Memories of Paul Champion
I am privileged to be asked to put down on paper a few of my memories of Paul. While I had known of Paul and his music (initially through my brother Tom, who was in the recording business in Jacksonville) since the late 1950’s, I did not actually meet him until attending the White Springs Folk Festivals in the mid to late 60’s. I had been fascinated with his playing on the Folksters album, and so it was a real thrill to see and hear him in person. I really got to know Paul in 1972 or 1973 at which time I was playing guitar with the Springer Brothers Band (Don and Blair Springer and Bill Baker) when we crossed paths with Paul at a bluegrass festival. From that point on through 1977, the Springer Brothers Band would play dates with Paul fairly consistently. As the gigs became more frequent and required traveling greater distances, family and work commitments made it difficult for Don and Blair Springer to continue. So Bill Baker (bass) and I continued to work with Paul until his health situation forced him to cut back on his traveling and playing (1983-1984). When possible and as his schedule would permit, Alan Stowell (a great Florida musician and long-time friend of Paul’s) would join us on fiddle.
Our group at that time became known as Paul Champion and the Florida Bluegrass Boys. The name came about around 1978 when we were playing our first job without the Springer brothers. It was at Carl Allen’s festival in Auburndale, Florida. Carl asked Paul, “How do you want your group listed in the advertisements and program?” Paul said, “I don’t know,” and then Carl suggested Paul Champion and the Florida Bluegrass Boys. So that name stuck from then on.
Paul taught me much about the finer points of how to properly play the music our first-generation bluegrass fathers put on vinyl for us. We spent many hours (mostly between 2 a.m. and sun-up) talking about his experiences learning to play and the people he knew and worked with in the music business. The conversation was not always music related and would frequently turn to other interests such as art, fishing, and WWI & II history. The following represents some of the memories and tid-bits I picked up from my years knowing Paul.
Paul graduated from Washington-Lee High School, Arlington, Virginia in 1957. Since Paul’s father was a pilot in the Army Air Corps, Paul moved around in his early years (especially during the summer months), but his school years were spent in Arlington.
He was a Boy Scout.
He loved and played the game of baseball in elementary school and played football in high school.
He loved to fish as a child and continued that interest as an adult (and was considered by his peers to be highly accomplished in both fresh and salt water fishing). Paul was an outdoorsman and enjoyed camping (which often went hand in hand with his music and fishing).
In addition to being a master of the banjo and guitar, he could play the piano and read and write music. He also played the steel guitar in a country band when in junior and senior high school.
He was an expert at horseshoe pitching as a child and continued his interest in this sport into adulthood. In July of 1951 for the 12 years-and-under category, he won a blue ribbon in the Arlington County schools horseshoe contest.
As an accomplished banjoist and guitarist in his teenage years, he became good friends with Don Reno and Earl and Louise Scruggs. He actually lived with Don Reno for a short period of time and traveled with Lester and Earl. He remained friends with Don and Earl and Louise throughout his life.
He won a banjo contest while playing with the Log Cabin Boys in 1954 at New River Ranch, Rising Sun, Maryland. Paul regularly attended (and actually held a season pass for) shows at the New River Ranch, which was a hotbed for country and bluegrass music in the 50’s and early 60’s.
Paul related one story to me about being in a banjo contest that Don Reno was presiding over. When it came close to the time for him to play, Paul got scared or was shy and went out and hid on the floor-board of the back seat of a car in the parking lot. Don found him on the floor-board and brought him back in to play. I don’t remember how Paul finished in the contest.
During Paul’s teenage years, he played with a number of bands in his high school and in the Washington, D.C./Virginia area. These included the Log Cabin Boys, Buzz Busby and the Bayou Boys, Bill Harrell, and others. It was during this time that Paul became associated and/or worked with other musicians in the area who would also go on to make their mark in bluegrass music. Some of these included Tom Morgan, Charlie Waller, Pete Kuykendall, Bill Emerson, Bill Harrell, Buzz Busby, Smiley Hobbs, and Carl Nelson.
The Florida Bluegrass Boys had a one-night job for the grand opening of a hospital in Crystal River. I usually brought the PA system, but Paul said he had acquired a good one and insisted on bringing his. When Paul drove in from Orlando, he was pulling his 14-ft. fishing boat on a trailer. Upon further inspection, I saw that the PA system was in the bottom of the boat with no cover on it. Paul said, “I couldn’t get it to fit in the car, so I put it in the boat.” It is a good thing it didn’t rain that weekend.
