Classic Track: The Chambers Brothers, “Time Has Come Today”

Mar 1, 2013 9:00 AM, Mix, By Blair Jackson

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Chamber Brothers Time Has Come Today cover

Not too many people these days know about the Chamber Brothers, but when their first Columbia album, The Time Has Come, was released in late 1967, it was a very big deal.

The closing track on that record, an 11-minute rock-soul-psychedelic freak-out called “Time Has Come Today,” got heavy, heavy airplay on the first wave of “underground” FM rock stations, which were no longer bound by the restrictions of AM pop or R&B radio. And an edited version of the song released in the summer of 1968 was a bona fide hit single, played on AM and FM stations all over the country. Though it never cracked the Top 10 nationally (it did in several markets), it sat at Number 11 for an impressive five weeks, The Time Has Come album rocketed all the way up to Number 4, and the Chambers Brothers were transformed into concert headliners.

As usual with these “overnight success” stories, it was many years in the making. The Chambers Brothers started out in the early ’50s singing gospel music in a Baptist church in their native Mississippi, where the family worked as cotton sharecroppers. In 1952, the eldest of the singing brothers, George, was drafted into the Army, and when his tour of duty ended a couple of years later, he settled in L.A.—and the rest of the family (12 brothers and sisters and their parents) soon followed.

During the late ’50s, the four singing Chambers—George, Joe, Willie and Lester—mostly sang in churches around L.A., but by 1961, they had started to land paying gigs as The Chambers Brothers around town, singing a mixture of gospel, blues and folk tunes in coffee houses and small clubs for predominantly white audiences. Joe and Willie played acoustic guitar, George was on washtub bass and Lester on harmonica, but this group was really all about the rich gospel harmonies. They built a following at the famous L.A. club the Ash Grove, and it was there that they began a fruitful association with the great folk, blues and jazz singer Barbara Dane, who took them on tour with her, cut an album with them, and helped them land prestigious gigs on the East Coast, particularly in New York and Boston (which became a second home for them). In 1965, they switched to electric instruments and also hired a fantastic white drummer—Brian Keenan—making them one of the pioneering interracial bands.

An up-and-coming 23-year-old staff producer for Columbia Records named David Rubinson first saw the Chambers Brothers at a gig in New York in 1965 and immediately wanted to sign them. Easier said than done. They had two managers in different cities, a deal with Vault Records from which they needed to be extricated and no publishing company handling their original material—not that they had much of that at that point. Once those issues had been dealt with, Clive Davis let Rubinson sign the band to Columbia and he found himself heading out to L.A. to work with the band.

“They were living on West Adams Boulevard in the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles, a big old house with tons of people coming in and out,” Rubinson says by phone from his home in a small village in France. “There must have been 10 or 15 people there—girlfriends, family, friends—and that’s where I worked with them because they rehearsed there. I went to as many of their live gigs as possible to get a sense of their material and what they were like—because I wasn’t looking to change them, I was looking to capture them. But the big question was the songs, because what they were doing then was mostly covers—they were singing Isley Bothers’ ‘Shout’ and blues songs and [Curtis Mayfield’s] ‘People Get Ready’ and [Wilson Pickett’s] ‘Midnight Hour.’ They hadn’t written a lot. But then when they got into this rehearsal situation they started writing more.”

On August 1, 1966, the Chambers Brothers went into Columbia L.A.’s Studio B to cut a song that guitarists Joe and Willie had written called “Time Has Come Today.” It was driving rock with a soul twist, “different than anything else going on,” Rubinson says. “They were completely out of the mold.” It had a certain urgency to it, but was still fun. And it also contained a line that captured some of the zeitgeist of the emerging hippie counterculture: “My soul has been psychedelicized!”

It was Rubinson who conceived of the famous tick-tock cowbell that goes through the song—played by Lester—and he also came up with the bizarre, piercing electric harpsichord part which helped define this early version. That was an overdub, but otherwise, “I always recorded the Chambers Brothers live; we did very few overdubs. Their energy was so strong, and it was such a synergy, that to lay down a track and then sing over it was completely foreign; it didn’t make any sense.” This first version clocked in at just 2:40 and “it didn’t slow down, it didn’t go psychedelic, it didn’t have the reverb and all that,” Rubinson notes.






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