Bill Champlin has a lot to be happy about these days. He’s got a steady gig singing and playing keyboards with Chicago, a spot he’s held since 1982. His solo album No Place Left to Fall, released digitally last year, is finally seeing release as a physical CD this week. He has his first proper solo tour lined up for November along the West Coast. And he’s surrounded by amazing musicians, people he is all too eager to talk up and rave about. Champlin’s enthusiasm is positively infectious, which is something we all could use in this day and age. Not only was Bill generous with his copious good vibes when we phoned him for this interview last Tuesday, he delved into his distant past, at our request, to give us some perspective on the San Francisco music scene where he paid his dues in the Sons of Champlin before going on to co-write the Grammy Award-winning Earth Wind & Fire hit, “After the Love Has Gone,” and racking up further hits with Chicago (“Hard Habit to Break,” “Look Away,” “You’re Not Alone”) and playing on countless other sessions. All the while, Bill has maintained a healthy “other life” with his solo work and occasional Sons reunion gigs, and the benefits clearly come across in this interview.
I’ve really been a big fan since, you know, I guess since I started looking at credits on Chicago records. And I just remember being really, really jealous that I couldn’t come out here on the west coast when you reunited the Sons of Champlin. I was like, “oh man, what’s goin’ on here? Why can’t I go see the Sons?? But now I’m in San Francisco and all is well.
Well, you know, we actually kinda kept doin’ that for about, I mean up until 2005 we’d do, at least once a year we’d do like a three or four week run of just at least weekends with the Sons. And after a while it just got to the point where we pretty much played out our welcome, know what I mean?
Well, I’m glad I got to see you at Great American, at least. That was a great show. I think that was in ’05.
Was that… it might have been ’05 or ’04. Carmen Grillo was playing guitar?
Yeah. Is he good or what?
He is amazing!
The little guy with the big surprise!
And also I know you’re gonna be in Berkeley with Chicago. Are you already in town for that?
No no, we gotta play here tonight in Los Angeles, and then I think we’re doing the Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien tomorrow night.
Oh sweet! I’ll have to check that out.
And then I think we’re traveling Thursday. And then we’ll be in Berkeley on Friday. And I’d love to get you tickets for that, but this year, they have just yanked all comps. No comps at all. No comps for your family, for your wife, for your kids, nothin’.
Seriously? You can’t even bring your wife and kids?
Twenty-eight years with this band, it’s the first time I’ve ever gotten an e-mail like that. It’s like, what is this about?
I don’t know. And I said, is this just Earth Wind & Fire that’s doin’ this? Or are we doin’ this? What’s happening? He said no, it’s actually the promoter, there’s no comps. Crazy, isn’t it? And I keep thinkin’, am I just being lied to or what’s the story here? But there’s zilch. And then Earth Wind & Fire has this thing where they sell people back stage passes to come back and take pictures with ’em for a hundred bucks. It’s like, AAAAAAA! So the back stage scene is really filled and packed. So I’m like, oh man, you know? So I pretty much got to the point where I just play the gig and go to the bus and get out of there, you know what I mean?
Yeah. Well, enough about the day job for now.
Yeah, now we’re talkin’. None of this new album!
I’ve been listening to it constantly since I got it.
It’s really raw and organic, and I love that. I’ve been waiting for you to put out an album like that. What took so long for you to get a really earthy-sounding record to finally come out?
Well you know, a lot of it’s the engineering. I think the way I recorded it, I just put the four guys together. Me and Bruce have been wanting to do this for a long time. Bruce Gaitsch, the guitar player. And we’ve worked together off and on for years. He played on a couple Chicago records, and Bruce is just a good friend and a great musician. And then George Hawkins on bass, he pretty much owns this record. His playing is ridiculous on this record. And Billy Ward is a guy that me and Bruce used to jam with at a club called the Mint here in Los Angeles years and years ago. We’ve just known Billy for years. We had such fun playing blues and it’s just like, OK, let’s do this together.
