When the Chambers Brothers’ ‘Time’ Had Come

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The Chambers Brothers (Photo from their Facebook page)


It was as recognizable an opening as any in ’60s rock, and it was played solely on a cowbell—until that snare drum bam! kicked it into a quick high gear. The song was “Time Has Come Today” and the band was the mind-blowing Chambers Brothers: George Chambers, the oldest, was born in 1931 and played the bass; Willie, one of the two guitarists, followed in 1938; Lester, who sang, played harmonica and tick-tocked the cowbell, arrived next, in 1940; Joe, the other guitarist, was the youngest, born in 1942.

For most rock fans, the Chambers Brothers were a new group when they scrambled up the charts with their breakout single and album in 1968, but they were already veteran performers. Originally from Carthage, Miss., the brothers had started out harmonizing in their church choir. By the early ’60s they’d migrated to Los Angeles, where they turned pro. They built a reputation as a formidable gospel quartet and managed to get decent gigs on the budding folk circuit, playing all of the popular festivals and coffeehouses. The king of folk music himself, Pete Seeger, got the brothers booked at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and they were soon on their way.

Like many other folk acts of the day though, within a year the Chambers Brothers—who had now gone secular, applying their smooth gospel harmonies and soaring lead vocals to a mix of soul and folk—were looking for both a larger audience and a more expansive sound. With a drummer, Brian Keenan, now on board—making the Chambers Brothers one of the first interracial bands in popular music—they discovered a niche that was equal parts contemporary soul and the new rock, exemplified to impressive effect on their debut album, People Get Ready, recorded live at the Ash Grove in L.A. and the Unicorn in Boston, and released on Vault Records in 1965. With a track list composed primarily of cover material—the title song was the Impressions’ soul ballad, and there were tunes by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Jimmy Reed, Motown’s Berry Gordy Jr. and even the Gershwins (“Summertime”)—the album showed off the group’s breadth and exuberance handsomely. A second album drawn from the same shows, Now!, continued along the same lines but by the end of 1966 the siblings were ready to take their music to places it had never been before.

The time had come for the Chambers Brothers!

They got the encouragement they needed from their new label, Columbia Records—they’d sung backup there on an unreleased version of Bob Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues”—which assigned the hot producer David Rubinson to the group. Rubinson latched onto a song composed by Willie and Joe, “Time Has Come Today,” and went immediately about the business of transforming the Chambers Brothers.

The first version, recorded in August 1966 and released as a single, was similar to the later, familiar take save for a slightly different opening that places squeals from an electric harpsichord (which sounds more like a cat whose tail has just been stepped on) between the cowbell smacks.

Listen to the original single version of “Time Has Come Today”

Unfortunately, the single failed to chart at all, and the Chambers Brothers couldn’t seem to catch a break for the next several months, although their live shows were quickly becoming legend for the spirit and intensity the singer-musicians brought to their brand of soul-rock. By the summer of 1967, psychedelia had become all the rage, with the arrival of Sgt. Pepper, Jimi Hendrix and the San Francisco bands. The Chambers Brothers had anticipated the music’s growth with their original “Time” single (which drew inspiration from the Civil Rights movement and included the line “my soul has been psychedelicized”) and Rubinson decided to give the tune a second chance. That August he let the band loose in the studio to recreate the wild, elongated version they’d developed during their nonstop touring. This time, the brothers went all out. An extended jam was inserted into the recording: wailing electric guitars; spacey, acid-infused effects; tons of reverb; maniacal shouting. It slowed down, speeded up again, went off into the stratosphere. Even the cowbell was put through the studio’s battery of gizmos, echoing until it barely resembled a cowbell anymore. It was acid-rock at its most lysergic.

“When we started playing it in the clubs, people went absolutely crazy,” Willie Chambers told the L.A. Times in 2015. “I mean, they were screaming. It was frightening for some; they’d just grab ahold of their heads and run out the door.”

Listen to the full 11-minute version of “Time Has Come Today”

Rubinson placed the 11-minute reboot of “Time Has Come Today” at the tail end of the band’s debut Columbia album, similarly titled The Time Has Come. The LP overall offered a cross-section of the brothers’ strengths, including original material plus a few well-chosen covers—a replay of “People Get Ready,” Bacharach-David’s “What the World Needs Now Is Love” and Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour”—but it was the over-the-top long version of “Time Has Come Today” that intrigued disc jockeys at the newly emerging FM rock stations, where the motto was the more psychedelic the better. Listeners started to catch on.

The Chambers Brothers in 1970 (Photo from their Wikipedia page)

In a 2013 article for Mix magazine, Rubinson told writer Blair Jackson, “So the cowbell would go ‘tick-ck-ck-ck, tock-ck-ck-ck,’ and you could regulate how much and how fast the reinsertion of the original signal was. Eventually you have this sound refolding on itself over and over, and ultimately it turns into white noise…and I reacted to what they did with the speed of the tape machine. Also, if I flicked the tape, it would go in and out of phase and make these weird sounds, and it just got crazier and crazier. But from having seen them live so much, I knew exactly when the crazy part was going to end—Brian was going to play this big drum fill and it was going to come back to ‘Now the time has come…’ so I was able to shut everything off exactly on cue. We grabbed lightning in the bottle—boom! When they finished, they were screaming and yelling and came running into the booth and we played it back and it felt so good.”

