“Speaking Freely” show recorded on Nov. 14, 2003, in Nashville, Tenn.
Lester Chambers with Michael Be Holden: [Play and sing] “Ooh. Ooh. Ooh. Ooh./People get ready./There’s a train,/a train a comin’./You don’t need no baggage./You just get on board./All you need is faith./You can hear the diesels coming./You don’t need no ticket./You just thank the Lord./Ooh. Ooh. Ooh. Ooh./People get ready for the train,/the train to Jordan./It’s picking up passengers/from coast to coast./And faith is the key./You open the doors and board on,/’cause there’s room for all/among who love the most./There ain’t no room for the hopeless,/the hopeless sinner,/who would hurt all mankind/to save his soul./Believe me now./And have pity on those/whose chances grow thinner,/’cause there’s no hiding place/in the kingdom’s throne./And we all say:/ooh. Ooh. Ooh. Ooh./People get ready./There’s a train,/a train a comin’./You don’t need no baggage./You just get on board./All you need is faith./You can hear the diesels coming./You don’t need no ticket./You just thank the Lord./ Yeah.”
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression in America. We’re glad to have you here. I’m Ken Paulson. And these two gentlemen here are extraordinary musicians, as you’ve already heard. Lester Chambers is a member of the Chambers Brothers. I mean, what better pedigree can you get than that? An amazing group—
Chambers: Thank you.
Paulson: — that broke down all kinds of barriers. He’s joined here by Michael Be Holden, a man who’s written some songs for Evelyn “Champagne” King. He’s been on gold records and toured with Buddy Miles. And we’re in pretty good company here.
Paulson: This is one of those days I really like my job. This is a nice front-row seat. It’s great to have you here. And anybody who loves music of the ’60s, in particular, you know, the Chambers Brothers are — were an amazing group. Other than Sly Stone, which had some common — there was some common elements — the two of you were pushing the envelope way beyond where —
Chambers: Way beyond.
Paulson: And also breaking down barriers in that, that so much black music, um, did not incorporate a lot of rock and roll, and rock and roll didn’t incorporate gospel. And you all said, “This is just good music.”
Chambers: Just good music. It’s just the way we felt. And it had the joy of, uh, love.
Paulson: Well, tell me, you came from a very large family?
Chambers: Large family.
Paulson: And I gather not a very affluent family.
Chambers: Yes, this is true.
Chambers: Sharecroppers, yes. It’s a sweet word for slavery. Yeah.
Paulson: And yet you and your brothers were singing from a very early age.
Chambers: Yes, we used to — on days in the field, the neighboring families and people would come over. We lived in an area where you could say, “Ooh” and hear it eight times going away. An echo. So, we would sing in the afternoons and give everybody a song before they left to go home for dinner. And then they would come back in the morning, and as they reunited in the field, they would holler out their requests for the afternoon, and we would sing for them in that manner.
Paulson: Can every Chambers —
Paulson: — sing?
Chambers: Yes, or play an instrument, sing. There’s about — I can’t imagine how many — I can’t—I don’t have a figure in front of me, but every one of them are very talented: sing, dance, play drums, or something.
Paulson: If they can’t sing, do you just drum them out of the family?
Chambers: Ha. No, they’re just as welcome as if they can’t sing, but they all can sing.
Paulson: They can be the business managers.
Chambers: Yeah, they could—that’s possible.
Paulson: And so how did you end up on a stage? I mean, you were out there as the Little Chambers Brothers very early on.
Chambers: Yeah, very early on, we were a gospel group, the Chambers Brothers were. In Mississippi, we also — my brother George had gotten drafted into the Korean War just as we were becoming a big gospel group. So, we got with two of our cousins and became the Mount Calvary Juniors. And there were a Mount Calvary Seniors group that my brother George had sang with. But we had just joined to be — together to be the Chambers Brothers. He got drafted into the military. And after that, we moved to Los Angeles, where we pursued the Chambers Brothers.
Paulson: There comes a point when you move from gospel to rock and soul.
Paulson: And R&B and rock and roll. What inspired you? Who did you listen to that you —
Chambers: To Jimmy Reed, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sonny and Brownie, Ray Charles, uh, you know, people like that. Bobby “Blue” Bland.
Paulson: Now, you were the lead singer—
Paulson: — in most of the Chambers Brothers projects. Did the family have to sit down around a kitchen table and divvy up the instruments? And how did you decide who played what?
Chambers: No, the — I don’t really know how that happened. But I—but I had been fooling with the guitar, and I realized that I had a small nerve growing out the end of this finger and another one right here, and we didn’t have picks.
Chambers: So, when I would play the guitar, this finger, this finger has the nerve, and this one has the nerve, so, my two important fingers were in trouble here. So, this one would just kill me. It still does.
Paulson: So, you sang.
Chambers: So, I said to my brothers one day, “If you guys will let me, I’ll be the greatest lead singer you — I’ll be the greatest front man you could ever have.”
Paulson: And the lead singer gets the girls, too, right?
Chambers: Yeah, I would bring them home to them.
