Jesse Colin Young turns 81 this Tuesday. I wrote up this installment of my Sunday Morning series a year ago in honor of his 80th birthday. Listening to Albert O hosting Highway 61 Revisited on WUMB yesterday, I was alerted to his birthday this week. It vaguely reminded me that I had put something together for him and went looking for it on our search engine. I want to give it another spin in slightly rewritten form this morning. If you remember it from last year, or have no interest, as Yeats put it in another context: “Horseman, pass by.”
I interviewed Jesse by email after seeing him perform with his Celtic Mambo lineup at Rossi’s Blue Star Room in Minneapolis in 2006. I posted the interview in “Aloha, Jesse.” I quote from the interview below but forgot to note that last year.
You may have heard of Jesse as the founding member of the Youngbloods or as a solo artist. I love his work. It has meant a lot to me for a long time. It triggers a kaleidoscope of memories and feelings. I want to salute him briefly and post videos of some of his work this morning.
Jesse struggled over many years with a devastating case of Lyme Disease that went undiagnosed until he found his symptoms described in a book about it. Antibiotic treatment has helped him overcome sufficiently to resume his career. If you’ve seen him since 2017, you’ve probably heard him talk about it. He wants to shine a light on the disease.
Jesse came up in the Greenwich Village folk scene. He released two obscure albums as a folk artist. Soul of a City Boy (1964) was his first. “You Gotta Fix It” was one of six originals on the album.
Jesse recorded Young Blood on Mercury in 1965. The title pointed the way to the future. “Trouble In Mind” is from that album and features the unmistakable sound of John Sebastian on harmonica.
Jesse founded the Youngbloods in 1967 with Jerry Corbitt on guitar, Lowell “Banana” Levinger on keyboards, and Joe Bauer on drums. As I say, Jesse had come up through the folk scene and already had two solo albums to his credit by the time the he formed the group. Guitar is his first love. To make the group work, however, Jesse moved from guitar to bass.
The Youngbloods’ self-titled debut album (produced by Felix Pappalardi) included the top 10 hit “Get Together,” written by Chet Powers. (Powers played with Quicksilver Messenger Service and also wrote under the names Dino Valenti and Jesse Oris Farrow.) As Jesse told me in 2006, “The Youngbloods were one of the house bands at the Cafe Au Go Go [in Greenwich Village] and I heard the song at an open mike there. Buzzy Linhart sang it and I fell in love with it and took it into rehearsal with the YBs the next day. There was no way we could not record it ’cause I was crazy about it.”
Released as a single in 1967, the song became a huge hit two years later. The National Conference of Christians and Jews adopted it as the soundtrack to a public service advertisement promoting national unity in 1969. The song had been recorded by others before it became a hit for the Youngbloods in 1969; it was Jesse’s passionate vocal that made this version of the song click. The NCCJ ad brought the recording to the attention of the country and struck a nerve. Jesse’s vocal grabbed our attention. He’s still playing the song 50 years later and still whispering “Listen!”
Earth Music was the Youngbloods’ follow-up album. Their first two albums are both full of good songs. I don’t think RCA had any idea how to promote the group. “All My Dreams Blue” was one of the two songs Jesse wrote for the album.
Jesse adapted “Sugar Babe” from one of the field recordings made by John and Alan Lomax. I don’t think it ever sounded this good before or since.
I first heard the Youngbloods playing on the college circuit in the spring of 1970. By this time they had released Elephant Mountain (their third album, produced by Charlie Daniels). The album kicks off with Jesse’s “Darkness, Darkness.”
At the other end of the spiritual polarity is Jesse’s “Sunlight,” the fourth track on the album. This is easily one of my favorites of all time. How was this not a hit?
Elephant Mountain represented the Youngbloods at their peak. The album is full of beautiful tracks. They noodled around on a few cuts, but it is an almost perfect album. They recorded several more good records, including Good and Dusty and High on a Ridge Top, both reflecting Jesse’s love of folk, blues, country, and rock. If it was downhill (pun intended) from Elephant Mountain, it was a pleasant descent. Below, for example, is Jesse’s cover of Taj Mahal’s “She Caught the Katy (and Left Me a Mule To Ride).”
Jesse went on to a fruitful solo career in which he has recorded many albums backed by excellent musicians. My favorite of these is Song For Juli. The title track is for his daughter. How many beautiful melodies does he stuff into this one? I think he loved the girl.
Jesse thought he had found heaven at his ridgetop home in northern California. He lost it in the 1995 fire that broke out in Point Reyes National Seashore. Before the fire, he paid tribute to it in “Ridgetop.”
Jesse attended Phillips Academy on scholarship. His love of the guitar brought him into conflict with the authorities at school, however, and he was expelled during his senior year. You can hear his intelligence, his love of wordplay, and his love of rhyme at work in “Miss Hesitation” as he adapted “Hesitation Blues” to his own uses.
When we saw Jesse in Minneapolis in 2018 he talked about his struggle with Lyme Disease. He said that he had stopped touring and thought he had retired. Then he went to his son’s graduation from Berklee College of Music and heard his son’s band of classmates play. He was inspired to team up and take them on the road. This is the aggregation we saw at the Dakota (Tristan Young on bass, Donnie Hogue on drums, JennHwan Wong on keyboard, Jack Sheehan on sax, Aleif Hamdan on electric guitar, and Virginia Garcia-Alves and Sally Rose backing Jesse on vocals). The video below shows them live at Daryl’s House in 2017 playing Jesse’s medley of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and “Mercy Mercy Me.”
Jesse’s cover of “T-Bone Shuffle” first turned up on Song For Juli. He gave it a spirited workout with his son’s band as well. I remember the keyboard, the sax, and the lead guitar wailing on this song when we saw him in Minneapolis.
Check out Jesse’s site here. Let’s sign off with the 2021 video of Jesse’s cover of Van Morrison’s “These Dreams of You.”