By Anette Hebel. Translated by Kenneth Bremer.
This interview was published in the danish magazine “Westcoast” from their first edition back in 1997. “Westcoast” was the members magazine for Danish Friends of West Coast music, an organization started by Jan Hoegh and some friends, that did a lot of work to promote west coast music in Scandinavia, and still does.
Anette Hebel: Even if it is more than a year that I meet Bill Champlin for the first time I will never forget it. I were going to interview his at Hotel Scandinavia Radisson in Copenhagen and I sad in the lobby an was waiting until it was my turn. I was sitting and wondering about who this dark voice from Chicago actually is and how he looked. I must say that he did reach my expectations. A nice dressed, at that time 48 years old in jeans and a dark shirt. A gentleman, who let me enter the elevator first. He had a dark voice, just like taking out of a cigaret commercial. Only on one thing Bill Champlin were different from my own expactations. He didn´t had that so many nice things to said about the american record industry and the music business in general overthere. The 15-20 minutes I had expected the interview would be and then back to my radiostation became a 45 minute interview and was difficult to cut down to a radio interview, so here is the long version, that also has been updated with a follow up talk with Bill on the phone..
– The Career
He started with the first piano lessons as 3 years old. His mother were a piano player and encourage the young Bill to play. But it was to boring, so he quit that when he became 6 years old. As 9 year he began to play guitar and were caught by the rock´n´roll and as a teenager he was already a pro musician. He wrote his first songs when he was 14 and in highschool he played in a group called “The Opposite Six”, that played James Brown material. The record career started with the band “Sons Of Champlin” – a group that were gathered with people that has some kind of minor diseases. Most musicians had to go to the Vietnam war tells Bill Champlin, so we had to take what we could get. “Sons Of Champlin” did excist from 1965 to 1977 and ended with 7 albums releases. A great news is that the group with get together again and play a couple of reunion concert in California in april this year.
In 1977 Bill Champlin moved to Los Angeles to begin a solo career. The rumour about this mans incredible voice had already hit Los Angeles before he came, so from day 1 he was asked to participate on a lot of other artists albums. Until know it has been more than 300 projects as studio musician, mainly as vocalist. 300 albums is many, but there are some that he remembers better than others. Bill mentions the albums that he has done with Elton John, Boz Scaggs, George Benson, Al Jarreau and the teamwork with David Foster. In 1981 he got an offer that was difficult to say no to. He got the offer to join the american super group Chicago.
This would also means that he couldn´t get the time to participate on every recording session with other artists. If you aren´t at home when they call you to hear if you would sing on their album, they just call another. But i didn´t worry about this, I took this offer because I loved to tour and I was also tired about all these constant studio session.
About the time in Chicago: When I joined the group, they were in a kind of a period of stagnation. Terry Kath their guitarist died in 1978 when he played russian roulette. This really marked the band and at the same time they didn´t have a hit for a long time, and their conditions with CBS wasn´t the best. Before I joined Chicago I proposed them to get David Foster in as producer, and when Foster and the leadsinger Peter Cetera began to write material together some magic began. In short time Chicago got a new record label, new producer, new manager, and me as the second vocalist. Boom – “Hard To Say I´m Sorry” from the album Chicago 16 went number one in US, and I was a part of it, says Bill Champlin.
When Peter Cetera, who many indicate as the “Chicago Voice” left the band after the Chicago 17 album they decided to let Jason Scheff be the new lead vocalist and bassplayer. He was the new frontman in Chicago. This didn´t work out great. First of all it was a big pressure on Jason Scheff, who had both the charisma and voice of Peter Cetera to stand up to. On the Chicago 19 album the group decided to use the producer Ron Nevison, and he wanted to get Bill Champlin more in the front of the group.
I know Bill´s voice and I believe that this will work. What about putting his voice on one of the singles asked Ron the group. They did it, and it went well. 4 songs from Chicago 19 went in top 10 in US in 88 & 89. 3 of these songs with Bill as leadvocal.
– Bill Champlin Solo
Sideways with the career in Chicago there is time to work on his solo albums and studioworks for other artists. When I meet him a year ago, he has just released “He Started To Sing”, his 6th solo album and the 3rd album in 3 years. Even if Bill never has had a solo hit he continues, because he has so much music in his heart, and he does it in a country were the record labels says that there is no market for west coast music. When I asked Bill if west coast music is called the same in US, he answered: No, but I know what you mean. Here we call it “Quasi Steely Dan”, because it all started with Steely Dan.
