Forgotten Treasures of ’60s Soul: The Chambers Brothers’ Vault Recordings

The Chambers Brothers
People Get Ready
Collector's Choice

Nostalgic trips down memory lane present numerous challenges for recording artists. Looking back at one’s artistic triumphs brings immeasurable joy and satisfaction, but confronting the emotional scars and psychological bruises created by dreams deferred, thwarted, and unrealized can be emotionally debilitating. Notwithstanding the risks involved in reflecting on the past, many musicians embrace opportunities to reminisce on earlier work, reconnect with old fans, and assess their place in music history.

Last September at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, legendary rocker Lester Chambers had the opportunity to revisit the past during an event commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love. Standing before an audience of 50,000, Chambers delivered a moving performance of his timeless classic, “Time Has Come Today”. Nearly four decades had passed since Lester’s group, the Chambers Brothers, was a viable force in the music industry, but their psychedelic anthem still possessed the ability to move hearts, souls, and bodies. Thunderous applause greeted the rocker as the song’s opening notes blared from the park’s speakers. Anyone familiar with the tune’s cultural significance won’t be surprised by the crowd’s enthusiastic response. Cut in 1967, “Time Has Come Today” captured brilliantly the rage, energy, and promise of a generation defined by the civil rights revolution, second wave feminism, and anti-war protest.

Over the years, the Chambers Brothers have become synonymous with their 1967 smash, which Charles Murray later referred to as the “first outbreak of psychedelic soul.” Full appreciation of the group’s artistry, however, requires one to dig much deeper into their catalogue. Signing with Vault Records in 1965, and then hooking up with Columbia one year later, the Chambers Brothers released a great deal of music during the ’60s, with a much broader scope than their psychedelic watermark.

Evaluating the group’s musical contributions during that tumultuous decade has been made easier with recent reissues of their Vault recordings: People Get Ready, Now, Shout, and Feelin’ the Blues. Out of print for decades, these recordings were originally released between 1965 and 1970. Anything but predictable, the eclectic collection features live and studio sets, secular and religious music, slow-grinding blues numbers, and scorching rockers.

To better understand the group’s diverse style, it’s necessary to briefly examine their Southern roots. Siblings Lester, Joe, Willie, and George Chambers were born and reared in Lee County, Mississippi, where their family labored as sharecroppers. Life was arduous in the Jim Crow South, but there were moments of pleasure for the Chambers brothers. Like so many African Americans, the young boys found solace, tremendous encouragement, and opportunities for artistic development within the walls of the black church. Taking in all of the lessons provided in black America’s sacred and secular worlds, the Chambers soaked up the energy and sounds of the church, while also paying close attention to the rhythms and vibes of the blues.

Skilled singers and musicians by the time their family headed for Los Angeles in the ’50s, the Chambers Brothers were more than ready when doors began to open for the group. Their big break came in 1961, when LA’s Ash Grove club included them on a bill with Barbara Dane, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee. Celebrated for both their talent and “authenticity”, the Chambers Brothers — with their particular brand of gospel, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll — became regulars on the folk circuit.

Fast forward to 1965, and the talented group found themselves performing at the Newport Folk Festival, as well as recording their first album for Vault, People Get Ready. On this live recording, the Chambers explore the songbooks of writers as diverse as Gershwin (“Summertime”), Jimmy Reed (“You’ve Got Me Running”), and Curtis Mayfield (“People Get Ready”). Covering blues, gospel, and rock ‘n’ roll, the Chambers refused to allow their sound to be defined by one particular genre. Such genre crossing frequently produces awkward moments, but the Chambers never seem out of their element. Throughout their live performance, George Chambers’s languid bass meshes perfectly with Willie Chambers’s wicked rhythm guitar and Lester Chambers’s blues-tinged harmonica, resulting in shouts of approval from the audience.

The eclecticism and energy the brothers brought to their first recording returned on their follow-up, Now. Standout tracks on this live recording include the rock classics “High Hill Sneakers” and “Long Tall Sally”, Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say”, and the highly enjoyable “It’s Groovin Time”.

Just as the Chamber Brothers’s reissues underscore their versatility, they also remind us of the continued importance of the blues as an art form and aesthetic for many African American artists. Much attention has been given to white rockers’ “rediscovery” of the blues in the ’60s, but frequently ignored is the extent to which the blues remained a part of black popular music during this time. Evidence of its viability can definitely be heard on the Chambers’ reissues. Never afraid to showcase their Mississippi roots, the Chambers Brothers deliver a hauntingly beautiful performance of “Blues Get Off My Shoulder” and a compelling cover of “House of the Risin’ Sun”. On the former, the band delivers an achingly sweet performance, emitting blue notes and vibes which linger long after the song is over.

Thriving in blues, rock ‘n’ roll, gospel, and rhythm and blues idioms, the Chambers Brothers had the respect of music critics and many of their peers. Not long after releasing their first record with Vault, the brothers garnered the attention of record execs at Columbia. Signing with Columbia sometime in 1966, the band teamed up with famed producer David Rubinson, psychedelicized their soul, and began to make inroads on mainstream radio with songs like “Time Has Come Today”, Betty Marby’s “Uptown”, and Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Lose”. To the band’s delight, their music was not only being played on the radio, but it was also being purchased. Thanks to the success of the title track, their 1968 recording, The Time Has Come Today, ascended to #4 on Billboard’s pop album charts.

The Chambers Brothers live on the Mike Douglas Show

Given the group’s newsfound success, it’s small surprise that the Chambers’ former employer, Vault, would seek to capitalize on the group’s newfound popularity by issuing two albums of unreleased material, Shout and Feelin’ the Blues. Even less surprising, given the revolutions in black music spearheaded at the time by folks like James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Norman Whitfield, and Isaac Hayes, these albums failed to achieve commercial success among fans who probably found the material woefully dated.

On the other hand, some critics appreciated the recordings. Feeling as if the Chambers Brothers’ Columbia work was overproduced and too commercial, Rolling Stone critic Gary Von Tersch praised the Vault material as superior to any of the group’s more recent hits. “They have never done any better than the music on these albums,” Tersch noted in 1970. Why Tersch and others found these recordings so valuable becomes abundantly clear upon close listen to some of the standouts on Shout and Feelin’ the Blues. The sincerity of “Rained the Day You Left” melts your heart, while “Travel on My Way” and “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” represents the best of the gospel quartet tradition.

Let’s be perfectly clear. None of the recently reissued Chambers Brothers discs qualify as particularly innovative, but this hardly lessens their musical value. Captured on People Get Ready, Now, Shout, and Feelin’ the Blues is a fine group of musicians who, despite their eclectic style, made a name for themselves in the ’60s. Competition for the hearts and dollars of young America was fierce during this period, but the Chambers Brothers successfully carved out a niche for themselves in the ever changing world of black popular music.

Thankfully, with these Collector’s Choice reissues (which includes detailed liner notes from music historian Richie Unterberger), fans of soul, classic rhythm and blues, gospel, and rock ‘n’ roll can better appreciate the Chambers Brothers’ artistry and legacy.

RATING 7 / 10