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Welcome, Heraldonians to the first “Almost Famous” installment for 2014 – the journey you’ve taken with me since 2001!

This month we have two terrific jaunts: one back in time that leads us to one right here and now – a genuine family affair. What better way to start off the new year than with a trip down San Francisco Bay Area memory lane with beloved ‘late ‘60s/’70s blue-eyed soulsters the Sons Of Champlin – and then end it with the REAL son of Champlin himself!! I have history with them during different eras of MY life so they are a perfect fit for this column!

The Sons Of Champlin may not be a household name to many outside of the SF Bay Area under 50, but their fearless leader and Grammy award winning songwriter Bill Champlin might ring a bell (from 1981 to 2011, Bill was a keyboardist and singer for the band Chicago). Although Sons Of Champlin released seven critically acclaimed albums from 1969 to 1977, their record sales never reflected their stellar mesh of funky soul and rock ‘n roll that die-hard fans like me love to this day. Another fun fact, probably much more interesting to the media-blitzed masses around the globe, is Bill’s actual son Will Champlin, who was one of the final three contestants on last season’s smash NBC reality singing competition show THE VOICE. More on that later…


An early version of Sons Of Champlin

My indoctrination to the Sons Of Champlin came a wee bit later than their unsung heyday. Back in 1979, while I was still a teenager, I was cast as “Sunny” in the rock musical Breakfast In Marin (see my first “Almost Famous” installment from ’01). Mid-run, they cast an incredible African-American male singer named Leslie Smith (who toured with the musical Hair) to play multiple roles. Leslie had taken Bill Champlin’s place for awhile as the front man for Sons Of Champlin, which became The Sons, while Daddy Bill went off to seek greener pastures in LA, occasionally coming back up here to join them. So MY first experience seeing this phenomenal funky, horn-based soul band was WITHOUT Bill Champlin, where I fell madly in love with great songs like “Here Is Where Your Love Belongs” and “To The Sea”, both off their killer1976 album A Circle Filled With Love, which I bought! In 1980, I moved to Marin to go to College Of Marin and worked as a waitress at Houlihan’s in Sausalito. The duo playing music in the bar were none other than the current keyboard and saxophone players in…The Sons! So I fell head over heels in love with ALL of the above, going to their shows every chance I got, and listening their music over and over again…

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Sons Of Champlin’s A Circle Filled With Love album cover

In 1981, I moved to LA to pursue my own greener, golden pastures and in 1983, I went to go hear Bill Champlin play at some small venue in the San Fernando Valley. I know it was 1983 because a beautiful woman named Tamara was singing back-up for him, very pregnant with…their son Will Champlin! Yes, fans of THE VOICE, I saw Will in the WOMB! Mega-talent certainly runs in the family! Mama and Papa bears Bill and Tamara had oodles of us all over the country on Facebook voting for Will, it was like belonging to a giant family club! Credit them for getting me over my trauma of auditioning twice and not getting through (see the “Almost Famous” archives for the backstory!)!


Son of Bill and Tamara Champlin and THE VOICE finalist Will Champlin!


Ah, the ‘80s in LA. I used to be on vocal sessions with Tamara and we played the same clubs, shared musicians in our bands and became friends. She is another incredible singer/songwriter/artist in her own right. I moved around the country to New York and Nashville, as did they at different times, and we lost touch. But THE VOICE and Facebook and Will brought us back together!


Mama Tamara Champlin

Which leads us to this fateful night on January 18, 2014 to relive it all…at Yoshi’s Oakland with the Sons Of Champlin!

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The Sons Of Champlin at Yoshi’s Oakland – January 18, 2014!!

You’d be hard-pressed to find a better venue than Yoshi’s Oakland to see an exciting band like the Sons Of Champlin. There’s a fabulous restaurant and bar to hang out in before and after the show, and the showroom is warm and inviting, with plenty of room to get up and dance should the spirit move you. And move us it most certainly did. I brought my pal Steven Gary, who had never seen or heard the Sons Of Champlin before this night, and both newbie and veteran fans like us had the time of our lives! Photographer Captain Ron Steinau (who has shot some wonderful pics of me performing over recent years) was documenting the night and kindly snapped this fun shot of Bill and I saying hello before the late show…

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Daddy Bill Champlin and yours truly!

I don’t know what the sold-out early show was like but the late show instantly had a vibe of an after-party for friends and family. Tamara saw me right before they started and ran over and gave me a big hug, introducing me to folks I had seen rooting for Will on Facebook. We had killer seats right up front, of which Steve and I kept jumping up from to shake a tail feather with a bunch of other post  baby boomer/former hippie hipsters. The band, including original members James Preston (drums), Geoff Palmer (keyboards, vibes), and long-time lead guitarist Carmen Grillo were on friendly fire, tearing into medleys of funk jams like “Get High/Freedom” and other delicious toe-tapping treats. Bill switched from keyboards to guitar effortlessly and his soulful voice never sounded stronger. He had a playful, devil-may-care, “this is the 2nd set so I’m done workin’, this is a party now” attitude which suited us perfectly. A couple of times he introduced himself as “Will Champlin’s dad” or he and Tamara as “Will Champlin’s parents”, making fun of the fact that they both got more camera time out in the TV audience cheering on Will than in both of their careers combined. Tamara gave me a couple shout-outs from the stage, and tore the house down on a couple of stellar solo numbers, “Backstreets Of Paradise” and “Lightning In A Bottle”. Her background vocals and cool, sexy vibe added just the right amount of spicy sauce to the funky stew. Horn players Jeff Lewis (trumpet) and Doug Rowan (saxophone) just killed it and newest addition Dick Mithum (bass) laid down a solid bottom end.

