The Chambers Brothers' "Time Has Come Today" is one of the most iconic songs of one of the most iconic eras in American history, so it's natural to assume that it would be the highlight of Willie Chambers' story. What I discovered in interviewing him, however, is quite different.
Chambers' life would be story worthy even if he'd never recorded a single song. From the Ku Klux Klan of rural Mississippi to the hippies of Haight Ashbury, the man has seen it all. More amazingly, he's even come out at the tail end with his enthusiasm and his faith untarnished. He's known fame and fortune. He's hung out with legends like Bob Dylan. Yet, he counts his influencing a gang member to join church and become a deacon amongst his proudest life accomplishments. That sort of charity and grounded wisdom defines the impression that Willie Chambers makes.
There's a lot more story to tell, but I'll let Chambers do that. He does it better than I ever could.
Willie Chambers: Eat well, play a riff. Good food and get plenty of drinking. Treat everybody right and give people respect. And do unto others as you would like to be done to.
Songfacts: Are you still performing a lot live?
Willie: Well, we do stuff occasionally – my brother Joe and myself. George is semi-retired. He only does his church thing now, which we all started out in, as church people. He's back doing that now, but he doesn't do any "gig" gigs anymore. Lester's in Petaluma and George, Joe, and I are right here in LA. We are close, and we communicate, we talk to each other constantly, except for Lester. He has a problem with The Chambers Brothers. I don't know where he's coming from sometimes.
In 2012, Lester Chambers took to Facebook to say that over the course of his entire career he'd been ripped for his Chambers Brothers royalties. The story went viral, and reddit founder Alexis Ohanian launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for Lester to make a new album. The Kickstarter was successful, and the album, titled Time Has Come, was released in 2013.
Willie: Well, I don't know what he's talking about.
Songfacts: Okay, we'll drop that topic then. I'm glad to hear you're not having the same problem.
Willie: No, we won't have it that way and we won't make up stories either. We deal with straight-up truth. Even if it's against us, we tell the truth. I am a defender of the truth.
Willie: One hundred percent agreeing with that. That was our main purpose, was to spread love, peace and happiness, joy and fellowship among people. Everybody happy. It's impossible, I guess, for everybody to be happy all the time, but if there's some encouragement it does help.
Songfacts: How much of that came from your upbringing in Mississippi?
Willie: Oh, one hundred percent plus. Mom and Dad were two of the greatest people I have ever known, and I had the opportunity and the pleasure and the privilege of saying that to them. One day, we were in LA on a tour and we sat at my mom and dad's house and he was sitting over there in his chair. I was just looking over there at him and I was thinking, You know, I never met a greater man than him, so I went right over, and I told him.
They never forced us to do anything. They never said you better go to school, you better get a job, you better go to church. They were a prime example - they didn't have to say it. They laid it out in front of us like how you need to be, how you don't need to be. When all the things you need to be are constantly around you, you see that it's called the "handwriting's on the wall." I used to have a problem with that. I didn't know what it meant. I heard the older people say, "To make it in this life you've got to be able to read the handwriting on the wall." Well, I thought that would be some kind of scribbling on the wall somewhere.
In 1964, our family moved to Los Angeles from Mississippi and I saw all the gang-related graffiti on the walls. It was everywhere you looked. I said, "Oh, boy, I've got to read that?" I couldn't even understand it. I'm going to have a problem making anything in this life because I can't read the handwriting. I can't read the handwriting on the wall.
But, then later, I came to realize that's not what the older people were saying. It's not something you're going to see on the wall, it's what you're going to see in people. All around you people are doing and saying and being the way you don't ever need to be. And that's the handwriting on the wall. We don't have any excuses to be led astray. The answers are comfortably in our view.
The Club Socializers
Songfacts: The scene that you went into in LA in the '60s was pretty different from that traditional Biblical upbringing. What was that like for you guys?
Willie: Quite shocking and quite revealing that our parents were on the right track.
There's eight boys and five girls in our family but two brothers are deceased, one sister is deceased, then the rest remain living. We came to the city and the first thing we were confronted with was the gang activity. We had young guys approaching us saying, "You've got to belong to our gang." Then another, "You've got to belong to our gang. If you want protection you're going to have to belong to a gang. If you don't belong to our gang, we're going to kick your butt every time we see you and vice versa. You've got to belong to a gang."
And we said, "We don't think so. There's enough of us brothers, we don't need to belong to a gang." Reverse psychology. We knew what that meant, but we pretended to be country dumb and didn't know what they were talking about.
Songfacts: How old were you guys then?
Willie: I was just turning 16. Then a year or two later, a whole bunch of our relatives moved to Los Angeles and there was a bunch of guys that didn't want any part of the gang activity and we simply said, "No, we won't belong to that. We won't do that." And later years, when I was about 18 years old, I put together an organization called The Club Socializers, and it was dedicated to young people who didn't want to participate in gang activity.
Well, it come with some stipulations. You had to be a member of a church and in good standing. It didn't matter what church, but you had to be a kid that goes to church. You had to be a church member somewhere to be a member of The Club Socializers. And that was a really growing thing. We were trying to prove to the young kids that you can have a great time without all of the riff raff. You didn't need that to have a good time or express yourself.
Being a Chambers Brother, we were singing our whole lives as far back as I can remember. I think we were singing when I couldn't even stand up yet. And we were always singing around the city. We lived on the west side. My parents didn't want to live in South Central because of the housing conditions - cockroaches and rats.
