Back in the ’60s and the early ’70s, long before the age of CDs, the record album was the basic music delivery unit. In heavy rotation on my turntable was one by a band from Marin County, Sons of Champlin titled Loosen Up Naturally. I particularly liked the fact that one whole side of the two record set was devoted to one long-ass song, “Freedom,” a topic near to my heart then and now.
“That was back when we were all too young to know what we were doing,” said bandleader Bill Champlin, a guy who is still making music 30-some odd years down the road. He’s bringing the band to Mazzotti’s this Saturday, March 11, with much of the original lineup intact. Truth is, you may not be familiar with the Sons. While other bands of that time and place, the Dead or the Airplane for example, went on to national prominence, the Sons stayed mostly a regional favorite.
“We missed a lot of cool kind of chances in those days ‘cause we had our head firmly wedged in the dark place.”
As with many bands of the day, the beginnings were as a high school combo, in this case one called The Masterbeats. “That was the Sons original name; no one would hire us with that name,” Champlin lamented. “What was I thinking?”
Even before that there was a Champlin-led band called the Opposite Six. “That was kind of a cool name, but that was in the days where we had the cheap green brocade cuts and the razor cuts; we were doing the steps. That was really early on, before ’65. The Sons [Masterbeats] did an album in ’66, not that it came out or anything. By that time I was already married and had a kid, so all the guys used to call me Father Champlin, so somebody said, ‘Let’s call it the Sons of Champlin.’ And when we played College of Marin, that’s the name they used, not the Masterbeats, ‘cause we couldn’t get the gig with that name. You know Cheech and Chong had a band called A Spic, Two Niggers and a Chink; they weren’t getting any gigs either. It was a wrong move. Once again it was a thing where we ended up with what we ended up with. [Sons of Champlin] was kind of a stupid name but it stuck.”
What set the band apart in my mind was the horn section.
“We always had two if not three horns. We had a trumpet player, but the day before we were to record our album he went totally bonkers on us and ended up at Napa Hospital. It was nuts. I had to tell him, ‘Dude, I’m sorry but we gotta make this record.’ So the first album’s really reed oriented as opposed to brass; I played bari sax on it. In the long run it was probably a good thing because everybody else who had a horn section at that time was doing brass: Blood Sweat and Tears, Cold Blood and Chicago were all doing hard brass stuff, and I’ve always thought reeds were funkier. Listen to some of the early James Brown stuff, it’s not brass oriented, it’s reed stuff, you know. Brass tends to have this sound like Formica, reeds sound more like an organ to me, it’s a little more forgiving.
“We started off as a five-piece, put out one record, one single that did kind of okay. It was before FM kicked in; we had it on KYA (AM) if you remember that. Then KMPX and KSAN kicked in (the original underground FM station) and the rest is history. It took over.”
This was the time of the Summer of Love and the beginnings of the hippie era. Did you see yourself as part of that?
“Lyrically I think we were going there, but musically we were in a way different spot than the Airplane and the Dead, Quicksilver and Big Brother. We were probably closer to what Janis wanted to do with Big Brother.”
You mean the the soul aspect?
Generally the sort of R&B roots that we had. I was listening to KDIA (the Bay Area soul/R&B station) that was where it was at.
But you were also stretching out your songs out, jamming…
“Probably more then than we do now. What’s weird is now, everybody expects you to stretch. We got busted for it pretty regularly back then, now we’re getting busted for writing songs — by the whole jamband crowd. We definitely open up, but we’re not a jamband, we write songs. We don’t do 45-minute jams, we could but if this band did it, we’d end up sounding like Bitches Brew and lose the audience in a minute. We’d be into jazzland, because we’ve got guys who can do that.”
I have to point out, one song, “Freedom,” took up one whole side of the Loosen Up record.
“That was actually three songs; the last part we stepped out had solos, but most of it was arranged. There were three songs with spaces between that opened up, which I think is a Sons tradition. We carry that one; we have a lot of places were we let it fly, but there’s a lot of places where we really rehearse it, shed it up so the audience is right in with us. We don’t really play it that often, and there’s a small kind of select crowd that might not know us that well, but they know when they come home from a Sons’ gig they’re gonna come home just groovin’.”
Okay, readers, if there are any out there. I have a lot more to this interview, tales of joining Chicago, life in Nashville, complaints about in-ear monitors, and so on, but it takes time and energy to transcribe, and I’m a busy guy, so if you want part 2, leave a comment and say so and I’ll put some more time into it.