THE SONS OF CHAMPLIN
For ten years I roadied for one of the best rock bands that ever played. This led to some interesting experiences
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Page two of this narrative
In 1968 I ran away with a circus called the Sons of Champlin, and I didn't return until nine years later. The idea of traveling with a rock band was sufficiently romantic at that time that Frank Zappa had already released a song which contained the lyrics, "I will go to San Francisco. I will join a band and become the road manager. I will sleep on floors and catch the crabs and smoke an awful lot of dope." Zappa captured the San Francisco feeling perfectly, even though he was probably trying to satirize it.
It was a musical era that looks more and more special the farther we get from it. Perhaps it's a case of "the older I get, the better I was," but I don't think so. There was an incredible wave of new music, written and performed by people in their early twenties, breaking all rules and in doing so creating new ones and a new musical order. If the execution was sometimes unpolished, the concepts were wild extrapolations of everything that had gone before, propelled by a new generation of sound-reinforcement equipment that made truly monstrous volumes possible for the first time.
Much of that new order has stagnated, but that doesn't reduce the vitality it had then. In spite of the fact that they never achieved even moderate stardom, the Sons of Champlin were one of the best examples of that vitality. The music they created holds its own against the compositions of any ensemble of any era, and has influenced a generation of other musicians.
Like any creative group, the Sons began as a marriage of convenience. We need a bass player. You're a bass player. Do you have the time to practice with us? Can you play these tunes? Can you make the gig? Do you have a draft problem? And suddenly the guy is in the band. A band is a marriage among more than two persons, and if the music is the "baby," they all have the capability to reshape it at will. The balance of power and artistry is always precarious unless a group is a dictatorship such as those created by James Brown and his Famous Flames. Bill Champlin would not have minded being that dictator, but a band composed of acquaintances drifting together and forming a group cannot be ordered around like a group hired and fired at the leader's will. The dynamics of the relationship between band members is what fuels the performances, but it can also be the seed of the band's breakup.
Of all the members, and over the years there were a lot of them, only two played with the band from start to end, 1965 to 1977. Bill Champlin and guitarist Terry Haggerty went the distance, and Geoff Palmer went almost as long. Between 1965 and 1977 there were six drummers, eight horn players, four bass players and four or five managers. I outlasted three drummers, three bass players, six horn players, six other roadies, two managers, a couple of P.A. systems and a lot of vehicles in nine years.
The Sons of Champlin was formed on the remains of a semi-popular Marin County band called the Opposite Six. The Opposite Six were Bill Champlin, keyboards, Tim Cain, sax, John Leones, sax, Rob Moitoza, bass, Don Irving, guitar, and Dick Rogers, drums. Like every other band of its 1964 era, the Six did Beatles covers and the obligatory Louie, Louie. In 1964 EVERY band played Louie, Louie. It wasn't a question of if, but when, you were going to play it. But the Six had a horn section, and they were fans of James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Booker T and the MGs and other soul artists, influences not generally shared by the other white suburban bands playing in the Bay Area in the wake of the British invasion.
At that time the most popular Bay Area groups were probably the Beau Brummels, who had a couple of national hits ("Laugh, Laugh," "Just a Little") but would never be mistaken for a soul band, and We Five, a one hit group ("You Were On My Mind") whose founder, Michael Stewart, produced the Sons' unreleased Trident album. The Fillmore hadn't yet opened, and there was little hint of what was coming in a couple of years.
The Sons came together around College of Marin in late 1965, where a few classes held off the draft for another six months and there were a few music courses you could use to keep the grade point average above water. The Beatles had arrived in America the year before and changed everything. Bob Dylan had gone electric, outraging white suburban folk purists and encouraging the growth of "folk-rock." Suddenly there were bands everywhere in Marin, because rockers had the sexiest image since surfers two years earlier, and if your guitar playing is bad, at least you won't drown. If you couldn't get girls, being in a band, no matter how bad, looked like a start.