When we first came to the city, we had a couple of sisters and a couple of brother-in-laws that were here already, and they had acquired a two-story house for us to come live in, but it was not on the east side, it was on the west side. It was a huge house with a lot of people in it and we needed to have another dwelling for us to thin out the crowd in this one place, so my parents went to look.
Well, when black people came to the city, the first thing they wanted to know was where the black people lived. My parents came back and said, "We won't live there." They didn't like the conditions. Thanks to them, we never lived under those conditions. My parents were totally concerned about their children. That was their main thing, to look after their children.
And, we never belonged to the gang banging. We organized our club, and the membership grew rapidly. It was mostly young girls - beautiful young girls that didn't want to be involved in that gang stuff. We had all the beautiful girls in our club. My dad always said, "Willie, be polite to women because if they like you, if they love you, the men gotta like you."
Songfacts: That's some good advice.
Willie: We lived to experience that because most of our members in The Club Socializers were young girls, and all the gang banger guys who wanted to get at these young girls had to come through us. So, we had gang members from all sides coming up to us, asking us, "Can you talk to their parents?" They wanted to date these girls. My brothers and I, we went and visited parents and we said, "Let your daughter go out with this guy. We promise you that he'll bring her home on time and he won't be disrespectful."
So, therefore, they never came to us again about being a member of any gang. They came to us for advice.
The way our parents brought us up really played a big role in how we survived being in a city like Los Angeles where there's all sorts of gang activity and stuff like that going on. And music played a big role too. We hung out on the east side, actually. We lived on the west side, but we grew up on the east side, because there was a thing with the gang bangers: if you lived on the west side, you weren't allowed to hang out on the east side. But, if you lived on the east side, rowdy guys in the west side didn't want the guys from the east side hanging out. And that's what we were trying to get over to young people: how stupid and how dumb it was to be living like that.
We Gave Him The Cake
Our membership grew really great and at the church we were attending, it got so big we had to form a choir. Through the ministers and preachers, we had an "in" with all the club owners over on the east side. It was the Cotton Club and there were a couple of other clubs like the Beat Box Club that were just sitting there with padlocks on the door, but people still had keys and access to these clubs. They would give us entry to these places to have our parties, and we had a party every weekend.
Say it was November. Everybody who had a birthday October/November/December, there was a party for them. We constantly had a reason to have a party. And these gentlemen that owned these clubs would give us the clubs to have our parties. There was a P.A. system, there were lights, and we would have stand-up comedy, poetry and all of that kind of stuff.
We would allow no more than two gang bangers to come to our parties. We wanted them to see how easy it was to have a good time without being involved in some kind of stupidness.
There would always be a big birthday cake, and one night the cake disappeared. So, we realized somebody took the cake. We had everybody get up on stage and say what they thought about a person that would steal a birthday cake. Well, halfway through this gang banger guy, he starts crying.
"What's the matter, man?"
"I took the cake. I hid the cake. I was hoping to take the cake home with me when everybody was gone. We don't have food in my house, and I took the cake because that would be food for my house."
So, we gave him the cake.
Songfacts: That is amazingly mature and insightful of you guys. You were teenagers at this time, right?
Willie: Yeah. I was just 16 and my two younger brothers, Lester and Joe, were even younger. There's two years difference in all of our ages. Every kid was born two years later after the other. I guess my mom and dad had some kind of method.
But then the ministers in the city, they were having meetings about what was going on. All these preachers were saying, "Where are all these young kids coming from?" All of a sudden, there was a surge of young people joining the churches. Where's that coming from? So, they nailed it down to our club, The Club Socializers.
One day after church, the minister said, "I need to talk to you after the service." He took me aside and said, "What's this I hear about you guys having a club?"
I was excited. "Yeah, we have Club Socializers. This is our purpose, and this is what we do."
And he just point-blank told me, "That's the preacher's obligation, not yours." He didn't want us to continue with that.
So, it set me back a bit because I organized the club and put the whole thing together myself and I thought it was a good, genuine purpose. And I know that at some of our gatherings, deacons from churches would come and sample our punch, sip the punch to see if we had alcoholic beverages. We thought, Why are they doing that?
But later, some 20-30 years later, there was an event in honor of one of the deacons. He was an older man and his family was giving him a celebration. We got invited to that and some of the members from The Club Socializers were attending. And that deacon, he got up and he apologized for keeping such a close eye on us. He appreciated that we were good kids and apologized if they caused us any inconveniences.
I got a chance to speak, and I said, "We appreciated that. We had no problem with that at all because we knew you weren't going to find any alcoholic beverages. You weren't going to find alcohol in our punch. We were comfortable with that."
And then, the preacher that took me aside, some 30 years later he apologized to me. He said, "I'm sorry that happened. I didn't know enough at the time. I'm wiser now and I know more. I'm sorry that we didn't realize that you did good."
So, I felt good about that. I still feel good about that. I will always feel good knowing we were about the right thing.
Songfacts: Did you have to end your operation because of that?
Willie: Yeah, we ceased. We didn't continue.
We had unions that formed in that organization. People got married and stayed married. We had hardcore gang bangers joining our organization. One guy, he had his first child, it was a son who was about 18 at the time, and he had two daughters that we all met, and he became a deacon of the church. Now, this guy, when we first met him, he was one of the guys that we allowed to come to our parties. He later became a deacon of the church and raised his family. When his son was 19, the gang bangers murdered his son. When he and his family came home after the funeral, the gang bangers were parked down the street from his house and they were all chanting, "We killed your f-ing son. Yeah, we killed him," like, in retaliation, because I guess they want to be like the Mafia: once you join you don't leave. So, to punish him they killed his son.
