Time Has Come Today for Lester Chambers and Moonalice

Dean Budnick on June 3, 2022
Time Has Come Today for Lester Chambers and Moonalice

photo credit: Bob Minkin


Lester Chambers is having a moment.

The 82-year-old vocalist and his siblings are featured in Summer of Soul, the film directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, which just received the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Summer of Soul revisits the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, and the Chambers Brothers’ riveting performance of “Uptown” opens the movie, setting a bright tone for all that follows.

Chambers also remains an active musical presence, appearing regularly with Moonalice. On April 20, Nettwerk released Full Moonalice Vol. 1, in which his current 10-piece band hits new heights by exploring the psychedelic soul pioneered decades ago by Chambers’ earlier group.

Moonalice founder Roger McNamee, who grew up on the sounds of the Chambers Brothers, recalls, “‘Time Has Come Today’ and ‘People Get Ready’ were a huge part of my middle school years. I had older brothers and sisters, which is how I first heard them. ‘Time Has Come Today’ was iconic. There is nothing else like it.”

Flash-forward to July 13, 2013, a few decades after the Chambers Brothers ceased active performances. Chambers was onstage with his solo band at the Russell City Hayward Blues Festival in northern California when he dedicated “People Get Ready” to Trayvon Martin, shortly after a jury had acquitted George Zimmerman of second-degree murder. A woman rushed the stage and assaulted the singer, necessitating medical care.

McNamee recalls, “When he got attacked, that story really resonated with me. A campaign was set up to assist with his expenses [via Sweet Relief ] and I got involved in that. I knew Lester lived in the Bay Area and, in 2017, when we were doing a Summer Solstice show in Golden Gate Park to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Summer of Love, I reached out to him. I thought, ‘‘Time Has Come Today’ was written in ‘66, and the version that we know came out in ‘68, so that’s close enough.” I asked him if he wanted to sing the song with Moonalice.

“I never met him, but he came to rehearsals with his son Dylan, who is also a musician. At first, we were all about trying to get it exactly right. Then Lester looked at us and said, ‘We never played it the same way twice. Don’t worry about it; whatever we do will be fine.’ Everybody had a ball playing it, so it wasn’t that long before I invited Lester and Dylan to come out again and sing a couple songs with Moonalice.”

Two years later at the 2019 Solstice, McNamee asked the father-and-son duo to join the group on a full-time basis. He also ran into the T Sisters (Erika, Rachel and Chloe) and inquired, spur-of-the-moment, whether they might like to appear at the band’s next gig.

“We didn’t have a chance to really rehearse together,” he remembers. “So we did a bunch of T Sisters songs, we did a bunch of Chambers Brothers songs and we did Moonalice songs. It was like a revue, and the audience loved it. That’s when I said, ‘Well, what are you guys doing next month? We’re going to LOCKN’; you want to come with us?’ And they went, ‘Shit yeah!’ So we all piled down the East Coast. We did a gig outside of Philadelphia, a gig in D.C. and then LOCKN’ and it was magical. The twins, Chloe and Rachel had their birthday while we were there and we all went out and celebrated. It was this amazing thing because Lester was 79, while Chloe and Rachel turned 33. Dylan was like a year older and Erika is a year older than that. Jason [Crosby] would’ve been in his early forties and then the rest of us, shall we say, are even older. [The group also features John Molo, Pete Sears and Barry Sless]. So we had three generations in this band and yet it didn’t feel like that. You have old and young, Black and white, male and female and it was such an exciting thing.”

As the 10-piece began to gain momentum, COVID intervened. While this proved frustrating—forcing the band to cancel a series of gigs that they had scheduled in increasingly larger venues—it also allowed Moonalice to envision a new approach. Some of the band’s repertoire was dropped in favor of songs that better featured the vocalists. This blend of original and covers has proven both surprising and exhilarating, with one of highlights being a version of “California Dreamin’” with Dylan singing lead while Lester and the Sisters add harmony, until halfway through when the song breaks into “All Along the Watchtower.”

