Danny Seraphine – drums
Marc Bonilla – guitar
Peter Fish – keyboards
Mick Mahan – bass
Larry Braggs – lead vocals
Edward Harris Roth – keyboards
If the name sounds vaguely familiar, it should. California Transit Authority is the new band anchored by Danny Seraphine, who from 1967 through 1990 and a string of platinum albums, drove the band Chicago with his steady-handed drumming.
When it initially arrived on the scene, Chicago was known as Chicago Transit Authority or CTA. As such, California Transit Authority – also known as CTA -- is Seraphine's trip back to the future, effectively tipping his hat to his past with his feet firmly planted in the here and now.
Aptly titled FULL CIRCLE, CTA's debut album brings Seraphine back to his roots. Yet the journey wouldn't have been possible if it wasn't for a series of unfortunate events that led the drummer to pack away his kit for 17 years as he battled his personal demons until he rediscovered his muse.
On Mother's Day in 1990, Seraphine was unceremoniously ousted from Chicago, a band he helped found and define for 23 years. The move left him devastated. A protracted legal battle followed and then a divorce. As Seraphine admits, "All the wheels fell off at once and it brought me to my knees."
Having relocated to Evergreen, Colorado, he lived off of his royalties from Chicago and kept himself busy by skiing and fly-fishing, but something was missing. "I am an artist, I am creative and that's what I thrive on," he says. "I really turned my back on that part of myself for 17 years."
It was longtime friend, keyboardist Peter Fish – a six-time Emmy winner -- that provided the impetus for Seraphine to dust off his drum kit. Fish called his friend and said, "Before I die I'd like to be in a band with Danny Seraphine." After some soul searching, Seraphine realized he missed playing, so he got his drum set from his garage and woodshed, honing his chops and even taking a few lessons from big band legend Joe Porcaro, the father of late Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro. Once Seraphine regained his feel, he was invited to a jam session put together by DW Drums founder/president Don Lombardi. In attendance that fateful day was guitar wizard Marc Bonilla. "Marc and I connected," Seraphine recalls. "It was the kind of connection that I hadn't had since [late Chicago guitarist] Terry Kath. It really moved me." The seeds for CTA had been sown.
With Fish and Bonilla signing on, the CTA line-up was taking shape. Bonilla pulled in his bassist Mick Mahan (Sophie B. Hawkins), singer Larry Braggs (Tower of Power), keyboardist Ed Roth (Coolio), to play a benefit concert in the fall of 2005. "We only played three songs, 'I'm a Man,' 'Make Me Smile,' and '25 or 6 to 4.' We finished and I walked to the front of the stage and took a bow," Seraphine recalls. "Then I looked up and the whole place was standing."
Spurred on by the success of that performance, CTA soon regrouped in a Los Angeles area studio to cut its debut effort. Working with Seraphine is a dream come true for Bonilla, an accomplished musician in his own right who released two acclaimed solo albums on Reprise in the early '90s before making a name for himself with his work in music for TV and films.
"I remember sitting on my front porch listening to '25 or 6 to 4' and hearing Terry Kath's solo on that and saying, 'My God.' I had never heard anybody play like that," Bonilla says. "Chicago's music was incredibly sneaky. It's incredibly deep, incredibly complex, yet it was on commercial pop radio. They were able to slip this stuff by the average listener because they had such great hooks and vocals, yet when you look at it, it's incredibly complex."
While California Transit Authority revisits early Chicago classics "I'm A Man," "Make Me Smile," and "Colour My World" on FULL CIRCLE, CTA isn't just a nostalgia trip. "I wouldn't have been involved in it if it was a revival thing or tribute band," Bonilla says. "That's why we wanted to take those songs, the early ones and rework them, and bring them up to date."
For example, "Make Me Smile" has been transformed into an instrumental, with Bonilla recreating the vocal lines on guitar. In addition, the guitarist has also re-imagined many of Chicago's classic horn parts on his guitar.
Another twist is vocalist Braggs, the voice of Tower of Power since 2000. "Terry's singing had a lot of soul, blue-eyed soul, but it's great to have Larry come in and do a new take on the songs with a different kind of soul," Bonilla says.
Aside from the re-workings of the Chicago tracks, FULL CIRCLE revisits Bonilla's "Antonio's Love Jungle," which is given new life as Seraphine's human touch replaces the original's drum-machine rhythms, as well as "Something Different," the Cannonball Adderley track composed by a young Chuck Mangione. A new original track, "Several Thousand," features guest vocalist Wes Quave. "It's the most contemporary, pop, radio-friendly track," Bonilla says. "It's an amazing song. It's real catchy. Wes brought his own type of soul to that one and did a great vocal arrangement."
In all, FULL CIRCLE offers fans of the Chicago Transit Authority a trip back with a nod to the future. It's enough – to paraphrase one of the band's songs reworked by the new CTA – to make you smile.