They liked us a lot at the hospital and asked us to play again the next night. The only problem was that we had no more clothes and were all planning to go back to our respective homes that evening. When Paul told the hospital CEO, he gave Paul his credit card and said go downtown in the morning and buy new outfits for the whole band (Paul, Bill Baker, and I). We spent the night with some friends of Paul’s in Homosassa, and Paul bought us new outfits the next day. I still have my shirt which closely resembles an airline pilot’s shirt.
Paul was generally pretty quiet. I don’t recall him saying anything over a microphone while I knew him; his banjo and guitar did all the communicating. He did have a lot of very loyal fans that often drove long distances to hear him play. They would sit in a club for 4 or 5 sets until the last note was played. Paul always took time between sets to go around to the tables and talk with his fans, ask if they had any requests, and thank them for coming out to the show.
Paul would stay at my house in Jacksonville when we were playing in the area (usually the Malabar Lounge in Jacksonville or the Tradewinds in St. Augustine); however, he also was noted for showing up on any day of the week at any time. It was not unusual for me to be at my office at work and look up and there was Paul-or come home after work and Paul’s car would be in the driveway with him in it asleep. I always welcomed his visits which would usually turn into an all night/early morning pickin’ with no regard to the next day being a work day.
Paul authored an instruction book on how to play the 5-string banjo, at a time when there was little information available on this subject. He invented his own system of tablature to represent the musical notes. He also did the artwork for the book. The Kingston Trio sponsored the book’s publication.
Paul Champion with the Springer Brothers Band were booked as the opening act for Vassar Clements and his band for a June 22, 1977 show at the Great Southern Music Hall in downtown Orlando. With both Vassar and Paul having roots in Orlando, the show was a sellout. The reception given Paul when he took the stage was electrifying as the audience was hollering and clapping throughout Paul’s portion of the show. The promoter evidently took notice of Paul’s strong and loyal fan base and a few days after the performance talked to Paul about putting together his own show at the Great Southern. Paul was receptive to this idea, and the show date was set for Saturday, August 6th, 1977. Paul did 95% of the work in putting the program together and marketing the tickets. The show’s line-up along with Paul and the Springer Brothers was legendary fiddler Chubby Anthony with his band Big Timber Bluegrass, and Florida’s master folklorist-composer in story and song, Will McLean. Paul was driving back and forth 2 and 3 times a week between Tampa and St. Augustine with many stops along the way, to deliver tickets to radio stations, music stores, clubs, pick up the revenue from ticket sales, and replenish ticket inventories as needed. His strong following coupled with the excellent job he was doing in getting the word out and tickets distributed resulted in a sellout 2 weeks before show. With ticket demand still very strong, Paul and the Great Southern Music Hall management decided to go forward with a second show that evening. The first show would run from 8:30 to 10:45 and the second show was from 11 to 1:15. Tickets were printed for the 2nd show and Paul again put on his marketing hat resulting in the 2nd show being about 2/3 sold out. To give you an idea of the number of tickets sold, I recall that the Great Southern Music Hall had somewhere between 900 and 1,000 seats. The success of the Great Southern events again demonstrated Paul’s loyal fan following as well as his skill, focus, and commitment in organizing and marketing a major musical presentation showcasing Florida musicians.
One characteristic of Paul that I believe is somewhat unique is that he touched a lot of people, and most who knew him felt that they had a special connection/relationship with him. Perhaps it was that extra attention he gave when in a one-on-one conversation with his friends and fans in combination with his extraordinary ability to communicate through his musical talent.
Regarding his talent, Paul was probably most noted in bluegrass circles for the magic he worked on the banjo. In addition to playing the Scruggs and Reno styles right down the line, he could also add his own signature licks, phrasing, and personality to any of their tunes.
Paul probably had close to as many fans of his guitar work as he did fans of his banjo playing. I saw evidence of this many times-especially when playing in a club that was noisy with lots of people talking, a pop corn machine going, pool tables in use, etc. When Paul would pick up his Martin D-45 guitar and play such tunes as Lara’s Theme, Never on Sunday, A Fool Such as I, El Paso, or Zorba the Greek, all the noise would stop and everyone would be focused on Paul and listening intently. His repertoire of guitar numbers also showcased Paul’s ability to perform in a variety of musical styles. Paul had his own distinctive finger style on the guitar and could bring out a tone and feeling on his D-45 that would fill the room.
