Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Sons of Champlin - Hip Li'l Dreams (2005)

After a 21 year hiatus, The Sons of Champlin, reunited for a live concert at the Luther Burbank Center in Burbank, CA. The line-up featured original members Bill Champlin on vocals, piano/organ, guitar and vocals; Geoff Palmer on keyboards Hammond organ, and vibraphone and Terry Haggerty on guitar and vocals. It also featured bassist Dave Schallock and drummer James Preston who had been in the band in the early-mid seventies and a whole new horn section featuring saxophonist Tom Saviano, and Tower of Power alum Mic Gillette on trumpet & trombone. This 90s incarnation of the psychedelic SF Bay area soul funk band may have changed a few faces, but the new faces only served to spice-up the line-up and give it more edge.

Shortly before going back into the studio, guitarist Terry Haggerty opted out of the band in order to take his music in a different direction. In his place, Tal Morris, gives the Sons a new edge for a new millennium. While Haggerty’s more jazz-influenced guitar chops will be missed, Morris proves himself more than equal to the task—fitting into this band like a missing puzzle piece.

Hip Li’l Dreams doesn’t miss a beat, picking up where 1977’s Loving Is Why left off. The horns are just as “in your face” as they were in the Sons heyday, Bill Champlin is at his gritty & soulful best and he even brought in some extra friends & family for “assistance” on a few tracks. On Dream On Bill shares the vocals with son, Will. Bill’s wife, Tamara lends her voice to the soulful ballad, I’m Not Your Lover. But the most conspicuous guest performances are Doobie Brothers alum, Tom Johnston, and Toto vocalist, Bobby Kimball sharing the lead vocals on the title track with Bill Champlin. Their soulful vocals offer both an excellent complement and counterpoint to Champlin’s.

One of the recurring themes of Champlin’s songs is the corruption and lack of talent in the music industry. His Star Outa’ You is a giant middle finger to an industry which finds itself increasingly mired in pretension, mediocrity, and redundancy. It’s lyrically is one of the best, if not THE best song on the album.

Geoff Palmer’s organ and vibraphone is exceptional from start to finish but especially stands out on Swim (organ) and Soul Explosions (vibraphone). The mere inclusion of a vibraphone into a rock group was one of the aspects of the Sons which set them apart from other horn bands like Blood Sweat & Tears, Chicago, and Tower of Power from their inception. Palmer’s talents are as integral to the Sons’ sound as Champlin’s gritty baritone, or the horn section’s wall of brass.

The album ends with a re-working of Light Up the Candles which initially appeared on Bill Champlin’s Through It All album back in 1995. Where the original arrangement was stark and minimalist, the Sons' arrangement is more lush and full. Unfortunately, this is a song that worked because of its simplicity, and while the Sons’ reworking is interesting it’s missing the intimacy of Champlin’s original arrangement.

This is not an album to be missed. It’s got the “brass” balls that dare to be different, that special something that sets it apart from all of the pre-fab cookie-cutter Los Angeles music industry lowest common denominator fodder. So close your eyes, open your ears, and let the Sons of Champlin take you on a musical journey you won’t soon forget!


David Amulet said...

You do pull out some rare stuff -- I have never even heard of this band!

-- david

Perplexio said...

They were big in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 60s. I only know of them because their lead singer, Bill Champlin, went on to join Chicago in 1981 or 1982. He's got a gritty baritone voice that I really enjoy so I made it a point to hunt down his older material from his original band.

They got their name as a joke from the fact that Champlin in the late 60s was a teenaged father. Before that they went by a myriad of different names including "The Rhythm Dukes," "Nu Boogaloo Express" and "The Masterbeats" (they had trouble getting gigs with the latter band name, promoters didn't care much for the band name). And at one point they changed their name to "Yogi Phlegm", although promoter Bill Graham refused to acknowledge their name change so they went back to being The Sons of Champlin.

David Amulet said...

I loved the early Chicago sound but started to dislike most of their stuff by the early 80s ... around the time he joined. Oh well, now I know there was a Sons of Champlin!

-- david

Perplexio said...

I much prefer early Chicago to later Chicago. Instrumentally and musically Chicago was at the top of their game in the early 70s.

