FAIRFIELD — Renowned R&B/rock band The Sons of Champlin began its musical journey in the mid-1960s and while commercial success eluded them, they enjoyed a cult following that remains to this day.
The band’s namesake, singer/keyboardist/guitarist and Grammy-winning songwriter Bill Champlin later went on to success with the group Chicago. He recently answered some questions via telephone in advance of his band’s Dec. 7 gig in Napa.
Why the name Sons of Champlin?
I was married really early on and had a kid so the other guys made fun of me as “Father Champlin” and the name stuck. If I’d known it would follow us around the rest of our lives, I would’ve probably called us something different, but what the heck?
The Sons were pioneers of that rock band with the funky horns sound, correct?
We started out as a pop band. Tim Cain was one of the guys who started the band with me in 1965 and he is one of the most awesome tenor sax players I’ve ever heard. We lost a trumpet player before our first album and made up for it with the saxes, which made for a neat sound. I think the minute you put the trumpets in, you start losing the Hammond (B-3 organ) and that was always a real centerpiece of our band.
You guys played everywhere back in the day – I found a newspaper column from 1973 where you played in Fairfield to help save the Armijo Auditorium. Sadly, it was torn down.
Well, we tried! (laughs) Pepsi and Bay Area radio station KFRC used to sponsor Battle of the Bands and we would judge them and play a set and we went to nearly every high school in the Bay Area. To this day, I still get people who say, “You came to my high school when I was a kid!”
Was it hard joining an established band like Chicago?
Actually, I joined them when they were on one of their lower ebbs. I hung with them for a good long time and sang some big hits for them. “Hard Habit to Break” was me and Peter (Cetera) singing and later on I sang “Look Away,” “I Don’t Wanna Live Without Your Love” and others.
As a songwriter, do you write songs with others in mind?
“After the Love is Gone” I wrote for me, but Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire heard it and they took it off my album and put it on theirs. He really wanted two or three other songs from my album and I didn’t give them to him. I have been kicking myself for that decision for quite a few years. My solo album didn’t do that well, but their “I AM” album just passed 9 million sales a while back. We built “Turn Your Love Around,” which was a Grammy winner, around George Benson’s singing.
Sons fans love the band, but you are not household names.
We connected with a lot of people, but somebody asked me why our career was so spotty. I said it’s because when opportunity knocked, we answered the phone! (laughs) We missed our opportunities and it’s our own damn fault, I guess. Still, when you mention the Sons and someone says, “They’re great!” that is success.
What are your career goals now?
At this point in the game, unless it’s a good room and it looks like we can really have fun and get along with the promoters, we’re not going to play it. The last time we played it was a private party and I think there are still some notes and chords floating around that room. It was like playing the Houston Astrodome. I’ve never been to the Uptown but I’ve heard it is beautiful and the sound is impeccable. I am really looking forward to playing with this configuration of the Sons in a really nice venue.
We’ve got Tim Cain back in the band and it’s like having a cool breeze swing through the house on a hot day. I hadn’t worked with him in 35 years and we got together and it was like we had been working together all along. Any true Sons fan when they hear Tim Cain is back will say, “Whoa! I have to check this out!”
Reach Fairfield writer Tony Wade at [email protected]