Songwriter Interviews

Bill Champlin ("After The Love Has Gone", ex-Chicago)

by Carl Wiser

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After co-writing "After The Love Has Gone" and "Turn Your Love Around," Champlin joined Chicago at the beginning of their shift toward ballads.



Bill Champlin joined Chicago in 1981, bringing along a young producer named David Foster. The group was on the downswing, clinging to a horn-based sound that made them one of the biggest acts of the '70s, but had fallen out of favor. Foster set them on a new course with their 1982 album Chicago 16, muting their horns and pushing Peter Cetera ballads like "Love Me Tomorrow" and "Hard to Say I'm Sorry." It returned them to glory, but bifurcated the band between the horn section and Cetera/Foster camp. It wasn't quite what Champlin had in mind, but there was no denying the hits.

Before joining Chicago, Bill led a scintillating San Francisco group called The Sons Of Champlin, which were always one tier below the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. A review we dug up from that era said, "Bill Champlin has the best soul voice ever embedded in the lungs of a white man."

Between Sons Of Champlin and Chicago (1977-1981), he released two solo albums and was a top songwriter and session singer. His co-writes include the Earth, Wind & Fire hit "After The Love Has Gone" and George Benson's "Turn Your Love Around."

In Chicago, his songwriting was more limited, but he was a huge part of their sound, taking lead vocals on the hits "Look Away," "Hard Habit to Break" (with Cetera) and "I Don't Wanna Live Without Your Love." He also handled vocals on songs sung by Terry Kath before his death in 1978, including (reluctantly, it turns out) "Colour My World."

Champlin was with the band until 2008. These days, he writes and performs on his own and with many of his cohorts from his decades in the business. He spoke with us about his songwriting philosophy, his cancer diagnosis, and his tumultuous time in Chicago.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): You co-wrote the song "Turn Your Love Around."

Bill Champlin: Yes, Jay Graydon and me and Steve Lukather.

Songfacts: What gave you the inspiration for that lyric?

Champlin: I kind of wrote the song and then it got around to the chorus itself, and I needed a five-syllable phrase. I was going, "Where can I go with this? How can I make this work?"

I tried every five-syllable thing I could come up with, and it wasn't until we got in to do the demo that I went, "Oh, how about 'Turn Your Love Around'?"

I went, "It took me this long to come up with that simple phrase?! What is wrong with me?" Sometimes, the thing that you need the most is the most elusive.

Songfacts: Well, it sounds simple but that's not a phrase that was being bandied about at that time.

Champlin: No, it wasn't. It certainly was after. Actually, Greg Mathieson told me while we were on the road that it was a big gay disco hit. Mostly they just liked the whole concept of "Turn Your Love Around." So, I went, "That's cool."

Songfacts: Did you have any inspiration for the person you're singing about in this song or why this girl is charging by the hour?

Champlin: No. A disc jockey one time said, "I love your hooker song." I said, "Hooker song?" He said, "Yeah, the George Benson song. Girl, you've been charging by the hour for your love."

I was thinking more, you've been making me pay emotionally or intellectually, but some people took "you've been charging by the hour" as being about a hooker. In my mind it wasn't - it just seemed like a good idea.

The scenario is rarely about me or somebody I know. Songwriters do this all the time. They imagine a scenario between a guy and girl and go, "What can happen with this?"

And then love songs, it's a tradition thing. A lot of guys just hate it - they won't use the word "love" at all in a song. It's like, "I've heard enough, I don't want to do it." But, it's probably the one thing that most everybody has in common, so if you're trying to write something that is going to talk to somebody, you have a better chance talking about something everybody shares, and everybody shares love.

I think there are five different love songs:

I love you, you love me
I don't love you
You don't love me
I want you back
I don't want you back

That's pretty much it.

Songfacts: Well, you say that, but you've put nuances on them.

Champlin: Yeah, that comes around at different points, and I dug deeper into it than I ever did before with "After The Love Has Gone." With "After The Love," Foster came up with [sings] "After the love has gone." So, I had to write backwards from there. I couldn't just write free and clear. I went, Something's got to lead up to this.

We did a duet with Johnny Mathis and Dionne Warwick called "Friends In Love" that me and Jay and David Foster wrote together. We originally wrote it for Stacy Lattisaw and this guy Junior Tucker who is a Jamaican singer - a young guy, teenager. So, I wrote these high school-y lyrics and Junior came in to sing it and he'd just hit that point in his life where his voice was cracking up. All of the sudden, he sounded like Alfalfa, you know what I mean? [sings] "I'm the barber of Seville." He literally couldn't sing it.

