Interview conducted in 2007
The Grateful Dead, Journey, and Santana are all well-known names in rock, widely associated with Marin County. But ask any Marin rock musician or music-lover from the ‘60s or ‘70s to name their favorite local band from back in the day — or which Marin band they believed was going to “make it” based on sheer talent and musicianship — and they’ll likely answer with a lesser-known name: The Sons.
That’s short for The Sons of Champlin, the legendary Marin band featuring Bill Champlin (now with Chicago), Geoff Palmer, David Schallock, and James Preston.
Champlin, the group’s leader, was only a 16 year old Tam high student when he and his young group (then called The Opposite Six) were already so well-respected that they opened up for and backed The Righteous Brothers at the Corte Madera Rec Center during the early ‘60s.
JASON: How do a bunch of 16 year olds get to back up and open for an act like The Righteous Brothers at the Corte Madera Rec Center?
BILL: The promoter made it his business to see what was going on around town and we were pretty much the best musicians in town. Wait — that’s the WAY wrong thing to say! We were anything but the best musicians in town!!! (We were good) for pop music and what was going on… (Plus) we had horns and they figured they could probably get us for cheap.
About 10 years ago Chicago was playing at Caesars and one night the trumpet player from Chicago and I went over to see The Righteous Brothers show and we went backstage afterwards. As I was introduced to Bill Medley I said, “We backed you up when I was in high school” and he says, “Bill, shut up. I know you and I’ve been following you ever since. You don’t have to remind me, I remember that. It was a great gig. You guys were cool for a bunch of kids. I made sure to keep an eye on you ever since.”
JASON: How old were you when you originally moved to Marin?
BILL: I moved to Mill Valley for the beginning of 7th grade and went to Edna Maguire junior high school and then Tam for four years.
JASON: Where were some of the other places you used to play?
BILL: We played at all the schools, every one of the high schools at one time or another. I think I even played my own senior ball. There were these outdoor ‘sock hops’ at the outdoor art club right across from The Sequoia Theater on the corner of Throckmorton and Blithedale. There was a group called The Ramrods that used to play there all the time. Another group that I loved was The Swinging Deacons which had a great musician and an awesome cat to watch — Adam Foreman. I think he was a UPS guy at the time. But, man, he played drums and bass and guitar and piano and sang his pick off. He was unbelievable. That band also had John Cippolina playing guitar.
JASON: What year?
BILL: Probably 1959 or 1960.
JASON: What year did you graduate from Tam?
BILL: 1965. I just turned 60.
JASON: Hey, Happy Birthday!
BILL: I’m not happy about it but that’s okay. I called a friend of mine, a guy who used to play with Chicago, and I said, “Hey man, I’m turning 60 and I’m not digging it’ and he says, “Well go smoke a fat one and you’ll forget you’ve got a birthday…and then you’ll forget who you are! (laughs) And I called him back two days later and said, “You’re right!” (Laughs) I think that’s the bad side of what Marin County did and I think it’s still going on… There’s just too much pot. I think a lot of people have a tendency to just kind of lose their forward motion by smoking too much dope.
JASON: You don’t come off anti-drug as much as you do anti-abuse….
We got so high we could go duck hunting with a fork. And our band missed a lot of opportunities because we were buying our own hype. — Bill Champlin, 2007
BILL: Yeah, absolutely. To one person, smoking a couple hits of a joint is like a really good break and a really good thing, maybe a vitamin. But to another person who smokes 3 or 4 big giant fat ones every day, it’s the same as a bottle of scotch is to an alcoholic.
JASON: So in the mid-60s…
BILL: Man, we smoked so much dope. We got so high we could go duck hunting with a fork. And our band missed a lot of opportunities because we were buying our own hype. We were kind of ‘psychedelic-ed out’. And that wasn’t so much psychedelics as just weed in general. It had us kind of in a stupor, I think. That’s only one man’s opinion.
