Blondie Chaplin is truly the Zelig of rock & roll. The South African-born musician first made his mark when the Beach Boys hired him in 1972 as a full member of the group. He sang lead on their classic "Sail On Sailor" and contributed substantially to their woefully underrated albums Holland and Carl & The Passions - So Tough before leaving in late 1973. He went on to record artists ranging from Bonnie Raitt and David Johansen to Gene Clark and the Band. The Rolling Stones brought him into their backing band in 1997 and he remained there for a solid decade, playing just about every arena and stadium on the planet.
He's now playing select dates on the ongoing Brian Wilson-Jeff Beck tour, and he's working with a new band called Skollie with Anton Fig and Keith Lentin. We spoke with Chaplin about his tenure in the Beach Boys, why he wasn't invited on the last Stones tour and his reunion with Wilson.
Let's start by going back to the beginning here. Tell me how you first met up with the Beach Boys.
Wow. It must have been 1968. They were doing a tour in England and they were looking for acts to sign to Brother Records. My band from South Africa was called the Flame and we were playing around. I think that Al Jardine came to see us, and within a little while he called Carl [Wilson], and that's how the connection happened. They listened to us and liked it, so they brought us over to the States. That's how it started.
Were you a big Beach Boys fan prior to that?
Not particularly. [Laughs] I appreciated some of the stuff. Obviously, they had good head stuff like "Good Vibrations," all the artistic stuff. We were coming from a background of R&B – Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and that kind of thing. In South Africa, we were influenced by the Beatles, Stones, whatever. But after I got to know the Beach Boys I got into them a whole lot more.
You weren't a hired hand. They made you a full-time Beach Boy, right?
Well, you know, that's what it was called. It said "Beach Boys," but [drummer] Ricky Fataar and I didn't feel like we were fully there. It was full Beach Boys as far as title, but it wasn't really. I'm not saying that in a negative way. We were just very, very good session men that people happened to like. I guess you can call us Beach Boys, but we thought we were kind of brought in to give the band a harder and funkier edge, so I'll just put it that way. If that means being a Beach Boy, fine.
It was a weird time in the group's history. They were just 11 years old as a band, but they already seemed pretty passé to most people.
Yeah. We were doing a lot of college dates. When I watch college basketball now, I say to my wife, "We played there with the Beach Boys." We played a lot of shows, sometimes six weeks straight – go back for a bit, and then get back out there. That's how we built it up to the point of playing nice, prestigious venues. The band was rocking much harder than it had in the beginning. Ricky and I had a lot to do with kicking that into gear. Before we joined, they just weren't great to see live. We gave them a little more oomph.
How often did you see Brian Wilson in this period?
Just maybe in the studio. He wasn't playing much live at all. In the studio, when we cut Holland, he was involved. And he was there at his house when we did some of the Carl and the Passions stuff.
Tell me how you wound up singing lead on "Sail On Sailor."
We did the Holland album in Holland, obviously. When they brought the stuff back to Warners, they didn't think there was anything to play on the radio, like a single or anything like that. So we recorded "Sail On Sailor" in America and added it to the album. It became the song that Warners could latch onto and put on the radio, though it never became a heavy-selling hit. It was kind of a radio hit.
When we recorded it, Carl was on the piano. I played bass and Ricky Fataar was on drums. We did it at Village Recorders. When the track was done, Carl asked Dennis [Wilson] to take a crack at singing. He tried it a couple of times and then said, "Hey, man, the surf is pretty good out there. I'm going out of here to go surfing." That's exactly what happened. He split. Then Carl said, "I'll give it a pass." He tried it a couple times, but he didn't like the timbre of his voice. Then he asked me to sing it. I sang it a couple of times and that's what you heard. That's what you hear now.
Tell me about recording "Leaving This Town."
We recorded that one in Holland. I played bass. Ricky played drums and Carl played piano. It was just a nice ballad. I remember walking all over the studio and there were wires everywhere. You could trip yourself and break your neck. We were also close to the train tracks, so when the train came the whole studio shook, and you kinda had to stop for a couple of minutes and then get back to work again. It was a normal train from a town called Hilversum to Amsterdam, so it came fairly frequently. But we still got a lot done, but whenever we heard a rumble we had to stop.
I remember recording "Leaving This Town" really well. It's a ballad, and so we would tiptoe through it and then suddenly the train would come and screw up the take. We'd be like, "All right, man, we got another half-hour until the next train comes. Let's hit it now." It was funny as crap. But it got done eventually, and thank God they put "Sail On Sailor" on later, because I don't think all our efforts on Holland would have come out it they didn't put on something that would work on the radio.
