Lester Chambers with T. Watts – Time Has Come : Revelations Of A Mississippi Hippie
Self-published – Softcover edition
The song “Time Has Come Today” was a huge hit, and has remained a popular song over the decades since it’s initial release. It has been used in commercials, movie soundtracks, and television shows. But how much do any of us remember about the men who conjured up the song that seemingly defines a generation at a time when the world began to change. The Chambers Brothers soared into the spotlight as their gospel harmonies combined with rock and blues influences to captivate audiences around the world.
Now one of the brothers, Lester Chambers, has written his autobiography, a look back at a career that follows an all-too familiar arc of rags to riches, and back.
The brothers grew up in Mississippi, learning to sing and harmonize in the Baptist church choir. As Lester recalls, “There was Joe with the big deep voice, George with the tenor voice, Willie with the baritone lead voice, and me hittin’ all those high notes. It just worked right out.” Their father was a sharecropper who eventually had a run-in with some white men and the local Ku Klux Klan. That lead to several brothers leaving in the dead of night for California, where George was already living in Los Angeles.
Before they left, Lester was gifted a brand new Hohner harmonica by his father. Since money was tight, he couldn’t figure out where his father got the money to buy the instrument that Lester had been lusting after ever since he heard Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee’s version of “The Fox Chase” on the radio.
Lester and Joe start performing as the Chambers Brothers, playing coffee houses and folk clubs. Once Willie was done playing with blues singer Long Gone Miles, he joined the band. In 1964, they approached Ed Pearl, the owner of the famous Ash Grove club, about playing his venue. Pearl was reluctant to add gospel to his musical menu, but finally agreed to give them one night tryout. They were a hit with the audience, earning a slot as the opening act for Lightnin’ Hopkins.
From there, the Chambers Brothers steadily built up a following, playing bigger clubs for more money. All was well until the Queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson, took great exception to the brothers singing gospel in clubs where alcohol was served. In her mind, that was a sacrilege of the highest order. Her campaign in the press ended up costing the band some of their gigs. But they soldiered on, eventually getting to the Newport Folk festival, which they played several times to great acclaim. That was where Bob Dylan heard the brothers. He invited them to do backing vocals for his Highway 61 Revisited album, although their studio contributions did not make onto the final release of that record.
From there, Lester takes readers through the decades as the band’s fame grows along with the money and attention. He describes chance encounters with artists like Jimmy Reed and Jimi Hendrix, a night when Berry Gordy and Diana Ross walked into a club the brothers were playing. There is a fascinating story about the genesis of ‘Time Has Come Today,” which Clive Davis, the head of Columbia Records, hated with a passion. But the brothers and their producer, David Rubinson, decided to go for it, cutting the song in one long, extended take. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Chambers has plenty of stories to tell, and many of them involve stars like Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, being on the Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight show with Johnny Carson.
Lester describes bringing drummer Brian Keenan into the band, who became the fifth Chambers Brother even though he was white. For one release, Keenan was cropped out of the photo used for the album cover, a record label decision that infuriated the brothers. Co-author and Blues Blast Magazine writer Tee Watts adds a number of interviews with key people in the band’s history, including a revealing one with their sister. There are several sections of black & white photographs that help bring the story into focus.
And then there is the dark side – the health issues that Chambers has battled at various points, including a cancer diagnosis with a chilling prognosis, a crooked manager, and a record label that couldn’t figure out how to market a band that mix blues, gospel, and soul influences with a psychedelic rock sound. Another issue is the lack of royalty payments over an extended span of time without any explanation.
The real trouble centers around their hit record, which was written by Joe and Willie. Lester maintains that the brothers had an agreement that everything would be shared equally. The rift caused the brothers to finally go their separate ways, despite the efforts of family and friends to resolve the issue.
Things got so bad that Lester was homeless, until some caring individuals intervened, got him connected to the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, which provided financial assistance. He still suffers from injuries he sustained when he was attacked on stage in 2013. But he continues to make music, now under the watchful eye of his son Dylan, who is also a musician. They are recent members of Moonalice, a rock band that has been around for fifteen years.
It has been a wild, and challenging ride. But Lester Chambers is still standing, smiling, full of love and grace. With the help of Watts, the world can now gain a greater appreciation for the contributions the Chambers Brothers made to the music, opening doors for bands to be free to experiment with sounds, not restricting themselves to a narrow sliver of the musical universe. It is an enlightening tale, and Lester Chambers tells it well.
The book is widely available online at most major retail outlets. Signed copies of the book are available at www.lesterchambers.com
Editors Note: Click Here to see interviews and reviews writer Tee Watts has done for Blues Blast Magazine.