Legendary West Coast musician Bill Champlin (Sons of Champlin) talks about the magic and music of the 60s

"I've learned that if you focus on music as a craft, you have a better chance to have real art happen to you."

Bill Champlin: The Son of Rock n' Roll

Bill Champlin’s musical career began in 1961 when he formed a band called the Opposite Six. A year later he began writing music. After forming the Sons of Champlin in 1967 he focused his songwriting talents on producing material for the Sons. The Sons’ first album, “Loosen Up Naturally”, was released in 1969, followed by six more albums before they broke up in 1977. After the breakup of the Sons, Bill worked as a session lead and background vocalist on numerous recordings from 1977-1985. Some of the artists that he has worked with include Patti LaBelle, Lou Rawls, Boz Scaggs, George Benson, Jimmy Smith, and many mores. In 1979 he won his first Grammy award for co-writing “After the Love is Gone”. During the recent Chicago/EWF tours in 2004 and 2005, Champlin was asked to perform this song with them, as lead singer. In 1981 he won another Grammy for co-writing Turn Your Love Around for George Benson, and released his second solo album that year, “Runaway”. In 1982 he joined Chicago to record Chicago 16. In 1990 Bill released the critically acclaimed “No Wasted Moments”. Next came four solo albums, “Burn Down The Night” (1992), “Through It All” (1994), “He Started To Sing” (1995) and “Mayday” (1996).                     Bill Champlin / Photo by Ernie Montoya

In July, 1997, “Here in my Heart” topped the adult contemporary charts for Chicago, featuring Champlin on lead vocals. The Sons of Champlin reunited in 1997 and they recorded “Live At The Luther Burbank Center” in 1998, as well as “Secret” and “Hip Lil' Dreams’ in 2002. Bill’s next release was the solo “No Place Left To Fall”. After 28 years with Chicago, Bill Champlin is parting ways with the classic jazz/rock band to focus once again on his solo career. The announcement comes on the heels of the release “No Place Left to Fall”. The two-time GRAMMY award winner then launched a successful West Coast tour beginning in 2009, with the Bill Champlin Band promoting "No Place Left To Fall", followed by a Sons of Champlin tour in 2010. He's written and sang on probably over 400 hit songs, the later ones with the band Chicago. His organ playing has him ranked on most peoples "A" list and he plays the heck out of the guitar as well! His latest CD with The WunderGround (that includes Champlin, Gary Falcone & Tamara Champlin) was released in April 2018.

Interview by Michael Limnios 

How has the Rock n' Roll Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I think a lotta' people are more interested in how they fit into the "Counterculture" and are always worried about their place in it. I think it used to matter to me but as I get older, the only thing that matters to me is the music.

Where does your creative drive come from? Why do you think that the Bill Champlin music continues to generate such a devoted following?

I'm a 3rd generation writer/singer/player. I think it's DNA. I'm not all that sure of that devoted of following I have. Probably better to not know and just keep going.

What do you learn about yourself from the Rock n’ Roll culture and what does the blues mean to you?

I've learned that if you focus on music as a craft, you have a better chance to have real art happen to you.

How do you describe Bill Champlin sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

The thing with my music is that, from song to song, it is usually different, at least to me. Most artists seem to record similar sounding stuff and my stuff is usually pretty different.

"I think a lotta' people are more interested in how they fit into the "Counterculture" and are always worried about their place in it. I think it used to matter to me but as I get older, the only thing that matters to me is the music." (Bill Champlin & Tamara Champlin - Photo by Kent Almqvis)

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

I'd say that the 60's was the most prolific time for me as a writer; I wrote everyday and most of it ended up being recorded for Sons' records. Very few blues songs, though.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

There have always been meetings about what songs to put on records, but very few of them have been actually "Musical". When some guy at the record company who can't carry a tune tells you what's good and what isn't, it leaves me pretty cold. Although, on my last record I wanted to do a blues oriented thing, but the record company guys said, "Bill, you don't have a blues audience, but you do have so many kinds of songs here that you should do it all! I think the audience that you have expects it". Rare advice from record guys. The best advice I've gotten is to always listen. It's becoming a lost art, I think.

