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Blondie Chaplin on returning to the stage, his roots in South Africa, Charlie Watts, and reconnecting with Brian Wilson

Blondie Chaplin and Brian Wilson performing
Mike McEvoy
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Blondie Chaplin and Brian Wilson performing

Eight years ago, Blondie Chaplin found himself in the same room with Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson for the first time in decades. A former member of the group known for his powerful vocals and guitar chops, Chaplin has spent his life on stages and in the studio with some of the biggest names in music, from The Beach Boys to The Band to his stretch with The Rolling Stones.

Chaplin and Wilson have been performing together again for the past several years now, and Chaplin will be on stage for highlights like “Sail On, Sailor” and “Wild Honey” when Brian Wilson performs at The Palace in Albany on October 12th.

When we were setting this interview up, you mentioned that it was almost time to get back out there and perform, which you've been doing since age 12. How did you get your start in music to begin with?

Wow, well, you're taking me back. OK. I started playing gigs when I was 12, that's in South Africa. That's where I was born. I learned to play about 10 or 11 on the old beat up guitar my auntie gave me so I just learned a little bit on that and started at that age and then started to play. There was like youth foundation gigs around town, Catholic Youth Foundation this that that. So I just started popping up and started playing these gigs. You know, what's it one pound a night or two pound a night or something like that. And that's how I started as a long way but I'm still doing it and I'm just really enjoying it.

Do you remember the first song you learned?

The first thing I learned to play? I think it's just a guitar thing. (sings)

You were like the exact right age to see kind of the dawn of rock and roll, at least in the states. I don't know how quickly it got over to you.

Oh, I mean, at that time, yeah. You know, in South Africa, we had we like the Beatles stuff, Rolling Stone stuff. Because we were part of the colonies until South Africa got independence. So a lot of the English rock and roll stuff got to us very quickly. You know, like the old Beatles, every kind of English group that was at the time, you know, Gerry and the Pacemakers. All those guys, though, they were the all over the place and the English that to kind of give us a good start, you know.

Did South Africans like the skiffle music?

Yeah, but there was a certain a different audience. That was where you got to remember, South Africa was separated all the way down the line. So what we did well, what we learned to play with, like soul music, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, you know people like that because a lot of guys in our neighborhood would be working on ships, merchant ships going overseas so that's how we got some of the early stuff they would come back and go Hey, good, they'll do a lot of the states runs. So they'll come back and give us this music from the states like Little Richard you know, and then later on much later Chubby Checker and the Platters, all kinds of stuff I got. So that's why we got into the learning stuff, you know, in the world, you know, just from these guys coming back and giving us some stuff and learning it cuz there's no TV or nothing, you just radio and you know, only a few hours a day. So that's that's your entertainment. You know what I mean?

Did you come from a musical family?

My dad was a banjo player. He didn't when I was growing up, he had already stopped. But apparently he was you know, one of like the number one in in town at 16 years old. So I wasn't too far behind starting and playing at an early age, you know?

And you must have realized you had talent kind of early on.

You don't realize yourself. If somebody told my mom Hey, you should listen to Terrence sing. That's my name, Christian name. And he would go my Terry boy, he can’t sing! And just crack up laughing, like you've got to be out of your mind. He goes to school, he comes home, he plays football, he doesn't sing! People would invite me to do more, and then I'll start singing more. So I had to work on it. I just liked to do it. And I practice a lot singing like a few hours a day, and you know, just this hooked. Addict. So if somebody says I was singing pretty good, I take that as a compliment. But it's just for me sitting down and practicing hard and stuff like that, you know, because it was a lot of musicians in Durban at that time. A lot didn't make it. I mean, tons, tons of bands, all like rock or roll soulful bands, singing bands in Cape Town, as well. That's how we got going and stuff and we didn't have any TV to go on or nothing. It was just like scrounging and getting a song. The guys on the ship for somebody at the record store that liked us. And that's how we learned to play the overseas stuff.

Were all the gigs and the audiences segregated?

Yeah, yeah. I mean, when we when we started playing, apartheid and the segregation was happening. But if you go to gigs, OK, we played colored gigs, everything was separated completely. And even in audience, coloreds – I’m classified colored — you had to sit in the back of the, you know, way in the nosebleed section, and everybody else with the best seats in the front. It was in every aspect of separate development, so to speak. And I use that word, loosely. That was apartheid South Africa. And even going to a movie, there's movies for this kind of color and movies for that. It leaves you with a little bit of a bender, because it's like, a lot to absorb when you’ew little, you know, so I think I think music helped me a lot.

It's so ironic to think about because rock and roll and the kind of music you play, it's such an amalgam of races. The Beatles and The Stones were effectively white British players who had taken a Black sound and taken it to the masses.

Yeah. And I loved the music. I loved the music and wanted to play it. Amazing, isn't it?

How did you wind up leaving the scene in South Africa and coming to the States?

