When Bill Champlin discusses songwriting, you listen. The 70-year-old American artist composed dozens of pop hits during the 1970s and 1980s, ranging from his stint with Chicago (Look Away and I Don't Wanna Live Without Your Love) to his work with Earth Wind & Fire (After the Love Has Gone) and George Benson's Turn Your Love Around. Speaking to The National after a recent gig on top of Ras Al Khaimah's Jebel Jais, Champlin took us through some of his all-time favourite tunes.
A song that reminds me of my childhood: anything by Harry James or Nat King Cole
From the age of 5 to about 10, I remember my mum listening to a lot of the trumpet of James and anything by Cole. I grew up in California, and my mum was a musician and she would orchestrate for all these different artists, so it was these kinds of songs that stayed with me and gave me this love for jazz music. Now, it is my son who can really play. He studied music in Berkeley College and got his BA. I also have a BA when it comes to music – a bad attitude.
A song that made me want to perform: ’Tobacco Road’ by Lou Rawls (1964)
I was a teenager when I first heard this track. Oh man, Lou's voice was so sexy and so masculine, and his back phrasing was amazing. I eventually grew up and got to work with Lou, and I remembered his complaining: 'Oh man, I can't get a hit these days.' I told him to relax and perhaps try to sing like David Bowie – he just laughed and told me to shut up.
A song that changed my career: ’After the Love Has Gone’ by Earth Wind & Fire (1979)
I originally co-wrote that song for my own album. It got me my first Grammy and changed my world a little bit. What was weird about it was the minute all this was happening, the taxman was at the door. Now, with my old band, I wasn't really taking care of business – as soon as the tax people saw me with some money finally, they came along and took it away. That was like 35,000 dollars that came and went like that. It's a cautionary tale – handle your business.
A song I wish I had written: ’Don’t You Worry ’Bout A Thing’ by Stevie Wonder
Really, anything Stevie does is just gold to me. What I love about what he does is that it really all just sounds so joyous, and that's an amazing effect to have as a songwriter. That's why I never even thought about copying Stevie. He remains such a good singer and player, and that's because he is one big learning machine. If you listen to his playing in the early albums like Talking Book and Innervisions and hear it now you just say: 'Wow.' He is a ridiculously talented player.
A song that makes me cry: ‘The Living Years’ by Mike + The Mechanics
There is a story behind this. It was around 1998 – I got a call one day from my step-brother saying my father was in hospital and there was not much time. My father lived in Oakland and I lived in Los Angeles. I couldn't get a flight that night and I had one the next morning. On the way to the airport, I got the call to say he was gone. And there was a period after that where I just became this surly person, biting people's heads off. Then, not long later, I was in the car and this song came on and it yanked my heart out – I just stayed in the car and cried my eyes out.