Jeff Coffey, formerly of Chicago: Something Else! Interview

Jeff Coffey discusses his fascinating career – before, during and now after Chicago – in this new Something Else! Sitdown with Preston Frazier. Coffey, who took over the Peter Cetera / Jason Scheff role in Chicago from 2016–18, is preparing to release his third solo album. 

PRESTON FRAZIER: Tell us about your new single, “Got to Get Away.”
JEFF COFFEY: That actually was recorded and mixed before I got the call from Chicago [in spring 2016]. I had already started to move forward. After 2010, I took a few years off from music; I just got burnt and needed to refresh and get away. I put my guitars away, didn’t play a note and didn’t listen to music. I then started to miss music again, and realized there was a hole in my life without it. I had written four songs and tracked and recorded three of them when Keith Howland called saying they were looking for someone in Chicago to replace Jason. The songs were sitting there for a while but, with Chicago, I simply didn’t have the time to finish them up.

PRESTON FRAZIER: I think I read an interview with John Cowen, the Doobie Brothers bassist who is in the group Button with Keith Howland, where he said he was the one who turned Keith on to you.
JEFF COFFEY: Yes, that’s true. I started to go to Nashville and immersed myself in the scene, playing jams and making contacts. It was great to play with A-list musicians. One of the first things I played was a drummer jam, which was a tribute to Stewart Copeland. It was Police music, which is right up my alley. That was the night I met John Cowan. I was at sound check and he passed by and said, “Oh Lord, a singing bass player.” We kept in contact and, after several months, Keith gave me a call.

Keith and John had known each other for a while. There also was a connection with Ed Toth, who played with Vertical Horizon and is with the Doobie Brothers, as well. Keith, John and Ed now have the Button side project. John kept asking Keith to call “this guy named Jeff Coffey,” after Jason announced to the band that he was leaving. Keith said to John, “I don’t know; we are looking at this other guy.” But John kept mentioning me to Keith, then John called Ed Toth and asked about me, and he also recommended me. Then Keith called a Nashville guitarist friend of mine, Chris Nicks, who gave me a good recommendation.

PRESTON FRAZIER: What’s the title of the upcoming album?
JEFF COFFEY: No title yet. I haven’t picked one. Once I see what we have I’ll pick one. So far, I have three songs completed and mixed, I have two more recorded and about to be mixed, and I’m recording a few more in Nashville. I have a few more tuned that I’m writing. I’m more than halfway there. The second single from the album should be out in a couple of months, and we’ll do a video for it as well. We just released the video for “Got to Get Away,” too. The second single is going to be “Black and Blue.”

PRESTON FRAZIER: Are you producing the album?
JEFF COFFEY: Yes, Joe Smith is mixing it. I’ll handle the bass and all the vocals, including the backing vocals stacks. My friend Tom Hurst will be on drums; he was in my former two bands. He plays with Nashville artist Tracy Lawrence. He’s phenomenal. He’s also one of the founders of the Nashville drummer jams. Chris Nicks and Ed Leach are on guitars. I’m handling a lot of other things, too.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Former Chicago members Danny Seraphine and Bill Champlin joined us to mount a furious defense of ‘Chicago 17,’ calling it “the biggest album we ever had.”]

PRESTON FRAZIER: The vocal arrangements are great.
JEFF COFFEY: Thanks, I’m a sucker for harmonies. I love the Eagles and Crosby Stills and Nash. In college, I also listened to jazz fusion, and contemporary jazz like Take 6. I use to work in a doo-wop four-piece a cappella group. I love harmonies. Steve Perry, formerly of Journey, is one of my vocal heroes. How he arranged harmonies interwoven around the lead vocals was amazing.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Let’s discuss your background with our readers. Most know you as the former bassist/tenor vocalist for Chicago, but you have been active in the music industry long before that.
JEFF COFFEY: I’m one of the few native Floridians around! I attended Stetson University and the University of Central Florida. As a kid in the ’70s, I loved music. My first rock album was Kiss Alive, that double album. I was captivated by their stage presence and the ambiance of the band. As a teen, I started playing in a band. I started with trombone. I messed around with a bass, and had a little band with friends early on. I got a full-ride scholarship to Stetson University in for music performance as a trombone major. I transferred to UCF a little later.

PRESTON FRAZIER: How did you get to be a bass player?
JEFF COFFEY: I always played it, and I started to dabble in bass a lot more. I was always a fan of people like Leland Sklar, Pino Palladino. I spent a lot of time shedding bass in my dorm room. I was a big fan of Richard Page from Mr. Mister. I was working on the singing and playing thing together. I also realized early on that this is what I wanted to do. I realized the things I wanted to do, I wasn’t going to be able to do it on trombone. I sold all my trombones, bought bass gear, put a record out with my band and hit the road.

PRESTON FRAZIER: What was your first recorded work, was it your self-titled solo album?
JEFF COFFEY: No, it was pretty early on. I had a band with a buddy called Isiss, and later I was in House of Dreams, which released an album in 1994.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Did you finish your degree from UCF?
JEFF COFFEY: No, I didn’t finish. UCF had a really good program. The trombone instructor was fantastic, but I also was in the jazz ensemble. We played the Montreux Jazz Festival and toured Europe, as well as the North Sea Festival. I realized that I knew what I wanted to do, and it was music. I decided to go out to do it after three full years of college.
My band did a lot of touring around the East Coast, and up to the central part of the country.