He didn't give up on his faith and his religion. He died a deacon in church.
There's an organization in Los Angeles right now - it's huge. It's the same idea and the same thing that we had back in the '60s about young people. Young people don't have anything to do. I see young kids that have money and buy the hot cars, and they meet up and start congregating in an area. The police come and say, "Move it." The helicopters come and say, "Move it. Get out. No loitering." And the kids, they just go to another place and they get the same harassment everywhere they go.
It's a terrible thing that there's no provisions made in various cities for young people to keep them entertained. After-school programs and music programs, art programs – all this kind of stuff needs to be considered for young people. That's why our young people get in so much trouble. There's nothing really to keep their minds occupied and you've got to keep those young minds in motion. You've got to keep something in front of them all the time.
There's an organization here in LA called A Place Called Home. It's the greatest thing that I think could ever happen. It's for underprivileged kids. They've got music, they've got theater, they've got art, they've got engineering, they've got producing.
I've got a whole bunch of amps I'm going to donate to those young kids. A Place Called Home should be in every city.
Songfacts: It's really interesting hearing this story because a lot of people, when they think of The Chambers Brothers, they think of the hippie scene. But you guys really came off a very different scene from that. It was the inner city and the gangs and a completely different culture.
Willie: The hippie thing, that was one of the greatest times we will ever experience. I don't think any of us living today will experience anything like that again. There was the Roaring '20s that we all heard about, but then came the '60s, the hippies. The hippies consisted of young, wealthy, white kids who walked away from their assurances because they couldn't understand what their parents were trying to teach them, and they didn't want to know.
The parents were teaching one thing but when they grew up and got out in the world, they saw quite different than what they were taught, and they started to retaliate and not accept that kind of upbringing. Thousands and thousands of young kids told me they walked away from their parents. They just said, "We don't want it. We just want love, peace and happiness." And that's one reason that song was written: because we experienced love, peace and happiness. We lived love, peace and happiness.
One thing I could never understand is while all this was going on, there was Martin Luther King. And people trying to hang out in places where you aren't wanted. It never made sense to me why you would want to be some place where you're not wanted, and why you'd want to be around some guy who was never any greater than you or anybody else in the first place. I never could understand that.
There were festivals where the main reason was to express love, peace and happiness. Flowers, trinkets, gifts, beads, love. Nobody from Martin Luther King's organization ever showed up at any of these. There were hundreds of thousands of beautiful young people and all you saw and expressed all day was love, peace and happiness. Good times. The worst thing you could get was a kiss from somebody with bad breath.
I'm also glad that my brothers and myself, we were a part of that whole hippie thing that developed and went all over the planet like wildfire. It was the greatest thing ever. The music was taking root and there was just a lot going on that was good.
We drank a few beers, smoked a little herb, played conga drums all night, and just had to get away from the city, get away from everybody and just go hang out on the beach all night. Man, I had the conga drums too. It didn't work so well because loads of people in the area, living near the beach, they complained about the noise. So, then we couldn't hang out no more after 10 o'clock and then we couldn't hang out at all.
There was a gentleman that owned a warehouse in the city and he gave us the whole thing. It was just sitting there, not functioning. He opened that up and we threw in beanbags and pillows and couches and chairs. Then later, the guy installed a machine to make coffee, brownies, cookies, and stuff like that. If you were tired, you could just go there, fall down on a beanbag and rest. You could stay there as long as you want. A lot of hippies didn't have apartments or homes because you could stay wherever there was another hippie. You were welcome. And, if you wanted to go to San Francisco, there was always somebody going there. You just joined up with them and you'd go.
All over the country, you could go wherever you wanted because in later years, there were hundreds of thousands of hippies. Names never meant anything. You were brother. You were sister. Dude. If you went to San Francisco and you saw a hippie, you saw a friend.
"Where are you staying?"
"I don't know, no place yet, just got here."
"You can crash at my pad."
That's how it was. I think at that time, that was as close to being what God would expect humans to be.
Ku Klux Klan
Songfacts: So, you're in this scene, the hippie culture is coming up. How did you guys start making money off of your music?
Willie: Well, back in Mississippi, we sang all day long in the fields while we were working. We sang at church on Sunday, and some of the white landowners would have us at their house in the evening after supper. We had breakfast, and supper was early evening. And after supper, we would get requests to come to people's houses and sing songs for them, and we did that. That was for no money.
When we came to LA, we continued our gospel group. In the country we were a gospel group, my two younger brothers and two younger cousins. And we were bad - we were tough. Two older brothers were in a senior group singing with some other fellows and three of us were in another group. We were separated, but in the fields we were always singing together.
One day, we were working in the fields and somebody said, "Why don't we have our own group?" This was in 1954. So, two or three days went by and we couldn't find a name for ourselves. What were we going to call ourselves?
We decided to call ourselves The Chambers Brothers, and we were OK with that. And then two weeks later, our brother George got drafted into the Korean War, so that really shut us down for that idea. But, when he came out of the service, he wanted no part of Mississippi. There was a landowner that had told him, "When you get back from the war, I'm going to kick your butt." George was chastising one of the farm animals and the landowner who owned the animals said, "I'm going to get you for that." So, when George came out of the Korean War, he was only in Mississippi for a short period of time.
