Peter Cetera Gets Real

Ex-Chicago frontman talks about splitting ways, picking bass up again

By David Sands
July 29, 2015

Peter Cetera’s many talents should be readily apparent to those familiar with his powerful contributions to the beloved brass-laden rock band Chicago.

His distinctive tenor vocals and memorable bass work helped the group secure its own special place in the rock and roll imagination. In addition to his singing and musicianship, he also composed many Chicago favorites, including “Wishing You Were Here,” “Baby What A Big Surprise,” and “If You Leave Me Now,” which topped U.S. charts in 1976.

After leaving the band somewhat acrimoniously in 1985, Cetera quickly found his own way, achieving success in the Eighties and Nineties with solo albums like Solitude/Solitaire, One More Story and World Falling Down. Over the course of his solo career he’s released six hit singles, two of which jumped to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100.

Other highlights from those years include writing the theme songs for Baywatch and The Karate Kid: Part II and being nominated for a Grammy for a duet with singer Amy Grant. During the 2000s, he began making orchestral appearances, performing his music with the Chicago Pops Orchestra on PBS and later with a 40-piece orchestra. Lately he’s been playing with the Bad Daddies, his seven-piece electric band.

Cetera graciously took time to speak with FBPO’s Jon Liebman recently, opening up about his musical background, his break with Chicago and the intriguing story behind his Pat Wilkins bass guitar.

While every musician’s musical origin is unique in its own way, Cetera’s story is certainly nontraditional. Like many prospective musicians, he pined for a six-string as a youth. Growing up in a Catholic family on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s, however, his parents didn’t think that was a proper instrument, so they put an accordion in his hands instead.

“I was kind of a polka prodigy,” he quips. “I was really good at it. But it wasn’t really my first love.”

At around 15 years old, he decided to follow his heart and bought a guitar at a local department store. As a sophomore in high school, he befriended a guitar-playing senior he refers to as the “last of the beatniks,” who provided him with guidance on playing the instrument.

“He was a little strange guy—didn’t fit in—but he was a great guy,” says Cetera, “and he really turned me on to Bo Diddley and Jimmy Reed and that kind of stuff.”

After a while, they got the itch to start a band, and it was decided that Cetera would pick up the bass. He bought himself a Danelectro Shorthorn bass and began learning the basics of the instrument that would help make him famous.

His enthusiasm to embrace the rock and roll life was also inspired by a trip to Popples, a youth club in Chicago where he saw his first band, the Rebel Rockets.

“They had a very cool singer who wore shades, and then the bass player and the guitar player stood on their amps on either side of the stage,” he says. “That was just the coolest thing I’d ever seen.”

With this imprint in his mind, Cetera leapt into the music scene, taking on vocals and electric bass, first with several high school friends and then in a succession of local groups, including a popular local band called The Exceptions.

In 1967, he left that band after being seduced by the brassy sound of a rock group called The Big Thing. After Cetera joined forces with them, they changed names, first to The Chicago Transit Authority and later to Chicago.

Early on, Cetera found inspiration in James Jamerson and Motown. Although he started off finger-picking, he later discovered playing with a pick was more his thing and stuck with it.

Though the well-traveled bassist says he finds a lesson in nearly everything he hears—good or bad—he names Paul McCartney, Jaco Pastorius and Nathan East as three of his favorite bass players. He also adamantly identifies as a rock and roll player with a penchant for melodic bass lines.

His story with Chicago came to an abrupt end in 1985, though. At the time, he wanted a pause from relentless touring and an opportunity to work on solo material. He vocalized this to the group’s management, who, he says, promised him a break after another tour and album. After the tour, however, Cetera tells FBPO he got a notice in the mail asking him to do the album and another tour.

“At the bottom of this letter, it says: ‘If you don’t, it will cause us to consider looking elsewhere,’” he says. Cetera contacted management, and they reiterated this ultimatum, so he decided to go his own way.

“They sort of backed me into a corner, and then gave me a little doorway to get out,” he says. “And then I took it. Was I fired or did I quit? I think it was both.”