The College of Marin chorus, the easiest "A" grade in the music department, was full of long-haired local rockers, including Tim Cain and Terry Haggerty. Other local bands that hung around the college were members of Butch Engle and the Styx, the Turtles, who had to change their name when those other Turtles ("Go Away from my Window") arrived, the Morlocks, and the Pullice. Band memberships and allegiances shifted daily, and there were dozens of wannabe rockers wandering around looking for a band to be in. If you were looking for someone to jam with, you didn't have to look far. See that guy with the long hair...?
When two members of the Six, drummer Dick Rogers and bass player Rob Moitoza, had to leave because of military obligations, and horn player John Leones left to get a real job, the band broke up. Bill Champlin and Tim Cain started looking around for some other guys to play with, hopefully some who wouldn't be drafted. Terry Haggerty was a natural choice, because he wears coke-bottle glasses, had bad ankles, and grew up a few blocks from Tim. Tim didn't have a draft problem, since he used crutches as a result of a bout with polio as a child. In 1954 he was a poster boy for the March of Dimes.
The other two members, drummer Jimmy Meyers and bass player John Prosser both eventually went into the military and were replaced by Bill Bowen and Al Strong. Bowen was safe from the draft with asthma, and Strong had a hearing deficiency as a result of a childhood illness.
Bill Champlin was only eighteen, but he was already married and had a child, which deferred him. At his age most guys wanted to play music to get laid, and live at home while taking enough classes to look respectable, but Bill needed to make money, and he wasn't just going to play music for a while and then get a job. Music was going to be the life, because from the age of about 13 on, he had wanted to play the blues.
Bill was the star student in his music class at Tamalpais High School. Two years before Bill, another Grammy-winner had been the star, George Duke. (The two would not play together again until they met on the stage at Dukes's 20th year class reunion.) Not really a disciplined scale-player, Bill had an ear and a feel that let him learn how to play anything. He played keyboards, horns, guitar, bass and drums, and he sang. If it made noise, Bill could make some music with it, and he already had the voice, as the singer for the Opposite Six. In the Opposite Six he was a keyboard player, but he was also a passable blues guitar player and a fan of B.B. King. Champlin had written his first song as a fourteen year old, a blues called "Beggin' You Baby" that has become his own personal blues statement. And there was always, "Louie, Louie."
Saxophones were still in vogue for rockers then as a lead instrument, although teenage groups rarely if ever used a horn section, and Tim Cain was already a good player who could double on keyboard. All the time his friends had spent playing baseball as kids, he spent with his sax, and his melodic sense was already well developed.
Terry Haggerty's father Frank was a long-time guitar player, and as "Hog-Fat Frank Haggerty" had even been on a national radio show briefly in the 1940s. Terry had grown up with major jazz players coming around and jamming at the house, and as a kid, he thought everyone played that way. In fact, he was decades ahead of any other young guitarist in Marin in technique, and could play all the rock tunes that the older guys hated.
The new band was to be called the Masterbeats, a name that didn't sell as well in the early 60s as it would today. The name kept the band from getting gigs, and so, as the band legend goes, when Bill finally got a gig based on his connections left over from the Opposite Six, he didn't dare blow it by using the name "Masterbeats." We're told that he wrote down the first thing that popped into his head, Sons of Champlin, and from then on the band was stuck with the name. This may be the truth, and it certainly is the legend.
I came over to a couple of practices in John Prosser's parents' basement in Corte Madera before the band ever performed, but in February of 1966 the Army took me away. I had a couple of going away parties, one where Butch Engle and the Styx played, and another in a house rented by Al Strong and the original roadies for the Sons, Mark Hazell and Steve Tobin (AKA Steve Tollestrup. This name is important. You will see it later.).
This house, where I first met Bill Champlin, was a couple of blocks from where Terry and Tim were living at home, and became one of the first dens of iniquity that I or they were ever exposed to. The residents called it the "Eichman Pile," a vague reference to the convicted war criminal who had just been executed.
Meyers and Prosser stayed with the band long enough to play a few gigs, but they were gone soon, replaced by Bowen and Strong.
