Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Bill Champlin Leaves Chicago

"I read the news today..." Oh boy.

In case you haven't read about it or heard, Bill Champlin and the band Chicago are parting ways. Champlin wasn't a founding member but for many of us who discovered Chicago in the 1980s, he felt like it.

I'm one of the millions of people who started listening to Chicago in the 1980s. I didn't join the party until 1985, after they had released Chicago 16 (1982) and Chicago 17 (1984). It was only later I learned that Champlin was a newer member, having joined in 1981. He, along with producer David Foster and singer/songwriter Peter Cetera revamped the band's sound, making it sound of-the-era, and produced a string of hits. Arguably, this revamp allowed the band to endure for the twenty years since.

When I first started attending concerts, in 1987, Cetera had also left, to be replaced by Jason Scheff. Thus, for many of the 80s hits, Bill Champlin was the foundation of those songs that remained constant. He allowed us to ease into the Scheff era, an era that has lasted longer than Cetera and has produced some fantastic music. Back in the late 80s, Chicago was still a rock band. Champlin would get out from behind the keyboards, strap on a guitar, and, with then-guitar virtuoso Dawayne Bailey, rock the house down. No, really. Those late-80s shows were the best ones I ever saw the band perform.

After the Stone of Sisyphus debacle all but castrated the band's desire to make new music for themselves, Champlin continued to showcase his gifts. His songwriting and arranging skills are golden. Just listen to the big band CD, Night and Day, and the Christmas material. "Little Drummer Boy" is now my definitive version of the song. I can't hear any other version without hearing the Chicago/Champlin-arranged version in my head. It's that good. Champlin also introduced the B3 organ to the sound of Chicago. The 1990s concerts featured the B3 and Champlin's unique playing style and added a zest to the old classics that then hadn't been heard live since the mid 70s with original guitarists Terry Kath.

Speaking of Kath, Champlin took over the vocals that Terry used to sing. Champlin's baritone voice brought the soul back to the band that had lost it after Kath's death. True, Champlin often sang the songs his own way and, initially (back in the 1980s), I got annoyed. Gradually, I realized that Champlin was putting his own spin on the songs while staying true to the spirit of the songs. I grew to like Champlin's way of singing and his reading of "Colour My World" is the most soulful since Kath. Terry, I think, would be proud.

As an avid music listener, I got to the point that I'd buy anything that any member of Chicago played on. For Champlin, an exuberant musician and arranger and singer, that meant there was A LOT of music to be found and bought. He single-handedly introduced me to the West Coast AOR music. This is the music of Toto, Bruce Gaitsch, Tom Saviano, Champlin's solo material, and others. Most recently, it's Santa Fe and the Fat City Horns. Champin's participation in a project was a gold stamp of approval. If it was good enough for him, it was good enough for me.

Champlin's solo material is constantly evolving. His 90s albums (Burn Down the Night, Through it All, He Started to Sing; check'em all out at his website) is the man blazing his own trail when the band itself slowed it original album output. Even Robert Lamm put out two CDs of original material to the band's one. On his solo recordings, Champlin's blue-eyed soul is front and center but he can cut a ballad with the best of them. His latest recording, No Place Left to Fall, has been available in Japan, Europe, and on iTunes since last year. Just last week, it landed in hard copy here in the US. I reviewed it last year and I'll repost after this blog entry. It's one of those albums that I've never removed from my iPod. It's that good. Check it out.

But back to Chicago. I missed this year's tour stop in Houston as it was the day before my vacation. I had seen the Earth, Wind, and Fire/Chicago show in 2004 so I didn't think I needed to see it again. That I missed this year means the 2006 Chicago show with Huey Lewis and the News was the last time I saw Chicago with Bill Champlin. A great show it was, as the San Francisco-native Champlin came out (by himself) and play a song and jam with The News. For them, he was/is a local icon. They showed his deference. He proved that he's just one of the guys when it comes to making music.

I'll admit that the next time I see Chicago, I'll miss Bill Champlin. He was an essentail component to my Chicago experience. That he's now gone is, for people of my generation, a little like losing Terry Kath in 1978. Terry was the soul of Chicago for ten years. When there was a soul gap, Bill Champlin filled in and expanded the soul of my favorite band. In recent years, Robert Lamm has taken on that mantle.

But I'll still miss Champlin in Chicago. Damn. It's hard to lose something that's been with you for nearly thirty years.