It is hard to describe Paul in just a few words, so hopefully some of the above recollections will help add to each person’s own perspective of Paul the person and musician. Here are how a few of Paul’s friends, all artists in their own right, summed up Paul’s playing. Florida’s Black-Hat Troubadour Will McLean would typically address written communications to Paul with prefaces like “Greatest Living Artist on Guitar and Banjo,” “Master Artist,” and “Master Artist of Them All.” After hearing a 1977 recording of Paul playing a show at the Great Southern Music Hall in Orlando, banjo great Raymond Fairchild simply said “Powerful.” Well-known banjoist Tom McKinney, after hearing Paul play the banjo for the first time at the White Springs Folk Festival, said, “It sounded like firecrackers going off in a Number 10 washtub.”
Here are a few lines from the eulogy delivered by James Gamble Rogers at Paul’s funeral: “Here was a man whose talents and abilities were so potent that he established a national reputation and a devoted and loyal following without ever being featured on a major recording label, and without ever uttering a word over a microphone while on stage. For most of his life, Paul Champion performed for a living, but it should be stated that Paul lived to perform. The passion and love that he conveyed through his music are what elevated him to an almost mythical status in his own time.”
I bought a Kay banjo at a Miami pawn shop somewhere in the 1954-56 period and tried to learn from the Earl records and also, when it came out in 1956, American Banjo Scruggs Style. I had heard the 5th string called the thumb string, so my thumb never left the 5th string. My index finger did all the melody work, including on the 4th string. It was easier for me to roll backwards--ITMITMIT--so that's what I did. I also did not know that one or two right-hand fingers were supposed to be planted on the head, so my right hand just kinda floated over the strings. That's the shape that my banjo playing was in when I met Paul. I had been playing for about 5 years, and he was the first banjo player I ever met.
In 1960 I went to grad school at FSU. I was picking the fire out of my Kay one night when a fellow heard me and said "I know somebody you've got to meet." He took me to a little house on the street leading up to the Westcott Gates. Paul was asleep inside, so we woke him up. In about 5 minutes, he showed me everything I was doing wrong in my playing.
In that period I got to hear Paul and Jim Rogers (later to be known as Gamble) play at a small Tallahassee club called the Baffled Knight. Paul never spoke, and Gamble at that point had apparently not developed the speaking skills for which he later became known. All he did, as the spokesperson for the duo, was mumble the name of a tune before they played it. One Scruggs tune after another. Paul picked so strongly. Sometimes he seemed to be trying to tear the strings off the banjo. For somebody like me who had been struggling alone with the instrument, it was a miracle to see him and hear him play.
Paul also played on campus some, at fraternities and in dorm rooms. He usually played unaccompanied: just Paul and his banjo. Once he came to my dorm to play for a party in the commons area. I offered to play guitar for him. We went to my dorm room and played together a bit, to rehearse, then he said "I'll just play alone."
In 1964 Paul and Gamble appeared in and played the music for a film: 2,000 Maniacs. That film has made a comeback on DVD, and Herschell Gordon Lewis, who made the film, is a cult hero among people who like gory movies. 2,000 Maniacs was a first in terms of showing blood on screen. He said regarding the bluegrass music in the movie, played by the "Pleasant Valley Boys,":
**There was a fellow named Chuck Scott, whose real name was Chuck Glore, and he had volunteered to put together a group. The fella on banjo was Paul Champion, who was the best banjo player I've ever met in my life. And I forgot who the third fellow was [Gamble], but Chuck put that group together, and we picked out the folk songs we were going to use and went into a little recording studio in Orlando. Everybody -- the cast, the crew -- was required to be there to yell "Yee-haa!" And I had wanted the group to sing the opening theme too, but it didn't work -- just came out too soft. So, I figured I'd do it myself, Richard Harris fashion. And that was the rationale behind that.**
Some people have wondered how close Paul was to Earl and Don Reno, or even if he knew Earl at all. I do not know how I know this, but in the late 1950s Paul spent time with both Earl and Reno. He lived with Reno for a while. Paul said he taught Reno the opening lick on I Know You're Married, not the other way around.
In 1961-62 I went to hear Flatt & Scruggs on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill. After the show I went up to Earl and said "Have you seen Paul Champion lately?" He said, "No I haven't. How is he doing?" And we chatted a little bit about Paul.
Sometime in the 1980s, I was at Paul's house in Orlando. Paul was taking garbage out to the curb. The phone rang, I picked it up, and a voice said "Hello. This is Earl Scruggs of Madison, Tennessee. Is Paul there?" I liked that: he said he was Earl Scruggs of Madison, Tennessee so nobody would get him confused with, say, Earl Scruggs of Peoria, Illinois. I told him Paul was putting the garbage out and that I would go get him. He said Josh Graves had told him Paul wasn't feeling well, so he was calling to check on Paul. Paul came back in and they chatted for a while.
