By Richie Unterberger

Though the Chambers Brothers were a popular live act on the gospel, folk, and eventually rock'n'roll circuits for more than a decade before their 1968 Columbia hit single "Time Has Come Today," a relatively small portion of the record-buying public even knew they existed before that breakthrough. And even among the music fans who knew who they were, it was far from universally known that a number of Chambers Brothers records had already been issued, not only on Columbia, but also on the smaller Vault label. In fact, no less than four LPs of Chambers Brothers material appeared on Vault in the 1960s, the second of them being the one contained on this CD, Now!

     Tracing the path of the Chambers Brothers' flight on record up to the point Now! was released isn't easy, but it's known that they did one gospel single, "I Trust in God"/"Just a Little More Faith," for the Proverb label. Otherwise, it seems they did little if any recording in the decade or so after they moved from Mississippi to Los Angeles in the mid-1950s. Instead, they built up their reputation as a live act, first on the gospel circuit, and then crossing over to more pop-minded audiences, often playing folk clubs. The Ash Grove in Los Angeles, one of the most popular folk venues of the era, was a particular stronghold. It was while working there as an opening act that they first met singer Barbara Dane, who'd been performing folk, jazz, and blues since the 1940s.

    A longtime politically left-wing performer and champion for racial equality,  Dane had no reservations about working with an African-American group, and invited them to accompany her onstage on several occasions. She also helped further their career, as Willie Chambers remembered in a May 1994 Goldmine article, by taking the group "to New York out of her own pocket. She wanted us to get exposure, so she took us, on her own, to New York. She figured, 'If people see you, I know they're gonna want to hire you. You're gonna get work, and you'll be on your own.' She was absolutely right. We got there and we got jobs."

    The Chambers Brothers' first recording, that one-off gospel 45 excepted, was probably backing her on a Folkways session in New York. This must have been in 1964 or 1965; while Dane gives a 1965 date in her liner notes to the CD reissue (on DBK Works) of the album that resulted (Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers), Joe Chambers said in the Goldmine piece that he thought it was done on the way to their first appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Further confusing the dating process, in the CD reissue liner notes of Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers, Dane remembers that the first attempt to record the album failed when the Chambers Brothers "showed up too hoarse to talk. They had been up for three nights in Hollywood cutting their first single as a rock band"—implying that the recording might have taken place in 1965 after all.

    Regardless of the date and circumstances, Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers did capture something of the transition of the band from gospel to electric soul and rock, featuring as it did an electric guitar and harmonica. It was still a long way from rock (or even folk-rock), however, as there were no drums (though Dane's son, Jesse Cahn, joined them on the road as their first drummer shortly after the session). Too, the material was slanted toward folk music both contemporary (including covers of Malvina Reynolds's "It Isn't Nice" and Richard Fariña's "Pack Up Your Sorrows," written by Fariña with Joan Baez's older sister Pauline Marden) and traditional, also including some songs geared toward the struggle for civil rights in which so much of the folk community was involved in the early-to-mid-1960s.

    The LP wasn't released, however, until 1966, by which time the Chambers Brothers already had one LP out on Vault Records, People Get Ready for the Fabulous Chambers Brothers (also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music). Confusing the timeline even more, it seems like the Chambers Brothers did some more recording for Folkways, either before or after they hooked up with the Vault label. For in 1968—by which time Columbia had already released some Chambers Brothers product as well—Folkways issued an album of the Chambers Brothers on their own, Groovin' Time. The sound of the recording—which this time featured a full electric band, including drums—indicates that it was done around the time the group was moving from gospel-folk into soul-rock in the mid-1960s, as they were doing when they made their first Vault LP. It even included a couple songs that would show up on People Get Ready for the Fabulous Chambers Brothers (the traditional song "Hooka Tooka" and Jimmy Reed's "Yes, Yes, Yes") and two that appear on Now! (Reed's "You Don't Have to Go" and Joseph Chambers's "It's Groovin' Time"), though the Folkways versions are studio recordings, and not the live performances used on the Vault LPs.

    The upshot was that as the Chambers Brothers were becoming more popular on Columbia Records, other labels for which they had recorded were finding enough demand for their music to justify issuing some of the pre-Columbia tracks that hadn't been immediately issued when they were first cut. Such was the case with Now! Like People Get Ready for the Fabulous Chambers Brothers, it consisted wholly of live material—recorded, according to the original liner notes, at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles and the Unicorn in Boston—and almost entirely of R&B/soul covers. In fact, by the mid-1960s, it sounded almost like an oldies show, with versions of Ray Charles's "What'd I Say" (running nearly eight minutes), Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally," Larry Williams's "Bony Maronie," the Fiestas' "So Fine," and Chuck Willis's "C.C. Rider."

    There was also Tommy Tucker's relatively recent (1964) hit "High Heel Sneakers," and Jimmy Reed's aforementioned "You Don't Have to Go," here taken at a faster gait than the Folkways version. Oddly, the original label of the Now! LP credits one C. Perry as the composer of "It's Groovin' Time," though Joe Chambers is currently listed as the songwriter in the BMI database. And while the same label credits "Baby Please Don't Go" to "Williams"—presumably bluesman Big Joe Williams, author of a classic blues tune by that name—the track is obviously based on James Brown's first big hit, "Please, Please, Please."

    The public probably thought there was little left in the archives after Vault and Folkways had issued several albums of pre-Columbia recordings. Vault, however, had enough left for not just one, but two more Chambers Brothers LPs, Shout! and Feelin' the Blues, both also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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