Bill Champlin, who co-founded the legendary Bay Area band the Sons of Champlin, is perhaps best known for his nearly three decades as a member of Chicago. But he had already collected a pair of Grammy awards before joining Chicago, first for “After the Love Is Gone” (a hit for Earth, Wind and Fire) and then for “Turn Your Love Around” (George Benson).
Chicago, meanwhile, was a shadow of the brassy group that had once reeled off a string of 12 platinum and multi-platinum albums. The 1978 death of original guitarist Terry Kath had thrown Chicago into a tailspin that it didn’t pull out of commercially until Champlin helped bring in producer David Foster prior to the release of Chicago 16. Champlin would eventually become the face of the band, singing lead on three of the four hit singles from Chicago 19. That included the chart-topping “Look Away,” which ranked No. 1 on Billboard’s 1989 year-end Hot 100.
By 2008, however, Champlin and the group seemed to be going in opposite directions. He was at work on a new solo album, even as Chicago trudged on — having released just three albums of original material during the previous 20 years. Champlin had been reduced to a single feature spot during recent tour stops. Chicago, still on the road, announced Champlin’s sudden departure as he celebrated 2008’s well-received No Place Left To Fall.
Champlin, in the latest SER Sitdown, makes it clear that he didn’t quit. “I was fired two days after the American release of my album,” he told us. “It made me look like an asshole that I would walk away in the middle of the tour. I had no idea that would happen, though I should have seen it coming. It was a lot of things.”
Champlin, who just turned 64, went on to discuss fond memories from his tenure, making an emotional argument for the work Foster did in reviving the Chicago franchise, as well as key early influences and his new plans to form a family band:
Nick DeRiso: You won a 1979 Grammy for best R&B song for co-writing the hit “After the Love is Gone,” with Jay Graydon and David Foster, later made popular by Earth, Wind and Fire. Within a couple of years, you and Foster were both working with Chicago.
Bill Champlin: A lot of people thought he brought me into Chicago, but it was other way around. I told the band: ‘You’ve got to be ready to throw every song you have away. It’s got to be good songs, or he’s not involved.’ That’s when things started to change; that’s when they started to hate him. But Foster really put some life back in that band. Everything he touches is awesome. I don’t hang with him very much, but that guy’s a bad boy — one of the best piano players on the planet.
DeRiso: David Foster’s involvement signaled a dramatic change in the sound and feel for the band, away from experimental jazz-rock and into more mainstream pop. I get the feeling that you’re proud of what you guys put out during that period, despite the way it’s been critically reviled.
Champlin: Look, the blend of vocals, mostly on 16, was f–king awesome. We sounded great together. And the combination of all of that, on 16 and 17, it just took off. Of course, pretty soon (original singer/bassist Peter) Cetera started getting all of the attention. When it got person-oriented, he said they fired him, too. When you get around really big bands, you see that insecurity runs the whole thing. They were riding on our coattails — Cetera, David Foster, me. As far as they are concerned, I didn’t have anything to do with it, but I’ll stand up for our five Top 10 hits.
DeRiso: In 1997, you revived Sons of Champlin, your old high school band. Later, the economic downturn slowed things up. Are you ready to tour again?
Champlin: I’m bailing on the Sons. It just doesn’t work anymore. We’re looking at doing a family band, with me and (wife) Tamara and (son) Will. We’re just going to call it Champlin. I’ll probably play a few of the tunes that I am more known for, some Chicago stuff, some stuff from the Sons. We’ve already gone to Japan and Iraq; we just got back from playing for the troops. Next, we’re going to do some stuff with Max Weinberg (of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band).
DeRiso: You’re a Bay Area guy, but it seems you came more out of the James Brown or Sly and the Family Stone groove rather than the local folk-based hippie vibe of the Airplane and the Dead. How’d you get there?
Champlin: I saw James Brown for the first time when I was a sophomore in high school, and that was the end of that. We started coming from an R&B place. We threw jazz into the ball game. Then we started listening to the Beatles and Bob Dylan, and we tried to write lyrics that said more. Next, Sly Stone came up, and he was doing all of that, too. He was so good, they just took off. When the Stand album came out, it was a monstrous hit. It changed everything.
[ONE TRACK MIND: Bill Champlin discusses five key tracks from across his Grammy-winning career, including Chicago's "Hard to Say I'm Sorry," Earth Wind and Fire's "After the Love is Gone" and his bluesy theme song for TV's "In the Heat of the Night."]
DeRiso: I remember hearing that Will called the Bill Champlin sound “steely swamp” — a combination of rootsy R&B and Steely Dan. That seems fitting.
Champlin: I think he got it pretty much right, though Steely Dan got to a point where they took it too far. Look, when it comes to (pianist Dave) Brubeck, I love that too, but then it got to where you could hear the jazz influences more than I particularly like. There’s something about an R&B feel, though. I love that kind of music.
DeRiso: That leads me to “Blues in the Night,” a showcase for your gritty vocal style on Chicago’s Night and Day: Big Band from 1995. As good as it is, loose and R&B soaked, it almost doesn’t fit.
Champlin: I almost got fired for doing that. (Laughs.) When I first heard about the big-band project, I thought we could do some Count Basie stuff, some Thad Lewis. No, they were talking mostly Henry James and Glenn Miller. I said, ‘Oh, Jesus, go to the whitest thing you could find!’ I went after what I could, tried to find something that felt a little deeper. It’s kind of an homage to Little Milton, if you listen to it. He tore the sh–t out of that song. When it came down to the blues, he was a great guitar player — but also a serious singer.
DeRiso: “Look Away,” featuring a Diane Warren lyric and none of Chicago’s signature horns, would become the band’s third, and last, No. 1 hit, but has since been derided for being so disconnected from the band’s classic sound. What’s your take?
Champlin: Those moments were way, way earlier with Chicago. Some of the guys in the band don’t want to cop to it that David Foster was ever involved. They think people are coming for “Saturday in the Park,” but that wasn’t what we were by then. “Look Away” got them a hit when they needed one. It was a giant Diane Warren song — not my favorite song, but there’s nothing wrong with it. It put the band back on the map. I sang them back onto the charts.
DeRiso: Ultimately, Chicago has evolved into a band that seems to be endlessly touring, rather than redrawing their own legacy through new songs. Clearly, after recording four solo records in the 1990s, you were itching to do more creatively.
Champlin: They were only using one or two new songs here and there, and mostly re-releasing older stuff. When I got in, I felt there was a striving for excellence. I tried to remind them, you know, isn’t this what it’s supposed to be about? So, they fired me. I don’t blame them, in a lot of ways. I was swimming upstream.