October 31, 2018 Interview – Bill Champlin
Sometimes, in popular music, we neglect to acknowledge the songwriter and concentrate more on the performer. A sad reality, select music junkies have always been attracted to the liner notes of an album, and chances are many Rock fans back in the day would find the name Bill Champlin as one of the often credited songwriters. Winning Grammys for co-writing “After The Love Has Gone” (1980) and “Turn Your Love Around” (1983), Champlin has penned a list of songs for other artists, but still, has done so much more.
An important addition to Chicago in 1981, helping usher the band into a new decade of success, Champlin spent nearly three decades with the band, taking on lead vocals for their biggest-selling single ever, 1988’s “Look Away.” On top of all this, Champlin has maintained his solo career, his band Sons of Champlin, collaborated with others, and most recently released an EP – entitled 10 Miles – with Peter Friestedt and Toto’s Joseph Williams, along with the LP – Bleeding Secrets – with his band Wunderground.
Inspired, dedicated, and determined to continue his musical quest, the humble Champlin recently took the time to chat about his incredible journey, writing music for others, performing his own songs, plus much more.
CrypticRock.com – You have been involved in music your entire life, and professionally for around five decades. Performing, arranging, and producing, first tell us, what has your incredible journey been like?
Bill Champlin – Busy. (Laughs) Even when there is nothing coming in and knocking on my door, I make something happen. Maybe not going out working, but I will just go write something and start working on it. That is how we ended up doing this last album we put out.
CrypticRock.com – Busy is a very good way to describe it. You have written songs for others, produced, and you were an important part of Chicago for nearly three decades. When things were going well, what was it like being part of Chicago?
Bill Champlin – I really dug it a lot; there was something that seemed really cool about it. It was a really organic band with Peter Cetra, Danny Seraphine, and Chris Pinnick. It was really a fun thing to do. Peter left, we got Jason Scheff, and it was still fun. They really wanted to go back and be who they were on the first big splash they had. Apparently that is what they are doing, they are doing almost all the second album – if that is what makes them happy, they should be doing it.
CrypticRock.com – Beyond Chicago, you have done a lot. In 2018 alone, you released the 10 Miles EP with Toto’s Joseph Williams and Peter Friestedt, plus you released the Bleeding Secrets album with Wunderground.
Bill Champlin – It is funny we are talking now, because two years ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a lot of medical stuff to deal with – surgery, radiation, and chemo. Mostly during that period of time, me, Tamara, and Gary Falcone were writing a whole bunch of stuff. Rather than go on the road feeling like I did, we went to my workstation and worked on them a lot. Next thing you know we had an album worth of material that was really good. We got Alan Hertz to mix most of it and it ended up being a really good album.
CrypticRock.com – It did come out very well. Health wise, are you doing well now?
Bill Champlin – Yes, I am doing fine. I think we got on top of it! At least, my numbers are coming up good; that’s what counts more than anything else. I had a little over a year that was really ugly: I lost my older son to cancer the day after I was diagnosed. That was not a fun week. It was an ugly year! In some ways, I was so devastated by losing Brad that I got through the rest of stuff for my cancer without paying much attention to it. The doctors were a bit freaked out and told me, “Whoa, you have some high numbers here.” Don’t second guess your doctors, it’s not a good idea!
CrypticRock.com – Wow! Going through so much personally, would you say music helped you through it all?
Bill Champlin – Absolutely! It probably saved my ass in some ways. There is nothing in the world like playing the music back. “Yeah! That’s working!” – it just makes you happy. I have worked in studio off and on for years and years, I usually prefer the sessions you go into where everyone is smiling and digging listening to the playback, instead of looking up at the speakers saying, “Ah, we need a hit.” You don’t get hits that way! The best records are made by a few good people having fun.
CrypticRock.com – Right, you need to enjoy what you are doing.
Bill Champlin – Exactly. That is what goes to tape first, I call it tape. What goes there first is who you are and how you feel. Second is time, intonation, and all the stuff we went to school for. What you are really selling is how you are feeling. If someone is fooling with it too much in something like Pro Tools, then you are ending up with, I guess you can call it sexless music – there is no feel to it and it doesn’t touch anybody.
CrypticRock.com – Absolutely! You can make it as perfect technically as possible, but if there is no feeling, you have nothing. Bleeding Secrets is out now and deserves more attention. Also, tell us a little about the 10 Miles EP with Joseph Williams and Peter Friestedt.