So we decided, me and Mark Eddinger, my co-producer, we pretty much picked the tunes. I was figuring on doing a really swampy blues album, and he said, “why do that? You got so many different kinds of material, why don’t you just put it all on there?” I was goin’, “wow!” That’s a rare change, you know? Usually record companies say, “I like this song, write me 12 more of these. Give me a fast version of this, a slow version of this, and let’s just do this song over and over again,” you know? Which is telling you basically “I can only hear this,” you know? “So make sure you make the record for me.” And I get the record for free, so the audience is going, “what is this?”
At any rate, so we decided we’d arrange the songs together, the four of us. And then we’d get out of town, we’d get out of Nashville to New Jersey, to Barbershop Studios in Hopatcong. We recorded it with Jason Corsaro, who’s just an awesome, awesome engineer. He gets a big, butt-kickin’ drum sound but it still sounds real, you know what I mean? And then I just took it home with me and did my usual vocal stacks and put some backgrounds and stuff on it, and you know, added a couple of things. But I kinda stayed away from all the ding dongs that I used to have on my records, and just… the elements are like the quartet and the vocals, and that’s pretty much it. A solo or two here and there, but it’s really in your face. A lot of Hammond organ, heh heh!
I love the Hammond organ. I mean, I love how you start the record off with two nice blasts of Hammond organ. We don’t get to hear that nearly enough.
Yeah, I agree. I think a lot of it is people… we did an album in Nashville a couple years back with Chicago, and I was playin’ organ on all these things, and the producer kept sayin’, “well, how â€˜bout pads?” you know? “How about long chords on the organ?” For every song! “Play long chords.” And I was just lookin’ at him and I was goin’, “dude!” You know, come on! This thing could do so much more! “No, just play organ pads, that’s all I want, man, is organ pads.” This time around, I just went ape, man. Let’s play the organ for what it can do. And it’s just a great rhythm instrument and it makes for atmosphere.
Makes me want to dance too!
Yeah, tell me about it! If you’ve ever heard any of the early Tower of Power stuff, especially when [keyboardist] Chester [Thompson] joined up with the band, it’s like, oh man, organ works! It’s part of the drum set, it gets up and shouts, you know?
Yeah. And “Tuggin’ on Your Sleeve,” that’s probably my favorite of the heavy organ tunes on there. I was reading that story you posted about how your son [Will Champlin] started that one out and you basically came in and added the chorus and…
Yeah, I said, he thought the bridge was the chorus. I said, you know, first of all it’s descending, and it’s almost a little too musical. You need something kinda, maybe something offending, something going on.
How did he take that? Does your son ever get like, “man, why don’t you back off and let me do my thing?”
YES, numerous times, you know? 90% of the time that’s what’ll happen, and 90% of the time he’s probably right. But on this one he was co-writing with Michael Caruso, who’s actually my wife’s co-writer. They’ve co-written a lot of stuff together, Michael’s co-written a lot of stuff with Will. And you know, I just went in and said, “you know, I think you guys need like a straight chorus on this thing.” And I just sat down and pretty much played it. I said “how about something like this?” And then started singing it, and I got about half the words out on the first pass. And Michael was goin’, “sounds like a chorus to me, let’s do it!” So it ended up being that, and then Will did a little demo of it, and I just submitted it, and Mark said, “oh God, you gotta do this one. This thing’s funky!” So that’s the one, arrangement-wise, we really got into that. We dug into that one. If you listen close you’ll hear a little homage to James Brown in the bridge. Gotta do it, just a quick lick of the “Hot Pants” horn lick on the organ. If you listen closely, you’ll hear it in there.
Cool. Another question going through my mind when I was listening to the record. I came upon the acoustic version of “Look Away,” and I was wondering, of all the Chicago tunes that you’ve done, why did you choose that particular one to record as opposed to something like “You’re Not Alone” or “Sonny Think Twice”?
You know, there’s something about that song that’s really good. We used to do kinda that basic version of it, not vocally, at least not background-wise, sort of that basic version of it. And then we stopped doin’ that, you know, with Chicago. And I went, you know, let’s just knock off one, because I know a lot of people really like the acoustic version of it, â€˜cause it builds. It starts off with just a guitar and works its way up to a full band screamin’, you know what I mean? So I went, you know, I’m just gonna go ahead on and make this arrangement.