At its core, the group’s current approach, which is captured on Full Moonalice Vol. 1 shares a common DNA with the Chambers Brothers. The EP includes three Chambers’ staples: “Time Has Come Today,” “People Get Ready” and “Let’s Get Funky” (a reworked version of “Funky”). It also offers two complementary Moonalice originals, “Woo Woo” and “Nick of Time,” as well as a spirited cover of “Turn on Your Love Light.” All told, the shimmering harmonies and vibrant grooves harken back to a psychedelic-soul sound that eventually gave way to a more urgent funk.

“Our view of this thing is we are living in a very difficult time,” McNamee reflects. “Everybody’s under a lot of pressure. There’s a lot going on that’s scary. The last time we had things like that was during the era when psychedelic soul emerged. It really helped people through a very difficult time then, and we’re running the experiment to see if it can help people through a difficult time now.”

He points to another goal as well: “Lester is someone who has lived the entire rock-and-roll experience and in particular the Black rock-and-roll experience. So he’s had both the enormous successes, but also the times when he was not treated fairly. My rule of thumb in life is you always have ups and downs, and the key to a happy life is to finish on an up. My mission in this whole thing is to ensure that the world gets to know, once again, this incredible musician and performer, Lester Chambers.”


Thanks to Summer of Soul, the Harlem Cultural Festival has finally received some long overdue recognition. What are your memories of that event?

LESTER CHAMBERS: My brothers and I had worked diligently on the preproduction of the festival to make sure that it happened. Tony Lawrence [the producer/ host] was a great friend of ours. Most of the meetings that were held regarding the festival were held in the Chambers Brothers’ office, which was above the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City. We were very involved in that. And we were so pleased when it happened without any violence of any kind, other than a couple of times we had to ask the security not to be so forceful with the audience by pushing them out of their way. We were able to represent the fact that everybody deserves a great day of music.

When I think about the Chambers Brothers’ festival performances, your debut appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 also comes to mind.

LC: That was a blessing. A soul brother of ours took ill and was asked to suggest a replacement. He said the Chambers Brothers. That blessing came out of the mouth of Josh White.

We were folk singers and we’d hang out in the coffee houses of Los Angeles. So we would occasionally bump into one another.

You began as gospel singers. At what point did you transition to coffee houses?

LC: We were a gospel group in Mississippi, then, when I was teenager, we moved to Los Angeles, intending to pursue a gospel career as the Chambers Brothers. However, we ran into trouble with the gospel association because we had difficulties with our clothes. We were required to wear matching uniforms, but since we were not of the same age and the same size, we couldn’t find enough suits that fit everybody.

So, eventually, we went to the coffee houses and expanded on our repertoire. For instance, we would take some of Jimmy Reed’s songs, speed them up and add background singing. Boy, did it work for us.

Your band was so dynamic, particularly at a time when things were a bit more sedate at Newport Folk. Were you given any advice or told to modify your show in any way?

LC: They told us not to take our electric guitars onstage but we did. We had no choice and we weren’t overbearingly loud; we just did it loud enough to accompany ourselves. What they realized was that, by doing it this way, those people way in the back could hear the music and were able to enjoy it more.

We were also told not to play rock-and-roll. We didn’t do that, although we did have those Jimmy Reed songs we sped up.

People really liked it. Even the promoter gave us a thumbs up afterward, and we were invited to come back the next year.

Later that evening, Bob Dylan took the stage for his historic electric set. I’ve heard slightly varied accounts of how everyone reacted. What is your recollection?

LC: They didn’t like it at first and they asked him to go get his real guitar. His reply was, “This is a real guitar.” That somewhat silenced the crowd because it was a real guitar. Most of them accepted it after that because it was Bob Dylan.

Do you have any sense of why the audience treated you differently at the same event?

LC: That I can’t explain because I would have to get into a lot of the audience’s heads individually, but one big difference was the audience had never seen Bob Dylan with an electric guitar. So they didn’t like the idea when he came out and played it. They didn’t know what to expect from us, but they did from Bob Dylan.