When George got drafted into the Korean war, he and my dad were doing all the heavy-duty work that we got, and my other brothers had to help out farming someplace else. I was 13 at the time.
Daddy went fishing one Saturday morning. He never came home. The whole day went by. It doesn't take all day to catch a bunch of fish there - two or three hours and you've got your fill. You come home, you prepare your fish and you cook it in the evening. But, he didn't come home.
Well, we only found out later that he had eaten some food and he got food poisoning. He passed out and he fell over in the bushes. He was there in the hot sun all day and some white guy, hunting, found him in the bushes and took him over to the city to the hospital, and that's where we found him. He was never the same again.
My brother was in the war now and my dad was sick. I was 13 and I remember one morning the landowner came by down to the house and he said, "Vic" – to my mother Victoria – "I need to talk to you."
"Yes, what is it?"
He says, "I might have to be asking you to move out of the house because old George, he ain't able to work anymore, and young George is in the war, so you've got nobody here to do the work."
Well, to have a house to live in, that's what you did. You lived on the land and there was a house provided. Well, something like a house. You could count the stars from your bed. There was no electricity, there were holes in the wall. Anyway, he says, "I may have to be asking you to move out of the house seeing as you don't have anybody to do the work anymore."
Well, when I was two years old, I was following my dad, and I was constantly in the way. He would talk to me, "Willie, why don't you move, you're in the way." But I was totally fascinated with the farm thing. I thought it was great - the tilling the soil, putting down the fertilizer, planting the seed and it comes up, then there's a harvest. I thought that was just fantastic and I couldn't get enough of that. I was constantly, "Dad, can I do this, can I follow, can I hold the lines?"
"You're in the way, boy. You can't keep up, you're too little."
But he never made me go away. It was a good thing, too, because just being there, experiencing all of that, when I was 13 years old and the landowner said to my mama, "You might have to move out," I said to the landowner, "I can do it."
He says, "Boy, you're mighty little," but I said, "I can do it."
He says, "Okay, boy, I'm going to give you a year, see what you can do."
For three years, from the time I was 13 to when I was 15, I did 35 acres of cotton and 25 acres of corn all by my little self. God must have been there because I didn't have the physical body strength to do that, but somehow I managed to pull that off. Had good crops - good cotton crops, good corn, good peas, good watermelons, everything. I knew how to do it because I was there, but I didn't have the physical strength.
We came to live here, and the landowner was really a great man. He was a good man, but he was also the – I don't know what you call it – but he was also the Grandmost Master of that chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
Songfacts: What? Really?
Willie: Well, people don't understand that Ku Klux Klan thing. In Mississippi, every white person was forced to be that way because every dad that owns a farm, he has to have credit in town for food, for seed, fertilizer, farm supplies... you know, things he may need to operate his farm.
Well, if a white person is not being a hardcore Ku Klux Klansman, when it's time for him to go into the city to get the supplies he needs, he can't. And this guy is treating his farmhands really nice - he's really being too good to them. When he goes to get the supplies he needs, the guy says, "What do you need, John?"
He says, "Well, I need two tons of fertilizer, I need 2000 pounds of seed," and on and on, and the guy says, "Let's see here, I hear you've been really nice to your colored folks over there. Well, we can't let you have that. We can let you have half of it."
And the guy cannot function. He has to shut down.
Songfacts: So, it's almost like they were stuck in the system just as much as everybody else.
Willie: Yeah, so people are forced to be that way. I'm glad I'm not a white guy because that must be a miserable way to go. If our landowner was at our house, he would be drinking iced tea and having a great time, laughing and talking. If two more white guys show up, he has to change immediately. He can no longer be laughing and talking with us. That's how the South was operating when I was 13 years old.
It's quite different from that now. What a beautiful place. I think it's a little corner of heaven there. Not with the people but the geographic point in the earth. In Mississippi, you could spend your whole life in the swamps. All swamps have wild nut trees, hickory nut trees, scaly bark trees, black walnut trees – these are all wild. Wild berries, also. Every berry you can imagine, every fruit that you can imagine, it's just wild in the forest. And down the roadsides on either side of the road for miles and miles and miles, wild plum, yellow plums, red plums, white plums.
All of this stuff is there. Some of the best fishing, hunting. Everything is beautiful. I've spent many days in the swamps, hunting, and there's food all around you, it's just there. But then the people are just kind of stupid. It's kind of like the gang bangers in the city.
To survive in Mississippi, as a teenage black boy, you live like a rat. That's how much value that's placed on you. There's people getting killed, young guys getting murdered, and all these people never even get arrested.
But, you've got to understand that everybody is not really that way. They're forced to be that way. It's a terrible thing but that's how it was.
Time Has Come Today
Songfacts: Do you remember when "Time Has Come Today" first came to you guys, when you started writing it, what was going on?
Willie: I sure do. There was a guy called Timothy Leary, he was a doctor. Well, he was at UCLA and he was experimenting with chemicals. He was trying to come up with something to control your mind - he got a little crazy, he was out there.
He was experimenting with these chemicals that give you more control over your mind. And, my brother Joe, he went to UCLA because Timothy Leary had developed this drug that was supposed to make you just be at peace. It was LSD.
My brother Joe went and sat in one of his classes and experienced LSD. He wrote the majority of the lyrics to "Time Has Come Today." I had one line in the writing of that song, which was "My soul has been psychedelicized."
