Sons of Champlin
By Dennis Cook

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For joy. 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!”

Champlin’s 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.

“I 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 ago?’”

After putting 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.’”

Discovering 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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