You mentioned Jimmy Reed, and I know he’s someone who has meant a lot to you over the years. Can you talk about your connection with him?

LC: Well, I only met him in person once, but he lives with me forever. I was 14 years old and cutting the lawn. He was sitting in a room playing the guitar with the window open slightly. I peeked in the window and received the biggest welcoming: “Hello, I’m Jimmy Reed! Who are you? Come on in and listen. I’m playing at the Orpheum Theater.” He wasn’t able to stay in a hotel downtown so they had rented a room for him. But that was the only time I met him.

Then, one day my brother Willie said, “You know that guy Jimmy Reed you talk about all the time? He’s got an album out.” So I went and bought the album, of course. It had “You Got Me Runnin’” on it. And the Chambers Brothers became blessed by the rhythms that Jimmy Reed recorded way back in the early ‘50s. That set up the whole world with the rhythms that everybody still plays. There’s hardly a song played today that doesn’t have a Jimmy Reed chord on it.

Back then, music was designed to be shared with the other musicians who loved it. Musicians could hear their influence on other musicians. If they heard it on a record, they’d say, “They’re listening to me!” But these days if someone hears their music in somebody else’s music, the reaction is typically, “We can’t allow that. We gotta get that off the radio.”

You could hear Jimmy Reed in groups like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. They all did Jimmy Reed, which got them to America, as part of the British invasion of musicians.

Then, once they got here, they had to see where this guy came from. How did Jimmy Reed know all of this? How did he get to that point?

I’ve been working on a tribute album to Jimmy Reed. As of today, we’re one step closer to being finished. We just have to do the mastering and then it’s ready for the market—Lester Chambers does Jimmy Reed.

Speaking of the British Invasion, the Chambers Brothers also returned the favor by touring the U.K. How were you initially received?

LC: The Beatles were our welcoming committee. We spent a lovely afternoon with them. Then, the next day, they were on their journey and we were on ours.

I also remember that we couldn’t find an opening act. So we brought the Road Runner cartoons with us, and that became our opening act. Boy, did they love it. We had no idea that Europe had not seen the cartoons as we had in America. It was a great tour.

A few years later, you appeared on The Mike Douglas Show when John Lennon and Yoko Ono were the cohosts for a week and selected the guests. Had you kept in touch with him?

LC: Yeah, we sort of lived in the same neighborhood and would cross paths in the park and say hello. But we didn’t stop to talk for long because we didn’t want to attract attention.

We had performed on The Mike Douglas Show two or three times prior, and it was so enjoyable and we got a great response. Then, when we were on with John and Yoko, that was something special. It was the first time I met her. She’s such a beautiful person, who has been an angel to me over the years.

You’ve also had a longstanding relationship with Alice Cooper.

LC: There have been some different stories regarding our meetings, but before he was known as Alice Cooper, he was in a band called the Nazz. They were out of Arizona. They had opened a show for us, and we had all became great friends. We saw that they had potential as a great rock-and-roll band. Then, one day, we learned that they had moved to Hollywood and we went to see them.

Shortly after that, Shep Gordon and Joe Greenberg came from New York to Hollywood. One day, I was sitting at a table in a hotel with Jimi Hendrix when Shep Gordon walked up. He said with this deep voice, “Hello, I’m Shep Gordon.” And I said, “You look like a rock-and[1]roll manager. I’d like to introduce you to someone. I think you guys would be a great team.” He said, “OK,” so I introduced him to Alice Cooper. [Gordon would eventually become Cooper’s longtime manager.]

Around this time, Alice Cooper moved into the Chambers Brothers’ house when we were gone. This allowed them to rehearse and bring the group into full Hollywood style. They did a great job of that, and the rest is history.