Turned out to be the strongest and most remembered line in the whole song. We had a two-story band house, and I was down in the dining room area with an acoustic guitar and I was playing that music over and over and over. I kind of got hooked on that line in that melody, but I didn't have any words. And Joe, at that same time, he was upstairs in his room writing the lyrics to "Time Has Come Today." He could hear what I was doing down there, and it interrupted his writing.
He came to the top of the stairs and said, "What's that you're playing?"
I said, "I don't know, this riff just came to me and I'm just playing it."
He said, "You got lyrics to that?"
"No, I don't have lyrics yet."
"Man, I was just up there in my room writing and everything I'm writing, the music is going with what I'm writing. At the same time I'm writing it and you're down here playing it. Well, bring your guitar down."
We had a basement in the house and we had a rehearsal studio down there. So, he and I went down in the basement and he started singing these lyrics. And man, the music and the lyrics were made for each other.
It's amazing how music comes about. Music seems to have its own life and own mind and own spirit. If you just stay out of the way, it will arrange itself. It will present itself.
I take credit for writing songs, but I never write any songs. They come in a package: the lyrics, the melody, the arrangement, the whole thing. I hear it in my ear. I hear it. All I gotta do is get up and get an instrument and a tape recorder and put it on a tape, and then I take credit for it. But, wherever the source is coming from, it doesn't seem to be interrupted, because it continues. So, I guess I'm on the right track by taking credit for that.
"Time Has Come Today," it was like a two-minute or less song we were doing before we were with Columbia Records. There was a young producer named David Rubinson. He was a staff producer at Columbia Records, and he had followed us all over the planet. His biggest dream was to someday record "Time Has Come Today."
The band developed the extended version at live shows, and when they released their first Columbia album in 1967, an 11-minute rendition was included as the final track. Some FM radio stations started playing this version, but it was deemed far too long for single release. To make it radio-friendly, a 4:45 version was made, which was issued as a single in 1968. This one took off, rising to #11 in America. The album version proved to be the most popular.
I was lying there and that long extended version came into my head. I got excited. I jumped up, I ran to everybody and said, "I've got an idea. This is going to be our contribution to psychedelic music. When we get to that one chord right there we'll just stay there. We're going to scream. We're going to have a clock."
We couldn't find a cowbell to make the clock sound, so we found a bumper guard from an old Plymouth car – they used to have metal bumpers on the cars and they had those bumper guards. It was a metal bumper guard from an old Plymouth. That was the original cowbell on "Time Has Come Today" - a bumper guard from an old Plymouth car.
But somebody, later, lifted our bumper guard thing from our dressing room because, I don't know, somebody thought they should have it. So, they took it.
We saw that Latin bands would come and play and they had cowbells. We said, "Where did they get the cowbells?" You didn't find them in music stores, so much. We found this place - a Latin percussion store - that catered to the Latin bands and they had cowbells, so we got a real cowbell from them. Now we have a real cowbell.
So, we extended that long, 10-minute part and we started performing it in clubs. We got our first contract gig at Ash Grove and we were doing that song. I saw people grab their hair and run out the door and all that craziness. People hadn't experienced anything like that. It was scary - people would scare the shit out of me. I saw people run out the door and I knew right then, Boy, we're onto something. This is something going on.
Except my brother George. He didn't want no part of "Time Has Come Today." He thought it was silly and ridiculous and every time we were to play he said, "We're not going to do that song, are we?" We'd say, "Yeah. We're going to do that song every chance we get." Man, because all the screaming and all of the carrying on, it was unheard of, especially for black people.
So, when we signed with Columbia Records, David Rubinson was happy and thrilled. Clive Davis didn't bring us to Columbia Records, and I think he had a problem with us because Columbia Records was not rock and roll, psychedelic, none of that. It was mostly geared towards C&W – country and western music. The closest thing they had to rock and roll was Paul Revere and the Raiders.
So, after we signed with Columbia Records, there was a big party with all the food and booze and all this stuff. All the important people were there and we got to meet all of the head hogs and Clive was there. He was there for a couple of hours and he says, "Well, I must be going, I have other appointments." He immediately leans back in the door, "Oh, by the way, that song 'Time Has Come Today' that you guys do, we won't be doing that. We won't do that kind of shit on this label."
That was it, and he walks away. I looked at my brothers, and we were looking at each other like, "What the heck?" And our producer, he was in tears now - he was crying. He says, "I've waited my whole life to record this song, now he's going to tell us we can't record it. Why?"
A couple of days went by and our producer [David Rubinson] came by and said, "I don't give a shit what he says, we're going to record that song. When we get our recording date, you guys show up an hour early, we're going to go in the studio, we're going to turn on the tape, we're going to play it live, we're going to do it like a live performance. We're going to record it and whatever we get we're going to have to live with it. We can't play back, we can't overdub, we can't splice, we can't fix something if there's a mistake, we're just going to have to live with it." He says, "I'm probably going to lose my job, but that's how important it is to me to record this song."
Later on, Joe and I went to Columbia Records to have a pow-wow with Mr. Davis to have him explain to us just why he thought we shouldn't record this song. We didn't have an appointment with him, we just showed up. We were six-feet-four tall, angry black guys. So, we walk in to the receptionist and we say, "We need to speak to Mr. Davis."
"Do you have an appointment?"
"No, we don't but we want to speak to him."
We were persistent. So, she calls his office and says, "The Chambers Brothers are here, and they say it's important, they need to talk to you."
