In January 2001, Memphis-based keyboard player Al Gamble and his drumming younger brother Chad decided to take advantage of their years of jamming in the family rec room and form a band together. They filled out the lineup with a guitarist and a bass player, and four months later hooked up with tenor saxophonist Art Edmaiston, who shared their love of Southern R&B and their desire to push the envelope. In September the guitar player opted for the steady money of a gig in a Beale Street cover band, and as time went by the remaining four players grew increasingly fond of the space and freedom resulting from the absence of guitar. It was then that the Gamble Brothers Band, as they called themselves, located their sound. Five years later, on their third and latest album, Continuator (Archer Records), the band deftly demonstrates not only how captivating that sound can be but how much substance it can contain.
The world the GBB articulates on this intriguing record—in the working man’s anthem “Overboard,” about the ongoing act of trying to keep one’s head above water, as well as songs like “Hold Out ‘Til Monday,” “Back at School,” “Heart’s Not in It” and “Shopping Cart” — will be readily familiar to most listeners, because it’s the world we live in today. These themes yanked from everyday life in contemporary America interact wondrously with the gritty grooves and smoky feel they’ve carried forward from the ‘60s and ‘70s R&B records on which they’ve based their sound. It’s a sound to which these four natural-born musicians are the rightful heirs, considering the Gamble siblings grew up in Tuscumbia, Alabama, within spitting distance of Southern soul mecca Muscle Shoals, while Edmaiston hails from Troy, Tennessee, north of Memphis, which is the hometown of bass player Blake Rhea, who joined the group late in 2003.
You’ll find their indigenous inspirations displayed proudly and impeccably on Continuator and in the GBB’s scintillating live performances — flavors cooked up and marinated to perfection several decades ago at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Memphis’ Stax Volt and Hi, Allen Toussaint’s joint in New Orleans and wherever Ray Charles and his band set up.
“My dad had the ‘Genius of Ray Charles’ and “Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music’, along with some Jimmy Smith albums and a bunch of Verve Forecast stuff,” Al recalls, “and I wore them out. I grew up in the ‘80s, and I couldn’t relate to the music on the radio, so those records were my salvation.”
But this band isn’t interested in merely replicating the past or geographically confining its reference points, although they readily acknowledge that they’re paying tribute to the great soul acts. “We try to further the heritage,” says Edmaiston. When asked to name his faves, Art starts with Led Zeppelin and John Coltrane, then throws in Louie Prima — “I dig music with life in it,” he says, — while Rhea acknowledges a fondness for Latin and metal. The group’s music touches on all these things, but, “We keep things in a soulful mindset,” is how Art puts it. The new album’s “East Parkway Rundown,” for example, features a super-vibey, near-psychedelic intermingling of sax and Hammond B-3 flavors redolent of Traffic circa “Freedom Rider,” and the timbre of Al’s vocals recall Dr. John at his most natural, but also present is a wry, knowing soulfulness that was the trademark of the late, great Little Feat auteur Lowell George. There’s a lot going on in these fat grooves and sharply drawn vignettes.
The sessions took place at Memphis’ famed Ardent Studios, with producer/engineer/ mixer Jeff Powell (Big Star, Afghan Whigs, North Mississippi Allstars) at the helm. “I love this band and am very proud of this record,” says Powell. “Rather than doing everything in time to a click track and fixing every mistake to make it ‘perfect,’ we went for a live feeling — a soulful, Memphis-style behind-the-beat feel, with a sound that jumps out of the speakers. I think you can hear how much fun we had making it, and these guys are some of the finest musicians I’ve ever worked with.”