So, we put the song away. At the same time, we knew it was a really good song. Some of the changes that Foster came up with were ridiculously beautiful. It was in the tradition of "After The Love." There were some really great changes, places that it went that you don't expect but once you hear it twice you go, "Yeah, that's beautiful." And, all of a sudden, Jay calls us and says, "Hey, 'Friends In Love' is back in the ballgame, except this time it's Johnny Mathis and Dionne Warwick."

Clive Davis wanted to use the song for those guys. I went, "High school lyrics ain't going to work here." So, I had to rewrite the song for the singers. And it actually worked better than the lyrics I had for the kids.

But, those songs – "After The Love," "Friends In Love," "Turn Your Love Around" – they were kind of assignment writing things. They weren't things that I wrote because I wanted to write. I wrote them because we needed to have material for these people.

Songfacts: Was it like that with Lee Ritenour, as well?

Champlin: Not quite so much. With Rit it was a little bit of a different story. I wrote a thing called "Morning Glory" with him. I co-wrote "Is It You?" with him and then he brought Eric Tagg into it and they came up with the verses. I wrote the bridge and then at the end of the bridge I went, "Is it you?" and that ended up becoming the title.

It was a pretty good song, with Eric singing - Eric Tagg can sing time, news and weather and make it really great. He's a great singer, one of the best. So, they had Eric singing it, and on that same album they had a song he wrote called "Mr. Briefcase." It's just beautiful. Just smoking, like a freight train. It's a good album, Rit. I worked a lot on that record.

"Is It You?" was just another song on a Ritenour album until they mixed it, and then they went, "Whoa, this thing sounds like a single." Sometimes you don't know until it's mixed, so you go after every song with as much oomph as you can to try to make it accessible but still maintain some level of the style of the artist.

Songfacts: Did you ever actually record "After The Love Has Gone"?

Champlin: Oh, yeah. I did it on Jay's second Airplay For The Planet album [2002]. I was the singer and Foster was the piano player. I think Jay played guitar on it, probably drum machine, and maybe synth bass.

Songfacts: Jay told a story about how it got stripped away from you and delivered to Earth, Wind & Fire. It was going to be your song on your album.

Champlin: Well, yeah, but we cut it three times. It wasn't like it was taken away from me, but David said, "Hey, Maurice [White] heard this, and he wants to do this song, but the only way he will do it is if you agree not to release it on your record."

We cut the demo a couple of times and it just wasn't playing as good as the song was. For some reason, I wasn't singing it very well - it just wasn't going right. He said, "Look, man, we've got a better shot with Earth, Wind & Fire."

David had played a bunch of my record at the time, which was called Single [1978], for Maurice, and Maurice wanted to do the same deal with two or three other songs. I didn't want to do that because, hey, these are my songs. One of them was one that I wrote by myself, something called "Fly With Me" that Foster just arranged the shit out of - he's just so great. And, what ended up happening is I said, "No, but you can have 'After The Love' because I'm not really doing it justice." So, they took "After The Love."

I'm kicking myself for not giving them the other three songs and just writing three new songs for myself, because my record sold 20,000 copies and I think I Am [1979 EW&F album with "After The Love Has Gone"] went over nine million or something.

And, that song's been a hit numerous times over the years. It's just one of those copyrights that keeps getting covered and covered and covered.

Songfacts: Why did you suggest David Foster for Chicago?

Champlin: He's a great producer. I knew he was coming, man. I knew he was coming like a dog. A lot of people thought Foster got the gig with Chicago and put me into it because he had produced some of my records, but it really was the other way around.

Danny Seraphine [Chicago's drummer], I'd done some stuff with him. Danny was producing a guy named Angelo, who is a great singer, really beautiful voice, and he was getting around to doing background vocals for it. I'd known Angelo because I'd done one of his albums a couple of years before, so he called me up right when I was doing the Ritenour album and said, "Bill, man, can I get you to come in and do some backgrounds. I don't have any money, it's just a gratis thing." Which is fine, it happens a lot.

I said, "Angelo, I'd love to, but I've got the worst cold and I'm having real trouble."

It was true. I was really having trouble hitting notes with Ritenour. I ended up getting them, but I had to go around a really bad head cold. And he says, "Peter Cetera said the same thing, he's got a cold too, but he said he would go ahead and do it." I said, "Really? I'd like to sing with him. Okay, I will do it, what's the session and the song?"

