On this special edition of Something Else! Reviews’ One Track Mind, we hand the reins over former Chicago singer and keyboardist Bill Champlin. He talks about Grammy-winning tracks “Turn Your Love Around” and “After the Love Has Gone,” his contributions to Chicago, working with Toto, and how lounge-singer Robert Goulet almost got one of his gigs.
“HARD HABIT TO BREAK,” with Chicago (CHICAGO 17, 1984): A No. 3 hit off of Chicago’s most popular album, as 17 went seven-times platinum in the U.S. and earned a Grammy. “Hard Habit,” the album’s second single, was the first to prominently feature Champlin’s distinctive R&B-soaked vocals alongside Peter Cetera, who departed for a solo career after this album.
Champlin: David Foster and I joined just as Cetera came into his own. What I added was some underground stuff, something a little more dangerous. I sang a bunch of B sections on 17. Humberto (Gatica, Foster’s longtime engineer) asked me to do them, and I got one pass each. But I’ve been signing for my supper for a long time; I know what I am doing. So, it was pretty simple. Now that wasn’t necessarily what was called for at the end. What they wanted by then was a good Xerox copy of everything else Chicago had done. It’s like you were always saying: ‘Wow, we really had something back in the day.’ But why copy? Remember what you felt like, and keep going.
“TURN YOUR LOVE AROUND,” solo (THROUGH IT ALL, 1994): One of Champlin’s most notable pre-Chicago compositions, from a period when he was an in-demand sessions ace. Guitarist George Benson’s version of this song reached No. 1 on the soul charts, No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was Top 10 on the jazz charts, as well. Written with Jay Graydon and Toto’s Steve Lukather to help fill out Benson’s 1982 greatest-hits package, it would win a Grammy for best R&B song.
Champlin: A lot of what I was probably best known for back then was doing sessions. I ended up doing background vocals for a million artists. I was on all of Elton John’s records, including “Little Jeannie” (a No. 3 hit in 1980), Donna Summer, sh–tloads of stuff. I sort of fell into a thing where I knew everybody in the business — David Foster, Jay Graydon, all of the Toto guys. Pretty soon, whenever somebody was tracking something, I had a pretty good shot at getting the call. But I was writing songs the whole time, things that weren’t necessarily big hits — things that I’d much rather be known for. But because of my involvement on the commercial side, and my becoming somewhat of a session guy, it diminished me as an artist in the minds of some people.
“SHE’S A BEAUTY,” with the Tubes (OUTSIDE INSIDE, 1983): The Tubes’ biggest hit (No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100) ended up as another intersection between Champlin and Toto. He and original lead singer Bobby Kimball were featured on background vocals; Steve Lukather co-wrote the tune. Champlin’s 1978 solo debut Single had featured the entire band. “Turn Your Love Around,” another Lukather collaboration, also included drum programming from Toto’s Jeff Porcaro. Champlin has continued to work with Lukather over the years, from the title track to Champlin’s second solo album to his most recent project, 2008′s No Place Left To Fall.
Champlin: The chorus on “She’s a Beauty” was almost all Bobby. In order to keep peace in the family, they had (Tubes guitarist) Bill Spooner redo the bottom parts. I did all the inside stuff — “step inside your mind.” I was actually the ringer for two Tubes albums. As for Toto, a lot of people say my first solo record was actually the first Toto album. There were four songs with Jeff, (bassist David) Hungate, (keyboardist David) Paich and Steve Lukather. They did half of my first solo album. Ray Parker Jr.’s band did the other half, the more R&B songs. They were awesome, too. Ray Parker’s skank guitar playing is as good as it gets.
“IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT,” solo (THROUGH IT ALL, 1994): It was almost by chance that Champlin ended up performing the bluesy theme for this television series based on the motion picture and novel of the same name. During a break from Chicago, Champlin heard about open vocal auditions to sing the song, and figured he could make $150 for a quick half hour of work. Starring Carroll O’Connor (of “All in the Family” fame), the series — and his theme — eventually aired on NBC and then CBS from 1988-95. Though he still receives residual checks from reruns, Champlin said he doesn’t have any plans for a blues-focused project.
Champlin: That was my first big blues record, and it was a TV theme! They gave me 150 bucks for an audition, and in a way it’s one of my biggest hits. But I have an eclectic following, so it’s better to mix it up. If I were to do nothing but blues, I might lose them, and I could have a hard time finding a new audience who’s just interested in blues music. The guys at the record company said that, and they had a point. Why try to go after an audience that you don’t have — and alienate the audience that you do have? So, we do a mish mash of all different kinds of music, including stuff like that, the bluesy, swampy stuff. There’s a funny story about the song: During the fifth year of the show, Carroll O’Connor called the producer and said: ‘I want to get rid of the black guy singing the theme. (Laughs.) I’m really good friends with Robert Goulet.’ (Laughs uproariously.) Me or Robert Goulet? That’s the story of my life.
“AFTER THE LOVE IS GONE,” Earth Wind and Fire (I AM, 1979): A million-selling hit for Earth Wind and Fire, this tune — co-written with David Foster and Jay Graydon — shot to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in 1979. “After the Love” was Grammy nominated for record of the year, and claimed the award for best R&B group performance. Jarringly, singer Brian McKnight was the featured vocalist when this track was performed on the recent PBS special “Hitman: David Foster and Friends.”
Champlin: Brian McKnight is better known, I guess. Foster has always equated me with Chicago, and they hate him now. But I wrote the lyrics, whether he gives me any credit or not. He didn’t even mention my name! Fourteen Grammys, and he’s going to take my one or two away from me? David is a strange duck. He’s started hanging out with rich people. But you can’t take anything away from what he’s done. He brought Chicago back to life.