Gary James' Interview With Bill Champlin Of
Sons Of Champlin

There were quite a few groups to come out of the Bay Area in San Francisco during the mid 1960s. You know their names, so there's really no need to repeat them. There is one group you might not have heard of that was around in the mid 1960s in the San Francisco area. That group was called Sons Of Champlin. They've got quite a story to tell and who better to tell it than the founder of the group, Mr. Bill Champlin.

Q - Bill, it really must've been an exciting time to be in a band from San Francisco in the mid 1960s. Did you understand just how much the music world was changing before your very eyes thanks to the Bay Area groups?

A - Well, I didn't see the music so much. It was just coming out of the whole Beatles and the Brit Invasion basically. I saw that as having more to do with the change in music in the United States. That and R&B. One thing that was cool was that Chet Helms and Bill Graham were bringing in people from outside of town. To start with, the real explosion inside of town was basically like The Airplane and Quicksilver and Great Society and The Grateful Dead, obviously. There was all that stuff going on. We were never in that sort of psychedelic thing. We were playing R&B. We were just writing better songs than R&B songs. We weren't writing songs - "hey baby, I'm a man and a half. I'll come get ya." A couple of those is enough. So, we kind of got into writing spiritually uplifting lyrics, but putting 'em with what, at least we saw, as kind of R&B and a little bit more musical stuff. In a lot of ways the San Francisco scene didn't pay much attention to us 'cause we didn't start off as a skiffle band. It wasn't Folk-based, which is what a lot of the bands were in those days.

Q - Did you play the San Francisco clubs like everybody else was?

A - We were doing the Filmore, the Avalon and the Matrix. All of the places around there. There was a certain level of explosion. There were a lot of venues opening up all over California and we played all of 'em.

Q - When you put Sons Of Champlin together, were you looking for fame and fortune?

A - No. I mean, we would've gladly taken it. In almost all of 1967 we just did whatever we possibly could to live. We just pretty much dropped out of college. Most of the guys were single. I was already married and had a kid. We would do the Sons and taken whatever Society gigs or whatever we could just to kind of make enough money to live. In those days rent was like $100 a month. It was a little easier to get by back in those days on nothing. We had this one practice hall we were working in and we'd go there everyday for like a year, just puttin' stuff together. And then we did a whole lot of benefits...anti-war. The Vietnam War was getting really ugly around that time. That's kind of how we got some level of visibility. We weren't in San Francisco. We were in Marin County, which is a little different scene. We actually grew up in Marin.

Q - You recorded your first album for what label?

A - Capitol. No, no. Actually before that we did a single for Verve Records and it was through Trident Productions. Trident had a group called Mystery Trend and a group called We Five. The company was kind of built around Kingston Trio from the earlier days. So, they were trying to keep up and running. Actually I think Great Society might have been on there, through their production company. Grace (Slick) left Great Society and went over to the Airplane, so Great Society was gone. We signed with them and they put out maybe two singles on Verve Records. We recorded an album, but it never got released. It got released eventually by some company in England, probably not more than ten years ago.

Q - Is it true you had four keyboard players in the original Sons Of Champlin?

A - No. We had a guitar, bass, drums. I played guitar and keyboards. Our sax player played keyboards. Terry Haggerty was the guitar player. And that's what we had originally. We had a trumpet player and a guy who played sax, vibes, organ, drums, bass...ridiculous for musicians. That was in 1967. We let go of the trumpet player right before we did our fist album that had any kind of notoriety at all, "Loosin' Up Natural".

Q - Here's what Lillian Roxon's Rock Encyclopedia had to say about the Sons Of Champlin - "They are not stars in the traditional strobe / smoke bomb sense. Guitarist Terry has been known to sit on a stool for the entire set. Some of the band members never look at the audience during a concert. They don't really care about putting on a show. What they care about and what they have always been known for is making good music." How accurate is that description?

A - It's pretty close. I probably would've put on a better show and talked to the audience a little more had I not smoked so much pot. (laughs) I was kind of, could you swing the Hammond organ behind the P.A. stacks so I don't have to look at anybody? We were very, very interested in the music, in our own music 'cause it was kind of our own little game. We had some playin'. We did a lot of blowin', a lot of solo stuff and different things like that. From my point of view it was about the songs.

Q - When you were playing those places like the Fillmore, were you headlining or opening?