Well, I was with a band very, very popular band called The Flames. Ricky Fataar plays drums. He plays with Bonnie Raitt right now and his two brothers Steve and his other brother called Brother. We came over here and we went to England for about a year and a half played in England and that's where I think the Beach Boys were looking for people on the label to record on their label. I believe Al was the first one to see us at a club called The Blazes. And then a couple of nights are the following night, he told Carl to come and see us play and then we started the association from them so that was like ‘68, ’69, around then.

If you don't mind my asking, that was a time of real upheaval in the U.S. in terms of race relations. What did you think of what you saw here in America compared to how you grew up?

Very good question. Well, in South Africa, it was such an onslaught you know, to your brain, and how people are different and blah, blah, blah. But at the same time in America, you see a lot of the same stuff. And you know, I came here to get away from all that stuff. And I'm not saying you completely get away from it, cuz we wanted to play music and we couldn't play music in South Africa because they came out with this Group Areas Act, they call it, where you couldn't perform on the same stage as another white performer, and stuff like that. But the last two years, it's just been so divided in America/ A lot of things that I see I go, whoa, I thought I left that a while ago. I'll answer it that way.

I'm curious what it's been like for someone who's played so many gigs over the years and so many different kinds of gigs… during the pandemic, when most stages were shut down, what did you do?

Go nuts. The wife and I, we just listened to what was going on. You know, put on masks, trying to live every day. I just practiced a little bit, but you miss playing live. And you miss seeing your buddies because I didn't see anybody. All I would do is wake up get up early in the morning. 5:30, 6 o'clock. Go for long walks, and try and get some exercise in and come back and sing a little bit. I mean, a little bit. It's no fun when you're singing and you just, you know, you're not going to be going out to sing. So it's like, All right, I'm trapped. I'm going to do my best to survive. But it's a heavy mental onslaught. I call it shell shock. Like right now getting out and, OK, we're going out. Now we're going to start playing. Whooo. This is different. And you feel shell shocked because you’ve been home all this time, so comfy. Oh, I don't have to go out the door. No, your mental side is screwing with you. Oh, I can go out. But I'm still scared. And I don't know. And that's all honest feelings. So we'll see what happens when we go out now.

For someone with your level of talent and experience, you said you would practice a little. How much does someone like you at your stage of your career have to practice to keep the chops up?

A lot. When I said I was practicing a little, that was just a little bit of the two years, wearing your brain down. For a little while, you do a little bit and you keep going and keep your hand in your practice. And then it wears you down because everything you hear every day you go wow, what am I doing? Where am I going? Am I gonna be playing soon? Will we ever get out there and play? That kind of stuff. So as of late, the last few months, I've been practicing a little bit more, mentally getting myself ready and playing a little bit guitar in my backyard. And playing a lot of guitar in my backyard, actually. I'm feeling that it's feels good to want to get out there and play again and practice. So that's where I'm at right now.

You've played in a variety of different size combination bands over the years. Brian Wilson's touring band, which also includes the aforementioned Al Jardine, has a lot of pieces and a lot of intricate arrangements of the Beach Boys catalog. How do you find your role in a large ensemble like that compared to other bands you've been in?

Well it still comes down to the song. You relate to relate to the song doesn't matter how many people are playing the song, and the feel has to be right and that's the ultimate thing that pull you in, if it feels good. And even with a bunch of people's sometimes it could be a calamity but Brian's had his band for a long time. And he has intricate parts of his music over the years that has to be done for it for people to get the full effect of what it is. So all these people, 13 or 12 pieces, are very necessary for this music. If it was like a rock and roll band, it would be like a five piece or something like that. For Brian’s music, this is what's necessary and I feel comfortable in it. Just feels like it's well oiled. And these guys have been with him for a long time. So it feels pretty good.

You mentioned earlier growing up and getting into the Rolling Stones. Later you played with the Stones for a long time. Recently, the drummer Charlie Watts died. The band has soldiered on, and they're playing a tour right now. I was wondering what your recollections are of Charlie Watts and how that hit you?

Well, I think anybody who played in that band, myself, other people were involved at the time I was involved, were really touched and blown away by it because he's a private guy. But we all love Charlie. He is such a nice personality, let alone his wit. And he likes he loves his cricket and so do I coming from the colonies in South Africa. So we'd have a little banter about South Africa, beating England, cricket and vice versa. Those little things I remember. He is a private person I don't know him on that level, but just from working. It was a privilege and a pleasure and also very, extremely, very sad to hear that. So we recover and we go on, you know what I mean?

Does something like that make you think about your own musical legacy?

No, no, no, I mean, other others would do that. But I haven't been thinking about that. I mean, I just think that wow, there’s still so much to do and I want to do it. Now whatever that means as far as legacy is concerned, so be it, but it's just, it just makes you think about time, and what you have to do and what you like to do, and the important things around you and important things you love to do. I think that's what it triggers.

I read that you had experience going and talking with students in Europe, if I have that right. I was curious how that came about and what the situation was?

