It has been 50 years since The Beatles released their self-titled record (otherwise known as ‘The White Album’). Actually, 51 years have passed, but that’s neither here nor there. The important thing is the monumental record is being celebrated with a run of shows dubbed, ‘It Was Fifty Years Ago Today – Tour 2019: A Tribute To The Beatles White Album.’
The show will consist of an elite cast of all-star musicians, including the incomparable Todd Rundgren, five-time Grammy Award winner Christopher Cross, Mickey Dolenz (drummer and vocalist for the Monkees), Jason Scheff (frontman/bassist for Chicago from 1986 – 2016), and Joey Molland of Badfinger, who will perform alongside and under the direction of the tour’s musical director, Joey Curatolo.
The 30-track double-album spawned Beatles classics including “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Blackbird,” “Piggies,” and “Julia,” to name a few!
In a recent phone interview on September 20, the eve of the tour kicking off in Atlantic City, Jason Scheff phoned into CleveRock for an interview to discuss the tour.
With 30-tracks on the album, not to mention each member has crowd-pleasing hits that would leave customers unhappy if left unperformed, this writer assumed that the show would consist of half the album (probably the highlights with a rarity or two mixed in) and a handful of hits from Chicago, the Monkees, Badfinger, and tunes from Cross’ and Rundgren’s catalogs.
Well, the latter half is correct. The group will, in fact, play one another’s hits, but, as for ‘The White Album’:
“I don’t think it’s giving away any secret, but, we’re doing the whole album, man! There might be one song that we don’t do, but for the most part, we’re doing the entire record,” Scheff revealed. “And, yes, we’ll have a section of us performing a couple of our greatest hits each. That’s pretty powerful. I’m not going to tell you what those are. You can probably guess. It’s really special to see five artists going down the line, playing a couple of massive hits in the middle of this album. You get that special moment and then we go back into the record.”
It must be incredibly difficult to coordinate five top-notch musicians to all get on board, not to mention shelve their own busy touring schedules for an opportunity such as this! Scheff explained how he became a part of the tour and how the rest of it came together:
“I got a phone call one day… My record producer, Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts, who was just finishing up my album (coming out in November), he got a phone call from an agent saying that there’s a secretive, cryptic opportunity. ‘Would Jason be interested in doing an all-star band performing with a unique project?’ I said, ‘What is it?’ And I was like, ‘Come on, man, we’re all adults here.’ I got out of him that it’s the Beatles’ White Album. It’s Todd Rundgren, Christopher Cross, Mickey Dolenz, and Joey Molland of Badfinger. And, I said, ‘ABSOLUTELY!’ I love challenges,” Scheff recalled. “The album itself, I was really excited to dive in and get granular into how things worked. It’s just a blast! We’ve been in rehearsals and we’re ready to come out and kick this thing off.”
While the tour has yet to kickoff, the group has been in rehearsals, ironing out who plays what part, who takes lead vocals on which song, and trying to make the entire show come together flawlessly.
So, with so many frontmen in one setting and lots of cooks in the kitchen, who is going to take over as the leader for this ensemble?
“It’s equally split up! It is so nice because you get a very diverse sound, but you also get personalities. That’s what’s so amazing about it. You have these iconic voices and it’s like, ‘Wow!’ You can feel the essence of the record and these voices going on top of them so it’s equally split up,” Scheff said. “The other thing is that we’re all at a point in our lives and careers and we’ve all done the heavy lifting and made our hit records back in the day, that everyone is relaxed and there are no egos like, ‘Hey, man, I’ve got to sing this song instead of you.’ It’s really, really wonderful to see a bunch of adults that saying, ‘Hey, this is awesome! when do I start?'”
If Scheff is to be believed (and there is no reason not to believe him) that egos were checked at the door, there were undoubtedly still challenges in tackling a legendary double-album and sprinkling in hits from five different artists’ catalogs. Jason said that individual preparation was key!
