I don’t remember where or how I heard it. It might have been in a magazine or it might have been on the street. I don’t think I dreamed it, and when I think about it, it still makes sense. My memory these days isn’t what it was, and there’s lots of things I forget, but a) my long-term memory is fine, and b) there are things I forget, but what I remember, I remember, which is taking too long to tell you that back in the late 1960’s I heard or read that there were four bands in America, two on the east coast, and two in the west coast, that other musicians studied for their musicianship. On the east coast they were Steely Dan and The Band, and on the west coast they were Little Feat and The Sons of Champlin. Who? The Sons of Champlin. So here’s a bit of Bay Area musical history you might not be familiar with.
I love words like zeitgeist, which were made for times like the late 60’s when things started changing in the Bay Area and bands like the Airplane, the Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother, Country Joe and the Fish and others started playing music with a newer, looser, more experimental (okay, psychedelic) bent. Bent? The old system wasn’t bent, it was broke, and zeitgeist was all over the place when people started taking all manner of psychedelic drugs and tripping out to the music and the magic that they went seeking for their hedonistic pleasures. It was everywhere, it seemed. You shoulda been there.
Of all the bands that exploded out of the Bay Area in the late 60’s, the best one that most people have never heard of—and some still feel should have been better known—was The Sons of Champlin. Lucky me, I used to hang out with these guys in 1968, and one of them told me that they took the name as a joke. The leader, Bill Champlin, had had a child as the band was forming, and someone said they should be called “The Sons of Father Champlin.” He said it didn’t take long to come to The Sons of Champlin.
Oh, sure, there were other bands that played the clubs and halls and were never heard from again, some of them pretty good. Look at those Fillmore and Avalon posters and see if you’ve ever heard of the supporting bands. Has anyone heard of “The Only Alternative and His Other Possibilities?” Yeah, they played the Bay Area clubs, and I’ve never forgotten another band whose name must have caused a stir when a club’s outside billboard announced that playing that night were “Elvis and the Beatles.” Okay, some of those were joke names, even though they were bands, but there were some serious bands, and even more bands that aspired to being serious. Like the Golliwogs, who played at Litchfield’s in San Rafael, which I think was a skating rink, before they became Creedence Clearwater. It was easy: get yourself a guitar, teach yourself some chords, form a band.
Pyewacket had a seventeen-year-old kid who someone said was a genius on guitar. I went to one rehearsal, then saw one show; his chops were incendiary, and I never heard of him again. There have to be hundreds of these unknown bands, many of whom are deservedly unheard of. When we talk about the popular bands of that time whose names we know, the bands that regularly played the major venues, the Sons are rarely mentioned. But what a band! With Bill Champlin excelling in white soul vocals and Hammond B-3 coursing through a Leslie speaker, Terry Haggerty’s jazz-inflected rock-ish guitar mastery, solid, solid rhythm corps and a horn section to blast you higher, the band played the Fillmore, the Avalon and venues out of town (the last time I saw them they were in New York, The Sons opened for The Byrds at the Fillmore East. No one knew who they were back there, but they rocked the house.)
The reason they played the Fillmore East in New York was because Bill Graham loved and admired them, and I remember that show for a different reason. I’d been living in Marin, which is how I met and knew the band, and now I was back in New York, living in my parent’s house on Long Island. I’d just moved back from Marin, and my mother, who knew I was going to see The Sons that night, in a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to make me feel welcome and keep me at home, waited until I left, then took several of my Fillmore and Avalon posters and glued them to the wall in my bedroom. And yes, of course my Sons of Champlin poster was among them. She’d meant well, one supposes. When I left again, my choice was to leave them behind or take the wall. Thanks, mom.
I’ve been replacing those I lost, and a few years ago, one of them came up on eBay and I snagged it. The Sons were opening for Them, whose singer was about to go solo and whose name was Van Morrison.
Back to The Sons, who never droned you into a drugged-out haze like another band I could mention, nor did they trip you out with effects; their charts were sophisticated, the musicianship flawless, the beats rocking. Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead once said of their shows, “They were breathing fire… they were the most talented of all the bands.” Someone once called their music “acid jazz” and that works. I would have used “psychedelic soul.”
So they were known, but maybe they were too sophisticated for the usual hippie audience. Their albums were well-reviewed, but sales were poor and they never rose above local notice. My interpretation is that some of the music from other bands invited you to drift off, which was popular back then, but the Sons’ music was more demanding. You had to listen more consciously. They weren’t trippy, but they were a trip. Oh, yeah, I remember.
