, where you’re under the microscope. Even our live Carnegie Hall album [At Carnegie Hall, Vol. 1-4] had a studio-like atmosphere; the best example of us live at the time was the bootleg of the show in Japan . [In January, Rhino will release Live in Japan as a concert DVD .]

Why did bass take a backseat when you began your solo career?
There were several reasons, which tie in to why I left
Chicago . As I mentioned, I was already uncomfortable with my playing in the studio. Plus, there was a growing faction of the band that wanted to be a jazz group—even though none of us were jazz musicians. I always felt we were a song band. When some of the more ambitious material fell short, and a ballad I contributed, “If You Leave Me Now,” became a No. 1 hit, that widened the chasm. I got pigeonholed as the soft-rock ballad writer, even though ballads weren’t the only thing I was writing.

When David Foster was brought in to produce our first album for Warner Bros. [ Chicago 16], that really took bass out of the equation. He and I clicked immediately and started writing together, but the sound of pop music had changed. David was not only the best keyboard player I’d ever heard in my life, he was the best drum programmer and the best synth bass player. I would go to pick up my bass and then hear him play a killer Moog groove and I’d literally put the bass away in its case. It just didn’t fit the music at that point. I also began to feel that during my time with the band, because I hadn’t been able to fully focus on either singing or bass playing, both had suffered. So, when I went solo soon after, I decided to concentrate entirely on singing and being a frontman.

Let’s talk about other bassists; you went on to use many top players on your albums.
Intentionally, because I knew there were so many great bassists out there. Two players who had a big impact on me in the ’70s were Willie Weeks and Jaco Pastorius. When I first heard Willie’s solo on “Everything Is Everything,” from Donny Hathaway Live, I was blown away; that’s like the greatest bass solo ever! I got to meet Willie in
L.A. and he would come and hang at my house and play this Guild acoustic bass guitar I had. I lost contact with him; later, when I started recording in Nashville , I found out he was down there and was thrilled. He did my sessions and we hung out, and he’s still the most humble guy you can imagine. Jaco came to hear Chicago in the mid ’70s, and then we got together at my house, where he played that same Guild. He was totally straight then and just the nicest cat, but hearing him up close I was like, I can’t even call myself a bassist! Yet, he said to me, “I’d kill to play with you guys; if you ever need a sub please call me!”

I’ve gotten to know legends like Carol Kaye, Joe Osborn, Duck Dunn, and Chuck Rainey. I get as tickled meeting them as meeting stars like McCartney and Brian Wilson. I used Pino Palladino on a couple of my albums, after hearing his amazing work with Paul Young. I also had a great hang with [current Chicago bassist] Jason Scheff not too long ago; he’s a terrific bass player and singer.

How do you reflect on your career?
Overall, I’m very proud of my
Chicago and solo careers, and I have no real regrets. At times, I wish I had become more of a formally trained musician and composer, and that I’d learned other instruments and my way around a studio better. But I’ve heard Paul McCartney and other top artists say the same thing—not that I’m putting myself in that class. To be told that I had an impact as a bass player all these years later is quite nice.

Hard Habit To Break

Peter Cetera began his Chicago career with his ’64 Fender Precision (featuring a rosewood fingerboard and custom Paisley-painted body). Though he tried numerous other basses—including a Gibson EB-3, Rickenbacker 4001, Gibson Ripper, and fretted and fretless Fender Jazz Basses—it was the P-Bass he kept returning to. He began with La Bella flatwounds but moved on to roundwounds, never quite liking them as much as the flats. His live amp choices were more transient, including Kustom, Acoustic, Sound City , Phase Linear, Orange , and Ampeg rigs. In the studio, Cetera generally recorded his P-Basses (he used producer James Guercio’s Precision on the first album) both direct and through an Ampeg B-15, at times with tissues stuffed under the strings for a bit of damping. Cetera’s bass was always prominent in the mix, perhaps in part because Guercio was a bassist.

Currently, Peter’s bass collection features his ’64 P-Bass (now white), a Lake Placid Blue ’65 Jazz Bass, his ’64 Hofner Beatle Bass, a ’65 Vox Constellation IV bass, and a Tune Bass Maniac. Most are strung with La Bella flatwounds. He borrowed Nashville session ace Mike Brignardello’s P-Bass to record the track on his Christmas CD, and he’s expecting his McPherson acoustic bass guitar in time for his December tour. His picks are Fender mediums.