Bill Champlin – I have consistently worked with Peter Friestedt on different material. We are really good friends and I have been working on some of his records for years. The last record we put out a few years ago, we just said, “Let’s call it CWF – which is Champlin, Williams, and Friestedt.” Then Joseph got real busy, on 10 Miles he is on a lot of the record. There is also some other stuff on the record where we got Tamara into the ballgame. Joe is just busier than a bee at this point in the game; Toto is just a non-stop burn. He is going to be on the final album. Peter comes over to the States from Sweden, we work at my place. We get a lot of vocals done, he brings it home, and mixes it there; next thing you know he has enough material for an EP. I think the last thing he put out, I think maybe, more than anything else, was to have something to sell at the live gigs we did.
CrypticRock.com – Well, they are both worthy listens. You have worked with your wife Tamara a lot. What is like working with your wife in a creative way like that?
Bill Champlin – She is one of the best writers I have ever worked with. She has a thing about lyrics that are really good, who else would come up with a phrase like Bleeding Secrets? I would never think of that! That is something she came up with. She came up with the phrase “Falling is the only way down.” She is just such a great songwriter, then you get her on a microphone, she sings her brains out.
While I was with Chicago, I didn’t see her very much since I was always on the road. When I was not in Chicago I said, “I’m working with Tamara from here on in on as many things as I can possibly get her on.” When she sings, the audience just says, “Whoa, what’s this about.” She sings with some power. Tamara hits the microphone and it just starts melting; she is a great singer. I can get her to do backgrounds, I can do backgrounds for her. She has had some pretty good people covering her songs: Paul Rodgers covered one of her tunes a few years back. It’s very cool to work with her. She sings with Sons of Champlin, she sings with the Rockstars stuff I do, she sings on a lot of things I do. It’s very cool.
CrypticRock.com – Tamara is really a strong singer, you do stop in your tracks when she sings live. Speaking of live performances, you did a wonderful tour with Ambrosia in 2017. Is that something you would do again?
Bill Champlin – Absolutely! When we play gigs with Wunderground, we are using Burleigh Drummond and Mary Harris from Ambrosia in our band. Burleigh played on almost half of Bleeding Secrets. Mary is an amazingly cool piano player and singer. We also use Bill Bodine on bass – he has been around forever. He actually arranged some songs on Bleeding Secrets, because he plays trumpet and bass. It’s a screaming band. Ambrosia gets really busy and sometimes they will throw me and Tamara on a gig and we have a ball. They are a very cool band!
CrypticRock.com – Very cool! With Wunderground, have you thought of taking it on tour to the East Coast?
Bill Champlin – We have thought of a lot of things, but a lot of the promoters don’t even get who we are. A lot of the promoters are looking for who is on the Top 10 right now. With Sons of Champlin, we used to play The Roxy once a month and pack it every gig for a couple of years. Whoever is booking them now have no idea that we did that kind of business in their room; they have either forgotten or weren’t even born when we did it. (Laughs)
CrypticRock.com – It is unfortunate that music is not appreciated the way it is used to be.
Bill Champlin – Well there are a lot of times they would rather have a young band come in and draw 200 people than have an old band come in and draw 1,100 people. Why? I don’t know. At this point, Sons of Champlin are pretty well-known in the Bay Area, but I don’t even bother with San Francisco – there is no place to play.
CrypticRock.com – It is great to see you out playing shows and have this new music out. As mentioned, you have done so much as a writer and performer. How would you compare writing songs for other people opposed to performing your own songs yourself?
Bill Champlin – There is a great story. David Foster, Jay Graydon, and I were the same guys who wrote “After the Love is Gone.” At one point, we got together to write a song for Stacy Lattisaw and a singer named Junior Tucker out of Jamaica. I wrote the lyrics kind of high schooly, he came up to sing it, and his voice was just changing. It wasn’t working; what can you say, when your body is time for that change, boom, here it comes.
Then, I got a call from Jay who told me Clive Davis just called, he wants our song for Dionne Warwick and Johnny Mathis. I said, “Well, the high school lyrics aren’t going to work.” So I rewrote it and it ended up being a song called “Friends in Love.” It ended up on both their records and it was a Top 10 song. It was originally for people that could have been their grandchildren. (Laughs)
You have a tendency to write for the artist. In that case, I was writing for teenagers, then middle age great singers. Dionne Warwick, please, that woman can do time, news, and weather and make it work out. Johnny is the same kind of thing; they are good singers. It was really kind of cool to do that. For George Benson, we did “Turn Your Love Around.” I sang the demo on it and Jay said, “George sing it your own way.” He said, “Whatever Bill did sounds good to me.” He didn’t copy, but he sang the melody the way I put it on the demo. That ended up being a Grammy Award-winning R&B song.