Well, there's a friend of mine His name is Anton Souter. He runs a School of Rock, he calls it, out in Regensburg, Germany. Now this is some years ago, I did a couple of gigs he had organized there, just some acoustic gigs in between Stones and stuff like that. And the school contacted him and said, and Hey, can we have this guy come and talk to the students and, and talk music and play a little bit and I said sure. When I got there, I didn't realize it was like a student orchestra. They must have been about 8 or 9 or 10 something like that. So that's who backed me playing a couple of songs and I've jammed with them. But it's through my friend Anton that put that together and that was my first time ever and Wow, I've got to stand over here and take questions and talk to people about music. Well, I'm doing it with you now but when you have a bunch of kids and a bunch of instruments all sitting there looking at you like whoa, and you get a little nervous, but that's how it came about and was a lot of fun. I hope to do more of those one of these days. Just a gas to see the kids want to get into it.

Do you think rock and roll has a future with the younger generation? The reason I ask is, it has a niche now but it's certainly not the dominant pop form anymore.

Well it's always got a something to offer, just depends on who picks up an instrument and wants to rock or who gets influenced in that way. There’s rock around, it just needs more people to come out and do it. Because it's not as easy to play rock or to have venues. That's what stifles it. There’s not so many clubs as there used to be before to play rock and roll music. And that's a bit of a drag. You know what I mean? A big drag. And then the pandemic came along and OK, we are musicians, we need to stand up and play in front of people. Hello, that was gone. That really wiped out a lot of musicians’ ambitions as far as going forward, but I'm hoping. And it seems like it's getting more positive, that things will pick up and there'll be more screaming guitars or screaming drums or whatever in the very near future.

Well, who was the one who said ‘Gimme More Rock and Roll’ in 1977?

I'm telling you. Look, I like all kinds of music. Different kind, not just rock. I mean, I think with Brian, I've done other stuff, vocal stuff. And I just enjoy it all, you know, and I, when I was growing up at 12, I was a sponge, I was just soaking up, oh, whatever we had, like 15 minutes of South African Broadcasting Corporation, 15 minutes. Like once a week, they had the best to the British pop, where you get all the bands from England, you know, Beatles and everything, and they'll play their latest hit song, right? So you're running, or you get into the bus and you hoping the bus doesn't break down. Because some of those buses have those electric horns, I call them on the top. So you’re sitting there saying I gotta get there at 3:15, man, to see and turn on the radio. So I can listen to this thing. And do my little tap, tap tap with my pencil. So I've got to remember some of the notes. Right? So that's how we had to learn music. There wasn't like, so well provided everywhere, on like, a social level, like we have now in TV and radio, Jesus, so many radio stations, we only had one in South Africa, South African Broadcasting Corporation that was it was run by the apartheid, you know, people that came later and were in power from then. So pretty, pretty odd way to want to play music, but you know, when you get the bug, nothing stops you right? Yeah, you just have to do it. That's it for me.

Do you ever go back there?

I haven't been for a while cuz I, every time I went back there was unfortunately to bury my sister and my mom and, and then I got gun shy of wanting to. But I'm overdue to go there. Like I'm trying to get there next year, walk around, do a little filming, maybe do a couple of gigs with some of my own mates, and just put it on film, just for myself. See what happens. That's what I’d like to do next year, as well as whatever Brian wants to do, because I'm looking forward to be extremely busy this coming year. And hopefully, the pandemic will dictate that it's easier and more work will be coming for musicians and musicians will be doing more things. And we need a world with music. Without the music, we're in trouble.

Your relationship with Brian Wilson was intense, I'm sure, at the beginning and then you had this long interregnum period. Now that you've been playing with him again for several years, has this part of your life come as a surprise to you?

In a way, yeah. But knowing Brian and how I met him again, was they were doing this “No Pier Pressure” album. And he hadn't heard me sing for a while and he wanted to hear how I sounded and that's how I got to sing with him again and play with him again. And then from then we wanted me to come on, come on the road sing “Wild honey” and stuff like that. Now it's been a few years. It's fun, man. It's fun. And he's I've known him for a long time. OK. And Al for that matter. So that part is good because we understand one another know one another for a long time. But he's a good guy, Brian, you know. It's well documented, his stuff that he's been through. But it's always a pleasure to see him because whenever I see him I see his two brothers, you know, which I liked very much and it's hard not to see them around him when I'm talking to him. Because that's been my first slam of introduction, years and years ago. So I like hanging out with him. He's a good guy.

Blondie Chaplin and Brian Wilson will be at The Palace in Albany on October 12 for Brian Wilson's tour. It's been such a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you for taking all this time and I'm just happy that you're able to get back out on the road where it sounds like you really want to be. So thank you.

Well, it's, look, we've been home for a while. It's time to get out and play a little bit of guitar, but you have to play it to people. So hopefully people will be there. And it'll be fun. And thank you, my friend.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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