By Richie Unterberger

The first time most Americans heard the Chambers Brothers was when their psychedelic classic "Time Has Come Today" invaded the Top Twenty late in the summer of 1968. Like many soul groups, however, their first hit was preceded by years of concerts and recordings before their hard work paid off. In the Chambers Brothers' case, the wait was harder and the work longer than most, the brothers growing up in poverty in Mississippi, where they worked their father's farm as children. Only four of the family's eight brothers (who also had five sisters) would be in the group by the time they made their first album for Vault Records in the mid-1960s, People Get Ready for the Fabulous Chambers Brothers.

    The group had migrated to Los Angeles in 1954, and again like many soul acts, started out singing gospel music. Aside from a one-off gospel 45 for the small Proverb label, however, it was a good decade or so before they made their first proper recordings. By that time, like many gospel-grounded singers, they were moving toward R&B, soul, and rock music, playing with electric band accompaniment and drums, though the spiritual origins of their style remained in strong evidence. When it came time for the Vault label to record the group's first album, it decided to do so at the Ash Grove club in Los Angeles, where they'd built up a following over the course of several years. "It took quite a while before we could get [Vault] to record us," said Joe Chambers in a May 1994 Goldmine article. "They heard about our success and how audiences were going crazy for us. That's when they sent out a man with a recording unit and a couple of overhead microphones."

    Producing the live recording was Ed Michel, who'd later produce albums by jazz and blues greats like John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Alice Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, and Keith Jarrett. As it happened, his first gig as a bass player was with Barbara Dane, the folk singer the Chambers Brothers would back on a mid-1960s Folkways LP, Barbara Dane & the Chambers Brothers (reissued on CD in 2005 by DBK Works). At the time, however, he was keen to get as much of a foothold in the production end of the business as he could. "My pal Jack Lewark ran Vault Records," he explains today. "Jack was a buddy of mine who I had worked for in Europe, and he knew I had producer eyes. So he said, at the last minute, 'Look, I need to make an album with the Chambers Brothers. They're gonna record live at the Ash Grove.' And I said, 'Great! Let me get it together. When?' He said, 'Tonight.' I said, 'That's cool,' and got hold of Wally Heider.'"

    Heider had engineered many respected jazz albums, and would soon become famous with his San Francisco-based recording studios, which was used by such major acts as the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Sly & the Family Stone, and Crosby, Stills & Nash. But when the call came to record the Chambers Brothers, as Michel reveals, "at that point, Wally Heider Recording was Wally, a tape machine, and his station wagon. He ran everything out of the station wagon. So we were in the alley behind the Ash Grove, and the Chambers Brothers go out and do the one set they're going to. I know them as gospel and blues guys; this is way before they have happened as a pop act. I said, 'Everything's great, we'll just record you live. I like the sound of the club, Wally knows how to mike it, we'll do it great.'"

    Continues Ed, "So they get going, do their set, and about three-quarters of the way through, Wally says to me, 'Listen, Ed, I don't know how to tell you this, but this machine is screwing up. We can't use anything we got. I can fix it, but we gotta record 'em some more.' I was producer enough to figure, 'Okay, I gotta deal with it.' So I walk to the back door of the club, and they're coming offstage. I say, 'I'm sorry, we've had certain technical problems, and you guys gotta go back and do that set again. The set you just did was a rehearsal. Do you want to explain it to the audience, or do you want me to explain it to the audience?' 'We'll explain it to them—it's cool. And we'll tell 'em we can do it better.' And so they went on and they did. They did it better, and we got it on tape."

    Although the back sleeve notes by Elliot Tiegel (the Billboard editor responsible for coining the term "folk-rock" in 1965) say the LP was recorded in both the Ash Grove in Los Angeles and the Unicorn in Boston, Michel believes it was all done at the Ash Grove. "I guess [in] the next day or two, I put it together," he adds. "Jack had a studio behind his office. I just edited the tape and we had an album." While drums can be heard on the tracks, Michel doesn't think they were played by Brian Keenan, who was with the Chambers Brothers as a full-time member on their most famous recordings in the late 1960s. Rather, he believes it was another musician, "a kid who lived somewhere up Laurel Canyon, a young rock'n'roll drummer." [Update: In an email from 2017, Thurman Watts, who is co-writing an upcoming biography of Lester Chambers, told the author of these notes that according to Lester, the drummer on the Ash Grove recording is Jesse (Nicky) Cahn, son of folk/blues/jazz singer Barbara Dane and folk musician Rolf Cahn.]

    Only one original composition ("Call Me," by Joe and Willie Chambers) was on the 12-song LP, which otherwise was largely devoted to soul and R&B covers. The presence of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" (a hit for the Impressions in early 1965), the most recent of those covers, seems to indicate that the concert was probably recorded around mid-1965. Otherwise, the set was filled out with a couple of Jimmy Reed songs ("Yes, Yes, Yes" and "You've Got Me Running"); the Motown classic "Money (That's What I Want)"; Lowell Fulson's oft-interpreted "Reconsider Baby"; "Tore Up," by R&B pioneer Hank Ballard; "Your Old Lady," a rather obscure 1961 single by the Isley Brothers; and "You Can Run (But You Can't Hide)," written and recorded as a 1964 B-side by a young Johnnie Taylor when he was an artist on Sam Cooke's SAR label. Adding an eclectic touch were renditions of George Gershwin's standard "Summertime," the traditional tune "Hooka Tooka" (which had been a Top Twenty hit for Chubby Checker in early '64), and "It's All Over Now." Though the last song had been a hit for the Rolling Stones in '64, the way the Chambers Brothers did it indicates they might have been familiar with the more obscure original version, recorded by the Valentinos in '64 for SAR.

    The title track, as it happened, entered the Chambers Brothers' repertoire almost by accident. As Willie Chambers explained in a May 1994 issue of Goldmine, "The Impressions were supposed to be on [the network TV show] Shindig! You know, television don't pay you. You get a million dollars' worth of exposure, but you don't get a million bucks. And the Impressions thought they wanted to make a lot of money off of that, to go on the TV show. When they found out there wasn't any money, they said, 'We don't do it for free.' They didn't understand what the publicity would mean to them. And for that reason they wouldn't do the show. So the producers called us and asked us if we knew 'People Get Ready,' and we didn't. So [television producer] Jack Good says, 'Well, you got thirty minutes to learn it.' And that's how we ended up doin' 'People Get Ready.'"

    The song's composer, Curtis Mayfield, "never acknowledged us," added Joe Chambers in the same article. "He never did. And we love him, we love his artistry. But he never showed any acknowledgement to us for doing his song. But, you know, in that period, a lot of artists thought that when another artist covered their song, they were stealing it. Like Otis Redding thought that about 'Respect' when Aretha Franklin covered it, that kind of thing: 'You're stealing my song!'" The Chambers Brothers thought enough of the song, in fact, to re-record it for a single in 1967 after they'd moved to Columbia Records.

    Though the Chambers Brothers were already recording for Columbia by August 1966, Vault cut quite a bit of material with the group for the short time it had them. There was enough material, in fact, to yield three more LPs on the Vault label over the rest of the 1960s, Now!, Shout!, and Feelin' the Blues. All have also been reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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