Chicago, 1984
So, Danny was producing, and we really squeezed out some parts in the booth listening to the music, and then we went to the microphone together and sang the backgrounds on this one song. And the engineer and Angelo and Seraphine – everybody in the booth – their jaws were on the floor. They were going, "Whoa! How about this for a blend?"

So, that got Danny thinking. They were in a place where they needed to pull out of the hole, so he said, "We want you to be in the band." I said, "I don't do sideman shit."

At that time, it was not something I really wanted to do. He said, "No, we want you as a full member of the band, and we'll have you sing some of Terry Kath's stuff."

At one point, Danny and I started writing and he said, "Hey, we're looking to get a producer." I had heard some of the stuff that they were working on for their next album, and I wasn't really knocked out. They weren't really hitting it quite yet. Some of Lamm's stuff was a little artsy-craftsy for a band that was really a pop band - pop being short for popular. So, he said, "What do you think of David Foster as a producer?"

I had just finished doing Runaway [Bill's 1981 album] with Foster, and I said, "He's a great musician, he's a great songwriter, he's becoming a monstrous producer. You would do well to get Foster for this record. But, except for the one tune you and I have written (which was a song called 'Sonny Think Twice') for the purposes of making a record that Foster can get behind, we're going to need to rewrite stuff and get David involved in the writing process." Which he did, so that was 16.

16 was still a little bit artsy-craftsy, because they're Chicago and a little bit jazz in some ways, but Peter and David came up with "Hard To Say I'm Sorry" and kaboom! That was a big hit and it sort of established that thing.

That became such a big #1 radio hit that by the time we got into 17, it was all going on, and at that point in the game, David really focused on Peter's whole situation, and he and Peter wrote some really beautiful songs. They wrote "You're The Inspiration" and a handful of really good stuff over the years.

Actually, "Hard Habit To Break," Steve Kipner wrote that, and Steve's a really, really great writer. He wrote another one for a later Chicago album called "If She Would Have Been Faithful" which was great. I think it was Kipner and Randy Goodrum, and Randy is as good a writer as there is on Earth. Randy wrote Anne Murray's "You Needed Me." He wrote that really cool ballad that Toto does ["I'll Be Over You"].

Songfacts: He wrote "Foolish Heart" for Steve Perry.

Champlin: Yeah, he wrote most of that record with Steve Perry. Steve calls him and says, "I want you to co-produce my record with me." And Randy says, "Cool."

Randy told me, "I thought I was talking to the lead guitar player in Aerosmith. I didn't really know who Steve Perry was. It took me a little asking around to find out."

I've written some stuff with Randy and he's just as good as it gets. Plus, he gets on the piano and goodnight Gracie, it's just all over with. He's just a really great musician and a really great lyricist. He's on both barrels.

Songfacts: So, you get in there with Chicago, which had immense success but now they have to change their sound. And they've got three guys in the horn section that had been there from the beginning.

Champlin: Well, they were unhappy with it because a lot of these tunes just didn't call for horns. So, they were very unhappy with it, because they always saw themselves as the star of Chicago. And, at one point, when they first came out, they probably were. But, suddenly, the listeners and the fans of Chicago all listened to the singers and the guitar playing.

You know, Terry Kath was amazing. He was a great singer and a great guitar player. He was Jimi Hendrix' favorite guitar player. As a matter of fact, Hendrix took him out to second line him on a tour, which was one of things that gave them some visibility in the early days when they really needed it. And I think they toured with Janis Joplin. She was drawing a lot of people and they're saying, "Who's this big band with a horn section, opening up for the artist I just bought tickets to see?" Everybody needed that kind of break to make their first move.

But I think the horn players got a lot of notoriety because of their arrangements, and Jimmy Pankow's a really good horn arranger. So, that was all happening but then people heard Terry singing and they heard Peter singing and then "If You Leave Me Now" hit and goodbye, it was over. Kaboom! It was, "This guy is amazing."

So, the focus went from horn players and rock guitar to pop music, synthesizers, singers and songs. And that's where David and Peter really grabbed it and ran with it. 17 I think just passed five million sales, something like that. A pretty big record.

Songfacts: What was it like for you? You must have been right in the middle of a lot of that tension.