In the early 80s however, vocally they were at the top of their game. There was just something magical about how well Peter Cetera and Bill Champlin sounded singing together. Chicago 16 remains a guilty pleasure of mine. It's not quite as commercial as its follow-up (Chicago 17 went quadruple Platinum) so it still has hints of early Chicago. They were re-inventing themselves and experimenting a bit with a more pop-friendly sound, unsure whether or not it would work. It did, and spawned 17, which is good but far too slick and commercial for my tastes.

Charlie said...

I have never heard the Sons. Where do you suggest the starting point would be for sampling their music?

Perplexio said...

The Sons 1969 debut, Loosen Up Naturally was recently remastered and reissued on CD. I recommend starting there.

steve_2020 said...

"Loosen Up Naturally" is a masterpiece. A debut double album with not a bad song on it.

Though I believe the Sons of Champlin had a producer assigned to them, they pretty much produced it themselves at Golden State Recorders. One of the reasons it's so strong is that they'd been playing the material live for quite awhile. The Sons basically took a couple of weeks and recorded their live show of the time in a professional 8-track studio.

Although reviewer Ritchie Unterberger at Allmusic.com gives the band an overall lukewarm review, "Loosen Up Naturally" still gets 4.5 stars out of a possible 5 from this sorta 'benchmark' music review site.

One of Unterberger's comments is that the Sons of Champlin's recordings haven't aged well. Perhaps he means it hasn't aged as well the two other big rock-band-with-horns acts which released albums around the 1968-9 time "Loosen Up Naturally" came out: The first Chicago album and Blood Sweat and Tears first big album-which was actually their second release, but the first with David Clayton Thomas replacing founding member/bandleader Al Kooper as lead vocalist.

I'd say this is a fair evaluation; as-again- the Sons of Champlin were pretty much self-produced by excellent musicians but relative studio novices: the Sons themselves... with the aid of an engineer who didn't 'get' their music and a staffer/watchdog from their label as nominal producer.

On the other hand, both Chicago Transit Authority and BS+T were produced by (eventual) super producer James William Guercio. Guercio was the mastermind who would eventually run all aspects of Chicago's late 60s through 70s peak rock era, from producing their recordings to their marketing and image- with an iron fist.

In the late 60s Guercio was building up power as a staff producer with Columbia Records. He became known as a producer who could punch up a lightweight group and song with horns. He took the Buckingham's "Kind of a Drag" into the top 10 with his horn-based production of the recording.

Chicago had gotten together pretty much on their own, but their connection into the music business was Guercio and he was coaching them and suggesting personnel almost from the start. He encouraged songwriting and suggested things like adding a truly strong lead vocalist who could sing Hits.

Chicago needed real vocal power to match the power of their horn section and ‘heavy’ lead guitarist. They didn’t have this in the decent singing Robert Lamm or the bluesy (to be kind) Terry Kath. They found the lead singer who would give them their signature lead vocal sound by raiding another local band and convincing Peter Cetera to join. I can imagine them telling him they had a connection at Columbia records and were on their way up. They didn’t lie to Cetera, they did. Guercio.

But in 1968, Columbia Records was mainly interested in Blood Sweat and Tears. Their A+R people, the band management and the group itself had revamped Al Kooper's original vision for BS+T, taking it in a slicker pop direction. They too needed a singer who could sing Hits. After auditioning dozens of singers, D.C. Thomas won the job.

Columbia Records knew it was Time for a rock group with horns. They could smell the sales.

Some soul/funk artists, groups and reviews had used live horn sections for years but with rock it was mainly a studio thing. Partly it was economics. Partly it was because during the Beatlemania years-it simply didn't matter if you punched up a rock group's recording with horns. From 1963 to 1965-6 rock and roll concerts were fan driven events and the girls' screaming was so loud no one could really hear what the groups sounded like anyway...

Things had changed dramatically by 1968. The foundation for the modern rock concert experience had been laid by promoters like Bill Graham who strived to provide the best sound and lights available...the equipment had improved dramatically in a few years. Marshall amps and bigger PAs helped groups like Cream and Jimi Hendrix turn rock concerts into musical events.

One of the next steps was the formation of a rock band with a fulltime horn section as part of the band. All of a sudden there were three groups-with-horns.. And Columbia Records thought two of them needed a producer.

