By Shari Faye Dell (West Marin Citizen May 19, 2011)
Lester and Dylan Chambers launched a pilot cooking show on YouTube last month, Lester Chambers Soul Foods Rhythm & Blues. Weaving a pinch of southern tradition with a cup of Marinability, Terry Haggerty joins the session bearing locally picked morrells, retrieved from a photo shoot for an article he had written.
Filmed in San Rafael, the inviting kitchen is situated in a home outfitted with a recording studio and a back yard garden.
Arriving guests, including Taj Mahal, are guided in to the studio for a listen to some new material on Lester’s upcoming CD.
Back in the kitchen, “Black pepper, garlic salt and a little more garlic, the three things that go into a meal of Southern Fried Chicken,” says Dylan Chambers. “Anymore seasoning is unnecessary,” he says.
“I go a little heavy with the garlic,” says Lester, “because it is good for ya and it tastes good. It’s good to ya and it’s good for ya.”
Emphasizing the importance of prep work, Dylan instructs viewers to sort the black eyed peas, removing all but the healthy, uniform beans. “Prep work,” he says, “is the key to Southern cooking.”
“Not out of the water, but I am able to ski on top of the water.”
A little over a year ago, Lester Chambers found relief at the end of hard times.
In June of last year, while just beginning to find his way back, Lester Chambers, former front man to the Chambers Brothers, made his first stage appearance in many moons at the Dance Palace in Point Reyes Station. Appearing with his son Dylan’s music project, the Midnight Transit Band, Lester performed a show at the Dance Palace that lasted nearly three-hours.
“It was phenomenal, absolutely phenomenal,” says Chambers, of his experience that night.
Struggling with health issues, Chambers was anxious and cautious about returning to the stage, “I was able to do the whole show,” Chambers describes his pleasure in testing his strength and come-back-ability in a safe place like Point Reyes, “I had to test it somewhere. I love it out there.”
Several years back, following a job lead, Chambers and his son Dylan left behind the bustling cities in the Greater Los Angeles Area and moved to the foothills of the Sierras.
The quiet, quaint and historic town of Copperopolis offered less than promised when the job opportunity did not pan out. “With absolutely nothing to do,” Chambers describes time standing still while depleting all financial reserves.
A year and a half passed before father and son found themselves unable to stave off the encroaching threat of homelessness.
A friend in Novato offered them space in his working studio, a place to crash at nights, but the pair had to clear out each morning, allowing for business as usual. Father and son spent one or two nights a week at the Motel 6. “It was just tough, you know,” says Chambers.
Homeless and approaching the age of 70, Chambers desperately needed access to health care. In addition to his overall health diminishing, pressing dental issues, visual impairment, a neck injury, and a tumor over his eye had all gone untreated.
Dreams really can come true. For Lester Chambers, Sweet Relief was on the way.
An organization founded in 1994, the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, a non-profit charity, provides financial assistance to all types of career musicians who are struggling to make ends meet while facing illness, disability, or age-related problems.
Over the course of eighteen years, many prominent musicians, professionals and music fans have contributed to the cause with private donations, tribute LPs and other fundraising festivals, concerts or events.
“Lester’s story is certainly very typical of what many American artists will be facing in the next ten to twenty years,” says Rob Max, the Fund’s Executive Director. “We call it the post Beatles effect. Lester was playing music a decade before the Beatles became famous. A lot of musicians came on to the scene after the Beatles, baby-boomers or a little bit older. Music became the strongest driver in our culture. More people, as a result, chose music as a career,” says Max. “It [is an industry that] is not too kind when you reach your 50s, 60s and 70s.”
The music business became and industry in the 50s and experienced exponential growth through the 60s. At the time, there was little, if anything, in place to protect the rights of musicians. While performers and writers in film and television enjoyed some legal protection, the music industry was a child running wild. “A lot of deals were made and a lot of futures were mortgaged away,” says Max.
