JASON SCHEFF’S RISE to the top of the pop music world came faster and easier than he ever expected or even dreamed. In 1985, Scheff, born and raised in San Diego, was a studio musician (bass and vocals) in Los Angeles who sent his tape of original songs to anyone who’d listen, with the hope someone might record one of his tunes. Among the artists to whom he shopped his music was Peter Cetera, who’d just left the band Chicago to embark on a solo career and was looking for material for his new record. Scheff wanted to write songs for Cetera, but his former band’s management had other plans.
“Peter and Chicago had split, but they were still on the same record label, Warner Brothers,” recalls Scheff. “When Chicago’s management heard my tape, I guess they liked it. They called me and told me they were considering hiring me as the new lead singer for Chicago. I was 23 years old. I was pretty excited to even be considered.”
Scheff’s audition went well enough for him to land the daunting gig with the legendary group. But, he says, “I didn’t blow their minds. They saw the potential; they saw that I could sing, play and record. I knew I still needed to work on my singing. It’s always a challenge singing live. You can’t hear yourself very well on stage. When I was singing with the People Movers at the Cargo Bar at the San Diego Hilton in 1980, no one thought I’d be the next lead singer for Chicago. But here I was — I had the job. I knew it was time to get to work.”
Hitting the ground running, Scheff joined the band just in time to record Chicago 18, an album that eventually produced three hits sung by this young musician, who had gone from virtual obscurity to co-lead singer of an iconic American rock band almost overnight. On the subsequent tour, he quickly became known as the guy whose voice sounded uncannily like Cetera’s. But he didn’t mind, because he was also given an immediate opportunity to write and sing his own songs.
In the 24 years since that fateful audition, Scheff has earned fame and fortune with Chicago, touring the world many times over and singing numerous hits, the biggest and arguably best being “Will You Still Love Me?” The David Foster-produced, piano-based power ballad has a catchy chorus that features Scheff’s distinctive high vocal (“I can’t go on ... if I’m on my own”). It’s the recording that made him feel like a full-fledged member rather than a Cetera imitator.
“That one was special for me,” says Scheff. He adds that while some diehard fans of Chicago’s original incarnation, which met and formed in the city of Chicago in the 1960s, still see him as the “new guy” after all these years, most embraced him from the beginning, and the band members “welcomed me warmly into the Chicago family from day one.”
Scheff, who turns 47 in April, grew up in Point Loma and attended Dana Junior High School and Point Loma High School. A surfer who hung out with friends near the Ocean Beach Pier, he was always a music fan — everyone from Elton John to Earth, Wind & Fire to, yes, Chicago, though “not obsessively.” He started playing bass at 14 and got his first gig that same year.
“I was never a real fashionable musician or musical figure in the San Diego music scene,” he says. “I was always in bands that were a little different and weird. In my junior high and high school, surf bands were big, but I was into [jazz fusion band] Weather Report, funk and R&B. I left San Diego rather quietly to make my way in the music business.”
Taking after his father, Jerry, a studio musician who played bass for Elvis Presley and recorded with such artists as Bob Dylan, the Everly Brothers and the Doors, Scheff is now a musician-in-residence at Nashville’s infamous Sound Kitchen music studio, where he mentors young musicians. And he’s still in the band that has given him a life most musicians only dream about. He returns to San Diego often, but while one might think the front man for one of the most popular bands in the world would be the recipient of at least some fanfare when he plays in his hometown, Scheff says that’s not the case.
“I’ve never gotten that much press or attention in my hometown, but I don’t mind,” he says. “When we play in San Diego it’s just great to see old friends, and it always feels like I’m playing again at the Red Brick Church, on Voltaire Street. That’s where my very first gigs were as a kid. When we played at Humphrey’s a few years ago, I told the crowd it was great to be home, and pointed to the area where I grew up. You can almost see it from the stage.”