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Music Journeys: Bill Champlin

Mar 4, 2021

Bill Champlin
Credit Bob Barry

Bill Champlin joins Music Journeys to talk about his new solo album Livin' For Love. Champlin shares how the songs came together and the deeply personal places they originate from. He'll also reflect on his time with Chicago, his incredibly talented son Will, his favorite musical moment involving B.B. King, and more. Stick around for some groovy selections and an emotional story in his Fast Five. Thanks for listening.  

He Started To Sing plays...

Bill Champlin has been singing and making melodies for decades. From his 1960's band Sons of Champlin, to his solo material, collaborations, and nearly 30 years with the band Chicago, Champlin has learned quite a bit along the way. 

"I've always had a theory that's proven itself to be right, at least in my world," Champlin said. "If you practice your craft, sometimes art will come through. The craft is stuff that you do. Art is stuff that uses you as a taxi cab, as a way to get to the page. He started to sing of love just to find it. That's the reason people sing. Somebody said do you like playing guitar or keyboards or singing better, and I said it's all the same thing. Songwriting, performing, putting new strings on a guitar, it's all part of the same thing. I love all of it. Well, the strings not so much but the rest of it I love a lot. I've always been one of those guys that's been way in there. I always try to keep being musical." 

Fly With Me plays...

Born in Oakland, California in 1947,  Champlin quickly inherited a love of music. 

"Well, my mother was kind of a frustrated songwriter, piano player, singer, dancer, diver, crazier than a junkyard dog, but a very talented woman," Champlain said. "When I was a kid she would put me in a playpen and roll the pen under the piano and just play for hours. That was kind of how I grew up."

Everywhere plays...

Spawned from his first band Opposite Six, Champlin formed Sons of Champlin, releasing the first of several albums released in 1969. 

"The Sons was a really great beginning of my arranging and lyrical career," Champlin reflected. "I wrote some really cool lyrics for the time. I still play with them when I can. It's not just the band feeling like a family, it's the band and the audience. I got the bug and always liked recording. When I started recording, they had four tracks. Now with Pro Tools, you can have as many tracks as you want."   

Champlin has been a part of some historic tracks. He won two Grammys for co-writing After The Love Has Gone, which became a hit for Earth, Wind & Fire and Turn Your Love Around by George Benson. He sang and helped write several of Chicago's hits in the 1980's and early 90's when the band had the backing of producer David Foster. Livin' For Love from Imagen Records, which came out in January, marks Champlin's first true solo material in more than a decade. 

Livin' For Love plays...

"Musically and lyrically, I'm into it," Champlain said of the 14 songs on Livin' For Love. "I love the lyrics on Livin' For Love, the first song I wrote for the album. My wife Tamara and I write a lot together. Tamara came in and she said you need to do a solo album. She said you're really writing for your own voice so go for it. I went okay, and right around COVID-19 hit and we were all locked down. It was a good time to work on stuff."   

Reason To Believe plays...

"A handful of the songs are really pretty deep and personal," Champlin said. "I read somewhere that if it isn't personal, it isn't art. I can't remember who said it, but it stuck with me. I had a pretty bad year a couple years back. I lost my older son, had to deal with cancer and the surgery, radiation, chemo, and plethora of crap with that business, all of which is behind me. There's a song called Another Lie that's basically about my relationship with my older son before he passed away."

Another Lie plays...

"Nobody was an angel, and Brad wasn't either," Champlin said. "It took me two years to write that song and to be honest about how his life really was. He was a real serious pill freak for years and just couldn't shake it. We all had our drug situations, but I shook it in 1985 and let music be the thing. So it's an homage at some level but still somewhat honest." 

My Time plays...

"I went through so many physical things a couple years ago and probably would have died had it not been for Tamara keeping me positive and going forward," Champlin recalled. "Because it was really an ugly time. The cancer I had was kind of bad. I just realized at some point if you don't say thank you when you're alive, how are you going to say it afterwards. That's kind of what My Time is about, sort of a thank you to Tamara, all the people who helped, all the people I've known, and all the people who've listened to my music. Let everybody know you love them while you're here." 

A Stevie Song plays...

"It's kind of an homage to Stevie Wonder," Champlin said of A Stevie Song. "In terms of uplifting music, he's one of the greats of all time. Great singer, great pianist, great producer, great drummer. I was just watching the news. Aside from the riots, I just heard a lot of people on the street yelling demands. And I thought, what are we listening to and what music is going on. I realized there's a lot of records with people yelling really loud. Maybe we need to step back and listen to Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. I guess somebody can say it's political. I don't think it's political. I just think the human condition is that of somebody looking to love. I hate to sound like a San Francisco hippie, which I am in a weird sort of way." 

Love Lives On plays...

