A younger Lester Chambers (right) with the Chambers Brothers
As lead singer for the band The Chambers Brothers, Lester Chambers used to hang with John Lennon, appear on the Ed Sullivan show, and generally sip the sweet nectar from the flower-power generation. It was groovy, a blast and a gas, but then the money dried up, and he ended up sleeping in a rehearsal room until Yoko Ono and a few of her friends stepped in to help him buy a house. Despite the fact that he'd released ten high-selling (and great) records, he says he didn't receive a penny in royalties between 1967 and 1994.
Yesterday, Chambers scrawled his angry gospel on a piece of cardboard, pinned it to one of his gold discs, and within hours it had whipped its way virally round the world. Now, a music charity named Sweet Relief is accepting donations on his behalf to pay for medical and housing costs. But Lester's not content to be a charity case, and is gearing up to fight on behalf of a generation of 60s musicians who were screwed to the hilt by the reptilian suits of the music industry.
VICE: Hi Lester. Where did this photo come from?
Lester: That's on my Facebook page, my website.
Are you angry about what happened to you?
I wouldn't say I'm angry. I'm disappointed. You don't get anywhere being angry.
Do you think the contracts you signed were deliberately exploitative?
It was wrong. I'd just put it that way.
Why didn't you cross your Ts and dot your Is a bit more before you signed?
When you're a young group, you listen to people say: "We're going to make it better." And that never works, because if they were going to make it better they woulda made it better. Young musicians are still caught in the same situation 'cos they wanna be heard. God knows, The Chambers Brothers were not the only ones. And some of them have come forward and some of them haven't. When you're told: “Go get a lawyer,” and they know upfront that you really can't afford a big business lawyer to do this for you, you're caught between first and second base.
How did you go from '67 to '94 without a royalty check?
I had a business where I'd pick up containers from the airport, bring it to people's homes—you do what you gotta do.
Is it true that Yoko Ono once bought you a house?
She didn't buy me a house. She… a house was found for me by Sweet Relief, who help musicians who are fallen. Yoko and two or three other people came forward with donations, and I was able to move out of the hall where I was sleeping into rented accommodation. She was very supportive. Originally, her donations were for me to get my health better. But if you're going to the doctor all the time, at some point you gotta go back to the situation that is causing that, which was me sleeping in that place, and the condition I was in.
How did you and Yoko meet?
We met at The Mike Douglas Show. Her and John Lennon were the hosts of the show. And they had us on. We already knew John. She's an angel of all kinds.
Have a lot of people been hitting you up since this thing started going viral?
It's been a very busy morning, and a very busy night. My phone is beeping right now—people are calling while I'm talking to you. They can't believe that this has happened to us all these years.
Can you name any others who are in the same boat as you?
There are so many. And so many different members of different bands. There are a lot of cases where two or three members did well and two or three didn't. So many, I can't begin to give you names.
Was it a common syndrome?
You know, I was at a party at the house of a prominent music manager that my lawyer had invited me to. He showed us both round his wonderful, massive mansion of a house, and he said: “Yeah, my client bought me this house. But he doesn't know it…” In the front yard, there were five Rolls-Royces that he owned. He manages this friend of mine. But he didn't know who I was. And I just had to get out of there at that point.
It's like, I was in a restaurant once in New York where all the music people go, having my hamburger. There were these four guys talking I overheard—one was the accountant, and the other were lawyers for RCA Records. One of them said: “How are we doing with the new financial department for the RCA headquarters?” And another said “Oh, the Billie Holiday re-issue has paid for that three times over.” And these are the things we live with, it became a real part of people's lives: take what you can while you can.
I know this one artist, he's been singing, singing, and singing every year. He has more successful Christmas albums than anyone else I know. He's still paying off his house. He started when he was 18, and this home was one of the first things he bought, but he's still paying for it 50 years later. How is that right?
The Chambers Brothers with Joan Baez, Newport Folk Festival, 1965
Was it a spur of the moment decision on your part to post the letter?
No, no, no. My friends and my son, we've been working on this for the past eight or nine years. We have all the contracts, all the record labels, all of that information together. It's a good time because of Occupy. My wife is a paralegal, so she's been able to do a great job preparing all of the paperwork.
So you're going to sue them directly? This isn't just a press campaign?
We're gonna correct our situation.
Do you think you'll succeed?
I hope so. I'm gonna do it for every musician who's been treated the way I have. That's my prayer. And I hope God answers my prayer.
Even if you're not God, you can still help Lester out by donating to his cause here.
Follow Gavin on Twitter: @hurtgavinhaynes