----
For a taste of Champlin's ability to change up a song and make it better, take a listen at his acoustic rendition of the 1988 #1 hit, "Look Away" from 1995. From there, you can scour YouTube for some solo Champlin material.

28 comments:

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think back to how my parent's generation must have felt when rock and roll came along and chased their favorite music out of clubs, off the radio. It disappeared almost overnight. Change in inevitable but not easy.

ChessKing said...

hi scott. very well written. great minds think alike. i confess i shed a tear this morning when i learned of the news. like you said, after almost thirty years it leaves quite a void.

here's my take....

www.selfpreservations.blogspot.com

blessings,

chess

Scott Parker said...

Patti - Knowing how Champlin viewed his last years in Chicago (as a day job), it's not 100% surprising that he's gone. But the hurt still stings. I'll absolutely follow Chicago, my all-time favorite band. And I'll also follow BC's solo efforts. Speaking of music disappearing, we had, until early June, a station that played a lot of late 60s/70s music. I love that stuff. Then, new DJs showed up and, overnight, the format changed. It sucks.

ChessKing - Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. Yes, it is a void. Honestly, with the number of guys who sing now in the band, I'd like to see them stay a seven-member group. Lamm can handle the keyboards by himself, just like he used to. We'll see...

DJP said...

As I expressed over at the Chi blog, my worry is that Chicago won't be able to attract a talent of nearly Champlin's stature. He played keyboard, guitar, drums — and did I even see him do some sort of horn once?

Jason Scheff is the nicest guy ever to pick up a bass, but the hole Cetera left is still there. Now what?

Fan since II was new, and I'm concerned.

Conkillotti said...

Scott:

You might say that Champlin revived the B3 sound, rather than introduced it to Chicago. Listen to everything up thru "Carnegie Hall" and you'll hear plenty of Hammond.

Perplexio said...

I've grown up with Chicago. I became a fan at age 11 when Chicago 19 was hitting it big. I wasn't that much a fan of 19 (I'm still not) but because 19 was so popular-- radio stations started playing more of the stuff from 16-18 and THAT's what caught my interest.

It was predominantly the way Bill & Peter's voices sounded together on Chicago 16 and 17 that made Chicago my favorite band for several years.

I made it a point to pick up all of Bill's solo albums on CD and even a couple of Lee Ritenour's albums that featured Bill on vocals (either lead or background or both).

While my interest in Chicago has waned with their lack of output over the years and other bands have supplanted them as a favorite (Toto in particular) their music has been a constant in my life since 1988 and when times get tough, I often turn to their music to take me back to happier times... it helps me get through the rough spots that I sometimes travel over in this journey of life.

Bill's departure has done it for me. My last Chicago concert was with Earth Wind & Fire in 2004 and barring a reunion tour that will remain my final Chicago concert.

I'll always treasure the memories but the current product is a mere shadow of what the band once was... let alone a mere shadow of what they're actually capable of being.

fenderbass57 said...

I personally am happy about the parting of the ways. I don't feel that Champlin added but more detracted from the sound that the band originally had! In later years he appeared disinterested in the music so I think it was time for a divorce!

Scott Parker said...

DJP - Good point about Cetera's absence (was NOT going to write 'hole'). I think BC's replacement will be a hired hand and not a true member of the band that BC was.

Conkillotti - I'm pretty sure there was little if any B3 in the early CHI albums. Lamm played electric piano and piano. True, he sings about "B3s" on "Flight 602" but the only song I can remember there being a B3 was "Listen." I might be wrong, though. Time to go back and listen (heh) again.

Perplexio - (BTW, I recognize your name from the other boards; thanks for stopping by.) Since modern CHI produced no new albums, my interest in modern CHI waned as well. It wasn't until yesterday that I actually listened to any of the 80s material at all. Instead, I've gone searching for live recordings of the originals and just marveled at how good they really were. I've said it before, SOS was CHI's last great album because they made it for themselves. Everything since, has been for someone else. True, there are snatches of past glory (90 Degrees, Already Gone, Come to Me, Do) but they are few an far between. I've even gone as far as hacked my version of CHI 30: Feel (with horns) is track #1 and I've deleted the other version from my Mac. I even burned a copy of 30 with a different song order. The problem there was I still hated tunes like "Long Lost Friend" so 30, for me, is now tracks 7-11 + Feel + Caroline. [stepping off soapbox now]