Paulson: Well, what that doesn’t explain to me — because you’ve explained—Jerry Reed, I mean, Jimmy Reed, I hear, uh, Ray Charles, I hear all that, and yet the sound of the Chambers Brothers was something else. I mean, there’s a psychedelic sound —
Paulson: — like no one else. And where did that come from?
Chambers: Well, being a misfit, you know, and all that stuff, we got thrown out of the coffee houses because we were singing gospel in there. And they decided that gospel shouldn’t be sung in coffee houses where alcohol beverages were served. So, we went out and put together a — like a gospel barbershop quartet type group that had a gutbucket base and tambourines and the whole thing. You know, and we started doing that, but we would still give God the glory and sing our song whenever we could that was gospel. Somehow or another, it just didn’t last long enough, and we decided we’re getting a bigger, and a bigger, and a bigger audience that can no longer hear the acoustic productions so that we were doing onstage. So, from there we rented a big house on Crenshaw Boulevard, 1921 Crenshaw Boulevard. Or was it 2119? Anyway, we had a basement there that we immediately turned into the studio. And the only time we came out was to go to the bathroom or to eat or to drink. We were down there 24/7 almost.
Paulson: And you invented new sounds.
Chambers: And we came up with — we put arrangements to the songs that we had — that had already been recorded. The whole thing, we put it together right there.
Paulson: It’s an amazing mix of psychedelia and soul—
Chambers: And gospel.
Paulson: And gospel and rock and roll.
Paulson: And, of course, the most famous song is “Time Has Come Today.”
Chambers: “Time Has Come Today,” right.
Paulson: Which still is being played in movies. It’s —
Paulson: It is — you know, you listen to it, and you’re transported back to the era. A very — a revolutionary song in a lot of ways.
Paulson: Did the Chambers Brothers set out to do more than just have people dance to the music?
Chambers: Yes, we did.
Paulson: How so?
Chambers: We set out to deliver a message of freedom and the freedom of choice, the choice to be able to speak your mind. And the lyrics to the song was, “Time has come today for young hearts to go their way. Can’t put it off another day. They don’t listen anyway.” Okay? So, we went from there. My brother Joe wrote that, and Willie strummed the music. And we set out to have everything in one show: the gospel feeling, which we put all of the songs like “Midnight Hour” — Willie’s out there singing a lead just like he was doing a gospel song. And our feeling and heart, the way we felt about music and the fact that God blesses you with these talents — how can you go wrong with not pleasing him?
Paulson: And — well, you went from playing coffee houses to audience of 40,000 people.
Paulson: And introduced a lot of people to music they’d never heard before.
Paulson: Was that a rewarding experience?
Chambers: Very much so. Very much rewarding and satisfying. Yeah, very satisfying.
Paulson: And then it’s the nature of the business that sometimes the next record doesn’t sell as much as the one before, —
Paulson: — and the next one sells fewer, perhaps. For some reason, your record company dropped the Chambers Brothers in the early ’70s.
Paulson: And — and why was that? Just economics?
Chambers: You know, if you ever find out, I’d be happy — I’d really like it if you could tell me. We never did know that answer.
Chambers: And we still don’t know. All we—they — Columbia Records — at the time we was — at the big time we were with Columbia Records, uh, and honestly, they didn’t want “Time Has Come Today” to be on the label, I don’t believe.
Chambers: We were never promoted as a black gospel group, because they — we’ve never been invited to be in the Hall of Fame of music because they say there’s no category for us. And how do you not categorize a music that made the whole world happy?
Paulson: I’ve, I’ve read somewhere that there was some sentiment at the record company that you should take “Time Has Come Today” and give it to somebody else?
Chambers: They wanted, they wanted us to farm it out to a white group. They didn’t want a black group to be the author of “Time Has Come Today.” And —
Paulson: Too radical? Too revolutionary?
Chambers: Too far out, way out. And they basically came to us and said, “We do not want four black guys,” they didn’t say it as nice as that, “standing on stage, telling half the world of young — ” we had a all-white audience. We hardly ever had a black audience. We never did.
Paulson: And why would that be?
Chambers: We — we don’t understand that either. Maybe it was because of the difference in the music. The spirit felt, you know, and — and the freedom of people indulging in happy things, and happy days were all over the place. People were, you know, being psychedelicized. You see?
Paulson: To coin a phrase.
Chambers: And, yeah, so we put a gospel — “Time Has Come Today” was our version of a gospel song to that psychedelic crowd of people.
Paulson: So, what happened with the Chambers Brothers after the recording contract with Columbia disappeared? Did you continue to play?
Chambers: Well, no, they blackballed us as they let us go. And we were sitting idle for ten years. And no record company would touch us, at which time, we lost our audience. We lost our whole contact with agents. Uh, everything just sort of drifted away, because now we couldn’t get a tour with anybody. They — they just wouldn’t respond to us at all.
Paulson: Well, you certainly didn’t turn your back on music. You’ve continued to sing.
Chambers: No, I’ve continued to sing, and so have — my brother George is a deacon of the church now. Willie is a deacon of the church—becoming — becoming a deacon of the church. And Joe is writing soundtracks and stuff with a—with a company.
