When the frost is fingering it’s way underneath the door, and people are crying for the moon, during these sequestered and unprecedented times, and when penicillin can no longer save the world, Bill Champlin, former member of the legendary band Chicago, has a “Reason to Believe.” “Reason to Believe” is Champlin’s new single set to release January 1, 2021. The emotionally charged track comes as a prelude to his full-length album called “Livin’ For Love”, a record that evokes respect from men, angels and beasts.
From “The Opposite Six” to “The Sons of Champlin” to “Chicago”, Bill Champlin focused on music, singing, songwriting and producing. In between bands he and his unique vocals rang true with a melodic and sophisticated anarchy while he did vocal sessions for artists including: Patti LaBelle, Donna Summer, Elton John, George Benson, Neil Diamond, Kenny Rogers, Boz Skaggs, and a host of others. He released his first solo album in 1978. Champlin was presented by the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences, “The Most Valuable Player” peer award for male background vocalist and the following year won a Grammy for Co-writing “Turn Your Love Around” for George Benson. He won his first songwriting Grammy for co-writing “After The Love Has Gone.”
In 1982 he joined the iconic band “Chicago” to record “Chicago 16”, and on “Chicago 17” he sung “Hard Habit to Break.” After 28 years with the band Champlin left to focus on his solo career, often collaborating with his wife of 39 years Tamara Champlin, a singer/songwriter in her own right.
While every inch of the Heaven was engulfed in flames (or at least California), Bill Champlin was embracing the darkness as a canopy where the stars hang so we can shine. “Livin’ for Love” was created and will be unveiled through “Imagen Records” and is available for pre-orders at https://www.billchamplin.com/shop
. I spoke with Bill regarding his new release and his fascinating career….The word legend evokes a fantasy, a tale, a fable conjured out of the air, however, Bill Champlin is real, as tangible as a beating heart…..
So you have a cool announcement ….
I have a new record that I’d like to talk about.
I heard the single “Reason to Believe” and it’s awesome.
It’s a crazy little song. My friend Bruce Gaitsch, who I’ve written with on and off over the years, wrote a lot of stuff with Richard Marx. He just dug into his stash of things he had recorded over a period of years and he found this one. It must’ve been five or six years ago. It was just a track with no lyrics and Tamara, and I listened to the track and said “holy shit, we’re doing it.” We jumped on it. It was written, sung, with background and everything except the Hammond organ the day we got it.
It must have really been an inspirational track?
What was cool about it is that the bass player on it is George Hawkins, who has been on every album that I’ve done for I don’t know how many years. And George passed away a couple of years ago. So, it was great to pull a track that he was on and get it listened to. He’s not here but at least his playing is still here.
What inspired the lyrics of the song?
Tamara and I wrote it and kind of where we were going with it was Bruce Gaitsch, the guy that sent it to us, his wife is a really good musician, good piano player, good singer. Bruce had gone through some serious medical problems and she really helped him through it. I did the same thing. I had cancer a couple of years back and if it wasn’t for Tamara, I don’t even think I’d be here. This song had a certain level of gratitude. Bruce is a Midwestern guy, so he doesn’t like to get too personal and when I told him this was about him and Janie and me and Tamara he said “yeah.” So, it was kind of a thank you in some way.
How many songs are there on the album?
I’ve got 14 songs on the American version and the Japanese version which is coming out on Sony in April has 16 because all of the companies there demand two bonus tracks. When I was mixing and mastering, I just took two extra songs and mixed them and mastered them because I knew that was going to happen. Most people get caught by surprise. I think that 2021 is going to have as many albums as people had babies after the New York Black out. A lot of musicians with studios in their homes figured that they can’t go anywhere and that they can’t play live but the one thing they can do is make music. I think in a lot of ways the people that are usually out there working just went to the studio and started working. So, in some ways the pandemic and the lockdown might’ve been a good thing for a lot of musicians. I know it was for me.
I know a lot of musicians that admit to that.
Yeah, I have a studio, I have a good microphone and a ProTools rig, a keyboard sitting right there and a decent guitar sound coming out of it. I don’t have to do anything except walk over to my guest house and go to work. I have a ProTools rig and my son has an Ableton rig so it’s two studios in one room.
So, you collaborate musically with your wife?
Tamara, my wife, co-wrote that and sang a good portion of the background vocals. She and I, both of us jumped in and got a lot of the background vocals done. She doesn’t work on my stuff just because she’s my wife. This woman sings and writes, she’s amazing. I kind of have to run fast to keep up with her. If I can’t make some of the notes without pliers (if you get my drift), I just ask her to sing it. I got back with Greg Mathison who produced one of my solo albums a long time ago. He’s had his physical problems and I pulled him out of his own world and got him to go to work and my God his tracks are ridiculous. The feel of everything Greg does is so deep grooved. We got into it. And I’ve got a handful of different people who played on it, Carmen Grillo played a solo on it. I’ve got Marc Russo who actually played sax for the Doobie Brothers and who played with my band Sons of Champlin for a while. Marc is an amazing sax player. He’s ridiculous, that’s how good this guy is. I just sent him the tracks and he did it in his house. There’s a lot of that going on, a lot of Zoom.