But it was the songs like the blissfully groove-filled and aching with desire “Here Is Where Your Love Belongs”, and the mesmerizing “To The Sea” that took me so deep and far back to a time where my whole life stretched out before me and any and everything was possible. It was once again a poignant reminder to experience the power certain music has to transport you to another time and place, the permanent stamp it makes on your heart and soul for all time. Why the ones of us who create and deliver it must always strive to continue…

After the spectacular show, we went out into the bar to visit and I had a nice chat with guitar player Carmen Grillo and of course, the lovely Tamara. I hope to remain in closer touch until we meet again…

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Tamara Champlin and moi’ hangin’ out after the show!

Will Champlin at The Chapel SF – February 24, 2014

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Especially when both trees are as gifted as Papa & Mama Bears Bill and Tamara Champlin. For those initiated or who are just coming aboard this stop on the “Almost Famous” train, that’s Grammy-award winning  singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist  Bill Champlin from The Sons of Champlin and band Chicago and his mega-talented wife singer/songwriter Tamara (see above for details, y’all!). So the odds that their offspring would step into those music-lovin’ genes and toe-tappin’ shoes he was born into were pretty high to begin with, certainly. But no one could have predicted the level to which this son of Champlin Will Champlin has ascended and his ride to the top has just begun.

Most of America became aware of Will Champlin during the last season of the hit NBC reality show singing competition THE VOICE. Will placed third on judge Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine’s team, after a dramatic underdog journey of almost being cast off the music island and being saved several times. His devoted family was always in the audience cheering him on, including a wife who has battled cancer and a new baby, which, of course, made great television, which, of course, is so much of what these shows are all about. Mon & Pop Champlin took to social media, creating a virtual cheering section of loyal viewers and voters across the country and around the world.

But no one could be more serious about music or less likely to bask in the glow and hype of TV Land spotlight than 31 year-old Will Champlin. All you had to do was watch him talk to the judges on the show, or have a chat with him for five minutes to grasp that he’d rather be in a recording studio or on a stage than in front of a camera. Will is a soft-spoken, shy and humble fellow, camouflaging his pop idol good looks with an array of funky Elvis Costello-esque glasses. And his biggest fear seems to be worrying about people thinking he’s riding on his father’s musical dreamcoat tails.

He need not dwell on that. Already playing a number of instruments before he even opened his mouth to sing at age 17, Will left LA and set off to the famed Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he honed his chops and re-located to Nashville, TN, diving head first into a music-driven life. He wrote the song “Ordinary One” which was included on Heather Headley’s album Audience Of One, winning Best Contemporary R&B Gospel Album," as well as "Best Traditional Gospel Album in 2010.He toured the Middle East for the troops, wrote and produced songs for TV and film, as well as many independent artists and toured with the likes of the Eagles’ Glenn Fry and Miley’s dad Billy Ray Cyrus. So he was primed and ready to pave his own way to the top of the heap, at least musically. And that he did, bringing a fierce dedication and work ethic to every performance and battle between his fellow contestants. The guy is serious as a heart attack. My biggest concern and question to Will was “Are you having fun yet?” But his fan base grew each week and kept him in the game up till the final three.

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Will Champlin on NBC’s THE VOICE

So it was absolute kismet that Will set off on a mini-tour and his travels brought him here to San Francisco and The Chapel SF just one month after Mom & Pop Champlin appeared at Yoshi’s with the Sons Of Champlin. Wha-LAH, what was once a single review story became a double-trouble family affair two-part extravaganza!

This was my maiden voyage at The Chapel SF in the Mission District – a very unique building from 1914 that was originally a mortuary. The mid-sized venue still feels like a church, with 40-foot high ceilings a mezzanine, great acoustics, and an adjoining restaurant, bar and outdoor patio that can hold up to 600 capacity altogether.  I arrived while Will and his three bandmates were sound checking. My immediate thought was how well would the son of Champlin and THE VOICE finalist draw in our City By the Bay?