DYLAN CHAMBERS: Something that Alice brought up, when we were able to hang out with him in San Francisco a number of years ago, was that during the LA Watts riots, Alice and his band were hanging out and jamming in the Chambers Brothers’ basement. The riots had just started to break out and they wanted to go out and contribute to what was happening by protesting. But dad and his brothers kept them inside, closed all the curtains and said, “No, if you guys go outside, you’ll all get rounded up and killed because everybody’s so angry right now. They’re not gonna understand that you’re on their side.”

Looking back on that, Alice said, “Yeah, that was crazy. They all kept us inside and protected us from going out. We wanted to fight injustice, but they told us: ‘No, it’s not gonna be good for you if you get seen outside.’”

photo credit: Bob Minkin

Lester, you were good friends with Jimi Hendrix. Looking back on the time you spent together, what’s the first image that comes to mind?

LC: Well, we were such good friends that he would come to our show if he wasn’t doing something, then come on stage and jam with us. I remember the first time my brother Willie handed over his guitar. Willie did a lot of strumming and Jimi was using softer rubber band strings. So he said, “Man, I can’t play this guitar.” Then Willie asked him why and he said, “You got logs on there. Those are not strings. Those are logs; they’re so thick.” [Laughs.]

We had a lot of fun together, just hanging out. I went to Electric Lady a lot after it was built. I did some jamming with them and played cowbell on a few of the sessions.

DC: They also played together at Steve Paul’s Scene a lot of times. There is a recording where Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison are onstage and Lester is playing harmonica on the track. It’s really bluesy and they’re having a good-time party. It’s a bunch of heavyweight people who all got together and jammed.

Moonalice has a new EP that presents some original tunes, as well as music that spans your career. One of the highlights is “Time Has Come Today,” a song that remains relevant. I’ve always been fascinated that there are two versions of the original with such disparate lengths: 2 minutes and 11 minutes.

LC: Well, we never played the 2-minute version, and I don’t think we even did the 11-minute version onstage. It stretched to 18-20 minutes, and it was always way more intense.

We recorded it live in the studio, and everything was done in one take. When it first slowed down, that was supposed to be the end of the song, but my brother George kept going boom, boom, boom, on bass. Then, I joined him with the cowbell to speed it back up. To keep it going, all we had to do was go, “Time!”

DC: The Chambers Brothers were told not to record the song even though they had been performing it because someone way up in the big leagues of the management didn’t want Black musicians singing a revolutionary psychedelic song about changing the system. So when they went to do their album, they agreed that they wouldn’t record it. But, then they left 12 minutes at the end of the tape. David Rubinson [producer] and Fred Catero [engineer] were like, “OK, we’ve got one take to do this, so let’s knock this out.” They knew they weren’t going to get multiple chances. Then, once the label heard it, they realized they needed to release it. But first they released a 2-minute version and the longer version eventually came out on the album.

LC: David Rubinson, bless his heart, and Fred Catero were the geniuses in the room. It was like the first psychedelic song that was recorded.

Then, it was brought to our attention that Columbia did not want a Black group with a white drummer on stage singing “Time Has Come Today” to a predominantly white audience. Of course, we did it anyway.

Now, we also have this great version recorded by Moonalice.

It is particularly well-suited for Moonalice, given the talents of your fellow musicians and the spirit of the band.

DC: What’s so great about Moonalice is that it is sorely needed in 2022.

We bring diversity, equality, inclusion— all of these special attributes—to the group. We’ve got elderly people, we’ve got young people, we’ve got Black people, we’ve got white people, we’ve got women, we’ve got men. We’re singing positive, uplifting songs where everybody is given a part. Some people wouldn’t think that this is needed but, as people of color know, it is continuously needed.

In the psychedelic world, the level of inclusion on the stage is very limited. There’s not a lot of women, there’s not a lot of people of color. So we’re trying to do our part to make this a fun, safe, welcoming, encouraging place for everybody.

We’re playing music that makes you feel happy and loved. It makes you love everybody at the end of the night. This is a magical group that’s trying to spread some joyous cheer to the world.

LC: Moonalice embodies the idea that we can live together, we can walk together, and we can have understanding and enjoyment through music. Peace, love, respect and happiness. That’s what it’s all about.