Welcome To The Soul-Patrol Newsletter
It's Black History Month
- Lester Chambers/Chambers Brothers
In this edition of the Soul-Patrol Newsletter we wanted to continue our celebration of Black History Month with one of our longtime members Mr. Lester Chambers (of the legendary Chambers Brothers.)
Now this is hardly the first time that Lester has been featured in the pages of Soul-Patrol.com. In fact we have interviewed him several times, in our chat room and on Soul-Patrol Radio. Lester was also one of the artists who contributed to the Soul-Patrol Digital/Virtual Album, in addition to many other events over the years on both the west coast & the east coast. This time out we have a book exerpt from Lester's forthcoming new book The Beginning; A Memoir By Lester Chambers with T. Watts. And of course I am sure that you will recognize the name T. Watts as our West Coast Correspondent, and of course the hansome devil standing next to Lester in the photo below is none other than T. Watts! (just to keep it all in the family.) Scroll down check out the story and let me know if you find the story of Lester & the Chambers Brothers as compelling as I do??
Bob Davis - CEO Soul-Patrol
1636-44 Route 38 #310
Lumberton, NJ 08048
Excerpt From The Beginning; A Memoir
By Lester Chambers with T. Watts
I am the former lead singer of a 60's band, The Chambers Brothers. I performed before thousands at Atlanta Pop 2, Miami Pop, Newport Pop and Atlanta Pop. I DID NOT squander my money on drugs or a fancy home. I went from 1967-1994 before I saw my first royalty check. The music giants I recorded with only paid me for 7 of my albums. I have never seen a penny in royalties from my other 10 albums I recorded. Our hit song was licensed to over 100 films and television commercials without our permission. One major television network used our song for a national commercial and my payment was $625. I am now 72 (sic), trying to live on $1200 a month. Sweet Relief, a music charity is taking donations for me. Only the 1% of artists can afford to sue. I am the 99%.
We were raised in the Baptist church in Mississippi. When I was very young, I would spend summers with my grandmother in Forest, Mississippi, to help her with her chores. We were actually born in Forest, but moved to Carthage, when my dad had some trouble with some White folks. Over there (in Forest), they had a male vocal choir where I learned to sing notes. They would ring a tone on a chime and the tenors, baritones and the different vocal sections would match the tone in whatever corresponding key. Everybody would hum their key. And it would be like, "do re re me me do me re do me me re re mi do do mi mi re mi do re mi do," and so on. That's called singing notes. Then we'd sing the lyrics, "Ever since I parted from my friends, I started livin' life within', I want to live right, to live right, to live right, Jesus all the time…"
At home, we would sing around the fireplace and quite often we'd sing in the cotton fields. We'd get requests from the neighbors two or three hills away because we were in the echo hills of Mississippi. When you'd shout something there, you could hear it four hills away. "Would you guys sing such and such today, today, today?" You could hear the echo bouncing. We'd answer, "Yes," and it would bounce, "yes, yes…"
We developed our brand of four part harmony by singing in those echo hills. We also had four sisters, who sang with us so we were like a choir ensemble. Jewell Lee was the oldest, followed in birth order by Bonnie Ruth, Vera Lois and Lucinda, the baby. The harmonies were a blessing from God. What can I say? How else could it have got there so perfectly? There was Joe with the big deep voice, George with the tenor voice, Willie with the baritone lead voice and me hittin' all those high notes, it just worked right out. (I also have five siblings who sang separately from our choir ensemble.)
My brothers and sisters are still alive. There's a family reunion every year. We use to do it all over the world. Now it's limited to a few states and whoever is close will come. Everybody is too old to travel.
Getting Out Of Mississippi
Sharecropping life in Carthage, Mississippi was a hard life. It was like the worst life anybody could ever have. I actually saw the owner of the farm, Mr. Doug, (who was also the local Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan,) give my Dad fifty cents and tell him, "That's all you cleared this year George, but think about it, your family still has a place to stay and you can get anything you want at the store." You know they had a little store where you could get fertilizer, cornmeal and all your essentials for that type of miserable life. As miserable as it was, Mr. Doug treated us decently. It was business to him. If we got sick, he'd get us to the doctor. I remember when my brother George had an attack of appendicitis; Mr. Doug was quickly right there and rushed him to the doctor. Normally, White doctors wouldn't treat Black people. We had to relay on root doctors or purveyors of Hoodoo who would prepare ointments and potions for you. My dad was an absolute genius at it. He kept us healthy. He was a Medicine Man. He could really make a potion, brother!
