The long awaited book by Lester Chambers, Time Has Come: A Memoir, is due to be released in the fall of 2020. Here is the foreword to the book written by the esteemed former Gospel Editor of Billboard Magazine, Professor Robert Darden. He is currently Professor of Journalism, Public Relations & New Media at Baylor University.
The Chambers Brothers were the Renaissance Men of American popular music. Equally gifted in gospel, folk, and rock ‘n’ roll, they could have excelled in any genre but refused to be limited to just one. Their too-short discography is ripe for rediscovery – filled ground-breaking, adventuresome takes on several musical forms, sometimes in the same song. Their restless creativity simply refused to be bound by the iron-clad strictures and formats of radio airplay.
As a result, they were ahead of their time… and much of their audience. Perhaps the time has, indeed, come today.
In their hey-day, brothers George, Joe, Lester and Willie Chambers brought the gospel of Carthage, Mississippi, to unsuspecting white audiences. Steeped in the singing of the great soul shouters, including the greatest of them all, Archie Brownlee of the Blind Boys of Mississippi, the brothers taught themselves the incomparable sibling harmony that haunts and drives the greatest of the gospel quartets.
That Delta-driven gospel sound permeated everything they recorded, every concert they performed, elevating and transforming the folk music of the day (only Odetta and Leadbelly could match them), even as it deepened and enriched their forays into rock’n’roll. This is the True Christian Gospel, one with the pomp and circumstance, ritual and canon law stripped away; the gospel built instead on love and acceptance and forgiveness rather than “thou shalt not” and “holier-than-thou judgment.” It is the gospel honed in the slave quarters and brush (or “hush”) arbors of slavery and Reconstruction. Whites called it primitive. But what it was in truth was and is far closer to the First Century Christian church of the immediate followers of Jesus than another denomination black or white could truly claim.
Only the Chambers Brothers of Carthage could have pulled off the lyrics of “Time Has Come Today” so fully, so convincingly. An artist who hadn’t grown up in the Mississippi of the 1940s and ‘50s couldn’t have believably sung,
Oh my Lord, I have to roam (Hey)
I have no home (Hey)
I have no home (Hey)
Because, in reality, the Brothers had no home. They were too rock for folk, too secular for gospel, too raw, real and passionate for rock.
Fifty years later, critics and DJs still try unsuccessfully to pigeonhole the band … and their most famous song. “Psychedelic rock”? “Psychedelic soul”? “Funk rock”? But whenever a filmmaker needs a song that not just captures an era, but can also add a palpable, thrilling urgency to a scene, they invariably turn to Time Has Come Today.
One of the first vinyl purchases I can remember making was the double-sided Time Has Come Today and People Get Ready 45 rpm disc, after hearing Time on Armed Forces Radio while my father was stationed at Itazuke Air Force Base in Southern Japan in 1968. I immediately loved Time Has Come Today, but it was People Get Ready that transported me. Growing up in the military, where so many of my friends were black, I heard gospel music on a daily basis. Rushing in and out of each other’s houses, hearing moms and dads sing Mahalia Jackson, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Clara Ward Singers, gospel became – and remains – the soundtrack of my life.
But the Chambers Brothers’ rendition of Curtis Mayfield’s eternal classic simply astounded me on first listen. Still does. In their acapella harmonies, I heard both the loss and triumph of enslaved people and a well-spring of soulfulness, pain and joy that prompted a lifelong journey to find other artists who could replicate that deep passion.
I still have that battered 45. It has been played so many times on cheap record players that it shines like a mirror under fluorescent lights. There have been many extraordinary versions of People Get Ready, but this one remains my favorite.
I don’t know why the Chambers Brothers aren’t spoken of today in the same tones of awe and respect as some of their contemporaries. Perhaps it is because their recorded output is so limited, perhaps because they still – as they most certainly did then – challenge the casual fan of what folk music should sound like, what gospel should sound like, what rock’n’roll should sound like. Perhaps they were too intense, too passionate, too real, too “other” for the average fan.
Pity. Their loss.
This is soul music. When I hear their full-tilt, no-holds-barred version of I Can’t Turn You Loose (… if I do, I’ll lose my mind!), I believe them. I can’t say that about many songs or many artists.
A detailed biography of the Chambers Brothers is not only long overdue, it is criminally overdue. Like Sly and the Family Stone or Andrae Crouch and the Disciples (to name the other two racially mixed groups of the day), their music still confronts listeners. This isn’t lowest common denominator music. There is nothing common about it. This isn’t children’s music. This is music for adults. This isn’t music tied to a certain date or a certain place, this is music for now.
The time has come today. Period. Full stop.
Robert F. Darden, Professor of Journalism, Public Relations & New Media
Author of People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music (Continuum/Bloomsbury, 2005); Nothing But Love in God’s Water, Volume I: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement (Penn State University Press, 2014); Nothing But Love in God’s Water, Volume II: Black Sacred Music from Sit-Ins to Resurrection City (Penn State University Press, 2016).
Founder, The Black Gospel Music Restoration Project