Yes! You have a lot of musicians that are big fans of Sons of Champlin.
We still play…..when anyone does. We do some gigs and when we do I don’t play my Chicago hits or any of that stuff when we play with the Son’s. We do just Son things and the audience is crazy about it. We kind of put it back together again. We lost a few members. Nick Gillette who was originally a trumpet player with Tower of Power passed away and James Preston, our drummer from 1972 to 2004 passed away. But it’s a small world and the guy we replaced him with was the drummer who plays with us now and also played on the album and mixed the record. A guy named Alan Hertz. He’s one serious ball of talent. He’s just one of the best drummers ever, and one of the best ProTools engineers I’ve ever run across. Once again as you get older the world gets smaller. I got Steve Porcaro to work on one and he was one of the original members of Toto. He’s an amazing musician also. I mean, I did a lot of the stuff myself but if it were just me for the whole record it would get a little boring….maybe not boring but people might say “I just heard that.” I did a lot of guitar work but I’m not the world’s best soloist. I did a couple on there but they’re real short and sweet. I kind of saved the ones that really called out for someone with more chops than me.
You come from a musical family don’t you?
My mom was a songwriter, singer…she was a talented woman. Her parents met in a choir. My dad’s side couldn’t carry a tune. I used to go to church with my dad and listen to him sing….and woah….Tamara and I will be celebrating our 39th anniversary the day after tomorrow. We were married pretty much the same year, right before I joined up with Chicago. Then we went on the road and the road just took over. Then when I bailed out in 2009, I was home a lot more.
Your son Will is very talented as well.
He doesn’t like to let people know but he’s a Berkeley grad. He went to Berklee College of Music in Boston and graduated with a BA in music. He’s a monster, he plays circles around me. When I need a bass player, I ask Will to throw a bass part on this one and there he is. He’s a good drummer, he can play just about anything. He is a great piano player and has become quite the programmer.
You’ve been performing for a while, have you had your ultimate stage fantasy yet?
I was performing with Chicago at the “We The People Festival.” This festival had over 500,000 people. They had speakers for about 14 blocks. What was cool is that Grover Washington opened for us. We went up and played and I thought about the tremendous amount of people ….it was unbelievable. I looked at Jason and said, ” do not look in anyone’s eyes, just look at their foreheads.” So, we went ahead and played and we had this one tune, I think it was a song called “Just You and Me”, and we kind of opened up and jammed in the middle. I was sitting there with Grover Washington to my left and we started jamming. Here we were in front of 500,000 people and I thought, “I’m sitting here playing with Grover Washington.” For the band it was one of the biggest audiences, but for me I was jamming with Grover Washington. He was such a good musician and I think people are just realizing it now and he’s been gone for quite a few years. It’s what you leave behind with the music. For me, I really just wanted to touch people as much as I can. The music has to be personal. With this album I kind of got it. There’s a song on the album called “Another Lie” and it’s about my older son Brad who passed away 3 years ago. I was diagnosed with real aggressive cancer and he died of cancer the next day. Rough week. It took about two years to get the song out of me, to really be able to sing it rather than just do it. It’s a great song if you don’t know the story but if you know the story you go “holy shit!” I think that “Reason to Believe” is like that. It really is kind of personal. I’ve been a professional songwriter, lyricist, for years and years and years. Sometimes you just write a song about a scenario between a guy and a girl and you write about it in the first person. It’s not necessarily something that happened. With this I want to really make it personal. That’s kind of where I’m at with the record. I thought “let me make it real.”
What’s the first thing that you plan on doing when the pandemic is over?
I want to play live. There are some “Son’s” gigs that we passed up that we are going to pick back up again. Then when you hear this album you will see it’s just perfect for the U.K. I’ve done a lot of stuff in Scandinavia and quite a bit in Europe over the years, but not a lot in the UK and Ireland. Chicago got there but not that often and that was a lot of years ago. I’m kind of keeping myself busy producing stuff for Tamara and myself and other people. As a cook I can burn water. I realized a couple of weeks ago I only do this well and the rest of the stuff I’m only halfway in it. I get preoccupied thinking about music. I sort of decided to apply that to the record. Tamara walked in when I was writing the song “Livin’ for Love” and she said, “Bill, its time you did a solo album.” There was a lot of time to do it so I thought I might as well get into it. So, I got into it and I think it’s one of the best albums I’ve ever done. People have heard it and it’s getting people’s attention. Even people who know my music throughout the years and have heard this album have told me that I’ve just raised my mark. The record came out sounding stellar. I did the vocals on that and I just let it fly. I’ve been a background singer for years. There is a certain kind of approach you have to take with background singing to make it work. You have to think about where it’s going, how it’s going to fit, and lead singing is a whole other world. On this album I didn’t sing lead on the same day that I sang background. So, I was able to switch hats, and really go after it. I had to really be aware of the lyrics while I was singing the song. I think that my lead vocal on the record, it’s pretty slammin’. There is some pretty cool stuff on it. You can feel it and I don’t want to do it if it doesn’t touch me. This stuff seems to be touching people.
The official website for Bill Champlin
Photo Credit: Bill Champlin