JESSE COLIN YOUNG
The Thrilling Return of A ‘60s Icon ~ “Come Touch the Stone”
Our exclusive interview with singer/songwriter Jesse Colin Young
Words : TK Smith
After years of spotty touring, 68-year old Jesse Colin Young is hitting the road once again. This November 2010 will see he and his four-piece band doing several Northern California dates including Cache Creek Resort Sunday, November 7. “I’m easing back into it,” says Young from his South Carolina home, “I’ve been suffering with Lyme disease for quite a while. I lived out in Point Reyes, California (50 miles north of San Francisco) for 20 years and I’m sure I’ve been bitten by ticks a ton of times.” It was after finding a random leaflet on Lyme disease that he recognized symptoms relating to his health, which led him to a skilled specialist. “I’ve been seeing a wonderful doctor for a couple years now,” continues Young, “and all of a sudden I got my energy back so I thought I’d try it out on the road.”
Jesse Colin Young was born Perry Miller in Queens, New York. He attended school with Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, striking up a friendship with Garfunkel while exploring a wide range of music from Classical to New Orleans Rag. Dropping out of prep school, he made his way to New York City where he got turned on to the music of T-Bone Walker, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. It was while playing in the Greenwich Village folk scene that he was spotted by producer Bobby Scott who secured a record deal with Capitol records for Young’s folk debut Soul of a City Boy (1964). A second album followed a year later on Mercury titled, Young Blood (1965) featuring John Sebastian (later to form hit makers The Lovin’ Spoonful). Neither record fared well outside folk circles. Young’s fortunes changed when he met guitarist Jerry Corbett on the New York to Boston club circuit.
“Jerry and I became quick friends,” says Young. “We both had a similar interest in music and I admired him as a musician.” The two billed themselves as the “Youngbloods” performing on the Canadian circuit with Young on guitar/bass and Corbitt on piano, harmonica and lead guitar. Along the way they recruited bluegrass virtuoso Lowell “Banana” Levinger and aspiring jazz drummer Joe Bauer. After a year as the house band for New York’s famed Café Au GoGo and playing with B.B. King, Joni Mitchell and The Blue Project, they signed with RCA and recorded The Youngbloods (1967) with producer Felix Pappalardi (Cream, Mountain). “The record company never knew what to do with us,” says Young. “We wanted to be seen as folk rock; they wanted us as some bubblegum band.” The label issued lead-in track “Grizzly Bear” as a single completely ignoring “Get Together.” Two more records followed, Earth Music (1967) with Pappalardi again and the critically acclaimed Elephant Mountain (1969) produced by Charlie Daniels (“Devil Went Down to Georgia”) with the Vietnam War anthem “Darkness, Darkness” featuring David Lindley (Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon).
Says Young, “At the time Charlie Daniels was working for Bob Johnston (Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan), had short hair and a three-piece polyester suit. I loved the way Johnston worked with Simon and Garfunkel. He wasn’t really interested in doing The Youngbloods so he sent Charlie.” In the spring of ’69 “Get Together” was resurrected in the now famous NCCJ public service announcement. The song exploded selling a millions of copies. The band were invited to perform on the Johnny Carson Show with a viewing audience of everyone with a TV. During the pre-show soundcheck they were asked to cut “Darkness” from their set and only play “Get Together”. They walked off the show. 32 years later, after 9/11 “Get Together” was circulated by Clear Channel Communications on a list of “lyrically questionable” songs. “Sometimes we rubbed people the wrong way,” says Young. “I did a TV show with Neil Diamond. We were asked why we write songs. To me, it was always about the soul. He said it was to ‘make money.’ That was about it for me.”
In 1971 Jesse Colin Young left the Youngbloods to return to a solo career. “Warner Brother records was the biggest label at the time,” recalls Young. “So, I signed with them.” Together (1972) never cracked the Top 100 but the more personal; Song for Juli (1973) struck a chord with audiences. Young’s soothing timbre, melodic storytelling and Country Cajon elements put him alongside contemporaries Van Morrison, Don McLean, and James Taylor. The retrospective Light Shine (1974), biographical Songbird (1975) and live On the Road (1976) kept Young in Billboard’s Top 40 for three solid years. “It was a time where we had this lovely renaissance of sounds,” says Young, “before things got so homogenized. I listened to jazz for 15 years, so between that and my love of blues and folk music, it all just came out. A lot of bands were pushing different sounds; we were all listening to the same old records. You can hear it in The Doobie Brothers, the harmonies and flute of Firefall and Marshall Tucker, the country rock of the Eagles, Jackson Browne, and The Flying Burrito Brothers. It was during that time I realized the other voice is musical texture like the flute, saxophone and percussion - something unique, but simple.
During the late seventies and eighties Young’s popularity fluctuated through passing trends. Much of his music was written and recorded at his Ridge Top Studio in Point Reyes, California. In 1995 his home next to the studio was burned to the ground in the Ridge Top Fire. “It was devastating,” says Young. “We lost everything; paintings, photographs, my Youngbloods’ Danelectro bass, my wife’s cherished violins. Miraculously the studio itself was saved from the fire because it was built in a gully. We fled to our house in Hawaii to get our bearings. We ended up staying for ten years and starting a Waldorf school for our kids.” Fortunately all Young solo masters were saved from the fire. “It turns out tape is the most durable, long term storage medium,” he says. “Some of those tapes were forty years old but after putting them through a literal baking process I remastered and reissued Song for Juli, Light Shine and Songbird that people can purchase from my website.”
Currently, Young splits his time between acoustic trio and full band gigs. “Up in New England we’ve been trying out a few acoustic shows. No drums or loud guitars. Vito Truglio, a multi-instrumentalist that we met in Hawaii plays bass and guitar while my wife Connie plays electric violin and sings harmonies. We started playing together to help raise money for a Waldorf school in Kona, Hawaii. Mike Frost (bass) and Mike West (drums) join us when we do the full band, like the upcoming gigs in Northern California. Though Young never returned to live at the Ridge Top and the house was never rebuilt, he still celebrates the music created there. “It had a peace to it,” he says, “I get a similar feeling here in Aiken, South Carolina where we live now. I’m inspired by this place and I have been working on some new tunes. This is a great place to sit out on the porch rocking chair and strum the guitar.”
The set list for Jesse Colin Young and his band reach as far back as “Four in the Morning” from his first record Soul of a City Boy (it’s also on The Youngblood’s first album) through popular favorites “Darkness, Darkness,” “Ridge Top,” “Light Shine,” and “Gray Day” with Youngblood favorites “Sunlight,” and “Get Together.” In addition they feature Young’s internet hit “Bring ‘Em Home” with a couple freshly penned gems as a treat. “People who come out to see us still believe in the dream. I hope my music encourages people to love things, enjoy beauty and to seek beauty in their own lives. To touch the stone and maybe for a brief time reinvigorate that feeling of hope we had in the sixties.”
Website: Jesse Colin Young