Amazingly, in retrospect, Columbia didn’t see “Time…” as a single at first. Although the Doors had hit #1 with a stripped-down version of their own supersized “Light My Fire,” Columbia went instead with “Uptown,” an uptempo gospel-fueled raver that landed the Chambers Brothers their first Billboard single in the fall of ’67, although it topped out at #126.

Finally, in December 1967, more than a year after the first version was recorded, an edited version of “Time Has Come Today” was released as a single. This time, the radio stations that couldn’t play an 11-minute version took the reins. The single finally charted and ultimately rose to #11 during the week of October 12, 1968, giving the Chambers Brothers the biggest hit of their career. It remains ubiquitous today and has been covered by dozens of artists, notably the Ramones, Joan Jett and even the duo of Steve Earle and Sheryl Crow. Bootsy Collins cut a funk version in 2015.

“That song was a monster,” Willie Chambers told the L.A. Times. “It’s been used in over 160 movies, commercials and television shows. But it ain’t about how much money you make, it’s about the joy it brings you.”

Related: The Chambers Brothers were a highlight of the little known 1969 Atlantic City Pop Festival

Listen to the group’s cover of the Impressions’ “People Get Ready”

The Chambers Brothers remained a top live and recording act into the mid-’70s, placing another eight singles on the Billboard chart (including a bang-up cover of Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose”). The album The Time Has Come began its ascent to #4 in early 1968 and was followed by A New Time—A New Day (1968, #16), Love, Peace and Happiness (1969-70, #58), a greatest hits collection in 1970 and New Generation (1971, #145), before the Chambers Brothers left the world of the charts for good.

Eventually, Columbia dropped the band and although they signed with other labels and added/subtracted additional personnel to augment the siblings, they never regained their commercial hold. Today Lester Chambers performs on his own with his band the Mudstompers, Joe and Willie still perform as the Chambers Brothers. George, who was singing gospel again, died Oct. 12, 2019. Original drummer Brian Keenan died in 1985.

The reign of the Chambers Brothers on the rock scene was relatively brief, but their psychedelicized impact and influence are still felt today.

Bonus video: Watch the Chambers Brothers perform “Time…” on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1969

And, just for fun, here’s the Ramones’ cover of “Time…”

Jeff Tamarkin

10 Comments so far

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  1. William
    #1 William 21 September, 2017, 01:52

    I saw the Chambers Brother’s in new York at the Singer bowl with the soft machine, summer of 1968(?) ..Janis Joplin, with Jimi Hendrix closing the show….The Chambers Brother’s were far and away the Best performers….they were brilliant!
    The other acts sounded like they had shot heroine….AWFUL! The Brother’s were Great!!!!

    Reply this comment
    • Gary
      Gary 21 September, 2017, 12:43

      I was at the same show. I agree that The Chambers Brothers were amazing. They blew my mind. I do not however recall Big Brother and Jimi sounding like they were high on heroin.I do remember many bottles of booze being offered to JANIS from fans and Jimi splitting his pants as well. Do not remember the Soft Machine but yes The Chambers Brothers may just have stolen the show indeed.

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    • Safari Bob Grilli
      Safari Bob Grilli 30 June, 2023, 09:36

      I was there, too. Jimi’s version of Red House was pretty good, though?

      Reply this comment
  2. RESI
    #2 RESI 28 September, 2017, 02:32

    The University of New Hampshire hosted “The Brothers” in the Spring of 1972 at an open air concert and I swear they played about a 45 minute rendition of “TIME” ! IT WAS EPIC and I will never forget it as a highlight of my freshman year !

    Reply this comment
  3. DUKE
    #3 DUKE 28 June, 2019, 00:27


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  4. David
    #4 David 10 January, 2021, 21:51

    I got my live dose of The Chambers Brothers at a live, open air performance in the Spring of 1972 @ Utah State University. They were magnificent!

    Reply this comment
  5. Trevor B
    #5 Trevor B 25 January, 2021, 07:33

    Best use of a cowbell in a song.

    Reply this comment
  6. Da Mick
    #6 Da Mick 13 January, 2022, 07:15

    The Chambers Brothers are a special band to me, and how could you be a fan of the band and not love “Time Has Come Today?” But Trevor B, I’d have to say that “Mississippi Queen” gives THCT a real run for its money as the best use of a cowbell in a song. When you hear that cowbell beating time, all by itself, at the beginning of “Queen,” you know what’s coming…..

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  7. Cisley
    #7 Cisley 30 June, 2023, 01:50

    Thank you so much for writing about the Chambers Brothers, Jeff. A real wealth of information as I honestly knew nothing about their background. I appreciated both versions of Time Has Come Today. I saw them at the Sound Factory in Sacramento, CA in 1968. Fantastic show.

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