For “After the Love is Gone,” when I was working with Earth, Wind, and Fire, they were still doing backgrounds for the song that was supposed to be on my album. Maurice heard it and said, “If you guys agree to not release, we’ll put it on our record.” He wanted 2 or 3 other songs from my first album – I should have given them to him. (Laughs) I’ve been kicking myself with that move for a long time! The song is usually the way it is, but sometimes you try the best you can to customize for whoever you know is going to be singing it. At least in their key, that’s a good start. (Laughs)
CrypticRock.com – (Laughs) Right, that is a good start. You have written in various genres from Rock to R&B. You clearly have a diverse influence in music.
Bill Champlin – Yeah. When I moved from the San Francisco area down to Los Angeles it was 1977. I started doing a lot of vocal dates around town, ‘Oooh’s and Ahhh’s’ is what used to call it. I was doing background vocals on a lot of things, and all of sudden, we needed something that sounded like the Eagles. Well, I didn’t particularly dig the Eagles all that much when I lived up north, so I had to find something I liked about it. Then I realized it is just great ensemble singers; when they sang together it sounded insanely great. So I found something I liked about that.
I have done backgrounds for Nancy Wilson, not the girl from Heart, but the original Jazz singer. I have done Jazz dates. I have done stuff with Al Jarreau, he was a wonderful singer, really a creative guy. He was a kick and I miss him a lot. Going from Jarreau to Elton John was a big jump. A lot of what I did when I first moved to L.A., just to make the rent, I just started taking dates. It was at the time there was a lot of vocal dates going around. I was a pretty good arranger and becoming a better arranger by the day, because I worked so much.
CrypticRock.com – It is very interesting hearing about the roads you have taken through the years leading you to where you are today. Through it all you are still very passionate about music.
Bill Champlin – Anytime I get in a situation where there is vocals going on, they usually say, “there’s the pretty obvious session leader, lets this guy arrange this thing!” That stopped happening at some point in the game. That is when records started to get thinner and thinner, started going in the over Pop direction. When I came to L.A. in 1977, it was sort of the beginning of what was later referred to as West Coast music; which was a little more educated than what was already out there, not a lot, but a little. That is when David Foster, David Paich, Randy Kerber, Robbie Buchanan, people like that kind of came into the ballgame and really used great keyboard/guitar players. Suddenly you had to be a little more a musician to get on these records than you did in the 4 or 5 years before.
I was really close with David Foster at the time, as I was with Jay Graydon, as they were still doing dates. When I first moved to town, these guys would say to the producer, “Hey! When it comes time to do background vocals, what you need is Bill Champlin.” They kind of got me my first dates, and the work I did on the first dates got me my second dates, etc. Next thing you know, I was working all the time. I got Bobby Kimball involved in doing backgrounds. I actually got Michael MacDonald for a while, because Doobie Brothers were taking a long break. I said to Michael, “Do you want to do some ‘Oooh’s and Ahhh’s dates?” He said, “Sure, let’s go!”
That kept me going and gave me a situation where I learned on the job how to arrange and put vocals together. I brought that to Chicago, I think that was one of the things that was good about what I brought to the band. Between me and David Foster, especially, we got the vocals to where they were really hitting pretty hard. I can’t tell anyone how to play the bass or drums, but I can definitely go in there and arrange the vocals.
CrypticRock.com – And you have done a fantastic job over the years doing so. Last question is pertaining to films. On CrypticRock, we cover Horror and Sci-Fi films beyond music. If you are a fan of either genre, do you have any favorites?
Bill Champlin – Well, The Shining (1980) is as good as it gets. I thought Stanley Kubrick did an awesome job on that. I read the book and it’s one of my least favorite Stephen King novels, but boy, did they make it talk. Of course, Jack Nicholson was really in his wheelhouse at that point in the game. That’s just my own take on it.
I don’t really like Horror films very much: they scare me too much. I just don’t want to feel like that. You are probably talking to the biggest Mel Brooks fan there is. I don’t watch Mel Brooks’ movies, I learn them. (Laughs) I probably know every line in Blazing Saddles (1974), it is just insanely funny. I just found myself watching Young Frankenstein (1974) recently for the nine-thousandth time. (Laughs)
11/7/2018 Lobero Theatre Santa Barbara, CA *
11/15/2018 Bogie’s Westlake Village, CA 91361 **
11/16/2018 The Canyon Club, Agoura Hills, CA ***
12/1/2018 The Canyon Santa Clarita, Santa Clarita, CA ***
1/9/2019 Belly Up SOLANA BEACH, CA **
2/10 to 2/15/2019 On The Blue Cruise
* w/ Michael McDonald
** w/ Wunderground
*** w/ Dan Seraphine’s CTA
For more on Bill Champlin: billchamplin.com | Facebook | Twitter
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