Thrifty Tunes 03.28.09: The Chamber Brothers
Unlike many of the billed ‘Brothers’ groups in the history of rock and roll, The Chamber Brothers , George, Willie, Lester and Joe, are actual brothers, born and raised in Mississippi. With the addition of a drummer Brian Keenan, they also became one of the first interracial bands in history. They also crafted one of the first and best pieces of psychedelic soul music with their biggest hit, “Time Has Come Today”. You’d think with a pedigree like that, they’d be one of the most well-known bands of all time, with a lengthy list of accolades and followers. Sadly, it seems they’ve become the band that time forgot. The late 60’s was a time of innovators and trailblazers in music, and while musicians like James Brown , Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan are always mentioned in the list of pioneers, and rightly so, I feel that the Chamber Brothers deserve just as much attention and respect for what they accomplished, particularly on this week’s album, “The Time Has Come”.
You should immediately be familiar with the first track on the album, “All Strung Out Over You”, which was sampled on Fatboy Slim’s 2001 hit, “Weapon of Choice.” (You know, the one with the video where Christopher Walken danced like a freak in an empty hotel.) “All Strung Out Over You” is a fitting opening to the album, as it showcases the brothers’ strong vocal harmonies, which were honed singing together at their church as children. There’s also a sprinkling of psychedelic mixed in with the gospel and soul, which the brothers explore even more deeper into the album. The song isn’t quite just soul, as you can’t see Sam Cooke or Wilson Pickett singing it with this arrangement, and there’s a very subtle move at first to the more California-influenced rock and roll of the time, but only timidly, as if to merely check the waters before diving fully in later on in the album.
The second track, a cover of The Impressions’ biggest hit, “People Get Ready” is another example of the band’s eagerness to mix and match musical styles. The Impressions’ version is a straight soul record, while The Chambers add an extra layer of psychedelic into the mix. “I Can’t Stand It”, the next song, and the first on the album written by eldest brother Lester, is a true cross-over song. All the elements of soul are there, complete with background ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, but this is a rock and roll song. The guitar and drums remind me of a Moby Grape , who a short time later mined similar musical territory with similar results, even if Moby Grape tended to move toward the psychedelic than the soul side of the dial.
A cover of Pickett’s “In The Midnight Hour” is another highlight of the first side. Listening to the two versions back to back, its easy to see the shift. Pickett’s version is all soul and all about the strength in his voice. The Chambers’ version, focuses more on the music, and the harmonies between the brothers never allows itself to overpower the groove between drummer Keenan and bassist George. At the time, covers were much more widespread than they are now, and also much more distinct. I don’t believe they were covering Pickett’s hit in order to piggyback a quick hit of their own, but instead covered it because they felt they had something to add to the song, which I believed they accomplished. This will always be Pickett’s song, but The Chambers had a vision of the song which is equally as engaging. Brother Willie, playing lead guitar, is also given room to shine on the track, and makes the most of his opportunity.
“So Tired” finishes up the first side of the album in fine fashion. It could be mistaken for James Brown at his most subdued or Pickett at his most experimental. There are nods towards bands like The Byrds mixed in, as well. The vocals are haunted, remorseful even, but at the same time, very comforting. Very few songs are able to sustain this mixture of elements over their length, but this is one of those special songs when everything meshes together to create an ethereal balance. A friend of mine and I have an ongoing dialogue about music to play at our funerals. Whichever of us survives the others has to assure that certain songs are played during our services. (Yes, he’s almost as old as I am.) This song, which manages to incorporate sadness, melancholy, and peace all at once, has definitely made it onto my list. (Other of our friends call our discussions morbid, but, truthfully, as a certain poet once said, ‘Nobody gets out of here alive.’)
Side two is dominated by the original 11 plus minute cut of “Time Has Come Today”, which was shortened into two different single versions which became the band’s biggest hit. It’s a breakthrough song, without question, and its total mix of soul, blues, gospel and psychedelic influenced so much of the music that came after it’s often hard to believe it was recorded in 1967. There’s also the near constant use of a cowbell in the song (maybe Walken has been more influenced by The Chamber Brothers than even he knows) which is just one example of the many groundbreaking effects in the song. There’s also the reverb, the sound effects, the guitar fuzz, and about a thousand other things going on in the song, sometimes all at once. Part of the joy of a song like this is discovering how it was made and how all the different elements came together in its creation. A year later, a little British band named The Pink Floyd would take studio experimentation to new heights, giving birth to a new sound entirely, which was quickly followed, unfortunately, by an inevitable afterbirth called ‘prog-rock’. Listening to this song on vinyl, where the music and the sound effects can all be heard and experienced, is one of the best musical examples I can give of why everything always sounds better on vinyl. If you’ve only heard this on cd or mp3 or even worse, as a snippet on a commercial, you’re missing out on one of the greatest musical accomplishments of the last hundred years or so.
Complete Track Listing: (1968 on Columbia Records)
1. All Strung Out Over You
2. People Get Ready
3. I Can’t Stand It
4. Romeo and Juliet
5. In the Midnight Hour
6. So Tired
2. Please Don’t Leave Me
3. What The World Needs Now Is Love
4. Time Has Come Today
While I was doing research for this week’s column, I was shocked by how little information exists about this band on the internet. Wikipedia, Rolling Stone and Allmusic contained only brief entries, mostly centered around the single, “Time Has Come Today”, and even those entries were very bare-bones. A band as talented as The Chamber Brothers deserves more respect and acclaim, and the fact that they have yet to be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame is just another example of how out of touch that organization remains. If you’re a fan or soul, funk, psychedelic, garage, or blues music, the Chamber Brothers have much to offer.
Pickett Stars: Five out of Five
Next Week: Coal Miner’s Daughter by Loretta Lynn