Though his corresponding solo efforts connected with the public, he grew frustrated with his label, Warner Bros., feeling they failed to push his work in hopes of reuniting him with the band. His interest in music dimmed for a while in the late Nineties, but reawakened in 2002, when keyboardist and producer David Foster, who’d collaborated with him in Chicago, asked him to sing an orchestral version of his songs for The Concert for World Children’s Day in Chicago. That led to several years of orchestral performances, which rejuvenated his career.

Over his impressive time in the music industry, Cetera has played virtually every bass guitar he could get his hands on. That said, he has a special place for his Pat Wilkins custom bass.

Cetera first heard about guitar maker through his friend Joe Iaquinto, who plays bass with his brother in a tribute band called Kenny Cetera’s Chicago Experience. In 2007, the famous bassist and singer endorsed Republican Mike Huckabee for president. Knowing that the politician is also a bass player, he decided to send him a token of his appreciation. Having heard Iaquinto rave about Wilkins, he decided to have the instrument maker create a custom bass for the presidential hopeful.

“I had Pat make a bass and send it to Mike Huckabee, and along the way Pat and I talked about making me a bass,” Cetera says. “I sort of always liked my white Fender Precision Bass, and so I had him make a Wilkins version.”

“It’s just really sweet, and it’s beautiful,” he continues, “and Pat’s a hell of a guy, and he’s a heck of an artist with instruments.”

These days, Cetera enjoys playing with his band, the Bad Daddies. He’s also happy to share that he’s back on the bass. It’s something he stopped doing around the time David Foster started playing the Moog Synthesizer on Chicago’s 1980s albums. His new band gets a special thrill, he says, whenever he plays the “dum, dum, dum” riff on the Chicago song, “I’m A Man,” since they all grew up with it.

Performing on bass again is still a pretty new development for him. So far, he’s only done two gigs with the Bad Daddies this way, both times with backline basses.  “I haven’t had the heart to take my Wilkins on the road and beat it up just yet,” he confides.

This summer will be a busy one for Cetera, who’s looking forward to several North American shows with the Bad Daddies and some gigs in Kuala Lumpur with David Foster.

As for a Chicago reunion, the group’s former bassist and vocalist says that’s just not in the cards.

“You know there might be a lot of money in that, but I just can’t perform that emotional surgery,” he says. “I’m having too much fun out there right now with my band and doing what I’m doing.”

Comments on Peter Cetera Gets Real

  1. Roxy McDaniel says:

    Huckabee??? You’ve got to be kidding me. How disappointing!

  2. Jeff says:

    Cetera, you’re 70. Get over your emotional wimpage and reunite with Chicago.

  3. Saw Peter recently at Mohegan Sun. Saw him previously with Chicago. He is still NO.1. He doesn’t need Chicago. He’s doing great on his own. LUV U Peter

    1. JUSTIN pULEO says:


  4. Scott says:

    Pete, I’m your biggest fan in the world, but the fact that you can’t even reunite with Chicago for a one night only concert and DVD is BS.

  5. JM says:

    Loved ya then, love ya now! Endorsing Huckabee, love ya to the moon and back. Keep rocking!

  6. Joseph Greco says:

    Come on Peter I called you the voice of Chicago in your stay. You can do it for all your fans. You are a fantastic bass player. Make me a happy man and do it.

  7. Mike says:

    That’s too bad, but both Chicago and Peter Cetera lost their mojo for me a long time ago. I’ll always have the old Chicago albums from the 70’s to go back to, just like always. That’s good enough for me. 🙂

  8. Sjh says:

    Chicagos best days were with Terry Kath and to a lesser extent Hot Streets. 80’s Chicago sucked and worse with Jason Scheff. When the group stopped writing their own songs that was the end of Chicago, sorry Diane Warren. Cetera solo stuff was horrible too. I have the old albums on MP3. That is what I’ll listen too unless Robert Lamm tours solo.

