From Big Band to Hip-Hop: The Musical Journey of Rich Daniels


Rich Daniels is a Chicago music legend who draws from a broad palette. As founder of The City Lights Orchestra, he has transformed corporate events with live music ranging from big band to the Beatles. Through his work on the TV show Empire, a dramatic series about a hip-hop music entertainment company, he has applied his feel for music to make hip-hop an authentic part of each episode. He has built a successful career making music an essential part of storytelling. But in the following interview with One Smooth Stone, Rich reveals a deeper motivation that inspires him: a desire to give and to help others succeed, whether through his work with charitable foundations or in helping up-and-coming talent break through on Empire, whose second season recently began. Here is his story:

One Smooth Stone: How did you get involved in music?

Rich: As a child, I had a great family around me to encourage me to pursue something I believed in. I came from a blue-collar, working-class neighborhood in Chicago, where arts as a career was not something anyone embraced. But I developed a love for music as a child. My father would play records for me in the evening — albums with stories narrated by the likes of Danny Kaye. The albums were well produced with brilliant orchestral music to go along with the stories. Listening to those albums every night educated me about music and storytelling. They were so well done that they struck a chord with me.

As I developed an interest in music as a career, I was fortunate enough to have parents who said, “If this is what you want to do, go for it.” I’m sure my folks were worried about my becoming a destitute musician living in the gutter struggling for my next meal, which was the popular perception of the musician’s life. I was a lucky child.

How did growing up in Chicago shape the musical career you chose?

Rich: I am very proud of my Chicago heritage. This is a place where I was born and will die if I have anything to say about it. There is a Midwestern value that pervades Chicagoans. Service and giving are part of our culture. In my neighborhood, if someone was hungry, they could knock on any neighbor’s door and get something to eat if they lacked the means to do so themselves. Chicagoans are willing to help each other. Those values have stayed with me. I apply my love of music for charitable foundations through my work with The City Lights Orchestra, which we founded in 1974, and I always look for ways to help other people succeed with their musical talents or follow their dreams.

The City Lights Orchestra organization has been providing live music for events for decades. How did The City Lights Orchestra come about?

Rich: In the summer of 1974, a group of musicians and I formed the Big Band Machine, which became The City Lights Orchestra in 1991. Originally the Big Band Machine was focused on playing live music from the Big Band Era for corporate events needing a refreshing approach to live entertainment. Horns as a musical instrument were very popular in the mainstream during the 1970s. But even great horn-based bands such as Blood, Sweat, and Tears and Chicago did not play horns the way the big band era musicians did in the 1930s. I saw an opportunity.

We have been blessed with good fortune ever since that time, and our musical palette has expanded well beyond the music of the Big Band Era. Our major markets consist of corporations, associations, and nonprofits.

Providing entertainment for the corporate world is great. I remember a night in 1996, when we played for a Motorola conference attended by some of the world’s leaders. We played in Mt. Vernon, right outside of Washington, D.C. Our backs were to the Potomac river, and fireworks erupted over our heads as we played “The Stars and Stripes Forever” for the world’s leaders, right in George Washington’s back yard. What a special moment!

Associations and nonprofits are special. I love working with associations because they are typically involved in communities, and they almost always have a charitable component. Serving nonprofits is important to me. It’s my honor to serve on a half dozen boards, which is part of my being. For many, giving is a choice. But for most it’s a moral imperative. Nonprofits such as the Mercy Home for Boys and Girls in Chicago have changed the lives of at-risk youth. Many members of The City Lights Orchestra participate in their events. My children give their time, and my wife and I are donors.

How did you get involved in making music for television shows?

Rich: My involvement in television began to grow as Chicago became a more popular destination for TV.

I got involved in TV through a short-lived show called the Playboy Club, which aired on NBC. From there, I got involved with Boss, starring Kelsey Grammar, for which I wrote some music for the pilot. And now I’m the on-camera music supervisor and in charge of casting local musical talent for Empire.

Empire has been an unbelievable experience. The show is about musicians and employs musicians to make the episodes credible. On a daily basis, I work with one of the producers, Sanna Hamri, who asks me to help her shape the selection of musicians that will be real and truthful for different scenes, whether we are using hip-hop or gospel. She is very good at specifying what she wants.

My job is also to assemble all the talent and make sure the music works for each episode. For instance, Snoop Dogg appeared on an episode last season, in which he played himself performing a song. He recorded the basic track in Los Angeles but needed nine musicians and vocalists to perform around him as he synced the track here in Chicago for the episode. My job was to find the right talent and make the song look and sound credible even though the musicians and vocalists were lip syncing the basic track. You need very talented musicians to pull off a scene like that.