Fenderbass57 - Since I started listening to CHI, Champlin was just always there. I've gone back and tried to imagine myself a CHI fan in 1982 listening to the 'new' sound. It's really different. Back in the day of the originals, you can just hear the music and know which guy wrote the song, by and large. You had the RL-songs, the TK-songs, etc. Take "Oh Thank You Great Spirit" - That's a Kath solo tune if there every was one. Ditto with BC. He wrote songs that tailored his tastes to the CHI sound. Yeah, he was always bluesier than the rest of CHI but that's what we get from a group of eight guys. Now, I would say that CHI circa 2009 and CHI circa 1969 are vastly different sounds. To me, CHI 30's "Already Gone" was a throwback to old CHI. I would agree that BC seemed uninterested in the same 15 CHI songs played every year. Guess that's why he tried to change things up. Guess we'll see what comes next. I'll be there.

Mark Gunn said...

This is the best thing that could've happened for Champlin. He'd been starving creatively for quite a while.

The first thing I thought about was the song "Plaid" from the Stone Of Sisyphus project.

You could also sense his annoyance during some of the band's interviews. It's been a good run and this ensures a future of creativity from one of the most gifted musicians around.

Scott Parker said...

Mark - I agree with you re: this is a good thing for BC. He's chaffed at singing the same ol' songs ad infinitum. I look forward with great eagerness for the next BC project.

And, you never know: it might be a good thing for Chicago. Not sure how right now, but it is possible. The only downside is if the EWF/CHI collaboration album takes shapes, one of the most soulful singers won't be there.

chicagoguy said...

Scott -

Good post; very interesting take. I was surprised to read on Lamm's MySpace page a VERY short "adios" to Champlin. In fact, after 28+ years as a bandmate, it seemed suspiciously curt. Add to that no other member that I can see has commented, and something smells fishy. Do you or anyone else here know how this break-up went down? Rumors are that Chicago's lawyers notified BC via an e-mail that he was out. I find it hard to believe that BC would exit of his own choosing in the midst of a tour (that appears to have another month or so of gigs left). I see by some of the other posts that BC had made some comments about the regimented set list etc..., and clearly his side work was becoming an issue with someone in Chicago. Two weeks after he released a solo album the split is announced? It seems unlikely this was a mutual decision to me. I bet he's relieved to be able to now do new material and take on new challenges, and ultimately, will be OK with all this. You could argue that maybe he was asking for it, but I just suspect BC was sucker-punched. And if the e-mail firing rumor is true, that's a pretty sad way to end a nearly 30-year relationship.

Scott Parker said...

Chicagoguy - I don't know any details other than the speculation. On Lamm's site, he did write "It's ALL good." Perhaps, and despite the nature of the departure, everyone's happy with the outcome. Can't say, really. Champlin, on his forum, did mention new things! My only complaint: BC's solo tour is not coming to Texas.

La Johnson said...

This will hopefullly allow Robert Lamm to take back some control of the band, after 20 odd years Champlin's dreadful AOR voice and songs. You cannot compare his voice with Terry Kath.

Guitarman5 said...

After buying the Chicago SoundStagedvd, I was disappointed by Bill Champlin's singing. It sounded overembellished and nasal. Being a 40 yr fan of Chicago (especially Terry Kath and Keith Howland) I think Robert Lamm or Keith singing the songs Terry Kath sang would be a big improvement.
I don't feel they even need to replace Bill Champlin because they other guys are excellent singers.

Anonymous said...

Having been a Chicago fan through every decade they have been together (I first saw them in '69 at the College of Wooster in Ohio- and 100 + times since )I can add some insight...

Lamm played the B3 almost as much as he did the piano in the early days-- BC-- (before Champlin). The addition of Champlin allowed Bobby to move "up front" with the rest of the front men (Parazaider, Loughnane. and Pankow) playing his strap on keyboard. Champlin primarily "stayed back" soulfully & masterfully playing the B3 and adding incredible vocals.

Bill was an incredible addition to the band and his absence will be missed. There always seemed to be a tension between Lamm and Champlin, as often occurs when 2 great talents come together... but the tension resulted in a great sound for the band.

Now living in Nashville, I wonder if Champlin might 'hook -up" with Chicago's original drummer Danny Seraphine and cut some new tunes, or at least do some studio sessions. Danny was a fantastic finesse drummer--

I will miss Bill's on-stage presence with Chicago. Champlin was, and still is a class-act

Tom - Lexington, Ky said...

