Backstage with Ron Onesti: Chicago, Cheap Trick bring rock pride to Illinois

As it is every year, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction class is a hot topic of discussion that usually goes in either or both of two directions. The debate gets heated when the conversation becomes more about who is NOT in the hall, rather than who is.

Those musical greats who have not yet been inducted are discussed, defended and fought over reminiscent of those “My dad is bigger than your dad” days in the school playground.
For me, I take it for what it’s worth. I am happy for those who ARE selected, and do not spend much time complaining about who is not. I thoroughly enjoy my time when I go to Cleveland to visit the Rock Hall, and there are plenty of inductees I am happy for. Don’t get me wrong, there are many groups I can plead a case for, and I could justify their place of honor as much or more than many current inductees. But really, in the end, it’s all entertainment, not very scientific, and like life, a bit unfair.

If you have read my column before, you may remember last year’s report from Cleveland as I attended The 30th Anniversary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremonies (if you haven’t, go to and look it up, it was a VERY cool night). I recently attended this year’s edition, and it was a very special evening. It was a quite emotional and long-awaited induction of three bands in particular that I not only have had the privilege of working with, but also have been blessed by their friendship over the years.

Chicago, Cheap Trick and Deep Purple were honored this year, along with Steve Miller and N.W.A.

Of the 31 induction ceremonies, only four have been held in the Hall’s hometown of Cleveland. The others, as it was this year, have been held in New York City, except for twice in Los Angeles. This edition was held at The Barclays Center in downtown Brooklyn, and not at the semi-usual location of Madison Square Garden.

Lars Ulrich, the famed drummer from the metal-supergroup Metallica was the first to welcome the 18,000-plus attendance. His job was to induct English heavy metal band Deep Purple. Taking full advantage of his opening spot, he spent all of 20 minutes outlining all the reasons why Deep Purple was to be awarded this coveted honor. He saluted keyboardist Jon Lord, who passed away in 2013. I really appreciated the fact that Ulrich congratulated all 14 members of the band that circulated through the band over the years.

Purple pioneers Ian Pace, Ian Gillian, Glenn Hughes and David Coverdale all were there, however Hughes and Coverdale were not invited to perform the three-song medley at the event. And Ritchie Blackmore, the controversial guitarist who came up with that famous “Smoke On The Water” riff, did not attend due to differences with the band.

Blackmore not being there was a real shame, I thought. If you were a child of ’70s rock, the first lick you learned was that opening riff of “Smoke On The Water.” I was in sixth grade when the air guitar was born for me, and that was the song that birthed it! And when the band played “Smoke” after another megahit, “Hush,” I found my air guitar skills were thoroughly still intact.

Steve Miller was next up. I have never met the man, outside of being in the audience with him at another awards ceremony for an organization I sit on the board for, Little Kids Rock. I was interested to hear him speak and try to find out what kind of guy he is. I was excited because the very first 45 rpm record I bought with “my own” money, was “The Joker” by the Steve Miller band.

I found out a few things I didn’t know about him, such as the fact that he was from Milwaukee, grew up musically in San Francisco with Boz Scaggs, played the famed Fillmore club 129 times, came to Chicago to learn the blues (the band was actually named “The Steve Miller Blues Band” until it was shortened for simplicity), and that guitar pioneer Les Paul was his godfather and taught him his first chord when little Steve was only 5 years old! He seemed humble and laid back, as he challenged the Rock Hall to honor more women and to bring more music to schools.

After the show, however, he strongly criticized the Hall for its poor treatment of the performers, saying that he just did it so as not to disappoint the fans.

“They gave me two tickets, for me and my wife. When I asked the about my band and their wives, they said it would be $10,000 apiece. I was furious,” Miller said.

But man, when his distinctive voice and somewhat poetically distorted guitar belted out “Fly Like An Eagle” “Rock’n Me” and “The Joker,” the place went crazy! It was interesting to note that “The Steve Miller Band” was nominated as a solo act rather than an entire band, and that his Greatest Hits album sold over 13 million copies, more than The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” album.

Next up, definitely a controversial selection, hip-hop heavies, N.W.A. Rap superstars Ice Cube and Dr. Dre (the first certified billionaire rap artist) led the group on stage, recalling those formative years in Compton, a city plagued with crime near Los Angeles. Their messages and music were in response to the excessive gang violence and alleged police brutality of the ’80s, and reflected the racial strife of the time.

