Lester Chambers - vocals, percussion; Willie Chambers - guitar, vocals; Joe Chambers - guitar, vocals; George Chambers - bass, vocals
Long before the Chambers Brothers forged a fusion of funk, rhythm and blues, gospel, blues, soul, and psychedelic music into their 1968 hit, "Time Has Come Today," breaking through racial and musical divides in the process, the brothers were one of the most promising young gospel groups in the country. The four brothers who formed the group (they had four other brothers as well as five sisters) grew up in poverty, children of a Mississippi sharecropper during the 1940s. While earning a meager living picking cotton in Lee County, the most musically inclined brothers—guitarists Willie and Joe, mouth harpist Lester and bassist George, began developing their vocal harmonies while picking cotton in the fields. They got their first taste of talent recognition while singing a cappella in the choir of the local Mount Calvary Baptist Church, where they soon became known as the Little Chambers Brothers. The initial collaboration ended when George was drafted into the army in 1952, followed by the entire family relocating to Los Angeles the following year. Upon George's discharge from the army, he too relocated to Los Angeles, where the foursome began collaborating again, performing gospel and folk music in church and performing around town. Los Angeles had a profound effect on the brothers, who had never attended interracial schools, never held jobs other than picking cotton and now had far more freedom and cultural stimulation. They were now exposed to an abundance of new music and became enamored by the likes of Sam Cooke and Ray Charles. The predominantly white folk clubs in Los Angeles accepted the brothers form of a cappella gospel music and they performed around Southern California for the next decade in relative obscurity, while learning to play instruments in the process. All four brothers were unable to read music, but they each became self-taught musicians while studying the other great blues and folk musicians who frequented clubs on the folk and blues revival circuit. Regularly hanging out at the Ash Grove, the brothers also became friends with musicians like Sonny Terry, who provided harmonica lessons to Lester in exchange for home cooked southern meals and Lightnin' Hopkins, who was personally responsible for convincing Ash Grove owner, Ed Pearl, to give the Chambers Brothers a chance on the Ash Grove stage.
By the early 1960s, The Chambers Brothers were diversifying their music, incorporating R&B, soul, and pop music elements into the mix, while maintaining the spiritual and gospel origins of their style. By 1965, the group had established a strong local following and when they signed to record their first album for Vault Records, it was decided that they would do so live at the Ash Grove. Producing the live recording was Ed Michel, who would later produce albums by legendary free jazz musicians like Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, and Pharoah Sanders, and blues greats like John Lee Hooker and B.B. King. Engineering the album was another future recording legend, Wally Heider, who would later establish San Francisco's most successful recording studio, recording albums by Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Jefferson Airplane among countless others. However, at this early stage, Heider's mobile unit consisted of a tape recorder, some overhead microphones and a station wagon. The 12-song debut LP contained only one original and was primarily devoted to soul and R&B covers, featuring songs by Curtis Mayfield, Jimmy Reed, Lowell Fulson, Hank Ballard, and the Isley Brothers. Already quite eclectic, the group's repertoire also featured songs like George Gershwin's standard, "Summertime," in addition to a wide variety of traditional folk songs, spirituals, and gospel numbers. Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready," which would eventually become the debut LP's title song, entered the group's repertoire when they became a last minute replacement for the Impressions on the network TV show Shindig! The producers of the show offered the Chambers Brothers the replacement spot under the condition they learn and play the song with less than an hour to go before the taping. The group's recordings for Vault eventually provided enough material for three more LPs that would later surface as Now!, Shout!, and Feelin' the Blues.
Written by Alan Bershaw