Champlin: Yeah, I didn't pay a lot of attention to it. I wish I was singing more, but even then I understood what David and Peter were doing. And then there were moments when I helped bring David into this and he just gave me this cold shoulder. That's David's move: He goes after the main guy and everybody else is just secondary. As much as he's had success with bands like Chicago and The Tubes, almost every single band that he's ever produced broke up after he produced them. The singing group All-4-One, I think he stacked the one guy and they had a giant hit, "I Swear." That thing was #1 for months. It was a really great production, it was all happening, the vocals on it were ridiculous, but I think he kind of cold-shouldered everybody but the one guy who was the main thing.

Chicago, 1991
So, David's really a solo artist producer, I think. He gets in with the one guy and really works on the one guy. In 16 he kind of did but with 17 he was getting back to being the guy that's just going after the hits with the one guy that's going to really bring it vocally. So 17 was that way with Peter, and then, next thing you know, Peter's gone, so we had to get Jason [Scheff] and work around that. The 18 record was really good material-wise - some great songs were written on the record - but it didn't have Peter's voice.

That was at the time when Peter was doing solo records and he had two #1s in a row. He had "Next Time I Fall" with Amy Grant and he had that one from Karate Kid.

Songfacts: "Glory Of Love."

Champlin: He had a guy very similar to David Foster and also a really great musician, Michael Omartian, produce both of those songs. Michael was sort of in the same style.

"Glory Of Love" was written by Peter and David. They were planning on working together but I think they had a little falling out for a while. They work together now all the time. Peter does a lot of the Hitman stuff with David - those concerts and stuff.

I talk to Peter all the time. He's a really good guy, I like him a lot. And I play with Danny Seraphine. We do a lot of gigs together.

Songfacts: Did you get involved with any of the drum machines or synths that were big in the early '80s?

Champlin: Oh yeah, everybody did.

Songfacts: How much of that was on Chicago's records?

Champlin: A lot of it. By the time we got to the 18 record, we were doing a lot of it that way. It's a way to be really in control from the word go, rather than trying to weed out stuff that was played on the basic. To make that kind of record that David needs to make, it's either do it that way, which is really time consuming and kind of a drag in a lot of ways, or you bring in the guys you know can really pull it off. You bring in John Robertson or Jeff Porcaro or Nathan East.

That's where some producers, like for instance Keith Olsen, will get B players or C players to sound like A players. He's one of those producers who spends a good little while rehearsing and working on a band. Foster would just as soon call the A players and bring them in, and I really don't blame him. You're talking about bringing in Steve Lukather, or Mike Landau, or even Michael Thompson. Real major players that can get this stuff for you in a minute. They really eyeball with the producer once and give it to him on take one.

Songfacts: Is the reason you wouldn't get an A player because of budget?

Champlin: No, the reason you don't get an A player is because it's your band and you don't want somebody else playing on it, so that's where the shit starts to hit the fan.

There are many ways to produce a record. I just finished producing a record for me and my wife Tamara and Gary Falcone. I'm playing guitar on it. I'm not an A player by any means, but I know what I want. So, I'm a guitarist on a record that I would prefer somebody else play it, but I can't afford it and I have the time, so I'll just play it myself. If it takes me all day to get it right, that's what it takes.

Nobody has the budget these days to be calling in, on a regular basis, the big-time players.

Songfacts: Let's take a song like "Stay The Night," which has that very synthy, percussive sound. How was that put together?

Champlin: David had Jeff Porcaro going for that track. He brought in Jeff to play that. Pissed off Danny to no end. But then "You're the Inspiration" was Carlos Vega. It got nasty. It got really ugly, and I understand exactly where Danny was coming from, but I know what kind of records David likes to make and I know what kind of groove he has.

We had a song on 18 called "It's Alright." It was really a straight-ahead pop song, sort of R&B-ish, a little bit Huey and the News-ish. A really cool song that David and I wrote together. David said, "If you let me bring in Jerry Marotta, this thing will be a #1 hit. I said, "I don't want to get into it. Let Danny do it. I don't want to hurt him anymore."

People get their feelings hurt. Look at the Beach Boys. They brought in the Wrecking Crew for all of the instrumentals on their records. They had Al Jardine and different guys that were players in the band that weren't allowed to play on their own records. It really made them mad. But, Brian [Wilson] was just having none of it. He said, "I need to have guys who can do what I need."

This has been a fence-straddling production situation with bands for years. Little Richard had his own road band and when he got his record deal he said, "I want to use my band." They said, "No, we want you to go to New Orleans to use these real top players." He heard these guys cut a track and he said, "I don't want to use my guys. I want to use these guys." So, this has been going on for a long time.