Are there any memories from Sons of Champlin and Chicago which you’d like to share with us?

The Sons were the band I kinda' started with, so it holds a deep place in my heart. Chicago was a musical project that was exactly that, and when it became something different than that, things changed for me in the band. Not a lot of great memories there, aside from a few hits and big gigs.

What do you miss most nowadays from the 60s & 70s? What are your hopes and fears for the future of music?

I think that, back then, the way we set up to play was about monitors and amplifiers on stage and hearing each other really well, sometimes too well. If someone else had a great moment we all heard it; it raised the bar and we all went up with him. Now, most bands have in-ear monitors which usually gives them a generic mix, and they sometimes miss other players' great performances. It has changed the whole focus from music to performance.

"The Sons were the band I kinda' started with, so it holds a deep place in my heart. Chicago was a musical project that was exactly that, and when it became something different than that, things changed for me in the band. Not a lot of great memories there, aside from a few hits and big gigs. (Photo: The Sons Of Champlin)

What moment changed your life the most? What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far?

The birth of my kids.... and the birth of my kids! I've had some great moments in the music scene and some great surprises like Grammies etc. but it all pales to insignificance next to the real-life stuff. Hey, working with Tamara is a great joy in my life!

What is the impact of your generation music on the socio-cultural implications?  How do you want it to affect people?

We a lotta' stuff to really comment on that needed to be pointed out, and music has done that for years. A lot of the young musicians now are looking for issues to rail against and have just locked in on politics. "Let's rail on the President" "Yeah". I think that's small compared to what we were up against, or at least what we thought we were up against. Occasionally a song gets written that really says it all like Stephen Stills' "For What it's Worth" and how that was a socio bulls-eye. I rarely hear much that does that although sometimes one really hits you personally like "The Living Years" by Mike and the Mechanics. Mike Rutherford really touched on something that touches us all. Means a lot more to your heart and soul than somebody telling you that the president is an ass. Hey, it may be true but there's a whole lot more than that level of artistic pettiness. Anyway, that's as deep as I wanna' go on that.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

We are all looking for art and occasionally art finds us. I learned early on that songwriting starts off as a craft that, if you practice regularly, can turn to art in a line. Sometimes you're just writing, 'cause that's what you do, and something brilliant falls outta' the pencil. I wouldn't have happened if you didn't work your craft. Some of the longest lasting "Art" started out as a bowl to keep rice or beans in and the potter decorated it. Voila::: ART.

"The birth of my kids. and the birth of my kids. I've had some great moments in the music scene and some great surprises like Grammies etc. but it all pales to insignificance next to the real-life stuff. Hey, working with Tamara is a great joy in my life." (Bill & Tamara Champlin / Photo by Bill Mancebo)

Are there any memories from Patti LaBelle, Lou Rawls, and Jimmy Smith which you’d like to share with us?

I flew to LA to sing backing vocals on a Jimmy Smith album hoping to meet him; he wasn't there. I did a duet with Patti LaBelle and met her at a Hotel in Dearborn, MI 3 years later. Her bus was leaving and ours was just driving in. I hung out with her on her bus for a while. Sweet lady and a monster singer. Lou was my singing teacher when I started out; he didn't know it but his "Black and Blue" and "Tobacco Road" albums were my textbooks for phrasing. We had the same manager years later and, off and on, ran into each other here and there. Jay Graydon produced a record for Lou and brought me in to stack up some bkgs. Damn, when I was a kid, if I'd have even for a minute thought that would happen sometime in my career, I'd have had to change my shorts. Lou was a great guy and did a lot for charities for a lotta' years. Loved that guy. Great singer.

What has made you laugh from the Summer of Love era? What touched (emotionally) you from the 1960s?

The 60's were a crazy time and we all were affected by it, in some ways really well, and in some ways not so much. Looking back on those times I hafta' laugh at how dumb we all really were but how dedicated to music we all became. All good, I think. A lot of the small stories that made me laugh at the time could have happened any time and would still be funny. Everyone who's ever been in bands, especially on the road, has a bag full of funny stories.