We were just sitting there waiting for an escape time to come. Two of my brother in laws had bought a 1952 Ford and driven it from Los Angeles where they lived, to Carthage. Now Mr. Doug, the farm owner came over and said to my brother in law, "Arthur Lee, what are you doing here?"
My brother in law said, "Mr. Doug, we just came to visit for a little while."
"You didn't come to get my niggers, did you? Because if you did, there's gonna be a problem."
"Oh no Mr. Doug. We're just visiting. We'll be gone in about a day."
We had secretly already packed everything we could take, but had hidden everything so it looked like we hadn't. We were waiting for the right opportunity to get outta there. Late one night there was a severe rain storm with thunder and lightnin'. We proceeded to quickly load the car. We got all we could in. In order for Mr. Doug not to hear the car start, we pushed it far up the road until it started to roll down the hill. We all jumped in and coasted way down the hill and then started the car so it wouldn't wake anybody. We drove to my grandmother's house which, at the time seemed like forever, but in reality it was only a few miles away. She'd packed up chicken for our trip and we ate chicken all the way from Mississippi to Los Angeles.
When we left my mother and dad in Mississippi it was hard because we didn't know if we'd ever see them alive again. It was like, oh my God, hopefully they will be able to eventually come. We were really worried about what Mr. Doug would do when he discovered we were gone and weren't working his fields.
I was about thirteen or fourteen years old when this happened. I don't remember how many weeks went by before Mr. Doug released my parents. They made it to California and we were united together as a family again.
California was like a whole new culture. We had never seen Mexican people. We had never seen Chinese people. None of that. All we knew about was White people and Indian people. Back in Carthage, there was really only one block that had sidewalks. It was where the courthouse was and they didn't really allow Blacks to walk around the courthouse. It was just very, very hard back there and my dad couldn't see us growing up in that environment. He did all he could. Bless his heart and amen.
Into the Cali Music Scene
Basically the only music we'd heard in Mississippi was country. Most notably, the Grand Ole Opry on radio. When we went to town we could hear Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker on the jukebox. Then Hank Ballard messed around and recorded Work With Me Annie and that got on that Mississippi jukebox too. Boy, that was somethin'!
When we came to California, we found ourselves surrounded by Latin people and Latin music. Within a couple of days I found a job a paper factory, made a couple of bucks until I started school and bought myself a record player. I was hearin' this music that the Latin people were playin' on weekends all night long. It was like a festival. The first two albums I bought were Willie Bobo and Tito Puente. I played those till they ran me out the house!
California was such a different life than Mississippi. The lifestyle was different, the food was different, etc. In Mississippi, the state had handed us down schoolbooks from wherever they could get them from. They'd issue us eighth grade books, sometimes twelfth grade books, sometimes only the teacher had a book. Anyway, I learned all this stuff and when we got to California, I found that frequently, in the classroom, God, I'd already had that stuff. So I was able to take a test in the 7th grade and passed to the 9th and when I started 10th grade, I still found that I'd been taught all that. What was amazing was, in Mississippi, you couldn't go to school all year. You could only go after the crops were all in.
I've also been blessed with a photographic memory. When I was 16, I passed the high school equivalency test and was out of school.
The Chambers Brothers Gospel Group
As we settled into California, we had this Gospel Group, The Chambers Brothers. We joined The International Interdenominational Singers Alliance. We were singing Gospel every Sunday with whoever came to town. They had big programs. Eventually though, the Alliance had a problem with our attire. They wanted us to wear matching suits. Because of our differences in sizes though, we could not find four suits that matched. My brother George was an adult. Willie was an adult sized teenager, I was younger and Joe was smaller than I. So they eventually dismissed us because we could not meet their uniform requirements. So, we started going to coffee houses.
We didn't to the coffee houses with the idea that we would sing. At first we went just to hear the music. That's where we met Sam "Lightnin' " Hopkins. What a great time that was. We had heard about him and went down to the Ashgrove in LA to hear him and other great musicians they would bring in about twice a month. My brother Joe started doin' Lightnin's hair. Lightnin' was likin' it. So Joe got into Lightnin's head and asked him how to get a job at the Ashgrove working as an entertainer. Lightnin' told him, "Well, you gotta talk to Mr. Ed Pearl."