Songfacts: What was it like taking over the vocals on "Colour My World"?

Champlin: I did it for a few years and I handed it off to Robert Lamm. I almost didn't take the gig because of that song.

Songfacts: Really? Why?

Champlin: I didn't like the song. Never really had.

Then I started jazzing it a little bit and singing different melodies than the original and started pissing off the guys. Robert said I should do it, and I went, "Don't throw me in that briar patch." I let him take it. And now I think the trumpet player sings it.

I just don't dig that tune very much. I can play it, and I can sing it, but night after night after night of it...

I heard rumors that they drew straws to see who was going to sing it in the studio and the loser had to sing it, so Terry ended up singing it. And, from what I understand, he had a bottle of Jack before he sang. He wanted to give it one pass and there's history right there. That's how good a singer Terry was. Listen to an old Chicago record with Kath singing and then listen to Stone Temple Pilots and tell me Scott Weiland didn't copy Terry's whole style. His tone, his range, it's all very Terry Kath. First time I heard him I thought, "Man, he sounds like that guy in Chicago."

Background singers often come in threes, and Bill often teamed with Tom Kelly and Richard Page, both of whom went on to big things. Kelly paired up with Billy Steinberg to become one of the most successful songwriting teams of the '80s and '90s - their hits include "True Colors," "Eternal Flame" and "I Drove All Night." Page formed and fronted Mr. Mister, who had two #1 hits in America: "Broken Wings" and "Kyrie."
Songfacts: You were doing sessions with Tom Kelly and Richard Page, and the three of you have all not just written songs, but written hits. Why were the three of you able to come out of the session scene and become these incredible songwriters?

Champlin: Well, the sessions, in a lot of ways, were basically rent-paying things. At the time, what was kind of cool about it, when I first started doing vocal dates I was doing them with David Foster and Jay Graydon, guys who were like, "Let's arrange something really cool." Up to that point, a lot of background dates were oohs and aahs for rent - that's it. And I went, "Let's find some counter parts, let's find some other things, let's try to be creative."

When I moved to LA, Steely Dan was just starting to take off. They already had hits but musically they were starting to explore some pretty cool stuff. And then, Toto was kicking in, and Earth, Wind & Fire was doing some really musical things. A lot of it came under what is now considered "West Coast music" - that's what they call it in Japan and that's what they call it in Scandinavia. It's a little bit educated but still pop.

In Los Angeles, David Paich was one of the first guys to really open the door with Boz Scaggs' Silk Degrees album. David had a real cool thing going and he's just such a talented guy. After that album, David bailed out of Boz' situation and started Toto. And dig the music that those guys are playing! It's still a band, but they knew how to make a pop record and they knew how to make even a jazz record, for that matter. Those guys had everything, and they still do. They're kicking these days, man. An amazing band. People kind of lumped them in with rock bands but they're so much more than just The Scorpions. They bring a lot of stuff to the ball game, and that's what I loved about them.

And, Foster was in there knocking it out. He produced a song called "Wildflower" when he was a teenager. Remember that?

Let her cry, for she's a lady
Let her dream, for she's a child


It had Donny Gerrard singing lead. It was written by a traffic cop in Victoria B.C. But, Foster, even at that age, he said, "This is going to be a good record" and kaboom! They called it Skylark - him and his wife were in the band, had a rhythm section and Donny singing lead. It was a great band, totally cool.

Another thing that we all kind of talked about when we were doing background vocals a lot, is you go in and you sing somebody else's lyrics 150-200 times a day. Then you go home and try to write a song, and you just end up writing this guy's song over again.

I talked with Michael McDonald about this because he did a lot of background gigs. When it's done, when the producer stands up and lights a cigarette and says, "This is great, man, it's a wrap on this song," that's when I really try to forget about it. Forget that you sang it, forget how it goes, otherwise you're going to go home and you're going to write everybody else's song over and over again.

So, that's just a chop. If you happen to be one of those guys that's doing a lot of background vocals and songwriting, that's one of the things you've got to know how to do, otherwise you just write everybody else's song. Tom Kelly ended up doing really well. I think he just stopped doing dates. He and Billy were writing one major hit after another.

Songfacts: Did any of the songs you sang background on become hits?