A - We were usually opening.

Q - Who did you perform with?

A - God, we played with everybody. We were headlining for a minute or two. We top billed Creedence Clearwater one time. We topped the Doobies one time. I got a poster that says we topped the Santana Blues Band. They were the third biller. We were the second biller. I think Junior Walker was the top biller for an Avalon gig once. As everybody kind of tucked it in and went for a little more commercial stuff, we kind of started writing operas...not operas. I've always figured why have ribbons between songs. Why not get all the songs to link up.

Q - Since you were at the Fillmore, does that mean you met Hendrix, Morrison and Janis?

A - I met Hendrix in New York quite a bit later, in December '68. I was jamming in a club with Terry Reid in a club called Uganos. I met him for only a split second. We got around. We did a little bit of touring, but we had a big enough band that if we didn't have tour support, which we didn't most of the time... We did one tour where we were almost sleeping in a van. It was really cold. We were just in a Dodge van that we bought. We went out for two months. By the time we got back, none of us ever wanted to go on the road again.

Q - Why did you call this group "Sons Of Champlin"?

A - At the time I was already married and had a kid. There was a short period of time there where guys were joking, calling me Father Champlin. So, somewhere it just stuck.

Q - What do you call your group today?

A - We just call it the "Sons". If we play a gig, we call it Sons Of Champlin so people will recognize it. It doesn't mean we like the name. It's one of those things where you change your label somewhere along the line, you're gonna lose. Can you imagine Earth, Wind and Fire calling themselves something else? You wouldn't buy a ticket to go and see them.

Q - You formed Sons Of Champlin in 1966. You disbanded the group in 1970. What was going on in 1970?

A - Well, I couldn't stand the rhythm section any more. So, we ended up gettin' off of it. We re-formed in about '72 or something like that. I took a couple of years break. We went right up 'til about '77. Then I bailed out in August of '77 and moved to Los Angeles. The "Sons" kept going for another year or two with different singers. Bud Cockrell of Pablo Cruise sang with them for just a little while. Then they kind of disbanded. I kind of put 'em back together, I think it was either in '96 or '97. We did about another ten years until September of last year (2008). I sat in with Chicago for awhile. We did a handful of work. Then I just realized, I'm takin' a chance on losin' my gig here. I kind of went, I'm gonna put this on hold until down the line 'cause it seemed to me every time I booked something over it. It's just a matter of course. It was like I see this other gig, the one with the real paycheck is pretty much establishing it's own priority. So, we did another ten years, a couple of records between '97 and 2007.

Q - So, are you still gigging then?

A - The Sons? No. I haven't played any gig with The Sons since September of 2000. But right directly on the heels of that I made a solo album and the solo album is what we're trying to push right now. I think if I do any more extracurricular work aside from the Chicago stuff, I think it'll probably be a solo band. The solo album is called "No Place Left To Fall". It's on Dreammakers (label). It's out of Jersey. They're a new company. We're on I-tunes, Rhapsody and That kind of stuff. In the States we haven't actually released a CD. But it should be pretty the next month or two. But, it's out in Europe and Japan. During the time between '77 and '97, there was twenty years in there. I started to try and establish a solo career and during that time I was kind of right in the middle of Los Angeles during the "everybody's making records" time of the business. I fell into doing a lot of background vocals and organ playing on a lot of different records. So, I kind of became a studio sausage for about five or six years there. Then I jumped, especially between '77 and '82. Then in '82 I joined Chicago, late '81 actually and started playing gigs with 'em in '82.

Q - Who were you with in the studio during '77 to '82?

A - I did all of Elton John's records. I put together the background vocals for "Little Genie". That's actually me, Nigel and Dee and a guy named Max Carl. We're the singers on that. Donna Summer stuff. I did everybody from Della Reese to Don Emery. I just did shit loads of stuff. It was around that period of time when L.A. was just poppin'. I just fell into that sort of clique where I knew all the guys that were doing business. David Foster, Jay Graden, all the Toto guys. The word kind of got out that whenever they did a tracking date, I got as good of a shot as getting a call. Me and Richard Page and Tom Kelly were getting all the calls.

Q - So, you could be driving your car down the street, hear a song on the radio and say "Hey, that's me singing background vocals!"

A - Absolutely. All the time. Happens every day.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.