He says, "Well, I'm very busy, I don't have time."
I said, "You're going to take time."
So, we kind of forced our way into his office and we said to him, "Why can't we record this song?" He says, "It's not the kind of music that black guys produce or play."
Clive says, "You're four black guys, you're going to be sending up that stream into the world, 'Time Has Come Today.' It's too profound of a statement for four black guys to be saying to the world."
That was his reason. He says, "We'll get a white artist to record the song, it's not your kind of music." My brother Joe says, "What do you mean it's not our kind of music? We wrote this."
So, after having that conversation with him, we were ready to do whatever the producer said. We were going to record it anyway.
When we got our moment, we went in the studio and did it in one take. "Time Has Come Today" was done in one take. There was no listening back - we couldn't listen back. When we came to the end of it, we had no idea where it was going to go. Once we ended it, we shut down the machines and then we left the studio and came back at the time we were supposed to.
Clive Davis didn't find out about it until it had been mixed, prepped and released. When he found out, he fired everybody he could. He fired our producer, I think he fired the guy that opened the door for us. He fired everybody that got involved with recording that song.
So, a lot went down to have that song recorded. David Rubinson was a young man with a wife and two kids, paying rent in some apartment in Brooklyn or the Bronx or somewhere, and he loses his job. It was a terrible thing. Well, they say there's got to be some sacrifice for everything. That was the birth of the "Time Has Come Today."
Songfacts: That's incredible. Did they change their minds after the song became a hit?
Willie: Oh, after the song became a hit. Oh yeah, we need to talk about that. We were being presented our Gold album on The Smothers Brothers national television show. In the green room, who shows up? Mr. Clive Davis shows up and he's all, "Fellas, looks like we got one."
Now, can you love him, or do you hate him? What do you do? Do you check his ass? What are you going to do? How do you respond to a man like that?
You won't believe the stories we hear constantly. All the time, we hear new and different stories about that song, what people experienced when they heard that for the first time.
Songfacts: How did you respond to Davis?
Willie: We just glared at him like, What do you mean, we got one? We didn't know where he was coming from.
Willie: We had other dramas. There was a white lady, Barbara Dane, a blues singer. We were booked at the Ash Grove and she was on the same bill. There was Lightnin' Hopkins, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, Barbara Dane and The Chambers Brothers. We were just starting out and at the end of that three-week engagement, she said, "I have an East Coast tour booked, would you guys be interested in going?" because she just kind of fell in love with us.
We were a struggling local group. We could pay our rent and that was about it. And this lady offers to take us on a tour. She says, "I'll give you hotel rooms, I'll give you food. I think if people got a chance to see you guys, you'd have a healthy career."
She said: "I'm willing to pay your way. I'll have you in the audience, I'll sing a few songs and then I'll say, 'Hey, I've got some friends in the audience, I want to have them come up and do a couple of songs with me.' And then I get you guys up there, we'll do a couple of songs together and then I'm just going to turn it over to you guys and you just kill 'em."
That was her words, "Just kill 'em." She thought if the people got a chance to experience us that we would be OK, and she was absolutely right.
She and her husband had a young son that was about 14 years old at the time [Jesse Cahn] - a genius kid with too much brain - and his parents were having a problem with him. She called up and said, "I have my son here and he's a problem. I think if he could hang out with some strong-guy men like you guys, he'd be alright. Would you guys please just take him with you?" So, we said, "Yeah."
So, this kid, he hung out with us until he was in his 20s. We borrowed a set of drums and said, "Just keep a beat, that's all." A couple of songs and he was keeping a beat, so, he became our drummer.
We'd had some drummers, but they just weren't quite what we needed. We were good friends with Bob Dylan the whole time. He was in the studio recording Highway 61 Revisited and he wanted us to sing some background on there with him. We were in the studio with him and he said, "After the session tonight, we're going to go to a discotheque."
"Never heard the term discotheque, what's that?"
"Well, it's a discotheque."
New York had a place called Ondine - it was the first discotheque in America. There was music there and live entertainment. They played records and then there was a live band that played between the records, and Brian was the drummer in that group called The Losers.
They had food there, and we were having food and drinks when some guy comes on the stage and says, "We have a visiting group in the audience and later on we're going to have them come up and do some numbers."
We had no idea they were talking about us. We weren't a disco band. We didn't play dance music, we played blues and folk music and gospel music. So, we're sitting there and all of a sudden this guy comes out and says, "Ladies and gentlemen, in the house we have The Chambers Brothers."
And we go, "What are we supposed to do? We're not a dancing band?"
I said, "Well, maybe we can do the same songs, but we'll speed them up and maybe we could get that drummer to sit in with us."
So, we approach Brian, the drummer, and ask him, "Would you sit in with us," and he says, "Sure." Man, we got on that stage, we just did the same songs we always did, but we speeded them up to a dance tempo and had him sit in on the drums. We played maybe four bars into the first song and we knew Brian was our drummer.
We looked at each other and when we finished that set, we asked him if he would join and told him we'd be signing with a major label in the very near future. We said, "We have a two-story band house in Los Angeles. You don't have to pay rent, you'll have a room, you can bring whatever you want. That's where we do our work - we have a studio in the basement. And if you would be interested, we'll call you when the time comes."