Champlin: I did backgrounds for "Little Jeannie" by Elton John. Dig through probably four or five years of records and I'm on just about every one of them. It's pretty insane. We did all the stuff on Donna Summer's records. I sang on a Juice Newton record. And there were some artists that I don't even remember who they were that said, "Hey, man, there's a section here in this song, we don't really have anything. Could you put some backgrounds in there?" So, I'd throw some lyrics in and stuff like that. Next thing you know I'm hearing it in the Top 10 and I go, "Wait a minute, I wrote that chorus, what did I do this for?"

Nashville background singers say, "One word, one third." I did a few in Nashville when I was there but the background singers that get all the gigs down there didn't want me around because they didn't want to see me take away jobs. I did a lot of stuff on the first couple of really big Amy Grant albums - it was me and Tommy Funderburk, and my wife Tamara was on a few of those.

Songfacts: When did you get married?

Champlin: We got married in 1981.

Songfacts: So all these songs that you were writing about matters of the heart, you were either married or about to be married when many of them were written.

Champlin: Uh huh. I wrote something with Lenny White from Return To Forever. He had a solo album, and I wrote a really a sad song. I was playing it for Tamara when we were dating, and she says, "I don't like that song, that's just too sad." I said, "Well, thanks a lot. I wrote the lyrics." She went, "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to say that."

She's also a songwriter, so she understands imagining a premise, like imagine a relationship that's going through a change.

I had a song on my second album called "Sara." I had the piano part, the chord changes and the melodies all wired, and I was hitting the writer's block. I couldn't write anything on it. We were in a session working on another song on the record, and a mutual friend of David Foster and mine, Alan Thicke, you know, the TV star and Robin's dad, he came in and I said, "Hey, Al, I want to put this on a cassette. Could you take a whack at the lyrics?" And he did, and they were good. I fixed a few of them up a little bit, but he gave me a forward motion on it. I was just hitting a brick wall - it happens to every writer.

My oldest son passed away a little over a year ago, the day after I was diagnosed with cancer. There's a fun week, isn't it? The cancer's gone and so is Brad, which is too bad, but I've been trying to write a song about that and I'm at zero. I'm coming up with nothing about it. It's maybe too personal.

Sometimes when you're writing something that's personal, it's harder to write than it is to just imagine a scenario between guy A and girl B and then write to that scenario. Otherwise, we would all be crazy. If we had to go through every change that we write about, we'd all be completely nuts.

I've always felt that the verse should state the negative and the B section or the pre-chorus should state something that needs to be done about it, and the chorus tells you what to do about it. So, you're stating a problem and at some point you pay it off.

Songfacts: Eric Clapton didn't write "Tears In Heaven" on his own. He wasn't able to get it to the finish line by himself.

Champlin: He wrote it with Will Jennings, didn't he?

Songfacts: Yeah, and that's an example of a song that's deeply personal, written about his son, and he couldn't get there. I totally understand what you're talking about. You need outside help a lot of times.

Champlin: Yeah, it's really hard to do. He was working on the movie Rush with Jason Patric. That was the first time that song was recorded and played, in that movie, and then Eric did a version on MTV Unplugged, and that was the hit, which was kind of cool because he played it live and kicked ass on it. It really came off beautifully.

But, I was in there when they were recording. I walked in to do some backgrounds on another song on the movie and Russ Titelman was producing. Russ said, "This is kind of a deep song so keep it quiet. We're not joking right now."

I went in, and Nathan East was putting on an upright bass part on that version that was in the movie. I was just listening to it and I was going, "Oh my god. How can you hear this and not just lose it?" Because I knew the history. I knew how he had lost his son.

My younger son is a fine musician. He's a Berklee grad. He was actually one of the three finalists in Season 5 of "The Voice."

Songfacts: That's Will, right?

Champlin: Yeah, Will. He wrote a song when Brad, when my oldest son, pulled up with esophageal cancer. Will wrote a song called "Breathe." I cannot listen to it without just losing it completely. It's so beautiful, so great. Maybe I don't need to write that song about Brad because Will already did it.

And Tamara has a song called "Say Goodbye To The Bayou" that she wrote about her dad after he passed away. I can't listen to it without breaking down. Can't get through it.

That's why songwriting, on some level, to get through the song you've got to maintain a little bit of distance or you just end up crying all the time. I don't have the time!

Songfacts: When you were with Sons of Champlin, your songs sounded very different. I love those kind of grooves. You must have been writing in a different style then. Can you talk about that and how it changed?

Champlin: Well, it was in the spirit of the moment. There was a lot of acid going on. There were a lot of conversations about the acid going on, and a lot of it, I began to realize, was not just about doing drugs, it was a spiritual thing.