In the early 1970's, I went to hear Paul play at a Holiday Inn near Orlando. He pointed out a woman with a large bee-hive hair-do. He said, "Do you know who that is? That's Bessie Lee Mauldin." Bill Monroe's special friend had come to hear Paul play.
Out of the thousands of 5-string pickers, there aren't many whose picking you can recognize after just a few notes. You can recognize Paul. He played the Scruggs and Reno tunes, note for note if he felt like it, but he struck the strings in a way that that was unmistakably Paul.
I first met Paul Champion in 1951 as a student at Stratford Junior High School in Arlington, VA. I did not know him well personally at the time, but rather as an outstanding athlete being a Receiver to Warner (Warren) Beatty's Quarterback on the football team. Yes, that Warren Beatty.
Following that, I lost track of Paul for a brief time as my family moved to Winter Park, FL with the U.S. Air Force in 1952. Much to my surprise I was reunited with Paul in a rather serendipitous fashion during the summer of 1953 when he came to the Orlando-Winter Park, FL area for an extended visit with his 1st Cousin Frank Gillespie my best friend at the time. Frank was the son of Deputy Commander Colonel (later Major General) Frank Gillespie senior. Paul's and young Frank's fathers were classmates at West Point and married sisters.
Paul and I became fast friends as he was very congenial and down-to-earth and loved fishing the lakes as I did. I will always remember his favorite "Dalton Special" lure. We fished and water skied together the latter being something else he excelled at and started a regular routine of playing golf a couple of times a week together, occasionally with my father and his cronies.
Paul would usually come home with me after golf and visit with the family. His interest in music showed as he played our piano frequently. Paul would also bring his banjo over, demonstrating great talent on the instrument.
We spent most of our high school summers together until Frank's father was transferred and my family moved back to the Washington, D. C. area. Paradoxically Paul and his mother moved to the Orlando-Winter Park area around the same time.
It was in the Winter Park area that Paul and my brother Alan got together and formed their long-lasting relationship, both musically and personally bonded in friendship and mutual respect.
My brief remarks serve mainly to portray Paul Champion's early person as the shy, athletic, outdoorsman and the beginnings of the great musician that he became. Even as a youth, music and the banjo were preeminent as Paul recounted to me with great pride the time one summer he spent "Up on the Mountain" with the great Earl Scruggs. I also recall his unabashed confidence in his art when he proclaimed to me once that "there were three banjo players-Earl Scruggs, Don Reno and me."
I first met Paul Champion in 1953 when I was 7 years old. He was a friend of my brother's, and consequently a friend of the family's. A few years later we moved to Virginia for about five years, where I developed an interest in folk music. I came back down to Florida in 1962, and in Winter Park there was a coffee house called the Carerra Room. I went there one night, and, lo and behold, there was Paul Champion. By then, he had achieved quite a bit of recognition as a member of the Folksters, a fairly well known folk group, particularly in Florida.
I went up and said hello, and when I told him my name, he was very friendly and seemed glad to see me. Not long after that, I saw him play the guitar, and I was very moved and inspired. I had just bought a twelve-string guitar, and around that time, Paul was into the twelve string, and one song in particular, Cleopatra's Caravan, was one of Paul's showpieces. I included that song in my repertoire and aspired to play it like Paul. I also remember him flat-picking on a six-string, Muleskinner Blues, and I had never heard anyone play like that. Years later, he got away from flat-picking and most of what he played was with a thumb pick and finger picks.
By then, I had started playing the fiddle. After living in the Northeast for more than ten years, and playing fiddle with the likes of John Herald and Frank Wakefield among others, I moved back down to Florida. I heard that Paul was playing in Winter Garden at a place called the El Prado with Jim Ballew and Ed Bradford. I sat in with them on the fiddle. Soon after that, they called me to play a few gigs with them on the fiddle at the Tradewinds in St Augustine and Stuckey's Saloon in Lakeland. That group disbanded shortly thereafter.
After that, Paul formed a group with John Rose and Bill Baker, called the Florida Bluegrass Boys. Paul seemed to like my fiddle playing, and he often called me to play with them. We played at the Auburndale Bluegrass Festival, the Malabar Lounge in Jacksonville, and Disney World in Orlando, to name a few. I worked with him on and off until his death in 1986, and I count those times as some of the most valuable musical experiences of my career. Paul was always a pleasure to work with. He was always very encouraging, inspiring and understanding.
I would stop by to visit Paul, intending to stay for only a few minutes, and end up staying there all afternoon. He had loads of interesting stories to tell, and he was always a good listener as well. I count Paul as one of my dearest friends, and I miss him.
