“The last years were ones that I was putting on a face of happiness, joy and success, but inside I was really sad and soul searching often: trying to figure out what’s the meaning of life, my purpose and where do I go from here.” One would never think that warm and cordial singer, songwriter and producer Gordon Chambers would face such a dilemma: pondering if he still had anything profound to say and offer through music.
The expressive, three-time Grammy Award winner didn’t think so. Last year, his Brooklyn brownstone was nearly destroyed by fire. Three years ago, a riptide nearly killed Chambers while he was swimming on vacation. Untimely deaths of family members and friends threw additional curve balls his way.
Those recurring episodes presented Chambers with yet another challenge: figuring out what would bring him personal joy. “I was in such a rut,” an upbeat Chambers says. “I didn’t want to do music anymore. I lost my sense of grind. It was inner turmoil I was dealing with, but I slowly but surely crept back into the recording process.”
The outcome was Chambers’ fourth solo LP, Surrender, a 12-track sequence of cathartic moments conceived out of his recurring trauma. Released nearly five and half years since his third full-length set, Sincere, the harmonically rich, live instrument-laden album melds together elements of soulful R&B, smooth jazz and lush gospel.
The gap-toothed Bronx, NY-born, Teaneck, NJ-raised artist behind the albums Introducing… and Love Stories sings of redemption (“I Made It” featuring Eric Roberson and Steff Reed), maintaining a strong faith (“I’ll Never Forget It,” “I Surrender All”), reconciliation in relationships (“Back to Love” featuring Lalah Hathaway), self-love (“The Diamond Inside,” “My Way”) and overcoming loss (“Love and Help Somebody”).
“The humanity in your music moves people the most,” the owner of the independent label, Chamber Music, says. “The most important element in songs is melody. The feeling of the music that moves you is the truth. It’s beyond technique.”
The 47-year-old lover of words considers Surrender a “diary of pain.” Creating the entire project actually reminds Chambers of the decade he spent as one of the writers signed to Epic Records CEO L.A. Reid’s publishing company, HITCO. Reid, an accomplished, Grammy-winning songwriter, producer and musician himself, told the Brown University alumnus he was one of the few male songwriters who could make audiences feel pain.
“This was the time for me to dig a little deeper and be more honest,” Chambers reflects, further acknowledging his respect for artists like Adele and Sam Smith. “I found myself in a mid-life crisis with a lot of burdens that came upon me at the same time. If I’m willing and courageous enough to expose myself, people will hear it and be blessed by it.”
Chambers, who released Surrender in conjunction with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, explains, “A lot of men don’t allow themselves to wear their hearts on their sleeves. We hold in a lot, and I wanted to be a role model on this album for showing that men feel as well. When men have the courage to say how they really feel, we can feel and heel.”
Surrender gave Chambers a few career firsts. It wasn’t uncommon for the self-taught musician and former entertainment editor at Essence magazine to burst into tears while laying down tracks. Often hosting songwriting workshops and private vocal lessons, Chambers co-wrote a large portion of Surrender with up-and-coming songwriters. The collaborations, he declares, reinvigorated his passion for writing.
The younger songwriters often shared with Chambers how his transparent subject matter rubbed off on their craft. He adds in a subsequent phone call that his protégés gave him hope: making him more comfortable with being vulnerable. “We often pride ourselves on being strong,” Chambers believes, “and holding on to a lot of things. We even hold on to a lot of pain.”
Chambers adds his concept of success has evolved in the wake of interacting and working closely with younger talent. “Success is legacy. You reach your personal goals, but you empower and help inspire other people to reach theirs.”
In retrospect, Chambers has a lot to be proud of. One of the last conversations he had with his friend, late singer Whitney Houston, involved her asking him to teach her how to write songs. He gave superstar Beyoncé her debut solo song, “After All is Said and Done.” He chuckles as he relives giving the “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin, or who he jokingly calls “a woman with testosterone,” direction in recording sessions.
Chambers’ prolific, emotive songwriting for the last quarter of a century has been sought after by a range of talents such as Brandy, Deborah Cox, Brownstone (“If You Love Me”), Anita Baker (“I Apologize”), Angie Stone (“No More Rain (In This Cloud)”), Tamia, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan, Queen Latifah, Patti LaBelle, Phyllis Hyman, Usher, The Isley Brothers, Aaron Neville, Gerald Levert, Nancy Wilson, Faith Evans, Marc Anthony, Najee and CeCe Peniston.
The easygoing collaborator offers a concise explanation about the dynamic between male songwriters working with female performers. “Men and women are more collaborative,” Chambers suggests. “Women artists look to men to be like coaches. Women are comfortable letting you lead them. They’re looking for that.”
Surrender is an overall indication to Chambers that authenticity and truth are what inspire his audience most. These days, Chambers focuses more on rewriting in his sessions. The feedback he’s received thus far from a few intimate concerts, along with his collaborators, has Chambers considering writing a memoir and finally hitting the lecture circuit.
Making the conscious choice to avoid listening to an abundance of contemporary music, Chambers does enjoy the work of Anderson .Paak, Solange, Robert Glasper and Leslie Odom, Jr. Making Surrender, Chambers says, allowed him to pour his gift into others. Furthermore, it’s allowed him to build stronger faith and seek guidance from a Higher Power.
“Surrender taps into another willingness to share more vulnerability and transparency,” Chambers reiterates. “It took me to another level of that. I’m glad after all of these years of being in the industry to have fans get to know me better. The project was me showing who I am.”
Gordon Chambers’ Eight Favorite Albums of All Time:
- Stevie Wonder | Innervisions (1973)
- Stevie Wonder | Fulfillingness' First Finale (1974)
- Stevie Wonder | Songs in the Key of Life (1976)
- Donny Hathaway | Live (1972)
- Aretha Franklin | Aretha Live at Fillmore West (1971)
- Aretha Franklin | Amazing Grace (1972)
- Pat Methany Group | Offramp (1982)
- Pat Methany Group | First Circle (1984)
STREAM Our Essential Gordon Chambers playlist, comprised of songs he has blessed with both his voice and his pen: