Q-Tip said it in 1991 on Low End Theory, but Lester Chambers had been living it since 1967. Chambers, now an inductee of the West Coast Blues Hall of Fame, is finally speaking up, and what he has to say is nothing short of a wake-up call for all musicians. Clive Davis, Columbia Records, and the Publishing world are all growing to be under a scrutinized eye with each day Chambers vocally expresses the way the industry has left him with little money to live, having worked in the commercial music world since the age of 30.
Chambers’ story picked up momentum after he posted a photo online, detailing the following:
I am the former lead singer of a 60’s band. I performed before thousands at Atlanta Pop 2, Miami Pop, Newport Pop, Atlantic Pop. I did not squander my money on drugs or a fancy home. I went from 1967-1994 before I saw my first royalty check. The music giants I recorded with only paid me for 7 of my albums. I have NEVER seen a penny in royalties from my other 10 albums I recorded. Our hit song was licensed to over 100 films, TV & commercials without our permission. One major TV network used our song for a national commercial and my payment was $625.00 dollars. I am now 72, trying to live on $1200 a month. Sweet Relief, a music charity is taking donations for me. Only the 1 of artists can afford to sue. I am the 99%
Lester Chambers was once part of the famed Columbia Records’ group The Chamber Brothers. Having made it into the industry as four brothers from Mississippi, all of them sang and played instruments; Lester sang lead and played the harmonica, brothers Joe and Willie on guitar, and George on washtub bass [before switching to Danelectro bass guitar]. They started as folk, and electrified into rock-n-roll, soul, funk, and beyond.
After recording their first album, they signed to Columbia Records under the one and only Clive Davis. “Time Has Come Today” and “All Strung Out Over You” became their most popular hits [below]. With 8 albums and 6 singles hitting the Top Charts, Lester Chambers’ account of having never received pay until 1994 is startling. Not because it’s unbelievable, but because it means he received absolutely no royalty payment throughout the time he recorded and up to 20 years following.
As troublesome as it seems, Chambers is one of many Black artists–especially from his era– who have endured such hardships from billionaire estates of record labels. As reported, Lester’s troubles have worsened over the years, which led to his most recent viral campaign for justice:
In 2002 his wife, Lola Chambers, testified before the California Senate hearings on Label Accounting Practices that “Time Has Come Today” earned the group under $250 in royalties for the European market over 16 years. She said that Columbia Records told them that “there were no overseas sales to report because The Chambers Brothers records were never licensed to an overseas distributor”. But she later discovered copies on eBay of numerous foreign pressings of their records on Columbia foreign affiliate labels for which they were not compensated.
In 2003, the home of Lola and Lester Chambers was broken in to and their record collection, consisting of over sixty Chambers Brothers albums and over one hundred singles, was stolen. Lola Chambers had spent twenty five years collecting Chambers Brothers records at various venues to leave these for their sons. Lester Chambers developed a number of medical problems that went untreated because he lacked insurance. He later became homeless, sleeping in a rehearsal hall in Novato, California, until Yoko Ono paid to rent a home for him and his son Dylan.
Now, utilizing the platform the internet allows, Lester Chambers has publicly and vocally lashed out about his mistreatment. On his Facebook Page he’s received a small, but growing group of people willing to help, but the struggle–as of now– still continues. He’s linked with Sweet Relief–an organization dedicated to relieving musicians in need– to allow him the allocation of donation funds in a safe and practical manner.
Rule #4080 has spoken testament to many artists, particularly those of African descent from the Blues, Jazz, Soul, and Funk eras. Even some of our very own legendary rappers fell through hardship because of this same reason. Now is time for artists to become more educated about finances, publishing, and royalty before they sign deals and hand over their precious talent for others to cultivate a living. Let’s take this as a lesson learned, help those who are in need, and most importantly devise a plan for this to be avoided for all musicians in the future. But who’s willing to do work?