I first heard of Paul Champion in the fall of 1976 from a local fiddler and banjo picker named Horace Fletcher. He told me that Paul lived in Orlando and was a fine performer on both banjo and guitar. Horace also told me that Paul owned two pre-war, original flathead Mastertone Gibson banjos, one of which was a Granada just like the instrument played by Earl Scruggs. To a seventeen-year-old kid like myself this was simply intoxicating. At that time, I had only been playing the banjo for five years and the only pre-war flathead Mastertone I had ever seen in real life was a "gold sparkle" PT which belonged to Bob Higginbotham. However, another two years would pass before I actually met Paul.
In the spring of 1978 restaurant owner Carl Allen held the second "Florida State Bluegrass Championship Festival" in the Auburndale city park. This location was within a few blocks of my parents' home, and I was delighted at the prospect of meeting many other banjo pickers. On that Saturday morning I distinctly remember walking to the park and from quite a distance hearing a very strong Scruggs style banjo being played. As I got closer I could see a group warming up near the railroad tracks which bisected the park. The banjo player was a tall man with a wild, bushy haircut and a grey beard. Hanging from his neck was a heart stopping sight.....a pre-war, flathead Mastertone Gibson Granada. It suddenly ocurred to me that this must be Paul Champion. My friend Horace Fletcher was standing there and confirmed that, indeed, this was the man from Orlando. I did not introduce myself as the moment seemed inopportune, but as events turned out I needn't have worried about it.
That same day I was performing on the festival as a member of the Iron Mountain Bluegrass Boys. During our afternoon set we performed "Foggy Mountain Special" as the instrumental number. At the end of the set we came off stage, and Paul Champion was standing there waiting on me. Someone may have introduced us, but I tend to think that Paul just started quietly talking to me. He had listened to my version of "Foggy Mountain Special" and had even gone so far as to walk around to the front of the stage to watch me play it. In his very quiet and very polite way he then proceeded to show me what I had gotten wrong! He was so nice about it that I didn't feel in the least offended and was glad for the help. As I later learned, Paul was always interested in helping young musicians and frequently did so.
Over the next two years I saw Paul once in a while, usually at Carl Allen's catfish restaurant in Auburndale on Thursday nights. At that time Paul was working part-time in Lakeland, teaching guitar lessons to recovering drug abusers as part of Tony Green's PAD program. During this time it shocked me to learn that Paul kept both of his Mastertone banjos and his D-45 Martin guitar padlocked in the trunk of a old Volvo car which he drove. To this day when I think about all the hours that those instruments baked in the hot Florida sun it gives me the shudders. Paul remained friendly towards me and often allowed me to play one of his banjos on stage at Carl Allen's. I came to prefer his RB-3 over the Granada as I thought it was much superior in tone. The original neck and resonator on the RB-3 had been damaged years earlier, and at the time I was playing it Paul had an original walnut style 4 resonator on the banjo with a matching walnut "hearts & flowers" neck by Tom Morgan.
When Paul had a gig in the Polk County area, he would often call me to come and play the banjo while he played guitar. He was very kind in this way and as far as I could tell didn't care which instrument he played. I enjoyed the experience and would probably have done it for free, but Paul always paid me something. On all of these gigs, I performed on Paul's Granada which I remember as a very difficult banjo to play. It did not sustain as much as his RB-3, and the radius of the neck was very large.
Paul was only ever mad with me one time. During the late 1970's I had become friends with Don Reno and about 1980 had booked his band into a local "Opry" show near Lakeland. Of course, Don put on a great show, but I never thought about letting Paul know that Don was even in the area. Paul found out afterwards and was extremely upset. He called me on the phone and let me know in no uncertain terms that if Don was ever in the area again he wanted to know about it! I took the rebuke in stride and promised to do so.
In 1981 I became a professional musician in a country band, and I did not see Paul for several years. When I returned to area about 1985, I was shocked to see how much Paul had changed. He had lost weight, and his playing skills were suffering. Paul had always hit the strings hard and got a great tone from his instruments. But now he seemed to have lost some of his fine motor control. What had been a powerful right hand attack had become somewhat weak and flailing. A mutual friend thought that Paul may have suffered an attack of food poisoning, but I never heard this confirmed by Paul himself. The next thing I heard was that Paul had died of heart failure in an Orlando hospital.
I first met Paul Champion in St. Augustine, Florida in the spring of 1962. I’d been playing 5-string banjo a little over a year and was working my way through Pete Seeger’s book “How to Play the 5-String Banjo.” I’d just turned 16 and gotten my driver’s license.