He says, "Here's my number," and when we signed with Columbia Records, it's the first thing we did. We called him and pulled him out to LA, and he became our drummer. Well, he was the best drummer I have ever experienced. I haven't seen anybody who comes close to being as great a drummer. But, being in an integrated group, all the drum magazines and all the praise, he never got that. He cried a lot of times because of it, and we cried a lot of times because of it too, because we didn't get our props either because we were an integrated group.
We got blanked from black disc jockeys and we got blanked from everybody. We did a show at the Apollo Theater and Nipsey Russell, the comedian, he based his whole show pretty much on an integrated group having a white guy in the rhythm section. And he concluded his show by saying, "It's alright to have a white guy in the group, but not in the rhythm section." Some black people think that white people don't have much rhythm. That's a far cry from the truth, I tell you. Keenan, he had it all.
We had black disc jockeys saying, "You don't need us to play your records, you've got whiteys playing your records." It was this kind of crap going on all the time because we were one of the first integrated rock and roll groups. Three Dog Night came later. They had just the opposite - they had a black drummer, and he was the only black person in the group. It worked for them and it worked for us. [Brian Keenan died in 1985 at age 42 after suffering a heart attack.]
But we didn't get all of the glory that we should have because we were an integrated group. And when we recorded our first stuff with Columbia Records, we were releasing a 45. And 45s were just a little brown, discreet package with no literature, no pictures, no nothing. So, we thought, why don't we take this new packaging here and put the band's picture on it.
"Nobody's ever done anything at Columbia like that, we can't do this."
Why not? It costs the same to ship it. There's room there for a picture and it's never been done. It would add to the excitement.
So they agreed to put on the picture, but when we got our box of discs, there was no Brian in the picture, they took him out of the picture. Oh, that was a sad day. He cried a lot. We cried a lot. We went to Columbia Records and said, "Why did you take him out of the picture?" They said, "Well, we've got to sell records in this town and ain't nobody going to buy no record with no black guys and a white guy sitting behind them on the drums. So, that's why we took him out of the picture."
We said, "Call the order back. Call the shipment back. If he can't be in the picture, take everybody off."
Songfacts: How did people respond to your gospel music?
Willie: We were the first group that went into clubs and coffee houses with gospel. To this date, there are gospel brunches all over the country - Sunday morning gospel brunch. When we went in there and started doing gospel in clubs, man, that was one heck of an experience. We felt like when Jesus was here, he didn't have any problems about where he went or who he hung out around or whose company he was in. He had confidence in himself. He went wherever he wanted to go.
We thought, What's the church going to think? Well, it doesn't matter what the church says. We went in there and started doing gospel in clubs and Mahalia Jackson pitched a fizzy because she refused to sing anywhere – it had to be a church or a church setting. She refused to do gospel anywhere because she wanted everybody to think she was a holy, upright lady, which was far from the truth. She went on Paul Coates' talk show and said, "The Chambers Brothers are terrible people. They should be ashamed of themselves to sing gospel music in a club where alcoholic beverages are being consumed and sold. It's blasphemy. To sing gospel in a club under these conditions is equivalent to burning the American flag."
That was Mahalia Jackson. I've got that article on the wall in my bathroom. She slammed us to the curb so bad, it scared the club owners, because blasphemy was a serious charge - you could get your hand cut off.
Songfacts: So, people took her claim seriously? This was a big deal?
Willie: Yeah, that was a serious charge she was making. It scared the club owners. We had established a little bit of a lifestyle now. We were making money and paid $155 a month for a two-story band house. We were able to pay our rent and have food. When she did that, and club owners heard about it and read it in the Los Angeles Times. Mahalia Jackson, she was considered The Queen of Gospel and her thoughts should be considered. Club owners said, "We're sorry, we can't hire you anymore."
So, we were out of work. Then the club owners came to us. They wanted us in their place because it was paying off big. There were clubs being built, and I think they built a club in New York City that catered to gospel music. They said, "Can you mix it up? We can't hire you as a straight-out gospel group but if you guys will agree to sing blues, rock and roll or whatever, as long as we don't have to say you're a gospel group, then we can hire you. We can book you."
That was quite a challenge for the brothers because we were strictly church. I still say music is my occupation, but gospel is my dedication. When that happened, we had to really, seriously think about it. We had several gatherings among ourselves to decide how we were going to help. We had a landlord and the rent was due. So, we agreed to do blues, rock and roll, party, whatever it takes. It's against the grain, but we'll do it. It's against our church upbringing, our religion, it's against everything we live, but we'll do this. Maybe we'll get famous, make a lot of money and then we'll come back and do our gospel.
We got caught up in that rock and roll thing and before we knew it, we were a full-fledged psychedelic, rock and roll band. Gospel kind of slid out of the picture because we didn't get booked as a gospel group anymore. It was rock and roll now, so we started getting booked on these rock and roll shows that took us right out of the gospel thing. It was not easy because we were gospel orientated.
"Time Has Come Today," when Joe came to the point, "I've been loved and put aside, I've been crushed by a tumbling tide," he couldn't find the lyrics to finish that. So, I came up with, "My soul has been psychedelicized."
He says, "I can't say that."
He says, "What's the church going to think? I won't sing that. I'll come up with some lyrics."
So, a whole week went by and I said, "Did you come up with the lyrics yet?"
I said, "Joe, you're going to have to go with 'my soul has been psychedelicized.'"
He was concerned about what the church was going to think. I said, "Joe, you're not saying it for yourself. You're saying it for millions of other people."
He said, "Oh, I hadn't thought of it that way." So, he agreed to sing that lyric in the song.