We were hanging out with Allen Ginsberg and Alan Watts, Gary Snyder – this was up in San Francisco Bay area. All these former beatniks that were the beginning of the whole hippie movement. Tim Leary, different people like that. Richard Alpert, those kind of guys. We were really studying a lot of that. And we were all young enough that we were all very interested in the difference between religion and spirituality.

While all these conversations were going on, everybody was smoking weed, on acid, talking about all this stuff. I'm going, "I just heard a phrase. This seems to be cool." I was very interested in it because I was getting high. I did a lot of acid in those days. In some ways it didn't do me any good, but in some ways, it gave me a whole new thing to write songs about.

And then, years and years later, I moved to LA and was starting to realize that songwriting has a certain level of commerce involved. When I was doing it for the Sons, I didn't give a shit. I should have but I didn't. And the songs that I was writing, I was getting a reputation for being a real street poet. The first Sons' album I think I wrote all but one song on it.

Songfacts: How close were the Sons to breaking out into the big time?

Champlin: Always within a minute of it. Every time opportunity knocked, we answered the phone. We would step on our own dick every minute. And we were so full of ourselves at some level, because musically we knew there was something going on nobody else was doing. After a while, Sly & the Family Stone started doing that, but they did it better. We just thought the world would beat a path to our door. Dumb.

Youth is wasted on the young. We never got over that first hump. To go on the road is what you had to do, but when you've got a seven or eight-piece band, how many plane tickets is that? How many hotel rooms is that? We couldn't afford to do it. We couldn't afford to go to these places and play for $1500 a night in Columbus, Ohio or Tallahassee, Florida. We all lived in Marin County and we had a hard time breaking it loose.

So, we toured every once in a while. We did one tour in '68, right before the first record came out, and then we toured with Leon Russell, Three Dog Night, a couple of things here and there, but it wasn't a regular thing. Whereas the Grateful Dead just got out there and stayed out there.

And, actually, the Dead, one of the main things that happened with them is the Allman Brothers had all of these gigs booked up and down the East Coast and then Duane passed away in a motorcycle accident and they didn't want to play. So, somebody just gave all their gigs to the Grateful Dead. It gave them a big slingshot and started their following, which they already had out here and kind of had in the south, but not on the East Coast. You've really got to get the East Coast, where there's a great gig every 50 miles. In California, there's a great gig every 450 miles.

By the time we got around to working with Keith Olsen, I had actually written some pretty nice pop songs and things were starting to get some notice here in Los Angeles, here in ground zero for musical commerce, but we couldn't get over that first hump, and at times when it looked like we were there, we would shoot ourselves in the foot. We were billed above Santana on their first gigs, Doobie Brothers on their first gigs, Creedence Clearwater on their first gig. We were a local thing that was going on, but we just couldn't break it out.

Songfacts: The Sons are one of these hidden gems at this point, along with some other great '70s soul artists that didn't quite get out.

Champlin: Yeah. There were a lot of good bands. There was a group called Chase, it was monstrous. Just amazing groups in those days. Cold Blood, they were really one of the first horn bands. Before Cold Blood there was a group called Generation. We all saw James Brown and that changed our lives. The first time I saw James Brown was at Sweet's Ballroom in Oakland on New Year's Day for an afternoon show in 1963. It was insane.

So, we started dealing with horns right off the bat, trying to make that happen. And we were just high school kids - we didn't know what we were doing. But we lived in Marin County, and across the bay from Marin Country is Oakland, which had an AM station called KDIA, which was the black station in the Bay area. And they were smoking.

Sly Stone was a disc jockey on that station. And before that he was on KSOL, which was a smaller, pirate station based out of University of San Francisco – USF – and then he went over to KDIA. Sly's record collection was insane. It was great. He would play the most cool, obscure stuff that you wouldn't expect to really fly. At the same time, he's going down and playing a five or six-night-a-week gig in Redwood City with Sly & the Family Stone.

Sly was the first guy to really take a metronome, put it on one track and then stack up against it. You know, put down an organ part, put down a drum part. "The Swim" by Bobby Freeman, I think had Sly on every instrument. He was a good guitar player, good organ player, good singer, just an amazing talent. He's a little nutty at some level - I think at some point cocaine didn't really work that well for him. It didn't work that well for anybody, but I think it tore him up pretty bad.

