Peter Cetera is relaxing at home in Idaho on a sunny day in June.
“It just snowed yesterday,” he says in phone call. “It went fairly quickly, but I got up in the morning to two inches of snow. It was in the upper 30s. And now it’s a beautiful sunny day.”
Cetera has one of the most distinctive voices in popular music. His smooth tenor graced hits by Chicago from the group’s founding in 1967 until 1984 when he went on to a successful solo career. It’s the voice on favorites “25 or 6 to 4,” “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” “Just You N’ Me,” “If You Leave Me Now,” “Hard To Say I’m Sorry,” “You’re the Inspiration” and many others. As a solo artist his hits include “Glory of Love,” “The Next Time I Fall” and “One Good Woman.”
He’s currently on a solo tour and will come to the Knoxville Convention Center on July 27 as a fundraiser for Second Harvest Food Bank of East Tennessee.
Although he stopped having hits in the 1990s, Cetera says he doesn’t spend a lot of time looking back:
“I gotta tell you, I’m having the time of my life now. I know it’s clichéd to say that, but I’ve never had more fun on stage. I’ve got a great group. I get to do what I want to do. There’s moments that are as good as it gets -- and moments you’d rather forget, both musically and performance wise.”
Born in Chicago in 1944, Cetera was the prime age for falling in love with early rock ‘n’ roll and began playing guitar as a teenager. He says the first song that might have really caught his ear was Little Richard singing “Good Golly Miss Molly” or a song by Bo Diddley.
“My influences were Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Richie Valens and Jimmy Reed,” he said.
It’s a little hard to hear those influences in Cetera’s voice, though. The influence of The Beatles, a group that he fell in love with later, is a little more evident.
“I learned long ago, somebody’s father who had been in music, said you learn from everything you hear,” Cetera said. “You learn what you do like and what you don’t like and you take what you do like and discard what you don’t. You take something from everybody you hear. Then one day this voice comes out of you and it’s yours. … I don’t think I really figured out who I really was until I started doing the solo albums. Maybe the last album I did with Chicago and the first solo album it was my voice, my role. You feel confident, relaxed.”
While Cetera was the lead vocalist on many every Chicago favorites, in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, he was the voice of Chicago on the radio. Cetera says it wasn’t something that he planned. It was, he says, the result of his writing with producer David Foster and the rest of the band turning in fewer good songs.
“People were bringing in songs that were just weak … so David Foster and I started writing songs and the things we coming up with were really good,” Cetera said. “What are you gonna do? Pick songs that aren’t worth it? And it was kind of right at the time that was ushering in videos and the director of a video will go, ‘Well, who’s the singer?’ The lead singer is always the lead actor in the videos and that was me. So, yeah, it caused a lot of strife and hence the parting of the ways. They didn’t like that. What do you want me to do, stop writing? So it was a problem.”
The group’s former emphasis on the horns was diminished and, as far as radio was concerned, Chicago became known for romantic ballads.
“People say, ‘Oh, when you started it was all ballads.’ That’s not the truth. The fact of the matter is, the record company chose what they wanted to be singles and they always chose those and would forsake the uptempo things. I wrote some uptempo things, but they weren’t as big as the ballads.”
While not saying his relationship with his former band is acrimonious, Cetera declined to attend Chicago’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and says he has no plans to reunite with the rest of the band.
“I’ve said, ‘Never say never,’ for years, but, no. I don’t ever see that happening. There really isn’t a group any more. Different drummer, different guitar players and they have stand-ins some nights. I don’t even know if the sax player is with them anymore. Really, it’s more like a sound-alike group now, I think.”
He also takes issue with a recent documentary on the group aired by CNN.
“That was supposed to a documentary, but one of the guys in the group, his brother makes films, so he did it. How can it be a documentary if it was done by somebody in the group pushing it rather than fair and honest reporting?”
The documentary, “Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago,” was directed by Peter Pardini, nephew of Lou Pardini, keyboardist with Chicago since 2009. The Chicago Tribune, among others, took CNN to task for airing a documentary produced by the subject of the documentary.
“I started calling it the ‘crockumentary.’ I was going to make one and play that one and every time there was what I’d call ‘fake news’ I’d stop the video and say, ‘Now, this is what really happened.’ But, as time goes on, I push that more in the past. I don’t really care about it anymore.”
All in all, Cetera says it’s great to have a body of work that people are still interested in.
“It’s always great to have that, but I’m always looking forward. I’m looking ahead. I’m not sitting here getting fat. I’m having fun now and trying to stay in shape and look good and do this while I wait for the next project. We’re starting to do a couple of new songs in the show. So people will have a chance to hear something new at the shows at well.
“I’d like to do new music. There’s a problem with the music now. It’s very disposable. It’s, ‘Oh, OK. Let’s get the next person we can make star for one record.’ There’s no albums, per se anymore. There’s very few artists who can come out with more than one or two good songs on an album. The ones who can are the ones who stay big, the Taylor Swifts and the Coldplays. … The established legendary artists don’t know where to go. I don’t know where to go. But I have three or four things I’m working on now so that when somebody does come around they’ll be there.”
Cetera says there is one particular thing he’d like to do musically that he hasn’t yet.
“One day I’d like to do a male-male duet ala Sam and Dave. Nobody does that anymore. It’d be great to do it with someone like Steve Winwood. Paul McCartney. I’d love to do it with him.”
Cetera said it’s good to see new generations discovering both the music he loves and the music he makes.
“I guess what goes around comes around. I’ve got two daughters who are 33 and 20 years old and they were raised on me listening to The Beatles, so they have respect for this older stuff as well. That’s what’s happening a lot. I’m seeing a lot more younger people at my shows and I’m sure they’re saying, ‘Oh, my gosh. That’s that guy who sang that song when I was a kid. There he is and he still sounds good.’”
When: 6 p.m. Thursday, July 27
Where: Knoxville Convention Center
Tickets: $150, $250 and $500, tables of 10 are available, https://secondharvestetn.org/event/35thcelebration/