I believe young Clive Davis took the credit for hammering out a deal with Guercio: if Guercio produced the next BS+T album (the one most people think is their first), Columbia would sign his band Chicago Transit Authority, give CTA a good recording budget and seed money to develop.

Guercio agreed. He produced BS+T and it was major hit album. Davis then kept his word and signed the Guercio-groomed Chicago… and over the years Davis made sure everyone knew he’d signed that group after they became a huge act.

So within a year, Jim Guercio produced a major mainstream pop hit record for BS+T and laid the seeds for a legendary career when he produced the ultimately successful CTA/Chicago ‘1’ album.

In 1968-9, Guercio had state of the art producer's chops and access to the best studios and recording engineers in the country, recording BS+T in NYC and "CTA" in LA, where he'd personally paid to relocate the band.

He knew how to make good for the times records and both those albums have at least a couple 'career' songs for each group.

Meanwhile, the Sons of Champlin were just trying to get their live show down on tape in a modest, but professional 8 track studio in San Francisco...in an almost D.I.Y. mode.

When looked upon in this light, "Loosen Up Naturally" is a bit of a miracle.

You have to listen past the Sons’ production a little bit. Listen to the performances. Listen to the songs. Listen to the singing. It’s great music.

Bill Champlin was definitely caught up in the times, singing his psychedelic soul from the pulpit which was his Hammond B-3 organ. But he sang with true soul, and he believed and was living the lyrics he wrote at the time.

Champlin was the chief songwriter in the Sons. Their jazzy/R+B songwriting is so utterly musical and incredible for the time. Nothing sounds like Sons of Champlin music. I imagine it would be an acquired taste at this point. It was simply some of the best music of it's day in 1968.

For me, the first time I heard jazz rock fusion guitar wasn't from John McLaughlin or Larry Coryell in the early 70s...it was the Sons' Terry Haggerty playing incredible, lightning fast jazz-rock guitar licks over their R+B/rock tunes. He played a jazz hollowbody guitar through a cranked Fender Twin in 1968. Warning: the Sons used a Lot of high end on some of their guitar solos in the studio. It worked well on the warm vinyl records of the 60s, but (particularly) the great guitar solo on their classic “Freedom” has a lot of bite on the CD. It'll jump right out at you..

Not taking anything away from Chicago or BS+T, just saying they had the benefit of a slick, super-producer and major label push once the records were out. I don't think the Sons could have worked with such a powerful, dominant producer. They are more of a force of nature type band whose musicality simply could not be denied. It was what it was and is what it is.

Mickey Hart wasn't kidding when he said the Sons were the best/baddest band on the considerable late 1960s San Francisco scene-the tightest, most musical group, full of player's players, Champlin a singer's singer.

Bill Champlin knew the band he'd played with for almost 10 years before leaving for LA session work and the money it would provide was very special. In the early 1990s- as move to preserve his first, great band’s music, he oversaw the reissuing of “Loosen Up Naturally” on CD and also a "Best Of “ Sons collection around that same time.

In writing the liner notes for the "Best Of" collection, he summed up their lack of breaking through to the big-time by saying, "When opportunity knocked, the Sons answered the phone."

The "Best of” collection" may be out of print now, but what he said in the liner notes holds true. The Sons of Champlin only ever were a regional phenomenon. Very popular in the San Francisco Bay Area and Northern California.

Bill Champlin finally gave in to his first love and re-formed the Sons in the late 1990s as mentioned. Each year they do a handful of dates around the Bay Area, Northern California, Nevada and Oregon –just about the same circuit they were playing during their early 70s hey-day. They’re playing this month and I’m going to try to make one of the shows.

They’ve re-released most of their best work –and the new CD. It’s all available at their www.sonsofchamplin.com website.

Tip: You can link around to various members’ individual websites from the Sons site. I found the info on their roadie Charlie Kelley’s site www.charliekelly.com to be fascinating. He takes you right back to the beginning of the band, the Loosen Up Naturally era and those recording sessions …and the many years of gigs he did with them from the late 60s to their first 'end' in the mid-70s. I believe he still roadies for them in their current part-time performance mode.


Repack Rider said...

I believe he still roadies for them in their current part-time performance mode.

I sure do. Since 1968 I have missed a total of four performances, the last of those in 1974. If I don't hold all the lifetime roadying records (38 years with the same band) I'd like to meet the guy who does.