"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 neutered 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 played 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.