Al Strong had gone to high school with Tim and Terry, and had played with Terry in his first band, the Starlighters. He recalls the day that Bill Bowen auditioned with the band.
"None of the other drummers who auditioned hit as hard as Bill did. I just said, 'I like this guy,' and he was in the band." Like Bill Champlin, Bowen had recently graduated from Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley. I had known him for longer than that, since we had been in the same Boy Scout Troop, Mill Valley Troop 1, along with roadie Steve Tobin.
The Sons of Champlin fell together quickly, playing R&B ("Midnight Hour," "Mustang Sally"), Beatles covers ("I'll Cry Instead") and blues instrumentals ("Yo Mama.") By now Bill played guitar on some numbers, while Tim played the Hammond B-3 organ. They performed at the Santa Venetia Armory and the Disco-Deck, a grounded ferryboat nightclub where such bands as Big Brother, Steppenwolf (then called The Sparrow), and the Sons played for the newly 21-year old crowd. Managed by Tim Cain's brother Bob, they also got onto the San Francisco ballroom circuit, where they met Fred Roth, a 30 year old photographer who worked at the Fillmore Auditorium. After Bob Cain enlisted in the Army in 1966, Fred would become the manager of the band, and change its entire philosophy.
The Fillmore gig with Van Morrison featured a drinking episode of legendary proportions (I missed it, so it's hearsay) that apparently pissed Bill Graham off. Graham could hold quite a grudge, and the Sons couldn't seem to get another Fillmore gig. It didn't matter that much, because there was always the rival Avalon Ballroom on the other side of town. Less than a year after I was drafted, I made it home on leave for my 21st birthday, and went over to the Avalon Ballroom with the band for my first taste of the Scene.
The bill on December 16, 1966 was The Sparrow, The Youngbloods and the Sons of Champlin, and it blew me away. I had never heard the thunder of drums amplified through a pair of A-7 Voice of the Theater speakers, and it was unbelievable and addicting. Too bad though, because I had to go off and do another year of the army while the letters from my friend Mark Hazell, who was then living with Bill and his family, portrayed a world that was the envy of every music fan on the planet, with the possible exception of those living in Liverpool. Even George Harrison made an incognito visit to the Haight.
When I came home on leave a few times in 1967, Mark introduced me to Fred Roth and Geoff Palmer, a Chicago native just out of the Army who had shown up in Marin on Bob Cain's recommendation. Bob and Geoff had been in the same unit, and Bob had told Geoff of his brother's band, suggesting he look these guys up on his way home from Korea.
Fred Roth took over the job of manager more or less by default in 1967. At the ripe age of 30, he seemed far more mature than anyone else the guys knew. And besides, he had taken acid.
In 1967 everyone in San Francisco took acid. I didn't, because I was still in the army. In 1967 Mark wrote me a letter that started with a list of "Two great reasons to desert this summer: the Magic Mountain Festival [on Marin's Mount Tamalpais], and the Monterey Pop Festival," which would feature a lot of the current San Francisco rockers as well as Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix. The Sons didn't play at Monterey, but they played in the outdoor amphitheater near the top of Mount Tam, and by all accounts, it was indeed magical. It was so magical that rock 'n' roll was banned from the amphitheater.
I came home on leave in the fall of 1967, and I met Geoff Palmer at Fred Roth's house. Mark introduced him as a guy who was going to play with the band, although Geoff did not acompany them to their first real "road" gig to Denver in September of that year. Geoff later told me how he got the invite. After getting out of the army, he took Bob Cain's advice and checked out Marin and Bob's brother's band. Walking into the practice hall (a garage in Fairfax), he spotted Bill's Hammond B-3. "I sat down and gave them all my Jimmy Smith stuff, and it blew them away." Until then, Bill had split time with Tim on keyboards, playing guitar on a lot of the tunes because one sax wasn't exactly a horn section. Geoff's presence changed that, because he could double on horns also.
