NOTES FOR THE CHAMBERS BROTHERS' SHOUT!
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.
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),
little boys were sometimes asked to sing for well-to-do-whites, and the
pay was...an 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
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.
group would release a different recording of the same song on a 1967
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."
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
unless otherwise specified.
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