I had no plans originally to get that far into the background vocals on it. I was just gonna have me and [Chicago guitarist] Keith [Howland] go in and sing the parts that we did on the original record, and that would be just sort of a little thing for the Chicago fans who had seen us perform that tune that way, because we’re not doing it that way anymore. And then at some point in the game I just started doing background vocals, and went, “ooh, I think I’m just gonna go ahead and do these myself.” And then I said, “man, when the band kicks in, it kicks in pretty screamin’.” So instead of having Keith come over and sing with me, I just had him come over and play the solo stuff. Bruce had put down the real hard guitars, I had put down the acoustic guitars, and Keith did all the lead stuff on that. So it was kinda cool just to give him a shot. He didn’t get much of a shot on XXX, so I figured, hey, he’s right in town, I’ll just have him come on over. So he came over. He’s a good guitar player, no question about him.
Yeah! And you threw another bone to Chicago fans too with Peter Cetera singing on “Never Been Afraid.” How did that come about?
Well, you know, I just asked him to come over! I had done some backgrounds on his records, he came over and did some on mine. It was pretty easy. I mean, he’s got a place in Nashville so I just gave him a buzz. And Bruce Gaitsch works with him all the time, so he gave me a phone number and I just said, “hey Pete, feel like slidin’ over and bangin’ out some backgrounds?” He came over and knocked it off. The blend with him and me is awesome. We were gonna go a little deeper, and then we kinda realized, maybe we’ll just keep it to this, and people can hear a little bit of that blend, and then we’ll leave it alone. I actually did the duet with Michael English, who’s really a great singer. Michael’s got some power upstairs, doesn’t he?
He just, man, he goes for the high thing, it’s like, “oh my God, listen to this!” It’s like a four-barrell kickin’ in! He’s a great singer. He’s actually back with the Bill Gaither Trio now, from what I understand. I haven’t talked with him in a while. He’s been at a lot of different places in the contemporary Christian scene, so he’s done pretty well for himself.
“Stone Cold Hollywood,” that one also stuck out for me when I was lookin’ through the credits in particular, I noticed that was the only one where you’re the sole credit for songwriter. How does that work for you when you’re writing songs?
I think wrote “Lover Like That” by myself also.
And “Lover Like That” too [writer’s note: D’OH!]. But it’s mostly collaborations.
Yeah, I like co-writing with people. That way when I get lazy, they can kick me in the butt and keep me movin’, and vice versa.
So you seem to prefer the synergy of getting together with other people.
Yeah, otherwise I have a tendency all of a sudden, if it’s me by myself, all of a sudden it’ll start sounding like Sons songs. There’s a certain thing about Sons tunes, especially some of the early stuff, it’s really kind of a one-guy vision. I like to kind of open it up a little bit so it’s not just one guy’s thing. Or it can tend to be a little preachy and stuff like that. Like I wrote “Light Up The Candles“ by myself, which I think is one of my better songs.
I love that song.
Yeah, it’s a really pretty thing. At the same time it’s got kind of a, a little bit of sarcastic, you know, that kind of thing. Which has definitely got my side of the coin. And when I co-write with other people, they kind of lean me out of that particular approach. You know, it’s like, “maybe we should just not go that way.” OK, you’re right, let’s do that! You know? So that’s helpful. But on this record, it really was… I mean, “Stone Cold Hollywood” has been around for a good while.
And so actually, “Never Been Afraid” is one of the first tunes I wrote with Andreas Carlsson. And Andreas is a real major league pop writer. I started writing with him when he was 19 years old. Swedish kid. The next thing you know, he calls me up and says, “hey man, have you heard that song ‘I Want it That Way’ by the Backstreet Boys?” I said “God, I can’t get it off the radio!” “Well, I wrote it!” I said “WOW! That’s cool!” And then he says, “have you heard this girl Britney Spears? Well I wrote four things on her album.” And “Bye Bye Bye” by ‘N Sync and “That’s the Way it Is” by Celine Dion. And I was goin’, “wow, Andreas, you landed right in the middle of clover here.” And “Never Been Afraid” he wrote before all that stuff happened to him. That and actually “Never Let Go,” all the “never” songs are me and Andreas.