I rather not call myself a west coast music artist, it´s like tighting yourself to a sinking ship says Champlin. I US people look down on this musicstyle because it is played by well educated musicians. You don´t get a record deal if you can your stuff. The record industry i USA is just rolling after this: Don´t challenge the listener, don´t play to good and don´t sing to good also. This you can blame on todays school system. In the last 15-20 years children hasn´t been having music lessons in school because it is to expensive. When I went to school we had to have music. It´s not like this today. The children learns how to read, write and check their accounts. If they can that when they graduate from school, everybody is happy.
– Fancy lawyers
Now it is the turn to the american record industry. The record business try to have a common denominator when they release music. I have heard many people from the labels saying about west coast music: You can´t make an album like this, because nobody will understand it! With this they actually says that people that are listening to west coast music are stupid, I know that there are people out there that wan´t to be challenge. 3 years ago I went to a Steely Dan concert together with 25.000 other people. All Steely Dan concerts were sold out this summer, and it were venues with space for 25.000 people everywhere. This tells me that the west coast music style is not dead and gone, even if the record labels tells so.
The record industry is controlled by fancy lawyers with just one gold to get money in their banks. Nobody wants to release quality music. They only thinks how it will look at MTV and which radio format is the best to fit in. I haven´t been playing the last 3 albums that I have made to people that are working for a label. Once I asked a guy at CBS to listen to one of my albums. He just said: Bill Champlin – oh yes, you from Chicago, I know how you sounds. He didn´t even bothered to listen to my album.
It like you have to be different, do some fancy thing, you cannot just be yourself in US today. Even the hard odds Bill Champlin still continues to do the music he does and also release the albums he likes.
– Albums as 80 years old
I am not focused on hits, it doesn´t matter for me. First of all, I wanna be in tune – second of all, I wanna be in time. I feel that I have something to say and thats why I continue to make my own albums. Around the world many things are happening that you cannot turn your blind eye to. As a songwriter I feel that I have a responsibility to tell about these things like Bob Dylan an others are doing. When you have listeners, you have to try to open peoples eyes and tell them what are happening around them. But not like preaching, I don´t expect my songs to change the world, but I have to write them, if not for others, then for myself. When I ask him if he would make albums as an 80 years old, he laughts. You know, sometime I think: Now I quit, I don´t wanna be a part of it, There is to much bullshit in this business. But, I would probably just stay away for a couple of years and then have to return. So I would certantly make music when I am 80 years old, maybe not albums, but music for sure.
– 1996 – A turbulent year
Anette Hebel: A year has went and a week ago I called Bill Champlin at his home in Los Angeles to check out what has happent since our talk in Copenhagen. Bill Champlin picks up the phone an says hello. Right now I can´t imagine if he is sitting in a big or small house, but the fact is that he has his own studio at home, and he takes the time to talk with me, before he has to leave to work on his next project. I doesn´t feel like he is in any hurry. I must be great to work like he does.
But it hasn´t been an easy year for Bill Champlin, there has been a lot of subversive things going on. Bill Champlin has sacked his management “Air Tight Management” and also fired his label “Turnip Music Group” og has started his own label Champlin Records and beside all that he is working on a new acapella project that will make all west coast freaks happy. Bill says about the break with Air Tight Management and the manager Jack Forchette: We didn´t get anywhere and Jack was to involved with Turnip. I asked him to try to sell “He Started To Sing” to a bigger label. He did talk with many of the bigger labels, but instead of selling his artists, he tried to sell Turnip to them. So for me as an artists it didn´t work out.
– Champlin Records
So that´s why I made my own label says Bill. If it is going to be a little label, I better control it myself. It is actually the best for me right now. I could need a good manager and a great label, but I feel that this is the right thing to do at this time. I have just released a new album called “Mayday”. It is an live album recorded at a club in Hollywood. I ask him if Champlin Records will release other artists. Bill says: No, I have released Tamara´s album “You Won´t Get To Heaven Alive”, but we are looking for a real record deal for her. But it will probably be difficult, as I have told you earlier about the record business in US. They make albums with people with looks, and not about their music. So it is not the plan that Champlin Records shall be releasing other artist, but on the other side, you newer know.
