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.
This remarkable 1964 Ash Grove recording captures the Chambers Brothers performing a year prior to the initial Vault recordings. As such, it provides much insight into the roots of the group's music. After performing a diverse set similar to the material on the initial Vault recordings, this second set of the evening is quite different, being devoted almost exclusively to the gospel music they grew up on. Still a year prior to them recruiting Brian Keenan on drums, this performance focuses on the soulful voice of Lester Chambers and the harmonious vocal blend of all four brothers, with only acoustic guitars and bass providing instrumental support. Although root elements of the nine songs performed in this set can clearly be heard on later recordings, none of these songs were included on the initial Vault Records releases, making this live recording a revelatory addition to the group's early catalogue.
The recording begins with the set in progress as The Chambers Brothers are winding up a powerfully sung rendition of the spiritual "Take Me Home To Glory." This is followed by the soulful flavorings of Sam Cooke's "Stand By Me Father." The group likely learned this number from the 1960 Soul Stirrers recording that featured Johnnie Taylor on lead vocal, who Lester emulates with great flare. Although it isn't obvious from this arrangement, this song is the basis for "Stand By Me," which would become a monumental hit for Ben E. King and later be recorded by countless other artists in the decades to follow. An enticing reading of L. B. Byron's "Rough And Rocky Road" has the jubilant feel of a Southern Baptist church revival. The religious concept of redemption, a recurring theme in most gospel music, fuels this song, as well as several others in this set.
One of the most intriguing numbers is up next as the group harmonizes on the refrain from William M. Golden's 1918 composition, "A Beautiful Life," also commonly known under the title "Each Day I'll Do A Golden Deed." Unlike almost every other recording of this gospel classic, the Chambers Brothers forego the verses and concentrate almost exclusively on the refrain. This is a tour-de-force vocal performance, with Lester's powerful lead deeply compelling and George, Willie, and Joe's harmonies at their most soulful and stirring. This is followed by two numbers that almost everyone will recognize—the vintage spiritual "Down By The Riverside" and the Christian hymn "Will The Circle Be Unbroken," two folk music staples that also get the gospel treatment to great effect. "Down By The Riverside," a song that began its life associated with the American slaves struggle for freedom in the 1800s, takes on new meaning in the hands of the Chambers Brothers, becoming a high-spirited peace song for both civil rights activists as well as Vietnam War soldiers fed up with fighting. In 1964, this was still relatively radical material that resonates deeply with the Ash Grove audience.
The remainder of the set features three phenomenal performances, beginning with another song of redemption, "Traveling Shoes." This is an incredible example of the brother's four-part vocal arranging, with each member playing a critical role. It's a propulsive performance that also includes lyrical bits of "Wade In The Water," another song that would figure prominently in the brother's later career. This is followed by an explosive version of "I Got It." This reading brings to mind the Isley Brother's "Shout!," but is even more exuberant, a fact not missed by the Ash Grove audience who enthusiastically clap along. A celebratory performance of "If You Treat Your Neighbor Right, Heaven Belongs To You," perfectly encapsulates the Chambers Brothers' message and brings this highly compelling set to a close.
Written by Alan Bershaw