There was a music scene at a coffee house called Le Collage, run by St. A’s sandal maker Danny Holliday, and I’d drive down from Jacksonville every chance I got to pick with the various & sundry musicians hanging out there.
One night I was standing in the street in front of the club picking “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” as I’d learned it from Mike Seeger’s transcription in Pete’s book. As I finished playing, a fellow who’d been listening to me pick said, “I’ve never heard anyone play THAT tune in THAT tuning before.” I had learned the right notes, but I’d missed the part where the 4th string got tuned up to a “D” from the “C” I’d been using to play the tunes Pete had transcribed. I was getting the “E” hammer-on by going from the 3rd to the 4th fret. The fellow then asked if he could play my banjo, an old open-back borrowed from my friend Chandler’s preacher. It had friction pegs, and I’d had to tighten them to the max to keep them from slipping. He played a couple of tunes from Earl Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Banjo” album and then launched into a blistering, note-perfect rendition of “Earl’s Breakdown.” That is, until he got to the part where Earl tuned the 2nd string from a “B” to an “A” and back. That tuner didn’t budge! That was it. The fellow handed the banjo back to me with a wry grin on his face and walked back into the club without saying a word. I asked somebody who in the world that was. He said “That’s Paul Champion”!
I got to be around Paul and heard him play dozens of times after that first meeting. Every time he played it was magic. One time that stands out in my memory was hearing him play with The Folksters at the Jacksonville Auditorium. That was an amazing band. I remember Art Schill, all 6’5” of him, standing on the washtub of his gutbucket swaying back & forth with the music and looking like a demented Paul Bunyan. But what really got me was hearing Paul Champion’s banjo come over that sound system with that lope and pulse he had to his playing, and seeing the spotlight reflection race around the stretcher band as he rocked in time to the music. I can still see and hear that like it was yesterday.
Though I’d started by listening to Earl and Don Reno, Paul was my first “in person” musical hero. His memory and playing continue to influence me to this day.
I got out of the Navy late in 1966 and was curious to find out if I could scratch out a living playing music. I hit the road and ran out of money in St Augustine. I had heard that there was a place there where I might find a gig. I spent the night sleeping on the beach and went in the next night to the Trade Winds Tropical Saloon. Paul was playing with Jim Ballew. They introduced me to Duke and Toni, the owners, and then to the audience when I did a guest spot. When the night was over, I had a gig playing six nights a week for six weeks and met many great folks who over time became wonderful friends. Will and Gamble were there that night.
I had been told that Paul was a great fisherman, and when Paul asked me to go fishing with him one day, I jumped at the chance. We started out at Porpoise Point, Paul telling me just to follow him and mimic what he was doing. He was a man of few words, and I followed his every move as I was instructed. We fished around the inlet and started inching our way out alongside the jetties. Waves were growing higher and before long were breaking over our heads, and Paul still pressed on. We didn't catch a thing, but I was 'baptized' in that inlet by Paul.
Paul's banjo work was great, but I especially loved his guitar playing. His music was full of emotion and poured from him like he was a gypsy. When he joined you on stage, you knew it was going to be special. Paul always said in parting "Keep pickin'."
I was in high school in Tallahassee back in those days (early sixties). I was turned on to the Baffled Knight by Fred Jones, with whom I had a folk group, along with Andy Moorer. I have vivid memories of Paul's playing. He was always very unassuming, blending into the background on the stage, (you couldn't do much else, with Gamble telling his stories and playing his finger-picking style with Chuck Glore), but when Paul stepped out to play, he did it high, wide and handsome.
I remember a story about John Stewart coming to town with a Kingston Trio bush-league group (I can't remember the name) and bragging about being a really hot picker. Someone got hold of Paul and got them in the same room, and Paul just took the guy to pieces. I'd have loved to have been there.
Paul never talked much at all. He let the banjo say it, I think. If you didn't know, by the way, the "Baffled Knights" (Gamble, Chuck, and Paul) were in a movie, "2,000 Maniacs," playing and singing behind the action. I went to see the blamed thing here in Hollywood back in the late 80's, at a theatre that showed cult-type flicks. They were actually shown playing in some scenes. It was one of Herschel Lewis's gore-fests. (I've always wondered if he was one of the Lewis's of Lewis State Bank. I knew the kids of my generation from that family.)
But back to Paul. I remember the steps down to the BK, right beside the store on the corner, and the stone walls. It really was a basement, and the lighting was pretty low. It was a perfect venue for the group--until the Baptist Church across the street decided that they couldn't brook liquor being served so close to their "sacred" precincts.
I only remember ever seeing Paul around Tallahassee a couple of times back then, and only very briefly, but he was definitely a presence in my mind.