“Never Let Go,” that’s probably my favorite, that and “All Along” are my favorites on the new record.
“All Along” is pretty cool. Actually me and Bruce and [bassist] George [Hawkins, Jr.] wrote that and “Angelina” all like in the same day.
It’s really uplifting, it’s leaves you on a high note.
Yeah. I mean figured that was a real good set ender or album ender. And you know what was cool, was Billy just took off on that one, just let him fly. You know, it’s like, OK, dude, it’s yours! It’s your baby! The drummer, he just went ape on the end of it, just went crazy. It was really cool.
Gotta give the drummer some!
Give the drummer none! (laughs) That’s an old line that got me into trouble once or twice with different drummers. (big laughs) There will be no mercy served before its time!
When I was listening to that song it was reminding me a lot of what you used to do back with [David] Foster, the kinds of songs you’d write back then.
You know, we had written, me and George and Bruce had written the song. Right after the chorus, it was kind of written. And I think it was getting kind of late in the day. We wrote this jazzy chorus that was almost sort of a time signature thing. And, you know, every time I listened to it I went, God, I think I missed the boat on that one. And Mark Eddinger heard it, just a piano-vocal version, a little master-writer version right at the piano. He heard it and he said, “man, those verses are just to die for, but I don’t think you got a chorus yet.”
So I remember I was flying home from, it might have been Dallas or something, just by myself coming into Nashville. And I started going, well man, I gotta do something about that song. And I pretty much just in my head wrote the whole chorus flying on an airplane coming into Nashville. You know, I’m gonna make this chorus a real pop chorus, see if I can, not pop it necessarily, but just musically try to make it a little more accessible in the sort of jazz-ball thing that I did. Because it was the wrong, you know… sometimes you just listen to it and you go, “what was I thinking? This is not right, this doesn’t fit here.” So that’s one thing that’s cool about being able to write stuff like that.
Another thing that’s cool about iTunes and being able to burn stuff right there, you can try all kinds of different sequences and all kinds of different stuff just right off of your laptop, you know?
Yeah, it is really convenient.
And you can live with, you know, “oh, let me try this sequencing of the album,” and then you drive around playing it, and you go, “that song doesn’t belong there.” You get a chance to really check all that out. It’s really hard to do without those tools. And I think that, you know, using the modern tools as tools is a great thing. Using them as crutches isn’t. Having to lean on all the modern technology and all the razzmatazz you can do on ProTools and other digital recording, you gotta be a little bit careful. And a friend of mine, Carmen Grillo actually, told me one time, he said, “just remember ProTools is a tape recorder. Think of it that way, and it’s a destination for your music. Now, after that, if you need to play some games with it, go ahead. But to start with, just try to make sure you get your signal to the destination, you know?”
I think that’s a good way to look at it.
Yeah, it is. It keeps me honest. I know there’s a lot of guys that we were doing some stuff, I think I was producing a vocal for Jason Scheff one time on a Chicago record, and he’s saying, “yeah, you know, they’re gonna tune this.” And I said “yeah, and what’s the name of the guy that’s gonna tune it? And do you know him, and do you trust him? Or would you rather just take one more pass at this and do it a little bit more in tune?” He said, “ooh, you’re right, on second thought you’re right!” (laughs)
People that ask me, they say, “back in the day, when you guys were working with David, how did you line up these grooves?” We recorded them! “No no, I mean how did you get them to line up like that?” We recorded ’em again until they did, you know? “What did you use to tune the stuff?” We sang it in tune! (laughs) Does that strike a familiar note? He said “man, no, you couldn’t, that’s impossible.” No, it’s very possible, you just keep recording it’till you get it right, you know? Some of the modern guys who have never really recorded with tape and stuff like that, it’s like, this is the way we did it back in the day. And listen to those records and tell me what you think.
It just goes to show, you know, we’re a lot more powerful than we give ourselves credit for.
Absolutely. Man, I’m gonna use that. I love that. I kinda get into this argument with people all the time. “Oh, we gotta have click tracks on every song, and we gotta do this, we gotta do this.” Is there a possible chance we could just play the thing? Oh, let’s run it by just for a sound check. “Where’s the click track?” Why don’t we just play it? You know? I’ve listened to tapes where we didn’t use all that stuff and we sound just as good then as we do now, maybe better, you know. Who knows? It’s just there’s a lot of new methods of working live.