Returning to the backstory, all four members of the GBB lineup started playing their respective instruments early on and went on to log countless hours and miles working as sidemen in blues and soul bands on the chitlin circuit. There were sidetrips along the way, as the Gamble boys both graduated from the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, separated by five years, with Al getting his degree in international relations. The logical next step for him was the service, but his decision to pursue career as a U.S. Army officer was irrevocably altered one evening in the early ‘90s, when Al and his wife to be went to hear some music at B.B. King’s Blues Club on Beale Street. Al doesn’t know exactly what hit him that evening — he has to think a minute to even remember who was playing (it was Little Milton) — but he had an epiphany, and that epiphany put him on a path that led to the GBB and a reputation among fellow musicians as the young cat who is most skillfully carrying on the legacy of Booker T Jones and Spooner Oldham on the B-3, the Wurlitzer and the Fender Rhodes.
Both Al and Chad did stints in regionally heralded Shreveport band the Bluebirds (though not at the same time). Al has backed up artists such as Chris Cain, Johnnie Bassett, the Barkays, Irma Thomas, Bo Diddley, Syl Johnson, Eric Gales, Rufus Thomas and the Memphis Horns, while Chad has played behind Rufus Thomas, the Memphis Horns, Eddie Floyd, Chris Cain, Johnnie Bassett, Preston Shannon and Jimmy Thackery.
Edmaiston’s travels took him from the V.F.W. in Lake Charles, Louisiana, to Harlem’s Apollo Theatre and all the way to Japan while touring as a member of the Bobby “Blue” Bland Orchestra. He made it to Puerto Rico and Scandinavia with Preston Shannon and back across the U.S. and Canada with Mason Ruffner. Art’s done time in the Beale Street clubs, much of it in the house band at B.B. King’s; he’s jammed with Ivan Neville, Jon Fishman of Phish, the Aquarium Rescue Unit, Robert Walter’s 20th Congress, Papa Grows Funk and Jim Belushi; and shared stages with everyone from Levon Helm to Wayne Newton, from the Coasters to Leslie Gore. His sax work can be heard on the Johnny Lang’s Grammy-winning “Lie to Me”.
The band started working up material soon after forming, and in a few months they were recording their debut album, 10 Lbs. of Hum. The record was cut on the fly and a tight budget, but it still indicated the intriguing mix of the past and the present that they were developing, while the choice of covers — including Toussaint’s “Everything I Do” and a take on Holland-Dozier-Holland’s “Don’t Do It” patterned on that of The Band —provided a sense of their rock-solid musical foundation. In July 2003 they beat out 1,200 bands to win the Billboard-sponsored Independent Musicians World Series in Nashville, which got them $35,000 in gear. Two months later they released their second album (and first for Memphis indie Archer), Back to the Bottom. It was a crisply recorded affair that showed the development of their songwriting, which was given further context by the presence of inventive interpretations of Randy Newman’s “Little Criminals” and Gary Wright’s “Love Is Alive.”
Back to the Bottom got the band noticed by certain publications with their ears to the ground, like Paste, which gave the record four stars and compared the band to Booker T & the MG’s and the Meters.
Edmaiston joined the Jacksonville, Fla.-based touring band Mofro in 2007 and soon after that, the Gamble Brothers Band played their last live show, opening for the Black Crowes in October 2007 at Mud Island Amphitheatre in Memphis. Soon after drummer Chad Gamble would join Jason Isbell on the road and travel the world. Earlier in 2007, while on a break from touring, Edmaiston joined Memphis guitar player Joe Restivo, drummer George Sluppick and Al to form The Grip, a four-piece jazz instrumental band specializing in boogaloo music. The Grip recorded the EP Grab This Thing for Archer Records (2007). The EP is available on this website.
With Edmaiston now full time with Mofro, Al Gamble, Joe Restivo and George Sluppick continued to play as a three-piece, forming the band, The City Champs. The City Champs have released two albums on Scott Bomar’s Electraphonic label titled: The Safecracker (2009) and The Set (2010). The City Champs tour regularly and have opened for other acts, including the North Mississippi Allstars.
Al Gamble now spends his time between touring with the City Champs, Charlie Mars, soul singer Marc Broussard and being an “A” list studio session player.
All three Gamble Brothers Band records are still available as CDs. Autographed copies are available on this web site.