It was all because of God, church, and religion that we had problems with singing blues and rock and roll. But when we were kids back in the country, our mother – bless her heart, rest her soul – and my dad, they were always encouraging us to keep singing. Just keep singing in life.
The first singing I ever heard was from my mom and dad. After working in the fields, they would come home, everybody would clean up and sit around and sing songs. There was no television. There was an old battery radio, but we saved that power for the Grand Ole Opry and the gospel program that came on Sunday morning.
My mom would read us the scripture from the Bible, when God hands out talents to a number of people and says, "Take these talents. Use them to better your condition." Well, what that was saying is, you don't necessarily have to do it in church. Do it wherever it betters your condition. Get paid. Use the talent to better your condition.
We didn't realize what they were trying to say to us. What they were saying is, you don't have to be singing in church all the time, you can do music that pays you. Use these talents to better your condition. We didn't realize what that scripture meant until we were adult people and already out on the road and feeling guilty about singing rock and roll in church on Sunday. I'm proud to have been an offspring from my mom and dad. I thank God daily for placing me with them.
Songfacts: What were their names?
Willie: My dad was named George Chambers – George Senior – and my mother was Victoria.
Songfacts: Do you ever get tired of "Time Has Come Today"?
Willie: No, I do not. People ask the question, "What do you mean, the time has come?" Well, it simply means the time has come for whatever it is that you need to do. Just do it. The time has come for whatever it is you need to do.
Songfacts: You've lived a pretty remarkable life, coming from your humble background to where you are now. What wisdom would you share with young people, or really just anybody?
Willie: Be nice to people, treat everybody in a manner that you would like to be treated yourself. Be honest with yourself because that's who you're going to sleep with every day of your life.
The truth is amazing. It's amazing the power of the truth and it's very seldom used in so many situations. It's one of the best things we have, the truth, and it's like still in a wrapper, still got ribbons on, all tied up in it. It's hot stuff, you know, the truth.
Songfacts: Why do you think it's so hard for people to be true?
Willie: Because of the light it shines on themselves. People avoid the truth because the truth isn't always good for everybody right off the bat. But, it makes you free. A person can do the worst crime in the world and he gets away with it. For 20 years he's still on the run and he's still a free person, but eventually he has to tell somebody. That's how powerful the truth is.
The truth is a powerful thing and you can't destroy it. You burn it up, it's going to show up in the ashes. You can't bury it. You can't throw it in the river because it's going to wash up on the shore somewhere.
The truth is simply amazing. I am a defender of the truth. I will tell the truth even if it makes me look bad for talking.
Songfacts: That is an inspiring statement.
Willie: I've tried to hold the truth in on countless situations, but the relief from that, from 'fessing up, is greater than concealing. The truth is positive, and I'm all out for whatever is positive. One teaspoon of positive can take out a whole roomful of negative because positivity is more powerful.
Songfacts: Do you have any upcoming projects or anything that you would like to share?
Willie: Yeah, my brother Joe and myself, we're looking to go into the studio and record. My brother Joe, he's a fantastic writer. He has hundreds of songs and so do I. We have tons of stuff that has never been recorded. We want to get in the studio in the near future and record some of those songs.
I've started a recording session where I did a cover on "Purple Haze" and some other original songs and doing a remake on "Time Has Come Today."
Songfacts: Do you have any projected release dates for that or any solid times in mind?
Willie: We've not managed to finish the session yet. I have a demo and it's quite amazing. I use electronic music.
Have you gone to an electronic show where there's just a guy up there with a bunch of flashing lights, running around like he's doing all of this?
Songfacts: I have not gone to them, but I know what you're talking about.
Willie: People pay $40 or $50 to get into these places and they'll stand there looking like God is up there or something. It's the biggest rip-off I've ever seen. They want that drive, but that drive is cheap. It drives them into a trance. They just stand there like God is going to appear any second and they surely are there to see it.
So, we did two or three electronic shows and I thought we could do it in an honest manner where you don't have to be ripping people off because they're gullible. Everybody can't produce and play music - somebody could be a listener. And generally, people who listen and love music don't know very much about the structure of music, and they're easy victims. They can be ripped off very easily. There was a group called Milli Vanilli that was lip-synching. They weren't being real, and getting paid all this money. That's kind of the same thing with electronic music: There's no group, there's just one guy, maybe two guys, up on a stage, they've got the flashing lights, they've got the turntable. They're doing itchy and scratchy stuff, and they're making these sounds, and the people are buying it.
So, I thought maybe I would take that and add that into some songs, just to get that focus that they're looking for. I'm in the middle of doing that right now. I don't have a date to be back in the studio yet, but Pascal is coming to LA and we're going to get back in the studio and I'm hoping to finish that up. I'm totally excited about it. Every time I see friends, I play it for them and they're just, "Wow." They don't even know who it is. They say, "Who's that?" I say, "That's me," and they don't believe it.
Songfacts: Do you have any last things to add?
Willie: Well, I've enjoyed the chance to talk and I love it. I love to get a chance to say what's on my mind. A lot of people don't get that chance. I'm happy to know you and I'm happy you're here and I'm happy about the interview.
January 3, 2018
Willie's website is willie-chambers.com
Photos: Alexandria Chambers (1), https://www.facebook.com/The-Chambers-Brothers-152712954764512/ (2), Erika Grossman (3) Charles Locke (4), Brenda Starr Light (6)
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