What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome as a person and as artist and has this helped you become a better musician?

I think overcoming my own mistakes with consumables: Alcohol and drugs are the biggest speed bump of any career. All behind me now but when I look back on that time, I realize that I spent a lotta' years missing the good things that music had generated in my life.

"The best advice I've gotten is to always listen. It's becoming a lost art, I think." (Photo: The Sons Of Champlin)

What were the reasons that made the West Coast to be the center of Psychedelic Folk/Rock researches and experiments?

I really don't know. These kinda' things can break out anywhere. Hey, look at Seattle and the Grunge stuff that opened up that world. Same thing with Folk Rock and all the stuff that happened in San Francisco and the West Coast stuff that was generated in LA. I think it's something in the water or there just happens to be art communities leak creativity into the music.

What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had? Which memory makes you smile?

Great gigs happen randomly. The Sons did a 2 show night a while back and the 2nd show was so musically cool that we all were part of the audience. Memorable.

What was the reason that made the 60s generation to start the searching about the Blues and Roots music?

I think that Bill Graham, and The Family Dog, both San Francisco promoters, were the first West Coast promoters to bring in Paul Butterfield Band, B.B. King, James Cotton, Junior Wells, etc., and suddenly these young white kids were getting the real thing. Record companies saw this and, because the San Francisco scene was so influential, they saw blues as a "Current" thing that they could promote. On a side note: I played bass with B.B. King once because the B-3 was out, and B.B.'s organist, Duke Jethro, couldn't play bass pedals for a set, while the Sons' bass player didn't even know who B.B. King was. So I played a set with him. A big moment in my life.

Are there any memories from the Avalon, Fillmore and Bill Graham which you’d like to share with us?

I think Bill Graham was instrumental in bringing blues, and so many other kinds of music to SF audiences. A lotta' the gigs were as educational as well as enjoyable. I remember seeing Charles Lloyd quintet, featuring Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette, on the same gig as Jefferson Airplane. We did a gig with Grateful Dead and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Those old dixieland players in PHJB played us, and the Dead, off the stage. Way cool moments like that were standard procedure in those days. Aretha had Ray Charles come up and sing with her; that was a rare moment.

"I think overcoming my own mistakes with consumables: Alcohol and drugs are the biggest speed bump of any career. All behind me now but when I look back on that time, I realize that I spent a lotta' years missing the good things that music had generated in my life." (Bill Champlin / Photo by Kent Almqvis)

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Psychedelic music and continue to Soul, Rock and Jazz?

I think that blues guitar has changed the face of guitar, for the better. Albert King has influenced so many players like Stevie Ray Vaughn, Joe Bonamassa, Gary Moore, etc. Hendrix was probably more of a Delta Blues player than anyone thinks, except that he was running through a Marshall. I remember the first time I heard Hideaway by Freddie King; the tone of his guitar, which was over driven a bit, changed my life. That and the sound of a Hammond B-3 were the sexiest sounds I'd ever heard. From Chess records to San Francisco hippies, we all wanted to sound like that.

How has the music changed over the years? If you could change one thing in the musical world what would that be?

I think that, although there are some great things going on these days, most current songwriting and record production are about "Pop Devices", and everyone in the business is interested in that. Every record has a "Singalong" section with "Ohs" for the kids to sing along with. 1 out of 10 actually achieves that, but I'm personally kind of sick of the word "Oh". And it would be nice to hear music more often in a 24 bit format, like movie soundtracks, rather than sonically inferior MP-3 mode. I think this is where the record companies missed the boat. They should have released versions of their artist's music in DVD form where sonics are superior to the normal download sonics. Even the younger listeners are discovering vinyl because LP's just sound more touchable.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

I'd like to re-do this morning, but usually I'm not one of those, "I wish I could do it again" guys. I'm happy to be the age I am and, other than small stuff, I wouldn't want to be anywhere but where I am....all day.

Bill Champlin - official website

Views: 1943

Comments are closed for this blog post

social media

Members

© 2020   Created by Michael Limnios Blues Network.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service