I've always held that time dear, the formative years of my musicianship.
I want to thank Bob Higginbotham for creating this website and inviting me to send in my memories of Paul Champion.
I never knew Paul, but I heard him live one evening at the Tradewinds in St Augustine. I'd heard of him and that he was a great banjo picker. I can't remember exactly when this was, but I think it was on a Palm Sunday in the early to mid-seventies.
Paul played some great banjo with his band and then pulled out his guitar and played the theme from Dr. Zhivago solo, which really impressed me with its power and perfection. I remember all that curly black hair high on his head and what a cool figure he cut as he displayed his mastery of both instruments...quite an inspiration for a young banjo picker!
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Submitted by Bill Emerson
When I knew him, Paul was a shy gentle person who idolized Earl Scruggs. We went fishing in the Potomac River a couple of times, and once because he didn’t have a driver’s license or own a car, I drove him down to Don Reno’s trailer near Roanoke where we spent the day.
I once had occasion to borrow his RB-3, and he brought it to the gig with masking tape all over the back of the resonator and armrest. He stayed through the whole performance and never let it out of his sight.
After he moved away I never saw him again, but he became a fine banjo player indeed.
Bill Emerson (Although Paul took care to protect his resonator with masking tape on this occasion, there was nothing he could do later on when, as confirmed in the Asheville Crasher's "Memory," Bob Dylan dropped Paul's banjo and destroyed the resonator and the flange.)
Submitted by Leon Poindexter
Hi, I was so glad to get this site. My name is Leon Poindexter and I owned the Feed Store Music Hall in Bradenton, Fl and lived in Bradenton. I remember Paul coming over many times and sometimes staying a couple of weeks. Sometimes he would stay in our house, but most of all he had rather set up a tent. I had the Poindexter Bluegrass Band, and I always looked forward to Paul coming and performing with us. He was one of the best banjo players that I have ever known. He loved the Scruggs style and sounded exactly like Scruggs. Thanks for the site.
Submitted by Charles Steele
I used to go to Anthony's Lounge back in the late 1960's and was amazed by Paul's skill on the banjo and guitar. Some nights I "tripped out" just from the music. I was too chicken to take drugs back then. I was unaware that any of his music got recorded until I stumbled on your site. Ironically, I learned of Paul's death when Gamble Rogers was doing a gig in Dayton, OH. Gamble died very shortly thereafter trying to save another man from drowning. I'm a retired librarian doing volunteer work in the Philippines. Thank you for setting up this site.
Charles E. Steele, Jr.
Submitted by Jim Posey
It is March 30,2010 and for some strange reason Paul Champion came to my mind. I search the internet and found his site. I had remembered seeing him and visiting with him in the early years of the 1970's in several Orlando "nightclubs". He was such a great talent and I thoroughly enjoyed his music. Being from Alabama and appreciating country music, it was a treat to see a talent like Paul in Orlando. We became "friends" in the sense that he would always acknowledge me if I was in the audience, and he would always come to my table to say hello and have a drink. As much as his talent, I remember how humble, soft spoken and nice he was to his fans. As everyone knows, he was a master with the banjo, but I especially enjoyed him playing the 12-string gituar. I appreciate the opportunity to share that memory.
Submitted by Jeff
I just found your web pages. I was a friend of Jim Ballew in Orlando in the 1970s, and used to go to the Beef and Bottle regularly (Winter Park, FL) and have some 10" reel-to-reel recordings of a few hours of his music, when he played along with Paul Champion.
At one point, when visiting Jim, Gamble Rogers was there and Gamble showed me how to play Deep River Blues.
I will try to get the recordings I have transcribed from my 10" reels. I used some of the tunes to try to get Disneyworld to hire Jim and Paul in the 1970s (around the time it opened) but never heard back from Disney -- their loss. Some of the songs I know I have include Foggy Mountain Breakdown and Darcey Farrow, both were the best versions I've ever heard. Hope I can get the music off my 30+ year old tapes.
Paul Champion and Lance Carpenter were already legendary in Central Florida when I first heard about them in 1967. I was at Polk Junior College playing bass with a folk group, the Portions of Time (yeah, pretty awful name), and was staying a week ahead of my guitar students at Casswin’s Music Store in Lakeland. The leader of the POT, Sam Schneider, was always talking about Paul and Lance at Anthony’s Lounge in Orlando playing the best music you’d ever want to hear. Sam also hipped me to Will McLean as being an authentic folk musician with bona fide Florida roots. I even remember the college’s folk club planning a field trip to visit Will in north Florida. Moreover, I vividly remember Paul’s Kingston Trio banjo book that was always in the Casswin’s sheet music inventory. God, I was rightfully impressed.