Sly Stone's record caught Berry Gordy's eye really big. He had a big meeting at Motown and just handed the Stand! album to everybody and said, "This is where we're going. If you don't want to go here, see you later." Next thing you know, you had "Psychedelic Shack" and "Cloud Nine" and "Papa Was A Rollin' Stone," all kind of based on Sly's stuff.

Kind of cool. This little club band from San Francisco that singlehandedly changed Motown.

Songfacts: What kind of cancer did you have?

Champlin: I had prostate cancer and I was diagnosed with a Gleason 7. If you're over 5 you've got to do something. I went to talk to the radiation guy. He says, "You need to talk to a surgeon also. You're going to have to make this decision." Talked to the surgeon and the surgeon said, "Radiation is a great backup. If you do radiation first and you still have problems, you're fucked. If you do surgery first and you still have problems, you can still do radiation."

So, they took out the prostate and found out I was actually a Gleason 9. They took out 24 lymph nodes and there were cancer cells in three of the 24 lymph nodes. He said, "Remember that conversation we had? You need to do radiation." So, I did radiation for 39 treatments. And then Randy [the radiologist] said, "This is kind of a metastasized situation, you need to do chemo."

So, I went to a guy named Steven Wong in Westwood, who came up with a chemo. They don't usually do chemo for prostate surgery. He does. It's not necessarily for the prostate surgery because there's no prostate, but the cancer stayed, prostate came out. So, I just finished an 18-week round of chemo maybe three months ago. It's once every three weeks.

It was a nasty year last year. I started off with a cancer diagnosis, then the next day my son dies of cancer, and I'm doing all this other craziness. Then, I find out taking the prostate out didn't stop the cancer, so I've got to do more and more and more. It's been that way for like a year, and now my last couple of PSAs [Prostate-Specific Antigen] have been 0.00, so that's a great number to have.

Songfacts: What are you thoughts on how songwriting can improve?

Champlin: I was doing a writing symposium one time and I said, "Listen, everybody's interested in songwriting. Songwriting's one way to come home with some money, but you probably started off as a player, so keep playing because it lends a reality to songwriting." The better a player you are, in a way, the better you can write.

David Foster is a classic example. He writes really well because he's such a great player. He's so used to searching out new progressions. A lot of progressions that people are writing over nowadays, it's the same four or five progressions. There's not much difference. "After The Love Has Gone," that's not a progression you're going to hear on 25 songs next week.

So, I lean towards that era and some people go, "Well, that's a bygone era." And my answer to that is, "It shouldn't be." If you can come up with a new progression and a new melody versus chords, you can really stand out. That's why from letter B of "After The Love Has Gone" to letter C, to the chorus, is unbelievable. That's what sold that record. And David came up with a really cool move that changed it up. It's almost got two choruses in that song.

So progressions are really, really important. Try to find something other than C, A-minor, F, G. We've done this. Listen to "Written In The Stone," or most of the Earth, Wind & Fire progressions. There's a lot of stuff going on that you just don't hear in records nowadays.

March 13, 2018
More at billchamplin.com

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Comments: 10

  • Joe from New YorkI met Bill Champlin in Atlantic City many years ago before a Chicago concert. He was very pleasant and I'm so grateful he took time to chat with me. He is a tremendous musician and I'm so glad he got off the sinking boat that is Chicago!
  • Jakob from DenmarkGodspeed Mr. Champlin - loved your music since I was 10. Studio-owner today, and I'm still in awe.
  • Alex Zapadinsky from IsraelThanks for this great interview and a lot of memories, Mr. Bill Champlin. I love Your amazing talent and You're the one of biggest melodist of all Times!
  • Tip from Portland OregonBill. Thanks for sharing. You are an iron man! With the horrible circumstances you were faced with and yet you still played some shows (I saw a few of them), it is a great example of strength in how to carry on. Best of luck, you deserve it.
  • Chris from MarinThank you. Not one word about Terry Haggerty, however.
  • Jc Tubbs from Milwaukie, OregonI been following Mr. Bill since the first Sons record (still have the album). Great interview, I felt like I was physically there.
  • Dahonu from HawaiiBill, As always gives great interview with insight into so many different things. Great musician, great man
  • Matt from Huntsville, AlWhat a great read! I love how Bill just keeps it real, tells it like it is, and comes off as just a guy who does what he does as opposed to having the rock star air of self importance...
  • Jon from Easthampton, MaMost interviews such as this one--ones that contain multitudes--are books. Just fabulous.
  • Jim from GlasgowGood article - hope Mr Champlin keeps well.
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