It has been life changing for me to work with young talent needed to make each scene work. I’m talking about younger musicians who are eager to succeed and need the exposure. Empire gives me an opportunity to help them.

What was it like to work with Snoop Dogg?

Rich: Snoop Dogg was incredibly warm, considerate and thoughtful. Here’s a man who has four kids, is involved in his church group, and has been married for many years. He was so courteous and thoughtful to everyone on the set. My experience with Snoop Dogg is typical of what it’s like to work with famous musicians on the set of Empire. Patti LaBelle, who has an air of legend about her, was warm and engaging. She treated everyone with respect and hit it out of the park, too, as did Jennifer Hudson. One night when we were working with Jennifer, our shoot started at noon and did not end until 4:30 a.m. the next day. She hung in there with everyone else, waiting patiently for her moment and delivered when called upon.

You started out in big band, and now you’re immersed in hip-hop in Empire. How have you made the transition?

Rich: All of music in western civilization, from Bach to the Beatles, is rooted in 12 notes known as the Chromatic scale. No matter who you work with, no matter what the genre, you’re using those 12 notes. The great artists I’ve worked with don’t put themselves in categories. They just create music. If you can understand the foundations of western music and you’re working with talented artists, you can rise to the occasion and make great music.

How does making music for TV compare to the live experience?

Rich: With prerecorded music, we spend a lot of time analyzing the music and figuring out how it works for a scene. With live music, you create the music from scratch. It’s very rare for live music to be used in a TV episode. But we are shooting a life performance using 14 musicians for an upcoming episode. I can’t give away the details about an unaired episode, but we are all very excited to do a live shoot with live music on-camera.

How did your experiences with The City Lights Orchestra prepare you for Empire?

Rich: With corporate events, you have to adapt music to support a narrative, just as you do with TV. The City Lights Orchestra just created music to support an event hosted by Lagunitas Brewing Company in Chicago. We needed to work closely with a director to make sure the music worked well with the content of the event as well as the technical details, such as timing and the way lighting and video is used. In a live setting, you also need to be prepared to adapt quickly. On a TV show, you work with a team, and you also adapt on short notice, just as you do with an event. It’s not uncommon for me to get a call at 11:00 p.m. with a request to get some musicians together to record some incidental music the next morning. So you find the musicians and prepare them. You need to be ready and deliver what is needed, as with corporate events.

What your typical day is like?

Rich: Let’s look at my day today, which is as good example as any. I get up between 5:30 and 6:00 a.m. I go straight down to the office and start checking email. I try to find time to exercise, too. As I talk with you right now, I’m on my way to the set of Empire, and I’m preparing for an event I’m doing Saturday. This afternoon I am meeting in Streamwood with six musicians who are performing on Empire. Tonight I’ll be back in the office preparing. We are also currently working on developing another music-based business that will be an off-shoot of the work we are currently doing in television and film, which I can tell you more about another time.

Oh, and I try to stay married and be a dedicated father to my four children [laughs]. You always put your family first no matter what.

It seems important to always be looking forward. I am currently 55 years old and feel that I am just now hitting my stride. I draw inspiration from Ray Kroc, who was in his 50s when he got to work building McDonald’s. There is still hope for me [laughs].

How do you stay fresh?

Rich: I try to embrace new music, even if it’s not immediately comfortable for me. I also stay fresh by listening to great music that has inspired me over the years. There is some music that puts a chill up my spine each time I hear it. I have heard Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony more times than I can count, but I hear something different each time. Songs such as Paul Simon’s “American Tune” or James Taylor’s version of “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” always keep me fresh.

Working on Empire has opened my ears to hip-hop and very current R & B. The quality of the hip-hop music we’ve worked with has been so incredibly high, at the level of Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, and the Beatles.

I had a similar eye-opening experience recently when I worked with guitar player Warren Haynes, who collaborated with the Grateful Dead after Jerry Garcia died in 1995. Warren and I toured together on the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration Tour last year. Before I worked with Warren, I knew nothing about the Grateful Dead. But working together made me discover the band’s legacy, especially the song writing of Jerry Garcia. I discovered that Jerry Garcia was a genius. Working with Warren opened my eyes to discover music I had avoided all my life.

Music keeps me alert, aware, inspired, and grateful and allows me the opportunity to continue looking forward.

For a complimentary 30-minute consultation on how to build your brand and inspire an audience through events and communications, please contact Brian Duffy by calling 630.427.4235 or by emailing


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