By Dennis Cook
Some things just make the world glow more brightly. The air tastes sweeter, and your limbs lighten in their presence. Seeing the Sons of Champlin for the first time in early 2004 flipped that euphoric switch in my head. As the lock-tight horns pummeled my inhibitions, I started seeing new wavelengths in the rainbow. The words had a realist's positivism, uplifting despite the dreams already trampled in life's wake. The Sons play some of the most juicily vibrant soul rock these ears have ever encountered. And that joie de vivre stems directly from the group's leader, the acoustically blessed and wickedly uninhibited Bill Champlin. "That's one thing about me, I get going," says Champlin. "Keep me inside the white lines, or I'll do what I can do."
Sons of Champlin by Carol Karpowski
That inclination for a life without boundaries befits the founder of what many regard as one of the great '60s San Francisco bands, right up there in the pantheon with Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and Moby Grape. Where most of those acts rode the psychedelic lifestyle into the blues and country, the Sons took their cues from James Brown, Motown, and the rest of young Black America. With legendary guitarist Terry Haggerty and other funk-minded freaks, Champlin defied the sloppy looseness of his peers with exhilarating precision and polish.
"The Sons have always been kind of a crossover," comments Bill. "If you take the feeling, just the feeling of R&B, that's great. But then you have some guy going 'I'm clean. I'm super bad. I'm gonna throw it at you.' The lyrics are really kind of pedestrian stuff. There's something sort of cool in say an old Wilson Pickett song. I can dig that tradition, but a whole record of 'I'm a man and a half' I can do without. So, I was listening to Dylan, The Beatles, Leonard Cohen - a lot of cats that were saying something. I was going 'Whoa, why don't we do that on this?' My second wife played the first Sons album (1969's Loosen Up Naturally), and it was a year before she realized what was going on lyrically. She said, 'I got so caught up in the singing and the grooves that I missed it.' Sly did it with the Stand! album. He started saying something, but that was long after we started."
After a 28-year break from studio work, the Sons of Champlin released Hip Li'l Dreams in Fall of 2005. Bill had put the Sons on indefinite hiatus in the late '70s but found himself drawn to reform the band in the late '90s. His day job in long-touring radio staple Chicago was fine to a point, but that thing that first inspired him to make music was in the Sons. Hip Li'l Dreams, like a lot of Champlin's work, is radio-ready stuff that can come off a little slick on first pass, but if you dig into the lyrics and fully grok the fertile arrangements, the ballsy vocals and the sunshine mood they muster will warm your being.
Then there's the live animal, fully fur-lined and frisky as a convent escapee. Bill says, "It comes down to what kind of band you want to be. Do you want to be that band that tries to sound like their records or do you want to be the band that wants to do what you want to do? And I personally like to open that sucker up."
"With us, when we start noodling, especially with horn players, and get going, it turns into (Miles Davis') Bitches Brew real fast," Champlin remarks. "We get jazzy, and the audience that came to hear whatever they came to hear can stick with it because it stays within a rock kind of mode. I like to open up some blowin' space when I can, but we're not really a jam-based band. I like the cats to play. I like to be able to show guys off, but either tell me a story in a modal sense or let me arrange it into something."
Champlin's voice is a true classic, one of those gifts from God designed to get songs across in the way we need to hear them. Age has done nothing to diminish his powers, and in fact, brings nuances to the material that a young cat just can't muster.
"My mom was a singer. My sisters are singers. My grandparents were singers. My dad couldn't carry a tune in a bucket. I started getting into it when I was 13 or 14. All I wanted to be was a jazz piano player, but I realized they didn't get any pussy so I decided guitar was a good idea. And then I figured they got a little bit of pussy, but the singer got it all. So I figured, 'Let's go for that.' Hey, we're being real!"