A natural musician, Geoff was the son of a pair of nightclub entertainers, and his background in jazz expanded the possibilities of the band. The arrival of another of Geoff's army buddies, trumpet player Jim Beem, gave the Sons a two or three piece horn section. Tim moved permanently to the tenor sax.
I came roaring out of the army in February of 1968, having already missed the Summer of Love. (A poster of the "Human Be-in," a celebrated event of the summer of 1967, had featured a photograph of the girl I had been going with when I left for the army -- with her new boyfriend.) When I got back to Marin, the guys in and around the Sons were nearly all the friends I had left who hadn't gone off to the Army or college or gotten married. Since they were also in the thick of the fabled San Francisco music scene, it seemed like the right gang to hang with.
The roadies at that time were Steve Tobin and Dave Harris. Steve was known in some circles as Steve Tollestrup, but he was "Tooth" to everyone in the band. Tim explains the origin of the name. "We were stoned and we were eating lemon drops. Steve sucked one until it was just a little white object, then he spit it out and said, 'Look, I'm having a tooth!'. We all cracked up, and from then on he was Tooth." "Tooth," Bill Bowen and I went back to Boy Scout days together, and it seemed natural to go where they were going.
Dave Harris was an R 'n' B freak who briefly published a magazine called the Mojo Navigator Rock 'n' Roll News. The paper had been instrumental in destroying the Lovin' Spoonful's reputation in San Francisco, when it broke the story that a couple of the band had been busted for weed, and to escape harsh penalties, had turned in their dealer. The Spoonful, arguably one of the more original bands in the United States, couldn't play San Francisco after that, and if you couldn't play there, you were not happening. They faded from the scene shortly afterward.
I hung on the coattails of the band as hard as I could, even bribing the equipment guys to let me accompany them to a gig in Santa Cruz. I wasn't an official anything, but I was around so much that Geoff finally told me that they couldn't keep taking me to gigs. They had a few other friends, he explained, and there were never enough guest passes to go around.
I never quite went away though. As 1968 moved from spring into summer, I went with the gang to a gig with the Youngbloods and the Doors at the San Jose Fairgrounds. The equipment truck, Bill's white Econoline, was in the way, and Bill tossed me the keys, and asked me to move it. It was the first acknowledgement that I might be useful. The problem was that Dave Harris didn't have a driver's license, and as the band ranged farther and farther afield, it was throwing a major driving burden onto Tooth. Also, able-bodied help without some sort of a draft "problem" was essential, and there wasn't a lot of that around.
Finally, with a trip to Southern California looming, Dave realized he had to do something, either get the license or move on, and he chose to move. I was hanging out at a rehearsal in the band's practice hall, a room rented above the Marin County heliport in Sausalito, when Terry took me outside into the hallway.
"Chuck, Dave's not going to be the equipment guy any more, and we can't think of anyone we would want to do it except you. If you want to do the equipment, we'll give you what everyone else in the band gets" At that time, band "pay" was getting your rent paid plus $10 a week. It was all the invitation I needed, and a couple of days later we left for Los Angeles.
I didn't bring any electronic knowhow to the job, and even after years of doing it I was not the kind of guy who would rewire an amplifier. That doesn't mean I couldn't take care of the routine electronic chores required, such as repairing cables, making cords, setting up P.A. systems and so on, but my main qualifications were in other areas. First, I didn't complain about anything. The worst rock 'n' roll could be was better than the best the Army was, and it all looked good to me. Second, I didn't have a draft problem. Third, I'm a nice guy, I had known some of the guys for a long time, and I had a driver's license. If my part in it was driving the truck, where are the keys?
Driving. Yeah, that's it. That's what roadying came down to. Electronic whizzes come and go, and the guys who stick around can drive and drive and drive. Actually, that was then, this is now. Now the equipment is delivered in a semi by a driver who takes a nap while fifty other guys make a stage. Then, every band was supported by a couple of guys in a van overloaded with everything that could be jammed into it. P.A. systems were a primitive art. Amplifiers were Twin Reverbs or Marshalls. And roadies were really on the road.