Interesting thread. I, too, have been a fan since '69. I have to admit I will miss Bill's soulful vocals and talents on both the B3 and guitar. Nothing pumped me up more at a concert than to see Bill come up front and open a song with his guitar strapped on.

I don't think you can replace someone like Bill. I remember when Jason took over for Peter. He's done well, but just not quite......When Danny "left", Tris came in and has done well, but just not quite.......Bill did an admirable job bringing that "Kathness" back to the group with his vocals. I don't think the replacement is going to be quite the same.........

beaug said...

Bill didnt bring the hammond organ sound into chicago i would say he brought it back. Listen to the first five or six Chicago albums Robert Lamm played the Hammond here and there listen to the song South California Purples it has a hammond organ line most of the way through. It is too bad that Bill is gone he was a great addition to the band yah its true his voice in recent years is not what it once was it has lost some power and depth but hey Shite happens.Here is a good question to all of you fans what is the best Chicago album with Bill Champlin i say for sure Chicago 16-1982.

Dragon said...

I don't blame Bill one bit. Chicago has their own thing going and the man has too much talent to be a sideman although he did spawn some hits for Chicago during his stint with them. He's getting on in years and it's time to do what he does best which is Bill Champlin, not BiCh...

Anonymous said...

i probably won't go see chicago in concert again. i was fortunate enough to see them a few years ago at the hard rock. i wish the sons would tour and play in south florida. that would definitely be cool.

The New Albanian said...

I'm coming to this post very late, but let me tell you: You nailed it. This is the definitive "why Champlin in Chicago matters," and I say this as someone who's been a Chicago fan since about 1972.

I saw them last year with Pardini, and in many ways, the group sounded better than they have in a while. Just the same, I couldn't quite get over Bill Champlin not being there.

As consolation, I'm wearing out his last CD.

Thanks for this essay. You made my day.

kwkdraw said...

The "why" of the BC Chicago split is, to me, not as interesting as the "why" Champlin joined and stayed for such a ride. And I'll say it for Scheff and Howland and anyone who gets a break to play with these guys...they make a buttload of money touring. Yes, it a grind and it wears on creativity. But holy crap...look at the repertoir and the draw!? Sure, some of the guys take breaks for other things to flex the muscle a little, but they know where the bread gets buttered and they're all between 50 and 70 now! Listen to the 60s, 70s, 80s,90s and 2000+ music from these cats and respect the footprint of a band that's played every venue there is. Pay your homage cuz you're gonna miss it one day. And still not in the RR HOF? Really? Really?

kwkdraw said...

The "why" of the BC Chicago split is, to me, not as interesting as the "why" Champlin joined and stayed for such a ride. And I'll say it for Scheff and Howland and anyone who gets a break to play with these guys...they make a buttload of money touring. Yes, it a grind and it wears on creativity. But holy crap...look at the repertoir and the draw!? Sure, some of the guys take breaks for other things to flex the muscle a little, but they know where the bread gets buttered and they're all between 50 and 70 now! Listen to the 60s, 70s, 80s,90s and 2000+ music from these cats and respect the footprint of a band that's played every venue there is. Pay your homage cuz you're gonna miss it one day. And still not in the RR HOF? Really? Really?

kwkdraw said...

The "why" of the BC Chicago split is, to me, not as interesting as the "why" Champlin joined and stayed for such a ride. And I'll say it for Scheff and Howland and anyone who gets a break to play with these guys...they make a buttload of money touring. Yes, it a grind and it wears on creativity. But holy crap...look at the repertoir and the draw!? Sure, some of the guys take breaks for other things to flex the muscle a little, but they know where the bread gets buttered and they're all between 50 and 70 now! Listen to the 60s, 70s, 80s,90s and 2000+ music from these cats and respect the footprint of a band that's played every venue there is. Pay your homage cuz you're gonna miss it one day. And still not in the RR HOF? Really? Really?

kwkdraw said...

