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Bill Champlin might listen to a Chicago hit on the radio "once or twice," but don't expect him to tune in just because his band is on top of the charts.

"Probably the best thing that ever happened to me is my radio broke down in my car," says Champlin, singer, guitarist and keyboard player with Chicago. "So I can come up with new ideas instead of listening to radio all the time."When "Look Away" from "Chicago 19" went to No. 1 in December, Champlin wasn't even aware of it.

"Everybody said, `I hear your song every day,' " recalls Champlin. "I go, `What song?' I was kind of oblivious to the whole thing, busy working on new stuff. That's what happens. As everybody else gets aware of what you're doing, you're usually about five or six tunes past it."

Champlin was keeping busy long before he joined Chicago in the early '80s. The California native recorded seven albums as leader of the Sons of Champlin, in addition to two solo albums. He also won a Grammy for co-writing "After the Love Is Gone," recorded by Earth, Wind & Fire.

For many years Champlin kept his base in San Francisco, until he started spending more time flying to Los Angeles to do sessions work than he did at home. Now he's comfortably lodged in L.A., where he and his second wife, singer Tamara Champlin, have only to walk through their carport to get to the studio he built a year and a half ago.

So far only the new kids - singer-bassist Jason Scheff, who replaced Peter Cetera, and guitarist Dawayne Bailey, who joined after "Chicago 18" - have dropped in at Champlin's recording digs. (The other members of the band - singer-keyboardist Robert Lamm, woodwind player Walt Parazaider, trumpeter Lee Loughnane, trombonist James Pankow and drummer Danny Seraphine - have been in the group since it formed in Chicago more than 20 years ago.)

Then again, it's probably hard to get Champlin out of the place.

"I like to log as many hours in front of a mike as I can, `cause you always learn something," he says. "Even if it's a commercial, there's always something new to learn. It almost doesn't make any difference what the music is."

Speaking by phone, Champlin sounds relaxed and confident about Chicago's future. It doesn't seem strange to him to have the band's ballads competing with heavy metal hits.

-Betsy Pickle is a reporter for the News-Sentinel in Knoxville, Tenn.