  9. Shelia Dearing says:

    I think he is way too classy and a terrific singer to go back to Chicago for one day. Those guys aren’t any good anymore. They lost their best Peter ant Terry.I think Peter is a fantastic singer.

  10. Kevin Bradley says:

    We recently saw CHICAGO at a sold out show at Turning Stone Resort and Casino, All I can say is they haven’t lost a beat and I personally think they are probably better than they ever were.

  11. Davis says:

    I never knew how wonderful Chicago was until I seen a documentary on Netflix, all I can say is wow! These guys are good!
    All of them together in their heyday is what made them and then change is sure to come, but that’s life you know and we all have a short time to do what we do, thank god for the recording machines

  12. Zavinski says:

    Huckabee? Yuck. I’ll take the chubby, hippy Peter over this any day.

  13. Mike howard says:

    Cetera is absolutely the greatest bassist ever! The 70’s albums showcase his jazz rock licks that make the songs come alive. I’ve played bass for 40 years and still feel his influence. Thanks pete!

  14. uknowwho says:

    He just plays scales, that’s all you need to know

  15. LC says:

    Well, it sounds good and he looks really good while doing it so, there is that.

  16. BGS says:

    Anyone who criticizes Peter’s bass playing has most likely never really played a musically interment. Let me tell you, I’ve played trumpet and bass all my life (which is why I became a lifetime Chicago and Peter fan) BYT, can we please leave politics out of this please ?

  17. BernieLadika says:

    Please have Peter play with Chicago in
    Vegas on Sep 18 2021!
    Surprise guest appearance !
    His fans will tho crazy!!
    Robert would ❤️To jam with him again!

  18. GrannyB says:

    Chicago was never the same when they lost Terry, then Peter.
    Peter Cetera has done awesome on his own!
    Great voice- Great musician!
    Great Entertainer!
    And man does he still look sexy at 77!!!! Love his new hairdo…….

  19. Rhonda says:

    I LOVE Chicago…
    They are my fav band of all-time!!
    I Love the horns…
    sorry,, not sorry..
    Peter Ceteras voice, those ballads are EVERYTHING!!!
    We had the opportunity to see Chicago in concert in my little hometown of Macon, Ga in December 2021…it was magical!!!
    They did play a few of the 80s ballads…
    But for me, just my personal preference…
    Cetera was, is and always will be the voice of Chicago.
    Hoping he & his new band make their way South…I would pay good money to see that!

  20. Tim says:

    I saw Chicago in mobile Alabama in the early 70’s, it was like listening to the albums! They were just amazing, I remember Daniel Playing with headphones. What an incredible band.

  21. Paul Foti says:

    I’m a bass player and had the opportunity to hang out with Peter a few years ago, here on Kauai.
    Let me tell you, he’s a great guy. As nice as could be. He even signed my P bass.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Cool! Thanks for letting us know, Paul!

  22. Angel says:

    It’s gratifying to know that the originals are still appreciated by many.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Yes it is. Thanks, Angel!

  23. Carl Rossi says:

    I’ve been of a fan science 1965 The Exceptions. Thank you for Beautiful Music. I still tell friends about your great Impersonation.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Wow, that’s really going back a few years! 🙂 Thanks for weighing in, Carl!

  24. Maddy says:

    Always loved everything about Peter Cetera… for 50 years, until just now. The Huckster. ???? Lost a lot of respect. Oh well- still love his music

  25. Danielle Dente says:

    I have loved Peter Cetera most of my life and I loved him with Chicago. I did see him twice in his solo career and I would love to see him again but he doesn’t come to New Jersey anymore. I would love for him to come to Atlantic City so I could see him perform.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Thanks, Danielle. Hopefully he’ll make it out your way one day again!

  26. Carol Ashby King says:

    Loved it when Jeff Coffey joined Chicago for a short while. I thought his voice was amazing!

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Thanks, Carol!

  27. Alice says:

    Saw Chicago with Peter along time ago it was sold out. Then saw Chicago again without Peter. The place was half full and didn’t sound the same without him. Love his voice and his bass playing. And he’s gorgeous!!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *