Sons of Champlin

Sons of Champlin

    The Sons of Champlin arose in the late 60s out of a dynamic Bay Area music scene that was most noted for psychedelic rock acts like Jefferson Airplane, but which was also the home of groups like Sly & the Family Stone and Tower of Power that were changing the face of soul music, taking James Brown's funk introductions to the next level of assimilation in popular music.  The Sons of Champlin were caught somewhere between the two groups, resembling the look and often the lyrics of the former but always clearly displaying their affinity for soul music.

    The group gathered a small but loyal following that carried it through more than a half dozen albums during the late 60s and 70s, none of them ever cracking the top 100.  The Sons broke up in the mid 70s and lead singer Bill Champlin went on to a moderately successful solo career (he landed the Adult Contemporary hit "Sara" in 1981) and began working frequently with David Foster, who would go on to become the most successful music producer of the 80s.  This ultimately resulted in Champlin joining rock supergroup Chicago (whose early work sounded somewhat like a more accessible version of the Sons of Champlin) in time for Foster to lead that group through a resurrection as a power ballad group with the smash "Hard to Say I'm Sorry" and a slew of formulaic follow-ups.  And when Peter Cetera left Chicago, Champlin's presence gave the group a gutsier, more soulful lead vocalist -- in some ways like what Michael McDonald did for the Doobies a decade earlier -- and the group's biggest hit ever, "Look Away."  Champlin remained with Chicago more than two decades.

    In 2002, after more than 25 years apart, the Sons of Champlin reunited, touring for a couple years before releasing the live album and DVD Secrets in 2004.  This set up the recording of their first studio album in three decades, the newly released Hip Li'l Dreams.  For Hip Champlin is joined by original group members Geoff Palmer, David Schallock and James Preston as well as Tal Morris, Tom Saviano and former Tower of Power member Mic Gillette and guest vocalists Bobby Kimball of Toto and Tom Johnston of the Doobie Brothers.

    A lot has happened to popular music since the last Sons album.  The group's sound, which was once perhaps too progressive, now has a slightly nostalgic feel, the wall-of-sound horn sections having been successfully commercialized by groups from Blood Sweat & Tears to Earth, Wind and Fire.  So why is it that Hip Li'l Dreams sounds so fresh in 2005, popping from the first note?   Maybe its because in the current era of abundant synthesizers and programmed drums, we'd almost forgotten how good a Hammond organ backed with an excellent, full horn section could sound, and the band's performance here is a great reminder. 

    The first half Hip Li'l Dreams crackles, with Bill Champlin's soulful growl leading the funky "For Joy" and "Swim," and the fine ballad "I'm Not Your Lover."  However, like the old Sons albums, the bug-a-boo on Hip is that the material is not uniformly strong.  The songs on the second half of the disc are simply less compelling and Champlin tends to oversing - as if he's trying to rescue weaker songs like "Bring Home the Gold" and "Star Outa' You." What actually saves the album is the group's stunning performance, which is one of the best I've heard this year.  It again demonstrates the power that a great, full band brings to music - think Tower of Power circa 1972 or Earth Wind & Fire circa 1976 - and reminds us how few great performing bands are on the radio today.  This is an act worth hearing.

    By Chris Rizik

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