Paulson: Now, do you occasionally get back together with them to play?
Chambers: We do my mother’s birthday parties. She — bless her heart, she’s such a sweet lady. We do her birthday parties. And if she asks us to come to church to sing at any given time, we would, just for her.
Paulson: That’s a pretty good service.
Chambers: Yeah. That would probably be the only reason or the only way I would ever return to that form of music with the Chambers Brothers was if we were full-out, blown out gospel. Other than that, I feel like it’s my blues time.
Paulson: Yeah. Well, let’s talk about that. You’ve got a CD out. It’s easy to find, because it’s called Lester Chambers.
Chambers: Lester Chambers.
Paulson: It’s on Explosive Records.
Paulson: And I wonder if we could hear a song that reflects your current music?
Chambers with Be Holden: All right. [Play and sing] “Have you ever been mistreated?/You know what I’m talking about?/Yeah./Have you ever been mistreated?/You know what I’m talking about?/I work five long years for that woman,/and she had the nerve,/oh, the nerve,/to put me out./I got a job in the steel mill,/working hard every day./For five long years every Friday, Michael,/I went straight home with all of my pay./Yeah, whoa, whoa. Whoa, I’ve been mistreated./You know what I’m talking about./I work five long years for that woman,/and she had the nerve,/oh, the nerve,/to put me out./Yeah./ Listen,/I finally learned a lesson/a long, long time ago:/the next woman I marry,/she got to work/and help bring home the dough./Whoa, whoa, whoa. Whoa, I’ve been mistreated./And you know what I’m talking about./I work five long years for that woman,/and she, she put me out./Yeah.”
Paulson: That was great. The blues should not be that much fun. That was great.
Chambers: Oh, trust me. It’s just like doing gospel, because it has such a true story.
Chambers: And most gospel songs are based around a true story, a true feeling, a true meaning. So is the blues.
Paulson: Part of the goal of the tour you’re on is about calling attention to social injustice.
Chambers: Social injustice, right.
Paulson: And, so, let me put you on the spot here and ask you a question about musicians of your generation and actually some people a little older than you.
Paulson: You talk to people like Bo Diddley, who’s done this show. You talk to people like Chuck Berry.
Paulson: And there’s a real sense that many of America’s rock and roll and rhythm and blues pioneers never got their due, financially.
Chambers: That’s true.
Paulson: And—and, uh, what does that say about America, that so many innovators, uh, even to this day, haven’t gotten what — what is due them in terms of finances — probably at times in terms of credit?
Chambers: Well, I look at it like it’s as—this is, uh, uneven or unbalanced as being a sharecropper.
Chambers: And the sharecropper owner, which is the record company in our workday now — we are the sharecroppers of the record companies that don’t give us our fairness. These guys that have never gotten it won’t ever get it. And if they offer you anything, take it, because it’s all you’re going to get. You know? And that’s so — you know, I was sitting in a restaurant one day, and I was having a hamburger, waiting on a guy. I couldn’t even pay for the hamburger. But I was waiting on a friend of mine, a lawyer, that was going to come talk with — to me—he showed up later—about becoming an artist all over again with — doing this, you know? And there were four or five guys sitting at a table, talking. And they were having a burger. This is a great spot in New York. And apparently it was lawyers and real estate agents. And they were talking about the properties that RCA Records owned. And they asked — one guy asked a question: “Well, do you still owe money on the RCA Plaza in Rockefeller Plaza?” And he goes — the real estate agent goes, “Oh, no. Oh, that’s been paid for three times over by Billie Holiday.”
Chambers: And I thought — I boiled up. You know, I’m going, “My God. She’s got hungry relatives, starving relatives and friends that just never got nothing, —
Chambers: — and they are sitting there, boasting about the fact that she has paid for the RCA Plaza three times over — Billie Holiday alone.”
Paulson: We didn’t protect our artists, I think in part because no one dreamed, no one dreamed—
Chambers: No one dreamed.
Paulson: — that the song you recorded in 1968 would still be sung, you know, today.
Chambers: In 2003.
Paulson: And the music has had staying power.
Chambers: It’s never rested, that song. And, you know, like, to be honest with you, it’s a great thing to have that kind of years that you can say that you were truly a part of. All these years, your song has been a part of what’s made a difference. Because way back in the days, we were not — we protested against the Korean War and the Vietnam War with song and shows. And we do feel that that was one of the big reasons that things changed then. And we think now — we know now there’s more people listening to the music, and the messages are the same: tell us the truth. We want the truth.
Paulson: The time has come today.
Chambers: Time has come today. Tell us the truth.
Paulson: It—it, uh, resonates—
Paulson: — many years later. And it’s an honor to have you here today.
Chambers: It’s an honor to be here.
Paulson: It’s been a pleasure.
Chambers: It’s been my pleasure.
Paulson: And you’ve got an extraordinary legacy, and people are lucky to get a chance to see you singing. Lester Chambers, Michael Be Holden, thank you, gentlemen, so much.
Chambers and Be Holden: Thank you.
Paulson: Thank you for joining us this week on “Speaking Freely.” Please join us again next week.
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