Story Jason Browne | Photograph Masa Hensley
“If something was meant to happen, it would have by now.”
There’s no lament in Chip Templeton’s voice as he concedes that his music is unlikely to make him either rich or famous at this point. No bitterness. It’s a reality he came to grips with a long time ago.
But he was in a unique position, via a combination of birth, disposition and talent, to absorb the blow of missing his dream with minimal damage. He had unique advantages working in his favor.
For one, his dad, Charles Templeton Sr., had been in the record business as a label boss with a dozen or so artists. So Chip knew both the ugly and the beautiful sides of recorded music from the jump.
Second, Chip inherited his father’s ambitious streak. And just as Charles Sr. had multiple business interests in addition to selling music, Chip has multiple business interests in addition to making music. No time for self-pity.
Third, and most fulfilling, Chip became a musician any damn way.
“It’s not something I feel like I could make a total living at; otherwise, I’d do it constantly.”
Chip is candid about his place in the world of professional music. Technically, he meets the criteria for professional since he has four CDs in print and for sale. But he’d probably give you one as soon as sell you one.
And he works paying gigs on a regular basis. He’s just not what you would call a headliner.
“I’m probably at my best when playing at an event. It’s background music. Elevator music in a lot of cases,” he admits.
Still, he can hold center stage when the opportunity arises. One of Templeton’s self-produced CDs garnered a review from a national ragtime music critic who, while asserting the music was more jazz than ragtime, admitted Templeton’s fleet style managed to alter the covers he included sometimes to the point of being unrecognizable. Even to someone who reviews music like this for a living.
Templeton took it as a compliment.
“When I say I experience music, that’s what I mean. I play strictly by ear and based on mood. I generally take what I like and play it how I want to hear it,” he says.
Templeton developed his style as a middle-schooler. Self-taught in guitar, piano and multiple other instruments, he consciously shirked sheet music in favor of feeling and intuition. He can read music, but he doesn’t. He can play standards to sound like their popular versions, but he’d rather reinterpret them.
This reimagining of famous songs is sometimes the result of trial and error. Templeton cut his teeth on the piano via countless hours spent playing along to albums from his record collection — some of which featured piano parts, many of which didn’t.
“I’d make mistakes, but that’s when you get the most innovative stuff. If I’m about to mess up I catch myself and make a positive out of it,” he says.
Translation: Add notes here. Subtract notes there. Keep it all in time to the rhythm.
Templeton admits he sometimes goes months without touching a piano. Which is easy to believe.
His day job schedule has slowed somewhat in recent years since he “failed at retirement,” but he keeps a full plate. He now works for the Mississippi State University Extension Service in Technology Outreach, primarily in broadband activities and telemedicine.
Prior to that, he owned the Templeton Cadillac Chrysler Dodge Jeep dealership on Highway 12 in Starkville and had ties in multiple business ventures.
He also works closely with Mitchell Memorial Library at MSU, which curates his father’s collection of musical artifacts, the Charles H. Templeton, Sr. Music Museum’s Business of Music exhibit. And Chip stays involved in Starkville’s annual Charles Templeton Ragtime Jazz Festival.
Add to all of this that Chip has run 14 marathons in the past five years, before being forcibly retired from competitive running by recent knee surgery, and it’s hard to imagine him finding the necessary man-hours to let his soul and fingers dance across the keys as he reconstructs his favorite tunes.
“The way I do it in my head is I’m practicing just by thinking about it. I don’t have to have my hands on the keys to practice,” he says.
Growing up watching his father hustle to turn songs into hits and artists into stars, Chip learned a bedrock tenet of the music business very early.
“Making a living in the music business is not necessarily a contest of who are the best musicians. Lots of people who have made a gazillion dollars are probably terrible musicians. I think a lot of it is luck,” he says.
Perhaps an elite few are talented enough to make their own luck and force their way to success, but Chip had no illusions that he existed among that strata of musicians. His is a natural talent to be sure, strong enough that he briefly considered majoring in music. But that lasted all of one music theory course, and his degree is in marketing.
“I’ve done a lot of things in music without trying to make a big name for myself. My dad was someone who saw everything he did as a business of some sort, and he did it with a lot of passion. I saw his enjoyment of the music business, but I didn’t try to copy him. I found where I fit within the joy of music.”