I still wonder what might have been. After all, Blondie Chaplin’s early-1970s tenure marked a seismic change, both visually and musically for the Beach Boys — who saw their lineup integrated and their sound given a sharp new edge.
They’d been dabbling with R&B for a while, notably on tracks like the Carl Wilson-sung “Wild Honey,” but “Sail On Sailor” was something else entirely — a soulful, yearning groover — but yet rooted in the familiar Beach Boys sound, with the addition of signature backing harmonies.
The first time I heard it, when the song was re-released in 1975, I thought “Sail On Sailor” was another in what had lately become a string of hit 1974 collaborations for the Beach Boys — Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” with Carl Wilson and Bruce Johnston; and Chicago’s “Wishing You Were Here,” with Al Jardine, Carl and Dennis Wilson.
But who was this new singer?
Turns out Blondie Chaplin had joined the Beach Boys, in a roundabout way, after Dennis injured his hand and the band asked Ricky Fataar to sit in. Chaplin was earlier part of a South African R&B combo called the Flame with Fataar, whom Carl Wilson had signed to a deal with Brother Records, and soon Chaplin followed his drummer into the Beach Boys. Carl had produced the Flame’s lone U.S. studio effort, recording it in Brian Wilson’s home studio.
This was no glitzy new collaboration. This was, or at least it seemed, a whole new direction for the band, as Brian Wilson continued his on-again, mostly off-again relationship with his muse.
Only it didn’t turn out that way. By ’75, when this song first reached me via KEEL, Chaplin was out of the band, after an altercation with new manager Stephen Love, brother of Mike Love. Chaplin would go on to collaborate with the Band, Paul Butterfield, Gene Clark of Byrds fame, and the Rolling Stones — while the Beach Boys settled into a lengthy tenure as a throwback concert act.
This song says much about how the group’s elemental style could be stretched and reformed, and how it might have kept growing. While “Sail On Sailor” seemed to tell the story of Brian’s struggles, it must have connected on some level with the well-traveled Chaplin, too — since he adds one of his most committed vocal performances. You could argue, and I will here, that it was the last unqualified Beach Boys triumph until the surviving members of the group briefly reformed last year and constructed the closing suite to That’s Why God Made the Radio.
Co-written by Brian and Van Dyke Parks, with various re-writers including Jack Rieley, “Sail On Sailor” was meant to be the hit from 1973’s deeply underrated Holland. The rest of the album was recorded in a converted barn at Baambrugge, the Netherlands, save for a pair of songs including “Sail on Sailor” — which was finished later and tacked onto the project, after Warner Bros. rejected the album for the lack of a radio single.
Once again, it didn’t turn out that way. Originally released in 1973, “Sail on Sailor” would peak at No. 79. The 1975 re-release would only make a modest improvement on those numbers, going to No. 49.