By Richie Unterberger

The 1969 album Feelin' the Blues was the final Chambers Brothers release of the '60s on Vault Records, and their final LP ever for Vault, except for a compilation that appeared the following year. Like several of the group's Vault albums, however, it wasn't recorded shortly before its release, but instead taken from Vault's actual vault of recordings it had done with the band before they moved to Columbia Records. To understand why the Chambers Brothers' release schedule on Vault took an odd course, it might help to trace their overall history with the label, which released no less than four LPs by the group (all reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music) in the 1960s despite recording them over a relatively brief period in the middle of that decade.

    Aside from an obscure one-off gospel single for the small Proverb label, the Chambers Brothers didn't release anything before the mid-1960s, although they'd been performing professionally almost from the time they moved from Mississippi to Los Angeles in 1954. "We were leery," said Willie Chambers in a May 1994 Goldmine article. "We didn't jump too quick for offers. We were holding out. Even that one 45 we did for Randy Strickland [who ran Proverb], we thought that was taking a big chance on somebody who doesn't even have distributing or anything like that. There was the thing about publishing and the royalties. People didn't talk about, or seem to know anything about that...So small labels would approach us, but they'd back off when you'd start talking publishing and royalties and distributing, and stuff like that. Even some of the big labels would act the same way. We were a little leery to just go and sign with just anybody. We'd been approached, but we were waiting." One of the labels that approached them, according to the same article, was Motown Records, although they didn't sign with the company.

    Having built up a following beyond the gospel circuit in folk clubs by the mid-1960s, however, they started to take a more serious interest in recording. They backed folk singer Barbara Dane on sessions that yielded an album on Folkways, Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers (reissued on CD in 2005 by DBK Works), although that record didn't come out until 1966. They did at least some recording on their own for Folkways as well, although that material didn't come out until 1968, on the Groovin' Time LP. In addition, the group had started to get some national TV exposure on Shindig!, whose producer Jack Good had seen them in concert. Impressed, he had them sing the gospel tune "Before You Get to Heaven" on the pilot program in late 1964, and also later in the series to perform the Impressions' "People Get Ready," which they'd eventually record for both Vault and Columbia. As a result the record division of the network that broadcast Shindig!, ABC, apparently offered them a contract; a 1965 issue of Sing Out! even reported that they had "a new recording contract with ABC-Paramount."

    For unclear reasons, the Chambers Brothers ended up not on ABC-Paramount, but on the smaller independent label Vault. "Through Shindig!," remembered Willie Chambers in Goldmine, "we met the people from ABC Records. We had a contract with them, and to this day we don't know what happened. We got a message that they were gonna give us to a smaller label. They didn't give us any reason, no reason that I remember, anyway. They introduced us to Vault Records, Jack Lewark. And we recorded with Jack." Added Joe Chambers, "I went into the office at ABC, when Shindig! was in the running. And they told me that it was because we're black, that they let us go from ABC. The stockholders didn't want us on the label. So they released us to Vault Records."

    The Vault label remains obscure even to many rock collectors, save the material the Chambers Brothers released with them, a best-of anthology it put out of the Beau Brummels, and a various-artists compilation LP called West Coast Love-In that combined tracks by the Chambers Brothers, the Peanut Butter Conspiracy, and the Ashes. "Jack [Lewark] and Ralph [Kaffel], and Ralph's mother Stella, owned California Record Distributors, which was the best independent distributor in L.A.," explains Ed Michel, who produced the Chambers Brothers' first Vault LP, People Get Ready for the Fabulous Chambers Brothers. "At one point they realized, 'everybody else got a label, we can have a label too.' The building they were in was an old bank building, and they stored a lot of records down in the vault. So they called it Vault Records."

    In 1965 and 1966, Vault put out some Chambers Brothers singles, as well as their debut album (recorded live), People Get Ready for the Fabulous Chambers Brothers. Yet Lester Chambers contended in the Goldmine

    With their success on Columbia came a rush of LPs with material they'd cut for Vault and Folkways, though it hadn't been issued at the time it was recorded. According to Joe Chambers in Goldmine, "It seemed to me that a lot of labels were just anxious to get anything on tape by us that they could, because a lot of these older records that we have copies of have the same songs on them. Several albums have the same songs. Companies were getting all this material for free. They wouldn't have to pay us any money to do it, because we were just anxious to record. So they didn't care that they were all getting the same songs. That's the only way I can explain it, anyway."

    Vault was probably at the back of its vault by the time it came to assemble Feelin' the Blues, a mixture of live (mostly) and studio material. The cuts included some of the R&B (Ray Charles's "I Got a Woman"), folk ("House of the Rising Sun"), gospel ("Just a Closer Walk with Thee" and "Travel on My Way") and even jazz ("Undecided," co-written by trumpeter Charlie Shavers and originally recorded in the late 1930s) songs the group had become known for interpreting as a concert act by the mid-1960s. The brooding "Blues on My Shoulder," originally a blues single for Bobby Parker in 1958, had already been included on the previous Vault album Shout!, though this is a different, shorter version, easily distinguished by the presence of a piano in the arrangement (where the Shout! version had none). A couple of originals that fused contemporary soul, blues, and gospel, Lester Chambers's "Girls, We Love You" and Joe Chambers's "Don't Lose Your Cool," opened each side of the original LP.

    Despite all of the material Vault unleashed on the marketplace by the Chambers Brothers during the 1960s, none of the four LPs and several singles the label issued by the group charted. Though not nearly as successful as the more psychedelic rock-soul-funk they cut for Columbia, it was successful in extensively documenting the more gospel-blues-folk-oriented roots of the group, which if not for these recordings would have been barely represented on record. -- Richie Unterberger
article that "when we were on Vault, I'm not sure we ever heard any of that on the radio. I think that once you hear your voice on the radio, and you're somewhere else listening to it, that gives you a whole sense of greatness. I can't remember a time from the Vault era when that happened. There could have been some time along the way that I heard 'People Get Ready' on the radio but I'm not certain. The other times were so much greater, with the Columbia stuff. Because the Columbia stuff was all over the radio, and that could have wiped out any memory of things being in a smaller setting." By August 1966, the Chambers Brothers were recording for Columbia, and a couple of years later, they broke through to national stardom with their psychedelic hit single "Time Has Come Today"—already written when the group was with Vault (and performed at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival), but not recorded until they'd left for Columbia.

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             unless otherwise specified.