I think in-ear monitors at some level [are] really great, and at some levels they’re very scary. They’re kind of isolating. You find yourself just performing what you need to perform and not allowing the next guy, what he’s playing, to affect what you’re playing, which sometimes makes things bigger than the sum of all of you, you know what I mean?
Yeah. I want to jump back a bit to Foster. This is another burning question that’s been on my mind.
Oh, David’s bad news. He’s a serious musician. David Matheson once said, “David Foster’s the best pop piano player on the Earth. Bar none.” (laughs)
I was watching that PBS Special, “David Foster and Friends,” last December. I walked in on my parents watching it when I was visiting them over the holidays.
I thought it was pretty cool!
It was! But the thing I was waiting for that I never saw was I never saw you show up. Were you even invited to that?
No, and David has a tendency to, when he’s on television, to forget that I wrote “After the Love Has Gone.” You know, I only wrote the melodies of the verses and the B section and the words. Other than that… (laughs) And he always says, “me and my friend Jay Graydon wrote this song.” When he wrote his book, he said “we were writing it for Bill’s album, and Bill wrote this, that and the other thing,” so it was cool. And I get along with David great, he just forgets. I think he’s got a bone to pick at some level with some of the guys in the band and he kind of takes it out on me. Every once in a while I talk to him, and I said, “dude, hey, we used to be friends. What’s the story?” Anyway, he’s just forgetful, you know?
I guess that’s just the way it goes.
I think he had Brian McKnight come in and sing it [on the special].
Yes, he did.
I have no problems with that! (laughs) That guy’s awesome. Have you ever heard that guy sit down and play piano?
Ooh, he’s a great piano player. Good guitar player also. And his brother sings with Take 6. First time I heard Take 6, I just went so much for the triad. That’s done. I ain’t doin’ that anymore. I’m gonna voice everything out from here on in. It’s just so, such great…it’s like the Gene Puerling school of vocals and vocal arranging except that every one of the singers in that group is a lead singer in his own self. Remember that record, that first Take 6 record?
I don’t think I heard the whole thing, I may have heard one or two tracks though.
Oh, man, awesome! Seriously awesome. Those guys are unbelievable. That’s when I first realized that all those guys went to Belmont and they got their degrees at Belmont. Which is in Nashville. And I was kinda goin’, whoa! And up to that moment when I found out they were from Nashville, I always thought of Nashville as being just country music only. Then I realized, man, these guys came out of there! Unbelievable! There’s more than just country in that town. There’s nine or ten deep, every player in every position in that city is just awesome. There’s great players there.
I can imagine. I gotta visit Nashville one of these days.
You kinda gotta look into it a bit and see what’s goin’ on. There’s so much ambition, but at the same time, there’s something about that area. It’s still a music town and they can still stab me in the back just as quick as anywhere, you know what I mean? It’s just the nature of the music business. Or the entertainment field, let’s put it that way. But there’s something about, you know, you see people in the grocery store there, usually returning their carts to the thing where it says “please leave your carts here.” You ever see that in Los Angeles? (laughs) It’s just that one little extra step. People have a tendency to be just a little bit more polite maybe. Maybe not warmer, but definitely more polite. It’s interesting. It’s one of the things I kind of like about that area. People have a tendency to just stop and chat. I mean, I go down to hang out with my pharmacist. He’s just a sweet guy, a wonderful guy to just hang out with and talk. And it kind of opens your world up a bit, you know, when it’s something other than just the music business, you know?
I wanna go back now to San Francisco, the scene here. I told one of my coworkers that I’d ask you this.
Are you based out of San Francisco?
I am, yes.
And being that everyone’s talking about San Francisco and the’60s again, my coworker wanted to know, what was your perspective in looking back at what the scene was like here, not even so much in ’67, but the years leading up to the Summer of Love.