One night circa 1968, folk and blues artist Kayle Payne and I headed to Orlando looking forward to enjoying an evening of hearing Lance and Paul. Paul was just walking out of the building when we arrived (he was off that night), but I remember wondering who the magnetic and charismatic bearded guy was who’d just passed by us. Lance was playing solo that night (he had a blonde Gibson ES-175), and we got acquainted quickly, (he could tell we were players with just eye contact). We sat in and established a musician’s bond, one that was naturally endemic to us. And it was one of my life’s most memorable and significant connections.
I returned a week or two later, sat in on bass with Paul and Lance and remained as the house bassist for many months. Jim Ballew had just left for college and they were looking for someone to replace him. I will never claim to have replaced the marvelously talented Jim Ballew, only to be his successor. Shortly after, Lance left, and I stayed with Paul as a duo for the duration. It was such an honor and I recall making mental notes to remember that I was on stage with one of the most gifted musicians in the world. Sure, I was driving from Winter Haven for a lousy $75 a week, but my pay was often augmented by Paul dipping into his own pocket diminishing his princely salary of $135 per.
I first met Will McLean at Anthony’s. He was there visiting Paul and drinking as much bourbon blend as he could coax fans to buy for him. Will had a broad personality and was a handful when he was drunk. But again, I always made the mental note to remember the times when I was on stage with him and Paul. One senses when he’s in the presence of special artists.
Soon after, Will, Lance, Jim Stafford (who also had performed a week at Anthony’s) and others met down at Tiger Lake fish camp in Lake Wales for a weekend guitar pull and to watch the United States’ first ever moon landing. We all remember where we were that night, and hanging out in a remote down-home Florida fish camp with Lance, Jim and Will made the memory indelible for me.
Paul bought his D-45 from Streep’s, an Orlando Music store, who gave it to him for cost. Retail then was $1200 and Paul got it for cost plus tax: $832. Years later, Mary Ballew asked me to find a buyer for it when it fell to her after her husband, Jim died, who’d inherited it. I sold it to Darrell McCumber of West Virginia who used it to attract attention to his booth at guitar shows. I still have Paul’s banjo capo that Jim Ballew gave me. And I believe much of the music on this site is from my collection.
This site allows me to share Paul’s brilliance with the many musicians I meet as a performer and music journalist. Of course, they’re always appreciative and always in awe. So we need to thank Bob Higginbotham, an extraordinary musical talent in his own right, for unselfishly creating this Website and encouraging those who knew Paul Champion to tell their stories about the gifted man who’ll forever be more legendary than famous. And so be it.
Thanks Bob, and thanks Paul.
I first saw Paul at The Baffled Knight, a basement coffee house in Tallahassee in Oct. 1961. A friend [Larry Broer] had said Paul was a really terrific musician but he probably wouldn't talk unless someone introduced us. I sat spellbound through the first set. He attacked with his banjo, hiking up its strap with his shoulder several times in a song, especially when he was moving up to the mike for a break. He'd swing it forward with a tiny nod to himself and then kind of dip the peg head and blaze into machine-gun runs, a melodic frenzy, tack-hammer fingers racing up and down the neck, bending and choking notes free. His right hand was a blur.He often seemed to be tearing the strings loose from the bridge. I was hypnotized. He never looked out at the audience, just stared down a few feet ahead, absolutely ripping into "Dear Old Dixie" or "Earl's Breakdown," gently cuffing chords on "Farewell Blues." Gamble Rogers was lead guitar that first night and chatted with me during a break. Gamble was cheerful and introduced us . Paul was putting away his axe and he kind of turned around but not all the way and mumbled something, half-offered his hand. He seemed ultra-shy all the time, spoke in muffled tones if at all. I desperately wanted to play like him, tried to figure out what his left hand was doing. He was too fast. In the years after that, once in a blue moon he'd say he'd been working on something and demonstrate a thousand-note burst. "Goes like this," he'd say softly, not moving his lips. Or, "Earl showed me this one," and then burn through six or seven seconds of BZZZZZZZZZZNNNGG. His music was so creative, his notes so clear, his fingers so deft and incredibly quick that when he played he could have been visiting from another cosmos musically light years beyond Nashville. He was pencil-thin. I can't remember ever seeing him in a short-sleeved shirt. He once sent me small snapshot. In it he was holding an off-brand mandolin, a smiling girl to one side in the background. Across the bottom: "How do you like my F-5?" His idea of a joke was to murmur, "Killed a rat in the barn today," with a small, wry smile.