The Chambers Brothers; George (RIP), Willie, Lester, and Joe electrified the world with their hit anthem of psychedelia, “Time Has Come Today.” In 1967, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, in the Summer of Love, the song sat at #11 for five weeks on the Billboard Top 100. Their top-tier, four-part harmonies have been rarely sonically matched in the recorded annals of Popular music.
Until now though, many music history buffs would erroneously place the Brothers solely in the Rock spectrum as purveyors of that hybrid labeled Psychedelic Soul. The Chambers Brothers have a solid foundation in the Blues as well. Here, Lester speaks on having the Blues in Mississippi and the gift of his first harmonica from his dad.
“The Blues come from misery. From having something too long that you don’t want. Or from longing too long for something that you know you will never get. Sharecropping life in Carthage, Mississippi was a hard life. It was like the worst life anybody could ever have. I actually saw the owner of the farm where we lived, Mr. Doug, give my Dad fifty cents and tell him, “That’s all you cleared this year, George. But think about it. Your family still has a place to stay and you can get anything you want at the store.” You know they had a little store where you could get fertilizer, cornmeal, and all your essentials for that type of miserable life.”
“To this day I don’t know how my dad was able to give me my first harmonica. He just opened up his hand one day and said, ‘Is this what you’re looking for?’ It was a brand new Hohner harmonica. I was totally enamored of it. I’d already heard Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee’s version of “Fox Chase” on The Grand Ol’ Opry. Sonny would be on it, man. He made that harmonica talk. I used to dream of meeting him.”
The Chambers Brothers escaped Mississippi sharecropping and landed In LA when Lester Chambers was fourteen. A chance meeting with Jimmy Reed fermented an already growing Blues consciousness.
“When I started school in California, the pastor of the church we attended noticed that I was always looking for something to do. He gave me a lawnmower to keep me busy and out of the devil’s workshop. I would cut lawns after school and on Saturdays.”
“One day while pushing the mower, I heard some music coming from an open window. I pushed the mower closer and peeped in there. There was a guy sitting there, having himself a drink and playing music on the record player. He noticed me and said, “Hi, you like music?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, I’m Jimmy Reed.”
“I was only 14 years old but I had heard about Jimmy Reed back in Mississippi. Now he was in my neighborhood in L.A. at 17th Street and Union because he had a gig at the Orpheum Theatre. In those days they wouldn’t let African-Americans stay at the hotels downtown, so the venue would rent a room for the artist when they were in town for a gig.”
“So there he was in this room with a bed and pillows on the floor playing his music. He invited me in and it was a mindblower. I went down to the Orpheum to try and see him play. I messed around and got a job passing out fliers in front of the theatre.”
Though the Brothers had performed as a quartet at church functions in Mississippi before they established themselves in California as the Chambers Brothers, Brother Willie Chambers went on the road with Long Gone Miles a Texas friend of Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Even later as the Chambers Brothers broke into the L.A. coffeehouse scene, Lester befriended harmonica ace, Brownie McGee.
“So we went to hear Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. After their set, we somehow were able to get into the dressing room. I talked to Sonny a bit I told him that we were part of a Gospel group known as the Chambers Brothers. He opened up to me and let me know that being on the road was creating a craving for some home cooking. He said he wanted some fried chicken, collard greens, cornbread, and iced tea. So we hooked him up. We invited him over to our brother Willie’s house and my sister Jewell came over and prepared him a meal which he immensely enjoyed.”
“We had a few more interactions over time and at one point he gave me four harmonicas. When he did that, Brownie looked at him and remarked, “You crazy so and so. One day that young man will take your job away from you.” He was joking of course. Sonny also gave me the only harmonica lesson I ever had in life. Aside from that one lesson, I’m completely self-taught. I approached James Cotton about a lesson once upon a time in Washington, D.C. when he was with Muddy Waters but he said he didn’t have time. We did become good friends though.”.
“Over the years I’ve hung out with and/or shared stages with Buddy Guy and Jr. Wells, Big Mama Thornton, Big Joe Turner, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb. Reverend Gary Davis and so many others. Hanging out in the tents at various festivals with them was like attending a Blues University. “
The Chambers Brothers brand has remained legendary from the Summer of Love, through this year’s Summer of Soul, the film that sat dormant for over 50 years, just released this summer. In the opening scenes, the Brothers perform “Uptown To Harlem” written by Funk Queen, Betty Davis, Miles’ ex. It’s a song that speaks to the cultural vibrancy and relavance of Harlem at the time. It is perfect for this film whose footage was shoved into a basement and forgotten.
The film also showcases perfomances by Nina Simone, B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Sly & the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, The 5th Dimension, The Staples Singers, and so many more. The film’s belated impact mirrors the reality of why there are Blues in the first place. It has already been awarded five awards on the film festival circuit, including two awards at the prestigous industry barometer – The Sundance Film Festival. As the credits roll at the film’s end, the Chambers close it out with “Have A Little Faith,” the lead vocal executed perfectly by one, Lester Chambers.
Always a multitasker, Lester currently has multiple projects in motion. His memoirs are slated for publication in time for his 82nd birthday on April 23, 2022. A party and book signing is in the works at the Historic River Theater in Guerneville, California.
Since about 2017 Lester and his son Dylan have been performing as the New Chambers Brothers with the band Full Moonalice. Also lately there have been discussions about a movie script.
Currently, plans are underfoot to place a Blues Trail Marker in Mississippi to honor the birthplace of the Chambers Brothers in Lee County, Mississippi.
Musically, Lester is finishing production on a Jimmy Reed Tribute Album, produced by Andre Jonson and co-produced by Zero Nylin, Former Production Manager for Quincy Jones, McCoy Tyner, and Chick Corea.
Gearwise, Lester Chambers plays Hohner Harmonicas and prefers Sennheiser microphones. For more information on Lester Chambers, visit www.lesterchambers.com. Performances of the New Chambers Brothers can also be tracked at www.moonalice.com.