By Dennis Cook
That’s the reason one sticks it out in the tumultuous recording
industry for almost 40 years. It’s for the happy dream that appeared
long ago as a song. Since the late ‘60s, Bill Champlin has been
marrying clear-eyed soul with virtuosic rock in his fabled San Francisco
band, Sons of Champlin. At ground zero for the creative explosion that
produced the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and many others, the Sons
possessed the same hippie inquisitiveness but delivered with James Brown-like
tightness. Returning with their first studio album in 28 years, aptly
titled For Joy, Champlin enthuses, “I think we came off slammin’
like a dog!”
salty, straight shootin’ wit flows from a lifelong love of words.
“To me, the English language is a weapon of mass destruction,”
laughs Champlin. “Look at George Carlin. That guy wraps himself
around the English language as good as anybody you’ve ever seen.
He uses it like a jazz player uses a flat five. He can get you right there.
And Bob Dylan, listen to his first stuff if want to hear what a great
grasp of language can do. I figure that’s an artform in itself,
and it’s becoming a lost art form.”
A man of
strong opinions, Champlin also radiates compassion and a readiness to
pass you a funny cigarette in a way that reflects his roots in the freedom-drenched,
drug-rich Frisco scene.
got in early enough and got high early enough where it was really the
first feeling of community I ever had. And the whole community seemed
to be in one place at one time. We were all on the same page and then
everybody started picking up different books,” Champlin recalls.
“I was at the Be In [in Golden Gate Park in 1967]. I ate some brownies
or whatever. And I saw this really beautiful thing that was going on.
But it really didn’t last very long. It started slipping into doing
speed real quick. Coke was starting to show up. I was kind of speaking
to that, at least on the first Sons album. I was speaking to the community,
saying, “Didn’t we miss something that was here just a minute
the Sons on indefinite hiatus in the late ‘70s, Champlin joined
radio stalwarts Chicago. It’s been his day job ever since but the
music that originally inspired him wouldn’t leave his head. There’s
nothing exactly like the Sons’ skyward philosophizing delivered
with a snaky, horn-laden smack. It’s so smooth you don’t expect
to feel so uplifted afterwards.
“[Famous Bay Area music scribe] Joel Selvin nailed me one time.
He said, ‘Your shit’s a little preachy isn’t it?’
Well, my grandfather was a minister so I guess there might be a little
bit of that going on,” states Champlin. “I figure if you’re
going to say something are you going to say ‘raging child of the
darkness’? I’d rather have it up. I’ve talked to people
who’ve said, ‘Your songs changed my life.’ Not a lot
of people but a few. So, I have the point of view of, ‘If you’re
going to say something, make it nice.’”
the Sons of Champlin is like finding money in an old coat pocket when
you’re really broke. To know this band, to resist cynicism and believe
their message that time will bring you love, is to receive a gift—a
smile and the indescribable joy of music at its brightest. Bill puts it
more simply, “I like to say something but at the same time I like
it to cook like a motherfucker!”
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