"One thing I realized way early on is that every gig is a rehearsal for the next gig," Champlin reflected. "You never hit that moment where you have an absolutely great set and say I'm done, whereas you do in other things in life. I just love it. More than anything else, it's just given me something to wake up and be involved in. Someone told me years ago that the first thing that goes to tape when you're singing is who you are and how you feel, even when you're playing. After that it's all the book-learning stuff. But what you're feeling is what goes down. We all have a lot of stuff inside of us. Musicians are really lucky to have a way to get catharsis. That's really what it's been all about for me. Music is an expression, and it's something I'm happy to be involved in. It doesn't mean I think I'm better than anybody else. I just do it because I gotta."

The Truth Has Begun plays...

"A lot of what the lockdowns have done to other businesses has happened to music for the last 15 or 20 years," Champlin said. "The downloading thing has really hurt the music business in a lot of ways. There's not as much commerce. People are making albums out of their pockets. They're making them because they love it. They say it's a singles world now, writing one song and getting it on YouTube. Yes that's a good idea, but I think there's a thing in making albums and one song leads to another. I might have two or three songs, but while I'm doing that I'm getting a momentum going. I used to watch David Foster, and he always had a good idea. Let's put something here and do something here. Sometimes he would give it the five-minute test. He was smart enough to know what worked and what didn't. I'll always be totally grateful that I had that time working with that guy, not that I'm copying David Foster, but I understood being in a situation where you're always creative. Little harder with a band than with solo records."   

Speaking of bands, Champlin also shared some thoughts on his time with Chicago. 

"The most fun I had with Chicago was when we weren't on the road and we got together to go bowling every Wednesday morning at 11," Champlin said with a laugh. "We had a ball just bowling. That was really a fun hang. There were some really big records we were involved in and amazingly long tours, but at some point I didn't want to go to sleep with 25 or 6 to 4. That was always the last song of the set. I was just getting less happy with it and they were aware of it. At some level, maybe it was the best thing that happened to me because I got back to doing new music. Their move was to try to sound like their original records, and I wasn't there for the original records. I always thought if you come up with a good arrangement idea or some way to make it sound a little different, why not. Every successful band is a prisoner of their own success, and Chicago is no different."

The bowling came during the Peter Cetera years.

"Peter was a good bowler," Champlin said. "Danny Seraphine was a really good bowler. I wasn't that good but had a ball hanging. There was not a whole lot of we gotta get a hit. It wasn't in a boardroom. It was in a bowling alley. It felt more like a band when we were bowling than it did when we were playing at least later on. For the first few years when Peter was still in the band, we were cruising right along. Sometimes you get too modern and lose sight of what really makes it go. I had a good run with those guys, and they're still up and running and have great guys working for them." 

Former Chicago member Jason Scheff, who replaced Peter Cetera, joins Champlin for a song on the new album called Show Me. Champlin also referenced Danny Seraphine, Chicago's original drummer and co-founder. They reunited in 2013 for Seraphine's California Transit Authority. Prior to finishing third on Season Five of The Voice, Champlin's son Will sang a few songs on that Sacred Ground release, including the title track with his dad on background vocals.  

Sacred Ground plays...

So when did Bill know Will had some special gifts musically?

"I knew when he was 5 years old, although he didn't know until he was a little older," Bill Champlin said of his son Will. "I took him to neighborhood piano teachers. He learned all the basics but was bored to tears. Jason Scheff gave me a number for Terry Trotter, a great jazz player and an insanely great teacher. When I got Will with Terry, he was playing Bill Edmunds stuff. It just goes to show you that a teacher that really gets you excited about it and moving forward is another thing altogether, and Terry did that for Will. Then Will went to Berklee School of Music and tore that up and right after the music with Danny, he got on The Voice and got into the finals, which was kind of a cool moment. It was kind of a fun thing watching it happen as he was the spoiler every week"   

Champlin also shared his favorite musical moment.

"The Sons were playing a gig at Shrine Auditorium, and it was Yardbirds, B.B. King and the Sons," Champlin recalled. "BB was going to use our Hammond organ for his set, but right after our first set it blew a fuse. His organ player was playing bass pedals on the organ. The promoter came to our dressing room and said B.B. needs a bass player. My bass player went to get his bass. I said Al, have you ever heard a B.B. King song? He said no, so I said give me that. So I went out and played a set on bass with B.B. King. It's one of the biggest moments of my musical life. I learned more about the shuffle in that one hour than I have ever just playing with Sonny Freeman, the drummer. B.B. King's band was just an organ player, two horns, a drummer, and him. Boy what a great singer and sweet man he was. That was in 1967 or '68, and to this day it's still a giant moment in my life."  

Hey plays...

"If we're all talking about 6 foot social distancing, you can't reach that far with your hands to touch people," Champlin reflected. "The only thing that can do it is music. I just want people to feel something. At least I feel something, so I like to share and that's what the record's about."    

Bill Champlin's latest release Livin' For Love is available on all digital platforms. CD copies can be purchased at billchamplin.com