They acknowledged the presence of diversity within the Rock Hall, and encouraged more. Ice Cube sent out a message to KISS band member Gene Simmons who was quoted as saying, “Rap doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame. It’s not rock.” “Rock ‘n’ Roll isn’t a specific genre,” Cube said. “It is a spirit, a combination of all forms of music.” In subsequent interviews, Simmons begged to differ.

Sheryl Crow then performed an acoustic rendition of the Eagles’ classic “New Kid In Town,” remembering Glenn Frey, the Eagle who had recently passed away. It was a serene moment.

“Matchbox Twenty” frontman Rob Thomas had the honor of inducting Chicago, which was for me the moment of the night. Chicago was MY band. It was the first band that I really got into, listening and learning every cut on every album, from seventh grade until today.

“Their first three albums were DOUBLE albums, and they had the guts to name themselves after a city that was the center of the Blues, and Rhythm & Blues. That takes guts,” Thomas said.

Actually the moment started earlier that day for me. Original drummer Danny Seraphine asked me if I was available to join him and his family for breakfast at the Waldorf-Astoria. What a cool thing to do! Danny and I have been close friends for a long time, and he was one of the main reasons why I attended the ceremonies. You see, he was excused from the band over 25 years ago, citing irreconcilable differences. When the band welcomed Danny to be a part of the ceremonies, he became very emotional.

Five of the seven original members were in attendance. Rob Thomas and the band itself acknowledged guitarist and vocalist Terry Kath who died of a gun accident in 1978. Kath’s daughter, Michelle, was on stage with the guys, another classy move. The other band member conspicuous by his absence was former high-pitched lead singer, Peter Cetera. Band differences kept him from attending, another heart breaking moment of the evening.

It was nice to hear sax player Walt Parazaider thank veteran Chicago disc jockey Dick Biondi, and also credited Doc Severinson, the former “Tonight Show” band leader for helping to keep the band together after Kath’s tragic death. Jimmy Pankow thanked the Hall for “Welcoming them into their home,” and Lee Loughnane thanked his three ex-wives for “Making it necessary for him to keep working!”

All the guys got to say a few words, but when Danny took the mic, he was not short on emotion, or on expletives, for that matter.

“I’ve been waiting 25 years to play with my band,” said a choked-up Seraphine. After a long acceptance speech, the monitors started saying “wrap it up.” Danny hoisted the trophy above his head and proclaimed, “Screw you, I have been waiting too long for this moment!’ (I THINK he said, “Screw you.”)

I was so happy for him. I knew how important this was for him, and I wouldn’t have missed being there for the world. It was incredibly cool to be on “the inside” of that whole emotional roller coaster. The band then played “Saturday In The Park” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is” and “25 or 6 to 4.” It was magical as I ripped a vocal chord or two.

Certified southern rock star Kid Rock then took the stage to induct the boys from Rockford, Cheap Trick. He described the band as, “A garage band with punk soul, a pop heartbeat and Beatles ambitions.” It was fabulous to see all four original members together, probably for the last time, as drummer Bun E. Carlos has been out of the band for a few years now, with legal battles coming in between him and his childhood friends.

Vocalist Robin Zander, another good friend of The Arcada, entered the stage in a white zoot-suit and big hat, and Tom Petersson did nothing but grin while speaking about his organization benefiting autism. Guitarist Rick Nielsen, in his own animated fashion, presented Steve Miller with a guitar shaped like a Miller Beer logo. “I’ve been waiting years to give this to you,” he said.

They commenced with the final set of the night, aptly so because their songs “I Want You To Want Me” “Dream Police” and “Surrender” literally brought down the house.

David Lettermen Show alum Paul Shaffer led the finale, as he does almost annually. All the inductees, except N.W.A. (never really found out why, they didn’t perform at all) came back on stage for the final number. As happy of an occasion the ceremonies were for all in attendance, I thought it was ironic that the finale was Trick’s hit, “Ain’t That A Shame.”

Maybe it was a subtle message regarding the absence of band members that should have been there, founding members who had passed away, and inductees less than enchanted with the honor.