So we go to talk to Mr. Ed Pearl and he asked us, "What do you sing?"
"We sing Gospel," we stated.
Pearl replied, "We do Blues, Folk and Country here. I don't know that our audience would like Gospel."
We asked Ed Pearl if we could try and one night he auditioned us in front of a live audience and they loved it So we got the job and became opening act at the Ashgrove for Lightnin' Hopkins,
All my young life I had wanted to meet Sonny Terry. One night, sitting around the house, my brother Joe came in all excited and said, "Lester, Lester. Guess what."
"Sonny Terry is coming to the Ashgrove."
"No, he's coming there with a guitar player named Brownie McGee.
So we went to hear Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee and through meeting them, got introduced to Barbara Dane who hung out with the Gospel/Freedom/Folk/Protest movement crowd. So we got involved singing background with her cuz we just wanted to sing, you know? So now we're singing Gospel in this coffee house, and man, it was magnetic. It was such a great thing. The spirit was so high, the furniture wouldn't stay in place. Pearl had to switch to plastic cups because so much glass was broken. People were dancin', turnin' things over cuz they loved our Gospel. It got crazy. Mahalia Jackson heard about it. I don't know how, but she protested that Gospel shouldn't be sung in places that served alcoholic beverages because of the sacredness of it. She got so much steam behind her protest that we were banned from singing Gospel at the Ashgrove and any coffee house that served alcohol.
So we were like, what are we gonna do now. So we said, "Okay, we like Jimmy Reed. We like Lightnin' Hopkins, we like Brownie and Sonny. We like all that! So we decided to take those slow Blues, speed 'em up and turn them into Rock/Blues. So we did that, really invented the genre of Bluesrock and never got credit for it. So that's how we became to be known as crowd-pleasers. Then we got booked at the Newport Folk Festival.
The Newport Folk Festival
We weren't actually booked at The Newport Folk Festival in 1964. Barbara Dane was booked and we sang with her in New York's Central Park to promote the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. We actually rode to Newport with the actor Theo Bikel.
Meanwhile word had gotten out that Josh White, Sr. was sick and would be unable to perform his slot at the Festival. They were looking for somebody to take his place. So they asked him. He said, "My sons and brothers, The Chambers Brothers."
We didn't play the main stage at Newport in 1964. We did Gospel workshops (mixed up with a little country) with acoustic guitars. At that point, people were still thinking Josh White might be able to perform but he couldn't, so they invited us to take his place. When we got on that stage in front of 54,000 people, we became instant comedians because we ran out on stage and put on brakes and skidded to a stop, started looking around thinking, wow! The audience started laughing
From the wings, George Wein is telling us, "Do not plug in those electric guitars."
We had no choice. We had one acoustic and one electric. We plugged in. My brother George had the gutbucket bass. So on stage we started with Jimmy Reed's You Got Me Runnin' (Baby What You Want Me To Do).
The whole audience was dancin'. We were a hit. After the set, George Wein couldn't say enough about how surprisingly good we were and we were most definitely invited back next year.
The next year also the year Bob Dylan went Electric. The Paul Butterfield Band was there. Son House, Reverend Gary Davis. Mississippi John Hurt, Memphis Slim, Willie Dixon, Peter, Paul & Mary, Lightnin' Hopkins, Fannie Lou Hamer and so many more were there that I can't remember.
When Bob Dylan went onstage with his white Telecaster, many in the crowd booed. So all the Folksingers joined hands and went on stage behind him to support him. People in the crowd were sayin', "Go get a real guitar. " He told them, "This is a real guitar." So that was how the electric guitar was introduced to the Newport Folk Festival.
After hearing us at the festival, Bob Dylan took us to New York because he wanted us to sing background for him on his Highway 61Revisited album. We did the session, but somehow, our vocals never made it to the finished product. After the recording session, Dylan was playing a club in New York after that was called Ondine and invited us. It was the first hip disco in New York, probably in all of the United States.
It was at Ondine that we met the group with the unlikely name, "The Losers." Their drummer was Brian Keenan whom we recruited and adopted as the "5th Chambers Brother." That's led to him becoming our drummer.
All of a sudden we became the in-demand background and session singers for any and everybody. It became a whole new life for us. We knew that we had been accepted musically for our talent. We could do what we did anywhere, anytime.
Official Lester Chambers Website:
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Bob Davis - Soul-Patrol
1636-44 Route 38 #310
Lumberton, NJ 08048
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