The Chambers Brothers, four psychedelic black guys and a white drummer, were one of the best, if not the best, performing rock bands of the '60s. Don't believe it? Doubters and those who know better will get their chance to see for themselves Saturday when the band headlines this year's Ojai Bowlful of Blues.
Four brothers from Mississippi--Joseph, Lester, Willie and George--started off as gospel singers, moved to Los Angeles and ended up recording a bunch of albums, including three memorable ones for Columbia. Their most famous song is "The Time Has Come Today," wherein Joseph informs his listeners: " . . . and my soul has been psychedelicized." The song continues to live long and prosper on the radio.
The Brothers played with (and outplayed) about every '60s band. Most bands had one or no good singers; the Chambers Brothers had four. There was a particularly memorable show at La Playa Stadium in Santa Barbara in 1969 when the Brothers opened for the Doors and completely blew them away in the ultimate tough-act-to-follow scenario. All the dead rockers would have a tough time following the Chambers Brothers.
The Brothers broke up in the mid-'70s and all went their separate ways, except for sporadic reunion gigs. Now, managed by Beverly Noga, whose mom guided the career of Johnny Mathis, the Brothers seem set to have another go at it. Joseph Chambers recently discussed his favorite band.
So where have you guys been lately?
Recently, we've been playing quite a lot, especially the last year or two; whenever we can is all I can tell you. We go up to Seattle, Portland and Eugene quite a bit, and we do San Jose and San Francisco a lot. We were all set to play the Woodstock thing, the one with all the original people on the original site, but it got canceled. Anyway, we're doing fine.
How many brothers are still in the group?
There's three original brothers, George, Willie and myself. Lester's in Las Vegas, so he's getting closer. George's son plays drums, and one of our sister's sons plays bass. And we have another guitar player. The original drummer, Brian Keenan, passed on from a massive heart attack about 10 years ago.
Why do retrospective '60s specials usually omit the Chambers Brothers?
We've been wondering the same thing. For some reason, Columbia always pulled our singles off the market before they became hits, and our strong point was always album sales. I think a lot of those bands were chosen for the specials for their No. 1 hits, and we never had a No. 1 single.
But they used to play Time" on AM radio.
There were two versions, and most of the radio stations didn't want the cut version, they wanted the long version. A guy in San Francisco--I forget the station--played the long version and started getting a lot of calls. From him, most of the stations played the long version on AM radio. That song has done quite well--it's been in 18 movies.
CBS didn't want you guys to record "Time"?
No. We were forbidden to do the song. I told them that this song would be the biggest ever for their label, but they said they'd get some white band to do it. "Not in my lifetime," I told them. We stuck to our guns, and things just turned out our way.
Do the Chambers Brothers play those revival glad-to-be-working tours for a bunch of old hippies?
We've been approached, but we don't want to fall into that status. We've gotten along in age--I won't say how far--but we're not an oldies-but-goodies revival act. People need our message, and we work at improving it every day.
Is love, peace and happiness out of date?
It's not out of date. It's more needed now than it was in the '60s. The people then were more into oneness, and now it seems, we've taken so many steps backwards. I think our message will bring us back to the forefront of the music scene.
You guys made zillions--why ain't you rich?
We're still trying to figure that one out. We're trying to reclaim what is ours. We didn't have very good management, our money was mishandled and we made some ill-advised investments. But we've kept our sanity, our health and our strength.
What was it like being rock stars in the '60s?
It was obviously exciting. We never started out to become big-time rock stars. We started out singing gospel music--that's where our roots are--and we just took it to the coffeehouses and just got caught up in the rock 'n' roll arena.
How did the band move from being a gospel vocal group to an electric rock band?
It was just a transformation that happened without us making a plan for it. We used to do a gospel set and a blues set, and the blues set became stronger and stronger. One time we were in New York City doing a benefit at, I think, Carnegie Hall, with Peter, Paul & Mary and Pete Seeger. We ended up in the studio with Bob Dylan, who was recording "Highway 61 Revisited" at the time. So he asks us if we've ever been to a discotheque. We never heard of such a thing, and he told us it was a place where they played records and people danced. So he takes us to this place called Ordell's, and the announcer says there's some special guests in the house and he called out our name. So we went up there, picked up some guitars and figured we'd do our coffeehouse set, only speeded up. Brian Keenan was the house drummer. We ended up staying there for three weeks.
Some bands didn't want to play with the Chambers Brothers?
Yeah, we did have some trouble playing with certain people. No one wanted to follow us. But we had some good friends among the "J-People," Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. Janis used to say, "Just put me on before those brothers." Jimi just did his thing and didn't care where he played, and Jim was always our friend. We played with those bands a lot of times; sometimes they'd open, sometimes we would.
What is Chambers Brothers music?
Chambers Brothers music is better than ever, and it's becoming more and more all the time. It's growing more progressive, it's harmony, it's happy, it's wonderful.
Can the band get a new deal?
Well, that's been very difficult for us, but a lot of bands from our era have been making their comebacks. Not long ago, we were advised to go into the studio with some musicians and record some stuff. When we circulated the stuff we were told that it wasn't really us--that's not the Chambers Brothers. Next time we go into the studio, it'll be ourselves playing. I think we can get signed again to a major label; if not, we'll go with an independent label, God willing. We'll get our stuff out to the public.
* WHAT: 12th Annual Bowlful of Blues with the Chambers Brothers, Tom Ball & Kenny Sultan, the Johnny Nocturne Band, Charlie Musselwhite, Fernest & the Thunders, Henry Butler and the Blue Monday All-Stars
* WHERE: Libbey Bowl, Ojai Avenue and Signal Street, Ojai
* WHEN: Saturday, 2 to 10 p.m.
* COST: $21 advance, $23 at the gate, under 5, free
* CALL: 646-7230