“We were very prepared when I came in for the first day of core band rehearsals, [music director] Joey [Curatolo] and I talked about it after day one and said, ‘It’s amazing!’ We got through a lot of it and there weren’t any glitches because everyone was prepared! We all really did our homework,” Scheff said with pride. “Once we got through that part, the most potentially challenging aspect of this would be, ‘Wow! That’s a lot of material!’ We were kind of fumbling around. Darren Murphy, the drummer, has been involved in a lot of Beatles productions. Joey and Darren were so well versed in this music that it was wonderful. I just slid in, and Joey really appreciated that we had done a lot of homework on this. Once we got through day one and we saw that we were pretty far along, it was just a matter of getting the other guys in here and then figure out what we were going to divvy up as far as background vocals. Joey and Darren had a lot of background vocals already covered.”
In addition to handling his share of vocals, Scheff was still territorial of his first love: bass guitar.
“That’s what’s nice about having just finished rehearsals is that just the idea of it sounds so daunting, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to play bass,” he said.
“I wanted to be BASSically the bass player. See what I did there?” Scheff said as he and this interviewer shared a laugh.
It goes without saying that in addition to being one of the most successful acts of all time, the Beatles are one of the primary influences cited by every generation since they started releasing music, including to present day. Scheff was asked if ‘The White Album,’ or the Beatles, in general, were an influence on his music. His answer was not so simple!
“I love that question. It comes up in just about every interview, as it should. I’m 57, so, I was too young to really get the impact of the White Album, or really, all of them, up until when I started really getting into the radio, which is probably around 10 or 11-years-old. That’s when you really start getting into it; about ready to turn into a teenager. I distinctly remember the songs on the radio that I got lit up by were like, ‘Hello, It’s Me,’ so that’s so ironic that I’m standing next to this guy named Todd Rundgren,” he said of his tourmate. “The Beatles were still together, but not for long, so I caught the end of it. I wasn’t really super drawn to the Beatles because I wasn’t going back, I was just listening to what was currently on the radio. Elton John was what really lit my fire. When I’ve been going through the White Album and listening to the parts, listening to Paul’s bass parts, what I discovered is that my first bass player influences such as Dee Murray (Elton John’s bass player), once I joined Chicago, I was really listening to the Chicago work to go in and study it. Dee Murray and Peter Cetera are obviously huge Paul McCartney fans, so I really got it second hand from those guys,” Scheff continued.
As for Scheff’s favorite songs to perform on this upcoming tour:
“I love singing ‘Julia’ and actually, ‘Piggies,'” Scheff stated [before singing a few lines of “Piggies” over the phone!]
In addition to this remarkable tour, Scheff has pans to release a solo album in November. As the frontman of Chicago for three decades and part of this monumental tour honoring ‘The White Album,’ I would have been remiss not to ask Scheff for the details of his upcoming project!
“My work together with Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts became the catalyst of what got us into the studio to record ‘Chicago 30’ — We hadn’t recorded a new album in 16 years and I was really proud of it. My efforts are what really sparked us getting back into the studio. Jay produced that record and did a great job with ‘Chicago 30.’ Right after that record, he was so excited about everything, he’s like, ‘let’s do a solo record for you!’ So, we did, and we worked on about half of that and then put it down for a while because we were all so busy touring so much,” Scheff said of the album’s conception. “A couple of years ago, after I came home to take care of my family and some other personal stuff, Jay said, ‘let’s revisit this record!’ So, we did. We had a lot of great stuff on it. We went back in to finish it up. Now, in November, it’s getting released. It’s called, ‘Here I am.’ We have the best in the business as my team and a host of incredible Nashville session players that did the basics and then I have some fun special guests like Robby Kreiger of the Doors plays a great slide guitar one of the tunes. I have Alex Lifeson of Rush playing on one of my songs and also Tommy Thayer of Kiss…That’s coming out in November. We are super proud of it.”