– West Coast All Stars
Our talks is now about the next Bill Champlin project. Actually when our talk is over, Bill will go to another part of his house to continue his work on it. There is not many instruments on this album since it is four vocals there is the instruments. Bill Champlin is recording a acapella album together with Jason Scheff (Chicago), Joseph Williams (Toto) & Bobby Kimball (Toto). Bill tells about the project that will be named “West Coast All Stars”. Joey Carbone will produce the album. Joey co-produced my album “No Wasted Moments” and is also one of my old friends. He has a lot of got contacts in Japan, he knows everybody overthere. One day he was sitting and thinking that he would like to gathered these four people an do a acapella album. This was heard by a japanese label manager and he bought the project right away. If I knew how much work there was in this project, I should have asked for some more money (Champlin laughs).
Scheff, Williams & Champlin has recorded most of the songs now and then Bobby Kimball comes by to put his vocals on. Most of the songs on the album will be cover songs, but Joseph has written one and I has written another. If cover version we will be doing: “We´re All Alone” (Boz Scaggs), “Takin´It To The Streets (Doobie Brothers) & “Rikki Don´t Loose That Number” (Steely Dan). We will be singing the guitar solo on the last song, yes it is right, there are no bass, drums or guitars on the album, only us singing. The plan is that the West Coast All Stars will be released in Japan, but maybe also in Europe.
– Chicago anno 1997
Our talk has now headed towards Chicago. The group is still excisting and with the same lineup as on the latest albums. James “Jim” Pankow, Walt Parazaider & Lee Loughnane in the horn section. Robert Lamm on keyboards & vocal, Bill Champlin on keyboards, vocal & acoustic guitar. Jason Scheff on bass and Tris Imboden on drums. A new member has been added to the group. The guitarist Keith Howland and his entry to the group is actually a nice story.
32 year old Keith Howland, an a big Chicago fan, heard that Chicago was looking for a new guitarist and had a 2 days audition. On the second day I went there and waited until I saw musicians entered the building. I got the chance to meet Jason Scheff and when I asked him if I could play for them, he said that it was a closed audition, but he would mention him for the other guys. Therefore it was a big surprise when Jason called me the next day. Chicago hasn´t found the right guitarist and therefore they would like to give Keith a chance. Keith went there and played at his absolute best, and also did some acapella singing with Jason & Bill. Chicago decided to get Keith in the group. So sometime things gets right on a funny way.
Back to Chicago and their future plans: The group will soon release a best of album on the Warner label. This album will contains some very early material, and also some material up to the period when David Foster got involved with the group. As a surprice the best of album will also have two brand new Chicago songs. One is produced by Lenny Kravitz, that also are doing some vocals on the song. The Kravitz & Chicago is a interesting combination, and will be funny to see if this can get Chicago back on the charts again. The other song has a funny story behind it. I got a call late last year from James Newton Howard & Glen Ballard. James & Glen told me that they had a beautiful little song that they should use to a film and ask me if I could come by and sing the vocals. I did that, and I also added some stuff to the song. They payed me and I forgot about this song.
At a time Chicago asked James Newton Howard if he would produce some material for them. James called me and asked if he could use that song, that I had recorder earlier for him. I told him to do that. When he played the song for the Chicago management, they liked it right away, and asked who the brilliant singer was. Then he told that is was me that were singing (Bill laughs). The song is “Here In My Heart” and will be on the Greatest Hits album that will be released in april in US.
When I asked Bill on what he expect of the two new Chicago songs, he answered: Personally nothing, I have learn not to expect anything, so it is in this business. But I understand that Warner Brothers is very excited to see how this project goes. We have only signed for this one project, so if they new songs gets to the charts, we can be in a funny situation, a band with a hit, but with no contract. If we stand with a hit we will have the next 5 years with lots of possibilities and I am sure that there are many labels that wants to sign with us.
– Bill Champlin – Black sheep of the business
Chicago has actually a complete album ready named “Stone Of Sisyphus”, just waiting to be signed an released. I don´t think that anybody will do that, because many of the lyrics has a critical address to the “black suits”, as I called them. You know, managers, labels and music business people. The lyrics are written by me, and it is what people could expect from a guy like me, but not from a band like Chicago. If the songs are being released it would probably be on my soloalbums. I am not very popular among the “black suits” because I am not good at just getting in the line, if I was I would probably be more visible. I still want to be a part of the music business, but on my own terms.