Well, you know, I was at the Be-In. And I didn’t quite get into… I hadn’t taken LSD yet, you know what I mean? But I was smokin’ some weed, and I think I had eaten some brownies or something and checked the Be-In, you know? [Allen] Ginsberg was there, [Timothy] Leary was there. I think I remember Quicksilver [Messenger Service] playing. The [Grateful] Dead might have played, I don’t even remember that. And I used to go to the Fillmore all the time, the Fillmore and the Avalon.
Now this is another thing: everybody says Bill Graham did this and Bill Graham did that, and Bill did all of it. But for me, the heart and soul of the San Francisco scene was Chet Helms. He was the guy that, he felt like what the musicians felt like. You know? Chester was just a sweetie pie, I just loved him. You know, there was something about him that was so cool. He wasn’t as much of a commerce guy as Graham was.’Cause Bill, you know, he parlayed everything into the next thing, which parlayed into the next thing, and you know, I mean, he just did unbelievable stuff. But when you figure he made, you know, a hundred thousand dollars off of each poster and the artist who made each poster made fifty bucks, you go, well… or something thereabouts, you know. I think any of these Wes [Wilson] or [Stanley] Mouse or [Victor] Moscoso or any of those guys, I think they all got kinda tagged pretty hard. And I think Bill was just sort of generally the guy to do that in a lot of ways….
I played the Fillmore and I played the Avalon and I just always felt like [the Sons of Champlin] belonged at the Avalon more than the Fillmore, you know what I mean? It just felt better to me. The Fillmore felt like showbiz and the Avalon felt like family. That’s my take on the scene at that time.
I kind of came into the psychedelic side of that scene a little bit late, as the San Francisco scene was starting to slip into amphetamines. And meth was starting to become a factor and stuff like that, and I was looking around going “whoa! Why don’t you just keep it on that high note for a moment while I enjoy it too!” I was about a year late, a year behind the rest of the scene, you know what I mean?
And you were sounding less like the Dead and more like Sly [and the Family Stone] at that point.
Yeah, pretty much. R&B was definitely… we were going across the Bay to Oakland to catch James Brown at the Oakland Auditorium pretty regularly. I saw James Brown the first time in 1963.
James is one thing, but that band was ridiculous. Unbelievable. It was like, watching those guys make those little segues from one song to the next, you know, it’s just ridiculous. It’s like a flock of birds that all just turn left right at one time without anybody saying “now!” Just unbelievable stuff. And around that period of time it was just, there was a lot of… the San Francisco scene kind of started out of the folk movement and whatever skittle bands are. The [Jefferson] Airplane and the Dead and all those guys all came out of the folk scene. And we came out of razor cuts and brocade jackets and doing steps and horns and the whole nine yards. And that’s where we were coming from. And then we all got so high we could go duck hunting with a fork for a while there. Kind of jumped into that vibe a little bit, and then tried to put the two together, and it ended up being pretty cool, I think…
My thing with the Sons was, I heard R&B, which I loved, and it really… I mean, my singing teacher was Lou Rawls, whether he knew it or not. Luckily, later on we became pretty good friends. But early on in the scene I was just, you know, that was the world’s phrasing genius. At any rate, that’s what I was kind of raised on. And then I went, well, R&B, listen to any lyric of a Wilson Pickett record and it’s like, there’s not much going on here. And I kinda went, you know, why don’t we put this stuff that Bob Dylan is writing about and the stuff that Paul McCartney’s writing about, and John Lennon are writing about, and put it into an R&B kind of thing. So it was kind of a weird cross-over. It’s like, real lyrics talkin’ about real things, but with an R&B feel, instead of “I’m a man and a half, baby.”
I like those tunes. There’s something kind of traditional about just an old no-thought R&B song. But I really felt like at that time, even more so than now, that if you’re gonna say something, say something real. So I was, at least in my own mind, speaking to a scene that was starting to come apart at the seams in a lot of ways.’Cause it was only a few minutes there where everybody was really, you know, the vibe was really there. And then it just started to go pretty fast. And it pissed me off because I missed the real high moments of it. I wasn’t quite there by the time the Human Be-In happened. I mean, that was, what, five to ten thousand people who cleaned up after themselves.
Wow, that’s impressive.
Anybody see that at Woodstock?
