Do the loosen-up
Excellent hippie-era groove band the Sons of Champlin reunites for a rare California tour
It’s a rare fellow who can say his day job is playing in one of rock music’s most successful groups—and that his avocation, his “love of the game” gig, is playing in one of the classic-rock world’s coolest bands, a rippin’ psychedelic R&B dance group that should have become commercially huge but never did.
The day job is with Chicago, and Bill Champlin has been that band’s keyboardist, who occasionally chips in on guitar and vocals, for 22 years. And the avocation is a chops-heavy, funky horn band out of 1960s-’70s California called the Sons of Champlin, which is reuniting this month, sans guitarist Terry Haggerty, for some California dates.
“It’s not a purty band, but we play good,” Champlin said of his namesake band via a transatlantic call from Australia, where Chicago was touring on a festival bill featuring Robert Cray and Bonnie Raitt.
Champlin, a handsome soul singer, songwriter, guitarist and Hammond B-3 monster, was born in Oakland. It’s likely he got some of that East Bay grease before his family moved uptown, or across the bay to Marin. “I didn’t grow up next to a Baptist church, but I did grow up next to Village Music in Mill Valley, where I could get Lou Rawls records,” he bubbled. “In one week, Rob Moitoza, my bass player, turned me on to James Brown, Ornette Coleman, Lightnin’ Hopkins—he changed my life!”
The Sons, a seven-piece funk-jazz-R&B-rock horn ensemble, swirled magnanimously out of the powerful (and much loopier) San Francisco psychedelic music scene, beginning in 1965. They were as famous for their recreational drug intake as they were for the exhortative spirituality in their lyrics and their driving, cathartic live shows.
“They were breathing fire,” Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Joel Selvin in a 1997 interview. “They were a dance-your-brains-out-all-night band. They played better than anybody and never made it.”
The Sons’ 1968 Capitol debut, Loosen Up Naturally, featured “Get High” and “Freedom,” both legendary tracks. “Everyone was trying to get hits on what was the beginning of FM radio, and we were putting out 14-minute songs,” Champlin recalled. “We had some good opportunities; we just kind of snubbed them, ’cause we were young and dumb, mostly. Music, not business.”
The band was so into locating its collective third eye back then that, at one point years later, it changed its name to Yogi Phlegm. “There was such a desire for self-realization,” said Champlin. “Not so much from the LSD, but from the talk about LSD. When I wrote ‘Rooftop,’ I was flying in the face of the hippie movement. Meditation was not solving America’s problems then. And in Marin, eventually, it got to be a drag. It was like, ‘I’m more egoless than you.’”
The Sons released seven albums, disbanding in 1978 when Champlin moved to Los Angeles. He soon pulled down two Grammys as best R&B songwriter, for George Benson’s hit “Turn Your Love Around” and Earth, Wind & Fire’s “After the Love Is Gone.” Then he was invited to join Chicago in 1982, and he’s still open about that practical choice. “I had kids and bills,” he said. In 1997, the Sons reunited, and Live, on the Grateful Dead’s label, was the result.
Original members on board for this year’s Sons are bassist Dave Schallock, drummer Jim Preston and keyboardist and vibraphonist Geoff Palmer. They’re joined by guitarist Tal Morris, a former student of Haggerty, along with Tower of Power Horns’ trumpeter and trombonist Mic Gillette and saxophonist Marc Russo; the latter also played with the Doobie Brothers.
Watch for Champlin’s “ugly face” in person or on the band’s new live performance DVD, Secret. “Singing like you don’t know what you are looking like,” he said, “is the first sign that something is really about to happen. The face starts going—crunch—and three bars in, I’m all ugly-faced already.” Champlin laughed. “It is a thing that takes you away from your self,” he concluded. “For me, that is what R&B music is all about.”