Why did you leave the Beach Boys?
We were on a long tour, and I got into an altercation with one of the guy's brothers [Stephen Love, brother of Mike Love]. I just said, "Forget it, I don't need this stuff." It had nothing to do with Brian or anything. But what happened was stupid and it pissed me off and I was just like, "Screw it. I don't need to play with people who use muscle when I'm just singing." Not long after that, Ricky went as well.
I just went off my merry way. After that, I played with Paul Butterfield, Rick Danko . . . I spent time with the guys in the Band. I did sessions with Bonnie Raitt, David Johansen, and then I ran into the Stones. That was a lot of fun, too.
When you get a job as a musician all you think about is, "I need to get another one." That's because there's a lot of us. It's pretty competitive, and it's not easy to be in favor. But so far, things have been working pretty good.
How did you wind up on this Brian Wilson tour?
It's a funny thing. All of a sudden, I get a call from Jeff Foskett. He's Brian's musical director. He said that Brian wanted to know if I wanted to come down and do some singing parts on his new album. This was totally out of the blue. Out of the blue! I hadn't been in a studio with Brian for 40 years. I said, "Sure!"
I went down to Ocean Way and was there for about an hour, layering on parts and stuff like that. When I was leaving, Jeff said, "Hey Brian, don't you want to ask something to Blondie?" Brian goes, "Oh yeah! Do you want to come sing 'Sail On Sailor' at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles?" I said, "Oh, sure. Just give me a buzz and we'll figure it out a little later." And then it turned into two shows and another three, and now I'm being brought in on eight gigs. It's nice to be a part of it. I wasn't expecting this when I was going to the studio. It's very nice that he asked me. He's a good guy.
The one funny thing that struck me after not seeing him for a while is that I was so used to seeing him with his two brothers. When I walked into the studio and shook his hand, I was looking at him and seeing the other two, one on each side. It was a little unnerving. It tripped me out.
Did you even attend any Beach Boys concerts in the past 40 years?
Just one. A friend took me to a show in New Jersey, even though I didn't want to go. It was a while ago. Carl was still alive, but he was going through chemo. I thought he looked pretty good, but someone told me he was wearing a wig. I went up there and sang "Sail On Sailor." That was the only times in 40 years I saw anybody, though I did see Brian at a Carl Wilson cancer benefit. That must have been 12 years ago. But I haven't been in the studio with anyone of that era until now.
It's got to be a time warp to be back on that stage with everybody.
Completely. The first gig I did was in Florida about a week and a half ago. It was odd, but I was relaxed. I was thinking, "I can't believe I'm hearing these voices again and singing these songs." It was strange. Every time Brian is on the piano I turn around and go, "Wow, this is really strange." It is strange, but good strange.
Are they talking about having you do anything besides "Sail On Sailor?"
I'm gonna try a few more in a couple of days. I might do "Wild Honey" or something like that. By the time we hit New York, we'll be in full swing.
Tell me about playing with the Band.
I only did a few gigs for them. It was obviously after Robbie Robertson. This was after Richard [Manuel] passed away, so it was a pretty low time for them. I knew them from when they lived in Malibu, the Last Waltz days and stuff. I think they just needed somebody to pick up a little slack. I played a little bit of drums, a little bit of guitar. It was nothing major, just support. They needed another voice there. They knew me well enough, and I think they trusted me in that strange time.
With the Band, it was amazing to have such good singers in one band. Good bands usually have a few, and the Beatles were doing that, too. But you have Richard, Levon [Helm] and Rick. It's kind of amazing to have very strong, big-voiced, deep singers. It's a lot of passion.
Why weren't you on the last Rolling Stones tour?
It's just like anything – they're downsizing. They want to keep the band small. That's the reason I was given. That's fine. It's their prerogative to do so. I've had a great time working for them. But that's the reason I know, just downsizing in any way and cutting back the band. The band got smaller, and I think that opens things for other people, so the chapter ends and another one opens.
Have you ever thought about writing a book?
Funny you should ask. [Laughs] A friend of mine asked me that the other day, and yes, I have been. Just coming from South Africa and running into this, running into that . . . I've spent all my life in music. I'll get that going, and I'm finishing a couple of CDs of mine, so maybe next year I can put everything together and be more visible and get some product out.