PRESTON FRAZIER: What style were you playing?
JEFF COFFEY: It was rock; genres change, but I was rock.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: ‘Chicago 18’ eventually reached million-selling status, but that paled in comparison to what came before – and even what came immediately after. What happened?]

PRESTON FRAZIER: Then the House of Dream band was next?
JEFF COFFEY:Yes, we got a deal with RCA records around 1996, and Vertical Horizon was on the same label. We got to do a show with them. It was before their record, Go, came out and did really well for them. We did a lot of shows with other rock artists, and developed relationships. We recorded the House of Dream album in L.A. with producer Keith Olsen. Unfortunately, the album never got released.

PRESTON FRAZIER: How did the House of Dreams lead to your solo debut?
JEFF COFFEY: After many years of being on the road and trying to make it, we thought we had arrived after we recorded the album. After the album was not released and we were dropped, I decided it was time to step out on my own. I didn’t want to deal with the confines and democracy of being in a band. I wanted to do it the way I felt it and saw it. It was very liberating. I put a studio together in my house, got a band together and did two solo albums, in 2003 and 2007. I played around town, did festivals and got to see my vision through to the end.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Long Way Home, your most recent solo effort, and the debut album both have a well-crafted and produced sound.
JEFF COFFEY: It’s amazing what you can do in a home studio, but you need to have a clear vision and the right ear for it. I try to team up with really talented people, too. I’m now teaming up with a guy from the first record, Joe Smith, to mix my upcoming album. Joe has success here in Orlando with N’Sync and Mandy Moore. He mixed the single “Got to Get Away.” I’m really happy with it.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Is your upcoming record a departure from Long Way Home?
JEFF COFFEY: That’s a good question. It’s still sounds like me, but there is growth since the last one. I’m collaborating with more people, and there will be a few left turns. I’m really happy with how it’s beginning to sound I also used a different group of people than Long Way Home. I used some of my Nashville friends. I used the same core group on my first two records. I’m really excited about how it’s sounding. I’m halfway through recording the new record, and the tracks sound amazing.

PRESTON FRAZIER: In the few minutes we have, let’s talk about Chicago. The last time I saw the band, in the summer of 2017, your vocals were spot on – but not a copy of Peter Cetera. How did you feel you fit in?
JEFF COFFEY: I heard comments that when I joined, that the sound changed. I was a big fan of the Cetera-Foster era of Chicago. Those songs had a huge impact on my life; those were my high school years. I have a love an affinity for those songs. When I got Chicago 18 with Jason, I thought: “Damn, this guy is really good too,” and loved those songs. That tour was the first time seeing Chicago. I never saw them with Cetera. Cetera had, and has, a killer voice. He is undeniably great. He may not sing things in the same key now, but he’s still great. Live, Jason was also great. Then the subsequent albums, 19 with big hits by Bill Champlin, was great. I was a big fan of that era. Mainly, what Chicago plays in their set is a lot of ’70s stuff. They may throw in two or three songs from the ’80s, but that’s it.

My whole take on the gig was to take Peter’s bass and vocal inflections and approach. I didn’t realize how good a bass player he was until I stated digging into the songs. That man was a wicked player. I took his approach on bass playing and his inflections, the way he would sing songs, because I heard comments that the vocals had taken a different approach phrase wise – so I wanted to get them back to the way they sound on record. I realize that when you come to a concert people want to hear it the way they sound on the record. A little ad-lib is OK but you have a better connection to the concert experience if they hear the songs the way you’ve been living with for decades. That was my approach. When I prepared or the gig, I listened to a lot of multitrack, so no one had to worry about the new guy – and I slipped right in. It was tight from the first gig. It was great to play these incredible songs.

PRESTON FRAZIER: I wish I’d gotten to see the live rendition of Chicago II for PBS, which will be your only recording with the group.
JEFF COFFEY: I heard it will be on TV sometime in the spring. I’m looking forward to it. The band was really tight. We seemed to be running on all cylinders. It was great camaraderie on stage. I hope the nine cameras that filmed it captured the energy. I thank the Chicago fans for being supportive on my decision. I hope that they continue to follow me. I’m looking forward to the next stage of my career.

[CAN’T GET ENOUGH CHICAGO?: Click here to check out a comprehensive, multi-writer examination of the entire Chicago discography from Something Else! – song by song by incredible song. 

PRESTON FRAZIER: What instruments are you playing?
JEFF COFFEY: I play Fender basses and Gibson guitars [Les Paul and Gibson acoustic], Fender Precision Bass and five-string Fender jazz bass with GHS Strings.

PRESTON FRAZIER: And, finally, what are your Top 5 albums?
JEFF COFFEY: Journey – Escape; Sting – The Soul Cages; Tears For Fears – Songs From the Big Chair; Sade’ – Love Deluxe; The Police – Synchronicity.