“Thanks to all the great people that came forward and blessed us with many things. Once I spoke up and let everyone know the condition I was in, Sweet Relief was the answer to the whole problem. They really care and provide long-term support,” says Chambers. “You would be surprised at how many people came forward saying I can’t believe it, but they helped.”
“You have to assume all the old guys are doing well because they were so successful musically,” Chambers explains, “but I had bad problems with my health, I had cancer, but I don’t anymore. I was sinking away and one day I got this Sweet Relief that turned things around. I am getting stronger every day.” Chambers was introduced to a doctor, “It is so hard to find and honest, truly concerned doctor. Dr. Gary Birnbaum told me, ‘If you pay attention I will get you out of this mess with your health.’ Now all my test results are coming back within the normal range.” Delighted, he adds, “He [Dr. Birnbaum] couldn’t believe it. I had been so obedient in following the routine.”
I am looking to live a longtime. I sure do just want to keep singing forever and ever. I have been blessed so tremendously.”
That was then; this is now
“Yoko Ono was very generous, so was (producer) Shep Gordon, and quite a few musicians donating to my cause.”
“But, I wasn’t crying the blues yet,” says Chambers. “A lot of new friends and new songs came out of the period of hardship.
“I am currently recording a new CD.
This year Lester has formed a new group, The Lester Chamber Blues Review, a six-piece band featuring local talent like keyboard player Kenny Ray. Chambers introduces several new originals to the repertoire of old favorites.
“My son works with the blues review, he does real good with me. It is quite a treat to be on stage with your kid.”
“This guy has been my best friend since he was four years old,” says Chambers.
“My brother Willie and I were playing a concert at Lincoln Center in New York. Dylan said ‘Dad I am going to sing with you today.’ I said, ‘you are?’ He said, ‘yeah.’ His mother made us all matching tye-dyed shirts; she was really good at that. We go to the concert, and he is sitting out in the audience. He comes back stage and asks, ‘When am I coming up dad?’ I told him after four or five songs.”
Well, don’t you know he counted the songs. At the end of the fourth song, he just comes strutting right up onto the stage and reaches for the microphone. I gave it to him. I says, ‘ What are you going to sing?’ ‘Sitting on the dock of the bay,’ he says.”
And he sang sitting on the dock of the bay. He’s had nothing else on his mind except music and his art, of course, since that day.”
He has stuck with me through thick and thin, he doesn’t want to go no where and I don’t want him to. He is my buddy. Best roommate I ever had. We have a great time together.”
An aging population
“The bottom line is so many people need financial assistance for basic needs– medical, rent, utilities and food,” says Sweet Relief Musician Fund Executive Director, Rob Max.
This scenario is happening to people from other areas of the work force, it is happening to laborers, construction workers and people who worked in other fields. It is a relative concern for any particular group.
Max explained that by getting more people involved, the fund has gone beyond just asking for donations from the music industry, famous artists and corporations. “We want to get a lot of people to commit a little bit.”
“We are really honored to have Lester as our unofficial spokesperson,” says Max. “For all the difficulty he went through, he kept a positive attitude, he was never a ‘why me’ kind of guy. He’d say, ‘You know what, tough times come and they go and we’ll do the best we can’. As soon as we got his medications balanced, we got him some eye surgery and got him into a steady home, he is a healthier happier individual and he will be able to work as a musician for years to come.
The Lester Chamber Blues Review performs Saturday, May 15, at the Dance Palace. Advance tickets suggested: <http://www.dancepalace.org>. To learn more about the band’s upcoming performances at Monterey Bay Blues Festival and the Hayward Blues Festival, visit <http://www.lester-chambers.com>.
On March 27, 2011, Lester Chambers was inducted into the West Coast Blues Hall of Fame.
To contribute to the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund visit http://www.sweetrelief.com.
SF Dell's photos taken during the performance.
SF Dell's photos taken during the performance.