A belch of feedback erupted and guitarist Terry Haggerty flinched. He was sitting in the corner of a storage facility in San Rafael where band mate Geoff Palmer has lived for the past 15 years, rehearsing with his longtime band, the Sons of Champlin, for its second performance in 20 years.
"Mostly it’s getting over that geriatric thing of being too loud," Haggerty said. Added vocalist Bill Champlin, "You know what they say. If it’s too loud you’re too old."
It is a reunion not occasioned by CD reissues, public clamor or some renewed interest in fairly obscure recordings, but the casual suggestion of the band’s former secretary, Rita Gentry, who has been working at Bill Graham Presents since she left the Sons’ employ. Not only will the Sons play next weekend at the Fillmore Auditorium – site of their other reunion 12 years ago – but they also will appear at Billboard Live, the snazzy new club on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. Already the musicians are buzzing about possible future dates and recording contracts.
"If the next couple of gigs come off, we’re definitely into doing some more," said Champlin, a member of the multi-platinum pop institution Chicago who is busy with that group through the summer. "It was all this stuff on the Internet and e-mail that made us realize we touched a lot of people out there."
"Most of them have been released from mental institutions now," joked drummer James Preston, "so they can actually attend the gigs." "We always said we were the best unknown band in the land," said bassist David Schallock. "We kept in touch," said Champlin. "After all these years, we still know, love, and are happening with each other. I don’t think we were ever in it for the money." Added Haggerty, "Maybe we should have been." "We smoked all our profits," Champlin said. "Oops," Preston replied.
"We didn’t really understand what was going on," said Champlin. "We were living it. The lifestyle we were writing about, putting up on a pedestal, we were really living it."
While the Sons’ success during their 14-year run cannot easily be measured by album sales or charts, the group left a deep imprint. Haggerty has a collection of old posters showing the Sons headlining over many soon-to-be-world-famous bands. "We headlined the first-ever show by the Santana Blues Band," he said.
Van Morrison extolled the Sons during an impromptu jam with Champlin and Haggerty a few years back at Bimbo’s 365 Club, recalling playing the Fillmore with the band ("We were on different chemical levels," Morrison said). And Champlin said he is constantly running into guitarists in Hollywood studios who revere the extraordinary Haggerty, who has not been playing in public much lately.
"I’m stunned," Haggerty said. "I’ve been so out of the loop, I’m just sopping it up on a self-esteem level."
These resolute hippies, whose first manager turned them on to LSD and was best friend to beat poet Gary Snyder, put out a classic 1969 double-record debut, "Loosen Up Naturally," that, in a display of unity through anonymity, contained neither a picture of the band nor any of the band members' names. "There were two faceless bands from 1968," said Champlin. "The Sons of Champlin and Chicago."
The Sons struggled for commercial acceptance through seven albums on four labels, finally nicking the bottom of the Top 50 with "Hold On," a 1976 minor hit single produced by Keith Olsen fresh from his triumphant Fleetwood Mac album. The group finally threw in the towel two years later and Champlin moved to Los Angeles.
But the Sons were much more than just another ‘60s rock band that came and went. Along with the virtuosity of the three major instrumentalists – Haggerty, Champlin and Palmer – and the rousing epics on their classic debut, "Get High" and "Freedom," the Sons openly carried a banner for spirituality with the zeal of psychedelic evangelists, free spirits who lived communally in Teddy Roosevelt’s old hunting lodge in Lagunitas and enjoyed the respect and admiration of better-known peers like the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead.
"They were breathing fire," said Dead drummer Mickey Hart. "They were a dance your brains out all night band. Champlin would do his ‘Ride, Sally, Ride’ thing on organ and Haggerty would be running all these obtuse things off to the side. They were the most talented of all the bands. They played better than anybody and never made it."
Champlin maintains modest enthusiasm for Chicago, a band he joined in 1981. After leaving the Sons in 1978 and relocating to Los Angeles, Champlin started off his post-Sons career with tow Grammys as best R&B songwriter for "Turn Your Love Around" (George Benson) and "After the Love Is Gone" (Earth, Wind and Fire). A new Chicago single was written by soundtrack composer James Newton Howard and Alanis Morissette producer Glen Ballard, "Here in My Heart." "I’m singing it," he said. "They haven’t had me sing one in a long time and the last one I did was a big hit."
Champlin is a studied musician’s musician, a triple-threat singer-songwriter-player who doubles on guitar and keyboards and can talk sincerely and intelligently in 60-second bursts, in between bad jokes.
"I see all the Hollywood industry bull---- pretty closely," he said. "They call everything an act. They call U2 an act. Somebody once told me, ‘Whether you like it or not, you're in the some business as Pia Zadora.’ You know what two words you never hear together? Encore, Pia."
Later, puffing a cigar Preston had brought from his Healdsburg cigar store, Champlin kicked his shoe on the parking lot asphalt. "Success is overrated," he said. "Don’t get me wrong – I’ve had plenty of success and I like it, but it’s not the only way of measuring something. So much credence is paid to success, like nobody was there unless you were successful. The only thing being successful means is that you were successful. Nothing more."
After a first evening of rehearsals spent jamming ("seeing if we could remember each other’s names," Champlin said ), the band was starting to whittle the song list to a manageable 30 or so. "Geoff said it’ll be interesting to hear how these tunes will sound now that we’re all as good as we are," Haggerty said.