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Cetera adds to the Chicago legend with tribute band

Kenny, Peter’s brother, brings show on July 16


Steve Penhollow

Whatzup Features Writer

Published July 7, 2021

Famous parents and siblings cast long shadows over family members who try to succeed in the same careers that made their relatives rich and renowned. Discord between such family members is probably more common than harmony, but the relationship between Peter and Kenny Cetera has never been less than chummy.

Peter is, of course, a former lead vocalist and songwriter in the band Chicago. He had a successful solo career before retiring in 2019.

Kenny, Peter’s little brother, is a drummer and vocalist who has spent much of his career as a session musician and a member of bands that did not enter the national consciousness.

When Kenny got the idea to form a Chicago tribute act in 2011, his brother could have balked. Instead, Peter gave his brother his blessing. He showed up at one of Kenny’s earliest gigs, having bought tickets at the box office, and he waited in line.

“He gave us a nice bump on his social media pages,” Kenny said, in a phone interview with Whatzup. “He didn’t tell me he was coming. 15 minutes before we were supposed to hit the stage, he shows up backstage. Then he came up with us. It was great.”

Growing Up in Chicago

Kenny grew up the youngest of six children on Chicago’s South Side. One question he’s often asked is, “Was it a musical family?” I suspected as much, but I asked anyway.

“We had a piano in the house, and one of my sisters took lessons,” Kenny said. “My mother sang to songs on the radio, but we weren’t the Von Trapps.”

The reason music became so important to Peter and, later, Kenny can be found in a line from the Rolling Stones’ song “Street Fighting Man.” The line is as follows: “What can a poor boy do except to sing for a rock n’ roll band?”

For Kenny, music was a way out.

“Growing up in that working-class neighborhood, there was this sense of, ‘Well, you are never going to get away from here,’” he said. “It was an ingrained belief. People thought they were stuck and that kept many of them stuck, ironically.”

Kenny was in grammar school when Peter started performing in bands around the Windy City. He recalls trying to be as unobtrusive as possible while Peter and his friends practiced in the family garage.

Kenny said his childhood memories of this brother have as much to do with bike riding as they do with music.

“When I think about growing up with Peter, I think about the sound of gravel crunching under bike tires,” he said.

However, he does recall a day when his brother’s musical endeavors made a big impression on him. Peter brought home 45 rpm records with his songs on them, and, in the late 1960s, a song etched into vinyl was a dream made real.

Peter’s move to California was another astonishment for Kenny.

“It was like, ‘Wow! Someone in our family is living in California!’” he said. “I had a hard time wrapping my mind around that. California didn’t seem real. It seemed like another planet.”

Kenny eventually made his own move to California where he fronted Top 40 bands. When Peter was recording his final album with Chicago, Chicago 17, he asked Kenny to provide background vocals.

“I sang on ‘Prima Donna,’ ‘Along Comes a Woman,’ ‘You’re the Inspiration,’ and ‘Stay the Night,’” Kenny recalled.

Finding the Right Musicians

Prior to the formation of Chicago Experience, Kenny never performed a Chicago song or one of his brother’s solo hits in any of his cover bands. This wasn’t a conscious decision. It just never came up.

“I think it had something to do with never having a horn section,” he said. “When you don’t have a horn section, you don’t tend to think, ‘Hey, we should do a Chicago song!’”

Finding the right musicians for the Chicago Experience is not an easy task.

“It requires patience,” Kenny said. “Some people have the right sound, but not the right attitude. Some people sound great, but they can’t fully commit to the band. And some people don’t sound quite right; they’re good players, but they can’t create the Chicago sound.”

Chicago had two distinct career incarnations: The horn-rich band of the ’60s and ’70s, and the synth-based band of the ’80s. So, the Chicago Experience has to convincingly recreate two very different eras.

On top of that, Kenny insists that his singing voice isn’t an exact match of his brother’s.

“He has a very distinctive voice,” Kenny said. “It’s a workout for me to sing his songs, that’s for sure. But we came from the same gene pool. It works. People have a great time at the shows, I have a great time, and the band has a great time.”

Horn-rich pop music is a rarity these days, so the Chicago Experience imparts an important message about what brass instruments can do to young musicians.

“A lot of our fans are older, of course,” Kenny pointed out. “But they bring their children and grandchildren with them, so we’ve got kids who are playing in high school bands and marching bands out there in the audience. Even though some of these songs are 50 years old, I am sure they sound fresh to these kids.”

A Commercial Challenge

One of the commercial challenges for the Chicago Experience is the band’s size. Because it has more members than many touring cover bands, it has to charge more. That being said, it’s difficult to argue the cost isn’t worth it.

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