It’s turning out to be a good summer for Stann Champion. On July 1, the Chicago-based musician took home a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 35th Chicago Music Awards. What could be better than that, you ask? Well, for Champion and his local fans, it’s his return after several years to the Botanical Roots Outdoor Concert Series with his band Roots Rock Society. Black Cat Mambo will open the Friday, August 14 show.
Champion and Roots Rock Society have always felt a special vibe with the people of Fort Wayne. Since their early days, Roots Rock Society, with their Afro-Caribbean groove, have drawn local crowds to the dance floor and made them move like the music was in their blood.
“The key to all of it is we’ve always approached music as a cultural thing, not as a trend that will come and go,” Champion said in a phone interview. “Culture is forever. It’s a community thing.”
And the natural tendency Champion has for blending cultures has deeper personal and familial roots than he at first suspected.
That cultural thing is the reason the folks at the Chicago Music Awards recognized Champion. For 35 years Champion has taken his love of music and woven it into communities throughout Chicago and around the Midwest, including Fort Wayne, which Champion calls his “home away from home.”
“This is where it actually began,” he said. “The Indiana Arts Council invited me to one of the educational programs. I call it edutainment. There’s a history began this music. That’s how we approach it. That’s the key to our longevity.”
But Champion had to spend several years of soul-numbing work as an art director in the advertising industry before he found his purpose.
“I came out of the private sector to do this,” Champion said. “At five o’clock I’d get together with people and play. It helped us keep our sanity. I just wanted to play the guitar to help myself heal. I had a troubled youth. It’s one thing to do the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll thing, but it’s another thing to be able to use your gifts to help others.”
With music, Champion was able to forge a life, not just an existence. In the early 1980s he had the opportunity to record at Bob Marley’s studio, Legends, in Jamaica. Champion said the fact that he was one of the few guitars players in Chicago at the time willing to play reggae was the key to his early success. That experience got him into the band Gypsi Fari, Chicago’s first reggae band, where he remained for several years.
When Champion left Gypsi Fari, he formed Roots Rock Society which will celebrate 30 years this December. The current lineup includes Champion on guitar and vocals, David “Papa D” Bernstein on bass, Dave Smith on drums and Judy Director on keys. (One of the connections Champion and Roots Rock Society have with Fort Wayne is conga player Daniel Hall, who played with the band for several years.) Roots Rock Society’s sixth album, TimeBless, came out in May of 2015.
Champion was born in Pittsburgh and moved to Chicago with his family when he was young. He said his life wasn’t easy, but that his mother had a way of keeping him out of trouble.
“I spent a lot of time alone,” he said. “My mother kept me in and had me read the encyclopedia from A to Z. Turned out to be the best thing for me.”
He may have been a troubled youth, but he was also a talented one. At age 10 he began attending the Chicago Art Institute where he studied painting. His talent was such that one of his watercolors was snatched up by the Smithsonian Institute.
At 13 he got his first guitar and began to explore the world of music. His family had always had lots of it around, and he grew up listening to Miles Davis, Trini Lopez, Harry Belafonte, Wes Montgomery, Mariam Makeba and Ray Charles.
“When I started, it was just me,” he said. “When you get the chance to play with a band, it’s great. It’s like when you first learn to play ball, first you start throwing the ball against the wall because there’s no one to play catch with. Then you find someone to play catch with. But when there is no one, you can still throw it against the wall.”
Champion said his ancestry probably had a lot to do with his affinity for exploring cultural connections.
“My family is originally descended from Thomas Jefferson on my mother’s side,” he said. “My family moved from West Virginia to Pittsburgh. My great grandmother cooked for the Carnegies and the Mellons. When they went to Europe for the summer, she went to Hyannisport to cook for the Kennedys. We used to hear about this stuff and I didn’t believe it. I’d look at photos and ask my grandmother ‘who is that white person,’ and she’d say ‘that’s your cousin Jamie’ and I’d scratch my head. I have white cousins?”
He finally became convinced of his lineage when he switched from a Cubs game he was watching to a PBS special on Thomas Jefferson’s descendants.
“The Cubs were getting trashed so I flipped to the next station, which was the public station,” he said. “They were interviewing my cousin, and I was like, ‘oh this is for sure.’ I didn’t believe it, but that convinced me.”