I know about The Sons and how widely they were respected in the Bay Area, and I wanted to introduce them to you. Maybe they’re on iTunes. Maybe you’ll check them out. In the summer of 1968, I used to hang out with them while they rehearsed at the heliport in Sausalito, and someone should write about that place. I was invited to their recording session for Capitol Records, and was in the room when they recorded one of their more popular songs, “Get High.” In the studio recording, you can hear someone toking on a joint in front of the mic, and there’s a link to it below, as well as a link to them doing this song live. We’ll get back to that live track presently.
After Graham left the Fillmore (it’s open again with new owners), he briefly put on shows at the old Carousel Ballroom, re-naming it the Fillmore West (it’s now the Honda dealership on Market), and then he moved his shows to the more voluminous Winterland, the venue where Martin Scorsese filmed the Band’s “Last Waltz.” By the way, The Sons of Champlin opened for The Band the first time that band used that name. Sure, that’s trivia, but if that ever comes up on Final Jeopardy… You’re welcome.
The band had little commercial success and broke up in 1970, re-forming periodically, but never again had the line-up that I knew. Bill Champlin went solo in 1977 and in 1981, he joined Chicago on keyboards, and I’m told he also arranged their charts. The Sons have re-united periodically and still might, so keep an eye out. You’ll be surprised at the sophistication and musicality, and getting high is optional but recommended. When I knew the band, there was no denying the consistent quality of their musicianship, but that horn section I knew wasn’t on this live track from a few years after I’d lost touch with them, and I know they must feel as badly as I do about the clams at the beginning and at 18:31. Do you know what a clam is? It’s a bad note. It’s embarrassing. It happens.
Other than that slight miscue, please observe Bill’s command as a vocalist as well as a musician. Dude could sing some! Everyone I knew admired Terry Haggerty’s guitar work. Haggerty was known, but probably more known about than heard in person, and you didn’t come to see the Sons expecting guitar pyrotechnics; there were no screaming, distorted solos of daring sonic possibilities; no mind-bending effects or screeching feedback, and it’s not that I didn’t like that stuff and understand all the attention those other guys got, but Terry Haggerty was a jazz guy. Yeah he knew the riffs and he knew he played in a rock game, and he was a master of his craft. It just wasn’t the most popular craft, but he steadfastly supplied both a rhythm and sometimes solid, sometimes fluttering riffs with a steady hand and a deft touch. It rocked but it didn’t command. Solid, smart, fast and clean, no flashed-out special effects, just flying fingers on a fretboard.
Vibes? Vibes in a rock band? What the…? Geoff Palmer was a stand-out multi-instrumentalist and I remember sax, keys (including a beautiful accordion) and I won’t compare him with anyone, but if you ever wondered what Lionel Hampton might sound like if he played in a psychedelic rock ‘n’ soul band… Ladies and gentlemen: Geoff Palmer on vibes! He was in The Sons of Champlin and he was part of a whole, and the whole kept chooglin’. Oh, it was trippy alright, and they were tight. Yeah, they were tight.
Here’s the studio version of the song from the album “Loosen Up Naturally.”
Here are The Sons of Champlin in concert at Winterland in 1973. Sorry about the clams at the beginning of “Freedom” and at 18:31. This clip has two songs so listen to as much of “Freedom” as you like, and then “Get High” starts at 11:28:
Some follow-up stuff:
- The Sons recorded their first album in 1967 for Trident Records, owned by Kingston Trio manager Frank Werber. They released a single, "Sing Me a Rainbow," (B-side "Fat City") which got airplay in the Bay Area but did not crack the national charts. The plan was to follow this release with another song from the album, a Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil composition called "Shades of Grey." Unfortunately for The Sons, the Monkees released their version before this could happen. The album was not released and The Sons left Trident Records. In February 1999, this collection was released on a British CD under the title Fat City.
- The Sons released seven albums between 1969 and 1977, including Loosen Up Naturally, The Sons, Welcome to the Dance, and Circle Filled With Love. The albums were generally well-reviewed, but were low sellers. Loosen Up Naturally is the album I had the great good fortune to be in the room for the recording of “Get High.”
- In concert, “Get High” was the band’s closer.
- I don’t know if they’re on iTunes, so here’s a link to “Loosen Up Naturally” on Amazon where you can buy individual tracks: LINK. (Here are links to the band's albums in lossless quality on the Pono Music Store and Tidal - editor.)
- How obscure are they? This video has barely over 4,000 views.
- That “Thanks, mom” was sarcasm.
Gilbert Klein has enough degrees and not enough stories. He’s been a radio talk show host, a nightclub owner, event producer, and has written two books: FAT CHANCE about the legendary KFAT radio, and FOOTBALL 101. He threatens to write one more. He spent 25 years in New York, 25 years in San Francisco, and is now purportedly retired in Baja.