photo by Bobby Gladd
“He’s known the world over as the soulful singer/keyboardist of the iconic jazz-pop band Chicago. His featured spots on the hits “Look Away” and “Hard Habit to Break” are among his mainstream highlights. But Bill Champlin’s defining work with the Sons of Champlin and as a songwriter put him on the musical map long before he arrived in Chicago. Bill and the Sons were blowing the doors off venues back in the ’70s - and they returned to doing the same in the late ’90s and into the present.”
-- Greg Rule, Keyboard Magazine
Bill Champlin was born in Oakland, California on May 21, 1947 to a musical family. His grandparents, mother and sisters have all been singers. Bill is married to Tamara Champlin, a singer/songwriter in her own right, and is the father of three children. His youngest, Will Champlin, is building a name for himself as a prolific songwriter with a distinct sound.
Champlin’s musical career began in 1961 when he formed a band called the Opposite Six. A year later he began writing music. After forming the Sons of Champlin in 1967 he focused his songwriting talents on producing material for the Sons. “They were breathing fire. They were the most talented of all the San Francisco bands”, said Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead. The Sons’ first album, “Loosen Up Naturally”, was released in 1969, followed by six more albums before they broke up in 1977. Many of these have been re-released as CD’s and are currently available for purchase.
After the breakup of the Sons, Bill moved to Los Angeles and worked as a session lead and background vocalist on numerous recordings from 1977-1985. Some of the artists that he has worked with include Patti LaBelle, Lou Rawls, Elton John, Boz Scaggs, Donna Summer, Nancy Wilson, George Benson, Jimmy Smith, Amy Grant, Neil Diamond and Kenny Rogers. In 1978 he released “Single”, his first solo album. In 1979 he won his first Grammy award for co-writing “After the Love is Gone”, which was later recorded by Earth, Wind & Fire. During the recent Chicago/EWF tours in 2004 and 2005, Champlin was asked to perform this song with them, as lead singer.
The National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) awarded Bill the Most Valuable Player peer award for male background vocalists in 1980. In 1981 he won another Grammy for co-writing Turn Your Love Around for George Benson, and released his second solo album that year, “Runaway”. In 1982 he joined Chicago to record Chicago 16. “Bill’s exactly what we’ve been looking for,” said Chicago’s Robert Lamm. His very distinctive and expressive vocals can be heard on Chicago's hit, "Hard Habit to Break".
In 1988 Bill’s recording of the song, “In the Heat of the Night”, was picked up as a show opener by the television show of the same name. The following year Chicago released the song of the year, “Look Away”, featuring Champlin on lead vocals. In 1990 Bill released the critically acclaimed “No Wasted Moments”. That same year he was asked to perform two songs from “No Wasted Moments” at the Tokyo Music Festival, and was presented with their songwriter of the year award.
Next came four solo albums, “Burn Down The Night” (1992), “Through It All” (1994), “He Started To Sing” (1995) and “Mayday” (1996). In July, 1997, “Here in my Heart” topped the adult contemporary charts for Chicago, featuring Champlin on lead vocals. 1997 also saw an a capella release of “West Coast All Stars”, a project he did with Jason Scheff of Chicago, and Toto’s Bobby Kimball and Joseph Williams.
The Sons of Champlin reunited in 1997, with a loyal group of enthusiastic fans traveling great distances to see them perform. They recorded “Live At The Luther Burbank Center” in 1998, as well as “Secret” (CD and DVD) and “Hip Lil' Dreams’ in 2002.
Bill’s newest release is the solo CD / DVD “No Place Left To Fall”. It was recorded at the Barber Shop Studios in Hopatcong, New Jersey for the DreamMakers Music label. It was first released by JVC Japan on September 24, 2008, as well as being release for digital downloading, and later released in Europe by Zink Music on December 10, 2008. The U.S. release by DreamMakers was on August 4, 2009.
With “No Place Left to Fall”, Bill Champlin has made the album he was born to make, a career-defining record with an honesty and immediacy that reflect his old-school approach to music – and his complete disregard for the old-model music industry.
“It’s not completely auto-tuned and processed like a lot of CDs are lately,” says Champlin. “It may not be dead-on perfect, but I think the dead-on perfect records are just that - dead.”
“No Place Left to Fall” captures the many sides of Champlin, thanks to Mark Eddinger and Dennis D’Amico at indie label DreamMakers Music who helped him sort through four CDs worth of material to find the 13 gems that best exemplified the range of his artistry. Rather than insist Champlin deliver a particular kind of album that would fit neatly within a genre bin of the now nearly extinct species we knew as record stores, they encouraged him to do it all – ballsy blues numbers, jazz, straight ahead rock ‘n’ roll, funk, R&B and achingly beautiful pop songs that don’t give a damn if they exceed three minutes. “I felt Bill deserved to make a record without having a set of rules,” says Eddinger.
“I went, ‘Wow, you mean somebody wants me to be myself? Dig that!’” says Champlin, who has time and again had to tell major label executives that no, he wasn’t interested in making an album that sounds like the latest flavor of the month. (Go to Champlin’s MySpace page and you’ll see only one artist listed after the obligatory “sounds like” section: Bill Champlin.)
“A lot of times somebody from a band puts out a solo album and you realize it’s just an extension of that band,” says Champlin, who hit the road in November in support of his new album. “That ain’t what this is. This album is an extension of what I do and where I’ve been coming from. Just wait ‘til you hear the live versions of these songs!”
Bill has also left Chicago. According to his official his press release, after 28 years with Chicago, singer-songwriter-keyboardist Bill Champlin is parting ways with the classic jazz/rock band to focus once again on his solo career. The announcement comes on the heels of the August 4th release of “No Place Left to Fall”. “This music is callin’ me,” said Champlin.
The two-time GRAMMY® award winner then launched a successful West Coast tour beginning in November of 2009, with the Bill Champlin Band promoting "No Place Left To Fall", followed by a Sons of Champlin tour in March, 2010. He was also invited to Norway earlier this year by the Norwegian Kringkastings Orchestra to perform with his wife, Tamara Champlin, in Oslo. More European dates are planned for the near future, along with additional Sons of Champlin dates in July 2010.
In the words of drummer, Billy Ward, “I became a Bill Champlin fan in the early seventies when he led, what was to me, a ground-breaking band, The Sons Of Champlin. He's written and sang on probably over 400 hit songs, the later ones with the band Chicago. His organ playing has him ranked on most peoples "A" list and he plays the heck out of the guitar as well! He is one of the finest musicians I've ever gotten the privilege to play with.” Dennis Cook, in Jambase and Relix Magazine adds, “Age has done nothing to diminish his powers, and in fact, brings nuances to the material that a young cat just can't muster.”