The ticket pricing was $15-$75 – why the vast difference? Because a $75 VIP ticket would get you a before the show “Meet ‘n Greet” with the future pop star – whoo HOO! I was granted admission to the mezzanine section to check out their scene. There were about a dozen fans hanging out with Will and some guy who was handling them. Will asked them “So what do you guys want to do?” and they yelled “Take pictures with you!”  While they were lining up for their photo op moment, I asked the two gals next to me what their story was. Boo was a school teacher from Monterey who brought her student Anna Lynn – yup, me ‘n you and a teacher named Boo schlepped up to the city and paid $75 to see Will, which got them an autographed picture of Will and a chance to take one on their phone with him before the big show. And a group shot too!  I had to get in on both photo ops – plus I had a moment to chat with the soft-spoken Will myself. We discussed folks we knew and worked with in common, including my old NYC guitar player/singer/songwriter pal Joey Sykes, who plays with Will in LA in between his new gig with the reformed band The Babys and jaunts back ‘n forth to Nashville, and speaking of Nashville,  co-writer/producer Steffon Hamulak, who Will calls a “visionary”.             

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Group shot with Will and his VIP ticket holder fans

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My Meet ‘n Greet photo op with Will Champlin before the show

The empty room downstairs had filled up a bit more before show time, probably about 60 or 70 people. I’m sure they had hoped for more – and I wondered how much promotion they had done to get folks out on a Monday night. I decided to find out who a few of them were before Will & Co. hit the stage. Twenty-something cutie-pie buds Julie and Christina were my first subjects. Julie was the archetypal THE VOICE “Champ” – the name given to his fans from the hit TV show. Driving all the way from Sacramento, Julie admitted she was a die-hard social media stalker Champ – following Will on Twitter, Facebook, etc.- and voting and downloading everything on Will she could get her hands on. When I asked her if she voted for Will a gazillion times, her pal Julie from San Francisco rolled her eyes and said, “They made her stop at 10 times. I’m just here because of her.” But I noticed both of them standing in front of the stage rocking out during his set. Adorable.

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Die-hard “Champs” – Christina and Julie

On the other side of the spectrum, there was Carol Nagie – a long-time Sons Of Champlin fan for decades whose husband had “discovered” Will years ago, long before THE VOICE brought him national attention. I recognized her name from Mama Bear Tamara’s Facebook page and realized we had both been at their Yoshi’s show in January! Full circle time, y’all! Before I could snap her photo, opener Zachary Blizzard (great name!) hit the stage with his electric guitar. Another powerful singer, his heavy alt-rock style probably worked great fronting his full band, but not so much as a solo act.

Finally at 9pm, it was time for headliner Will Champlin and his band to take the stage. His Champs moved up to the front to see their TV hero do what they had voted for week after week on the small screen. The multi-instrumentalist Will began with a banjo and a cover of the hit song “Wake Me Up” by Avicii and Aloe Blacc, a rather odd choice since someone else sang it on the show. But it certainly got the Champs going and Will seemed to be having more fun in this arena than on national TV. He needs to do some work on his stage patter between songs – you can’t always hear or understand what he’s saying – but his heart is certainly in the right place and his fans ate it up.

The 11 song high energy set was a tight mix of covers he did sing on THE VOICE like Fun’s “Carry On” and One Republic’s “Secrets” with some of his own stellar original songs like “Borrowing Trouble, “Eye Of The Pyramid”, and the stand-out of the night “Last Man Standing”, an ode to his final three status on THE VOICE with two female contenders and his commitment to his family to provide for them and be the man they could count on. A bonafide pop ballad smash hit, Will divulged that “Last Man Standing” is being used as a commercial for NBC during the new season, which will hopefully pay off big time for all of them.  Will let us know that he is six songs deep into his new album – and if what we heard here tonight is indicative of the rest, he’s well on his way to a great record.

Will’s music is a tasty blend of his soulful pop, rock, funk and country influences, and he switches effortlessly between banjo, guitar and keyboards like he did on THE VOICE. His band on this gig, guitar player Stephan Hovesepian from LA (who doubled on violin), and local Sonoma and Marin County boys Ben Burleigh (bass) and Alan Hetz (drums) did a fine job. I’d like to see Will step away from the instruments completely on a few tunes like we saw him do on THE VOICE. And lest not let us forget about the most crucial element of this whole piece: Will Champlin’s own VOICE. The man can definitely sing his genetically inherited and personally fine-tuned tail off, with impeccable phrasing, tone, style, and those notes that go ever higher and higher, like his coach on THE VOICE Adam Levine once pointed out. I might suggest that he use some of those moments a tad more sparingly, to give the audience a chance to settle into the groove and the song itself – and have more dramatic impact when he does go for broke on those high notes.

Will Champlin has a way to go to achieve the superstar status and artist career longevity he is working toward – but where there is a Will this talented, I hope he gets the right guidance, producer and management to help him find the way. Especially before this once-in-lifetime opportunity dims. This ain’t his daddy’s kingdom and today’s kingmakers have much shorter attention spans. So pay attention and step up your game, young Will! You’re worth it.

Will Champlin and his band at The Chapel SF

Tttthhhhat’s all for this month, folks. A grateful farewell to a folk singer/songwriter/activist Pete Seeger, a sad final good-bye wonderful actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, ditto beloved child star turned ambassador Shirley Temple, a happy trails to Tonight Show host Jay Leno, a Happy 50th anniversary to the Beatles first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, and congrats to all the Oscar winners, especially 20 Feet From Stardom! Happy Spring, y’all…###

All contents © 2011 by Gene Mahoney