By Richie Unterberger

The Chambers Brothers are most known for their soul-funk-psychedelic recordings of the late 1960s and early 1970s, especially their huge 1968 hit "Time Has Come Today." That success, as deserved as it was, has caused their deep gospel and blues roots to be somewhat overlooked. It's still not widely known, even among some Chambers Brothers fans, that they did manage to record several albums worth of material that was closer to those roots shortly before they became stars. Four such LPs came out on Vault Records, all of them now reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music, including the third of these, Shout! More than any of the other Vault LPs, this shows, on part of the record, their gospel roots—and, on another part, the more contemporary, original brand of rock'n'roll into which they were moving, without ever abandoning their formative influences.

    Many African-American soul and rock greats came from humble origins, but few came from as humble circumstances as the Chambers Brothers did. Willie, Joe, Lester, and George Chambers were just four brothers in a family also including four other brothers and five sisters. From a young age, they worked in the fields on their father George's Mississippi farm, growing cotton and almost any  form of food that could be eaten. There was time for singing, though, both in the fields and at home, as well as in church and other social occasions. According to a 1965 article in Sing Out! by folk singer Barbara Dane (whom the Chambers Brothers backed onstage and on a mid-1960s Folkways LP, Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers, reissued on CD in 2005 by DBK Works), "The little boys were sometimes asked to sing for well-to-do-whites, and the pay apple. The traditional presentation of that apple was with one bite removed, so that everybody 'kept their places.'" As demeaning as the pay was in some ways, pointed out Willie Chambers in the same story, "That was still more than the other kids had, and besides, we had enjoyed ourselves singing so much, we just didn't worry about what we got for it."

    The family moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1950s, both in search of a better life and to escape the harsh prejudices endured by blacks in the pre-Civil Rights Act South. At first, George, Willie, Lester, and Joe performed gospel, often in church on Sundays, and for a while their group also included singers from outside the family, like Tommy James and Oscar Reed. "What we used to do," Joe told Goldmine in 1994, "because we had such good harmonies together, the brothers would sing all the background harmonies while we'd have other singers do the lead work. We'd just keep the harmony tight in the back. But we were always called the Chambers Brothers."

    It wasn't until the early 1960s that the Chambers Brothers—with Joe and Willie on guitar, Lester on harmonica, and George on washtub bass—started to venture outside the gospel circuit, playing at coffeehouses that also booked folk acts. The Ash Grove, one of Los Angeles's most popular folk clubs, became a particularly favorite haunt, bringing them into contact with Hoyt Axton, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Reverend Gary Davis, and Barbara Dane. It was Dane who became their biggest supporter, not only by playing with them onstage and recording with them, but also by taking them on tour with her. Dane also got in touch with Pete Seeger to help arrange getting the Chambers Brothers on the bill of the Newport Folk Festival in the mid-1960s, and one song from their 1965 performance, "I Got It," was used on Vanguard's Newport Folk Festival 1965 compilation LP.

    Even as the group found wider acceptance within the folk community, however, they—like many on the folk circuit—were feeling the tug toward electric rock'n'roll. "People jumped, and broke down fences, and ran and rushed the stage—it was incredible," remembered Joe Chambers of their '65 appearance at the festival in a May 1994 Goldmine article. "Newport had never seen or heard anything like that. And after we finished, and the crowd finally settled down, the emcee came back up and said, 'Whether you know it or not, that was rock'n'roll.'" They also played at a post-concert party for festival performers that night, and went to a recording session of the newly electrified Bob Dylan shortly afterward.

    The material selected for Shout!—an LP released in 1968, by which time the Chambers Brothers were recording for Columbia Records—reflects this exciting and, to some degree, uneasy transition. Side one, like the entirety of the two previous LPs by the group that Vault had released (People Get Ready for the Fabulous Chambers Brothers and Now!), was recorded live and mostly devoted to R&B/soul-oriented covers. (Perhaps these tracks, like those released on the previous two albums, were recorded at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles and the Unicorn in Boston, though the LP sleeve does not detail the sources.) A charge through Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" was followed by one of their most effective gospel-blues fusions, the mournful minor-key "Blues Get Off My Shoulder" (written and originally recorded by Bobby Parker on a 1958 single). Then comes an eleven-minute medley that ranks among their most gospel-soaked recordings, starting with the traditional tune "I Got It" (the same one they performed at Newport) and segueing into the Isley Brothers' "Shout"—a classic that, although a 1959 hit, was even in its original version rocked-up gospel at its heart, built as it was around thrilling call-response vocals.

    In contrast, side two was wholly devoted to studio recordings, and mostly to original material, much of which found the group drawing some pop-folk-rock into their sound. While covers of the Fiestas' "So Fine" (a live version of which is found on Now! album) and Eugene Church's 1959 rock'n'roll hit "Pretty Girls Everywhere" were typical of the fare they were recording live, the group's own compositions were moving into more adventurous territory. Willie Chambers's "There She Goes" was bouncy R&B/rock, complete with harmonica, that sounded almost like it could have been filler for an early Rolling Stones LP. Joe Chambers's brooding "Seventeen" had a lot of gospel in both the lead and backup vocals, but with decidedly secular romantic lyrics.

    Much more surprising is Joe's "It Rained the Day You Left," which is very much in the spirit of the folk-rock trend of the mid-1960s in both its melody and circular guitar riffs, and owes far more to a group like the Beau Brummels than to the blues or R&B. Also in a folk-rock bag, in a more consciously delicately pretty fashion with downright Californian sun-drenched pop-rockish vocal harmonies, is "Love Me Like the Rain." Written by Brian Keenan, that also seems to confirm that he'd joined the Chambers Brothers' lineup as drummer by the time they did the last of their recordings for Vault, though it's likely he's not on all of their Vault material, as Ed Michel (producer of People Get Ready for the Fabulous Chambers Brothers) believes Keenan did not drum on their first Vault LP. The group would release a different recording of the same song on a 1967 Columbia single.

    One thing's known for sure: the cover photo on Shout!, which does show Keenan in the lineup, does not date from the time the group were recording for Vault. "Those pictures on the Shout! album were taken at a concert we gave in the late '60s at Stanford University," Joe Chambers revealed in Goldmine. "Those pictures came from Columbia Records. It always puzzles us how they made this deal to use Columbia's photography on Vault albums. There was some strange stuff happening." And Keenan's composing credit for "Love Me Like the Rain" notwithstanding, Joe Chambers added, "Brian wasn't with us when we recorded for Vault and he didn't play on any of that stuff."

    After Shout!'s appearance in 1968, it seemed doubtful that Vault had anything left of the Chambers Brothers to scour for future releases. There was enough left, however, to produce yet a fourth album, 1969's Feelin' the Blues, also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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