Another guy would tell you it was the best thing that ever happened to us. I think LSD was a great thing. At some point it really opened us up. Marin County was at the forefront of that also.
JASON: You’ve mentioned there was a teacher at Tam that really influenced your career…
BILL: Bob Greenwood was the music teacher at Tamalpais High School for I don’t know how many years.
My older sister Sally was in choir with him, my younger sister was in choir with him, and I was in choir, beginning band, and advanced band. George Duke was in his classes. I’ll sometimes tell people “I was in a band with George Duke. It was the Tamalpais High School marching band!” He played trombone. I played baritone sax. We did a funky version of “On Wisconsin” or whatever the Tam song was….
JASON: What was it about Bob Greenwood that made such an impression on guys like you and George Duke?
BILL: Bob Greenwood was aware of my kind of natural musicianship but he was also hip enough to look in there and say “Here’s a band leader.” So he didn’t just teach what the book told him to teach. He teaches what the student looks like he needs to learn. I had a natural affinity for music but he managed to get it across to where I could actually see it mathematically and it served me really well for a long time. I was also in choir with him and I sounded like a duck. I was a horrible ensemble singer… but I’ve probably made more of my living as a background arranger and singer for records than I have anything. Thanks to him.
Look at most high school choirs. They’re really tame. This guy took some serious chances and pulled out some really outrageous music. You know, Stravinsky and stuff like that, things that you wouldn’t ordinarily hear in a high school choir. He found some of the more avant-garde choral arrangers and we took a shot at it. And there was nothing but flat nines all over the place and it was great. He really opened our eyes to where music CAN go — not that you necessarily WANT to go there — but it showed you where you can go.
JASON: Why has so much great music come out of Marin County?
BILL: It’s always been an ‘artistic freedom zone’, especially Mill Valley. Half the people I knew (there) were art teachers at SF State or UC Berkeley or different schools. There’s been more openness for the Arts in the Bay Area and especially Marin County than probably anywhere else in the United States. They still have music classes in Marin County high schools. They sure don’t have them anywhere else, I guarantee you that. When Prop 13 came down — and all the other states had their versions of it — that was the end of it. (Schools) kept their football programs but they got rid of their choirs and their auto shops and their art classes. It became just reading, writing, arithmetic unless school districts (like Marin) floated bond issues and voted (these programs) back into (the curriculum) and paid for them themselves. The state of California couldn’t afford to do it anymore.
JASON: Take me back to when you were a kid in Marin. What were some places you liked to hang out?
BILL: When we were really young, just early high school, we used to go see John Allaire and Pete Lind playing at the Bowling Alley on Francisco Blvd in San Rafael. The bowling alley shared the bathroom with the lounge so we’d go into the bathroom as bowlers, then open the other door and watch John and Pete play. John Allaire played in a group called the Kustom Keys which was really the first rock and roll band in Marin County. They played at Brown’s Hall on Miller right around the corner from the 2am Club. After that, there was Dean Ferguson who was a great guitar player in those days who started another band called The Chord Lords. They used to kick ass. They played at the Santa Venetia VFW Hall a lot.
In 1959 or 1960, the Sausalito Women’s Club was a good spot to see music. One night I went down there to hang out there with Adam Foreman and the guys from The Swinging Deacons and John Cippolina (who ended up in the Quicksilver Messenger Service much later). John was definitely a Mill Valley guy and his little brother Mario went on to play with Huey Lewis and the News. I didn’t even know Mario was a musician at the time. That night John was playing with The Swinging Deacons and I remember he had an extra guitar. I was standing off to the side of the stage and he just handed me the guitar and said “Hey man, plug in and play”. It was the first time anybody had ever done that with me and I’ve always owed John a ton for that. John passed away a few years back. He was an awesome artist and a great guitar designer, as at home on a guitar as he was at a drafting board. And he designed the most unbelievably beautiful guitars! I loved John.
Visit Bill Champlin’s website at http://www.billchamplin.net