Anybody see that anywhere here today?
No, no. You know, there was something to be said about what the vibe was and what it was about. And you know, the guys in Chicago came out there. They picked up on it right away. You look at even Crosby, Stills & Nash. Really, it’s an L.A. band, but you watch them on stage and you go, “man, that’s like a San Francisco band!” There’s something about these guys that are pretty cool, you know?
And I always sort of thought that was really cool about the Sons. There was just something. It was like watching the Dead hit the stage, and then all of a sudden they’re hittin’ these really well arranged, well thought-out arrangements with an R&B feel. It’s like, “wow, that’s kinda cool!” So like I say, it was a cross-over. We took a shot at it. I don’t know whether it flew or not. It flew better for Sly than it did for us.
Yeah, but I think you’ll always have some people wanting to hear the Sons again if you ever decide to reactivate them.
Oh, we will. There’s no question about it… It’s a pretty cool thing. It’s loose, and there’s some blowing space, but it’s a song-oriented band. Dennis Cook over at JamBase says, “if there was ever a song band that a jam audience would get behind, it would be the Sons.”
I could totally see that.
â€˜Cause it’s a song band, but at least we kind of open stuff up. I remember we played the Avalon, maybe 6 years ago. I think Boots [Hughston] might have been running the show over there, I can’t remember who it was that was running the place. But you know, hey man, it’s the Avalon! We went in there, and I remember some guy who was a stage hand, he says, “are you guys a jam band? Sounds to me like you’re doing songs,” just at our sound check. I said no, we’re pretty much a song-based band. And he said, “ooh, you’re in trouble man. If you aren’t a jam band, you ain’t happening.” I saw the same guy after the show, and the guy was like, “oh my God, what was that?” (laughs) He said, “man, that was like the biggest jam in the world!” I said, “these are arranged songs, dude.” And he didn’t quite get it. If you can make an arrangement sound like it’s the first time you played it, that right there is the complete jam band, you know what I mean? Anyway, I don’t know, I digress there.
Well, I know you don’t have that much time left, so just a couple more questions.
I wanna dip back in the past again. One of my favorite sessions that you did apart from any of your regular gigs was the backing vocals that you did with the Tubes back in the early’80s…
…and I heard some rumors of shenanigans goin’ on during those sessions. I wanted to see if you remembered anything that was happening during the “She’s a Beauty” sessions.
Oh, I brought Bobby Kimball in. That was slammin’. Kimball is Toto’s lead singer.
And we were doing the vocal, and I just looked at Foster and said, “hey, Kimball’s the guy you want. Definitely the guy you want, it would be more powerful.” So all the top two parts of that three-part thing is Bobby, and I think Bill Spooner did the bottom part. And Spooner’s good, man. He’s a really good singer. And Vince [Welnick] had dog whistle range. He could go anywhere with it. But it was weird, because when Foster originally started to talk to those guys, he was saying, “one thing I’d really like to do is bring in a vocal ringer to help you guys with your vocals.” And they went, “nah, we don’t want some slick-ass jingle singer comin’ in with us. We’re a San Francisco band, you know?” And he said, “how about Bill Champlin?” And they said, “oh, Bill? Yeah, he’s one of us. Sure, bring in Bill, that’d be no problem at all!” (laughs)
So I ended up doing the gig, and Foster said it was funny. He said, “man, they didn’t want any big-time slick guy coming in,” and at the time I was completely slick, I had been doing so many dates that I had it down. I could go in with my group, you know, with the groups that I had sung with, and… it was getting to the point where I was doing so many dates that I could just snap my fingers and everybody would know exactly where we were going with it. So I came in and we ended up having a great time. Fee can sing. And I think it was Bill and one of the other guys… Bill and Vince and one of the other guys was a singer in that band, a red headed guy, I can’t remember his name [writer’s note: I’m pretty sure he was thinking of Roger Steen]. Man, the Tubes, those records are great.
Oh, I love ’em! I had Spooner teach me one of the songs, “Don’t Wanna Wait Anymore.” That was one of my favorites.