The "why" of the BC Chicago split is, to me, not as interesting as the "why" Champlin joined and stayed for such a ride. And I'll say it for Scheff and Howland and anyone who gets a break to play with these guys...they make a buttload of money touring. Yes, it a grind and it wears on creativity. But holy crap...look at the repertoir and the draw!? Sure, some of the guys take breaks for other things to flex the muscle a little, but they know where the bread gets buttered and they're all between 50 and 70 now! Listen to the 60s, 70s, 80s,90s and 2000+ music from these cats and respect the footprint of a band that's played every venue there is. Pay your homage cuz you're gonna miss it one day. And still not in the RR HOF? Really? Really?

kwkdraw said...

The "why" of the BC Chicago split is, to me, not as interesting as the "why" Champlin joined and stayed for such a ride. And I'll say it for Scheff and Howland and anyone who gets a break to play with these guys...they make a buttload of money touring. Yes, it a grind and it wears on creativity. But holy crap...look at the repertoir and the draw!? Sure, some of the guys take breaks for other things to flex the muscle a little, but they know where the bread gets buttered and they're all between 50 and 70 now! Listen to the 60s, 70s, 80s,90s and 2000+ music from these cats and respect the footprint of a band that's played every venue there is. Pay your homage cuz you're gonna miss it one day. And still not in the RR HOF? Really? Really?

Anonymous said...

I worshipped the band in the 70's and when Terry Kath died and James Guercio no longer produced their music, they became pop mush. Granted, Night and Day wasn't original music but it had the 70s sound. Champlin was and is a HORRIBLE singer. He tries to squeeze 3 inch notes through a rusty 1 inch funnel. Absolutely impossible to listen to him. They lost their edge decades, not years ago.

Anonymous said...

I grew up a huge fan of Chicago because of my father. My very first concert was Chicago in 1979. I was 7. Unfortunately I never had the pleasure to experience Terry Kath live, but his voice and amazing guitar style was already dug in my head. He was amazing. My father was the coolest! We had music blasting through our house all the time. We were known as the loudest house in the neighborhood. The best part was my father had these big giant speakers hanging on chains from the ceiling on the far end of the house so it can be heard throughout the house. I still have great memories of him blasting the first CTA Album and his all time favorite the live at Carnegie Hall album. Such great childhood memories and a huge part was learning the appreciation of music. Chicago was what did that for me. To this day the Carnegie Hall album is still one of my all time favorites. The old Chicago music will always be the best! I saw them many times in concert and loved every one of them. Also I am so glad I got to see some with Peter. He is still one of the best voices to come out of music. I really liked their 80's,90's music, but I still always go back to the old stuff. I have to say I also liked Bill, he fit great with them through those years. Jason does a great job too. They are both great bass players, but Peter's voice can't be replaced. I was very lucky to meet a lot of the guys back around 1995 in AC. They were really cool and funny. My sister in law and I spent hours hanging out and talking at the bar with them. It broke my heart my father wasn't there. He earned those conversations we had with them. RL, Lee, Jimmy, and Walt signed a 14k gold first CTA CD I had bought for my dad which I really appreciated . Tris Jason, and Keith were also really cool as well. But we didn't see Bill that night which would have been cool. He is really a talent. I live in NYC and this past Friday 2/7 my sister in law decided she wanted to go spend her birthday at a jazz club in the city. As I was looking online I saw that Danny Seraphine's Band CTA-California Transit Authority was playing at one of them. AND Bill Chaplin was playing with him. Cool! We had never heard Danny's band, so we decided we all would go. Unfortunately she got sick and we didn't go. But since we couldn't go, I went online to check out the band. All I can say is they are awesome! Danny sounds better then ever and he has a great band. I love Chicago and they have a great line up now. but Danny's band sounds and plays like old school Chicago. If your a big Old School Chicago fan, check out the California Transit Authority album- Full Circle. He does Introduction, South California Purples, Happy cause I'm going home, plus a few more. It gave me chills they were so good. I wish he would do more covers.. His sound is so recognizable and he really is an amazing drummer. So my wish! Is that Peter, Danny, and the band could work things out and just get back together for a reunion. People would go nuts! Also they can all play. Think about it. Hits with all of the singers. Ok so they may have two drum kits , and why not bring back Laudir, Donnie, Chris, and Dwayne. They can all play and along with the current lineup. There are more than enough songs for everyone to play to their contributions. It also won't be so rough on them. I just don't want it to be to late. The original 6 are still performing and pretty dam good. It could be a two night show. There are just so many songs..... But myself as well as I am sure tons of fans would love it and be there. I want nothing more than my father to see this. He is getting up there in age too. Long live Chicago!

THE HALLS OF FAME said...
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