Excerpts from the forthcoming new book “The Beginning: A Memoir By Lester Chambers with T. Watts.
ESCAPING A SHARECROPPERS LIFE UNDER THREAT OF DEATH: "You didn't come to get my niggers, did you? Because if you did, there's gonna be a problem," said Mr. Doug the farm owner (who was also the local Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan). Two of my brother-in-laws had bought a 1952 Ford and driven it from Los Angeles where they lived, to where we lived in Carthage, Mississippi.
Now Mr. Doug came over and said to my brother in law, "Arthur Lee, what are you doing here?" My brother in law said, "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.
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, 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. We were just sitting there waiting for an escape time to come.
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.
HOW THE CHAMBERS BROTHERS UNIQUE STYLE CAME TO BE:
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?, people shouted from other hills. You could hear the echo bouncing. We'd answer, "Yes," and it would bounce, "yes, 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. (I also have five siblings who sang separately from our choir ensemble).
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.
WHEN THE LONG ARM OF GOSPEL QUEEN MAHALIA JACKSON REACHED OUT TO TOUCH THE BROTHERS IN LOS ANGELES:
We didn't go 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 the 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." "What?" "Sonny Terry is coming to the Ashgrove." "You're kidding." "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.
Then 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.