David actually asked me to sing that once. I said “man, you know, I don’t think Fee has the right pipes for it, but anything I can sing, Bill [Spooner] can sing.” He’s kinda asking me to sing a lead, and I was going, “I don’t think that’s really fair to the guys in the band.” So I told him, “just have Bill sing it.”
I think that was a good choice.
Oh man, Bill’s a singin’ fool! Good guitar player too.
He’s a hell of a guitar player!
Last time I saw him, he was playing with Todd Rundgren.
Yeah, Bill was playing with Todd for just a little while there. I think Todd was living in the city for a while, and then I think he moved over to Hawaii at this point. But I think for a while,’cause I remember I was doing some benefit or something. I was playing organ for something, I can’t remember what it was. And I remember those guys came on, and I just stayed on the organ and played. Todd threw me some dirty looks, but he couldn’t get me to leave! (laughs) And… I could hear where his songs were going, and I played with him, and the rest of the guys in the band are goin’, “that was cool!” I think [Tubes drummer] Prairie [Prince] was playing drums. It was pretty cool. He still didn’t talk to me, but… (laughs)
Oh no! Well, what can we look forward to when you do swing through town for your solo tour? What’s the set going to be like?
Well, we’re looking at… the guys I’m using in the band is Santa Fe. Bascially, for the most part, just about (one two three) of these guys already did my last solo tours in Europe. And that band also, they do versions of my songs. So in some ways, we’re already on the page. They’ve already got five songs in their set list that I’m gonna perform. Which is great, because they learned them basically when they were working with me. And that’s kind of how they started their thing.
There’s a thing called Santa Fe and the Fat City Horns. It’s like a seven piece horn section. Bette Midler walked into the gig and just hired them en masse for her show at Caesar’s Palace. “I want that section right there!” This is some of the coolest shit you have ever heard. I mean, it’s like watchin’ Earth Wind & Fire meets Sly meets Tower of Power meets Gil Evans.
Unbelievable stuff, and great singin’ going on. I’m not gonna have the horn section,’cause I just can’t. Those guys are all working in town. But I’m gonna use the guitar player Jerry Lopez, the bass player Rochon Westmoreland, maybe one of the best players ever. These guys are ridiculous, unbelievable. The drummer is Eddie Garcia, who was with my first solo band. And then we’re gonna use Jamie Hosmer, who plays with their band, who’s a keyboard. And then Tamara, my wife, is gonna sing with us also. So we’re gonna be doing that, and it’s gonna be really about vocals.’Cause all these guys sing. Everybody but the drummer. But the bass player’s a great singer, and all of these guys are. I mean, we’ll have the vocals to where it’s just screamin’, you know, and that’s what it’s really about. And playing-wise? Forget about it! You know we’ll be opening it up a little bit.
A little bit of jammin’ here and there?
Oh yeah. Where on the record you get 16 bars, we’ll probably take 32. Maybe 64, you never know! But I think a lot of these clubs that are hiring us, hiring me basically, they’re kinda thinking, well, this could turn out to be just blues jams, or this could turn out to be something just really cool. So I think this first time around I gotta kind of prove myself. ‘Cause I mean, I’ve never really done a solo tour [in the U.S.] of any kind. I’ve never played a lot of solo gigs. I’ve either done the Sons, or I’ve showed up with Chicago. And what solo gigs I have done in the States has been just usually jam stuff. So I really want people to know, we’re gonna rehearse the pants off of this thing and get it really sweet.
Well, I’m looking forward to seeing at least one of the shows, hopefully more than one.
Well, I think we’re doing a bunch around the city. We’re doin’ Mill Valley, we’re doin’ Santa Rosa, we’re doin’ Santa Cruz… You oughta see Mill Valley. I lived in Mill Valley when I went to high school. And I never played Sweetwater ’cause it was always a little too small for what I was doing. So this place, I think it’s 142 Throckmorton in Mill Valley, is supposed to be a pretty nice joint. Should be interesting to cruise in and check that out.
Yeah, that’ll be a lot of fun.
Yeah, it will!
Well, hopefully I’ll see you at one of those. I’m lookin’ forward to it.
Great, Michael. Thanks, dude!
Bill Champlin’s solo tour stretches up and down the West coast throughout the month of November. Check his official website for tour dates.