Interview by Danny Coleman
“I stopped playing for six years and well, that didn’t work out too well,” said Jesse Colin Young, founder of the iconic 60’s group The Youngbloods with a laugh. “I had some health issues, turns out I had Lyme Disease and I didn’t know it and it was really a struggle. I was on thin ice there for a while and wasn’t sure if I’d ever be strong enough to get back out there but so far we’ve done quite a few shows and things are going well.”
Born in Queens, NY to a violinist mother and a father who enjoyed classical music, Young had procured a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school in Massachusetts at the age of 15. Unfortunately, things didn’t pan out as imagined but he credits the experience with aiding his career as well as giving him some definition.
“I got thrown out of that school for playing guitar,” he chuckled. I had always thought of myself as a singer songwriter but as music had gotten better, jazzier, I began to morph into my own style and sound. Then someone from Australia interviewed me and during the interview said they felt that American music was shutting out the Aussies. Believe it or not, Australia has many diverse music styles from Blues to Celtic to the tribal sounds, many of which made their way here to the States. I think that Celtic Blues spawned rock ‘n’ roll and that mixture of them, Delta Blues and country music all come together and what you get is Americana and I think I fall in there somewhere (Laughs).”
With 17 solo or Youngbloods recordings under his belt, Young, who overcame his expulsion to become a graduate of Pennsbury High School in Fairless, Pennsylvania has left an indelible mark in music for more than five decades. After forming The Youngbloods circa 1964 and unknowingly becoming part of one of the most turbulent eras in our country’s history; Jesse now looks back fondly on his coming of age. “You know, as a young man I’d listen to music, Doo-wop was first thing I remember listening to on the radio. Before Alan Freed there was a DJ named Symphony Sid who featured a lot of black Be-bop artists, man I’d turn my radio on and leave it on all night, I’d fall asleep to the music. Then Elvis came along and set the music world on its ear and we all were listening to that Memphis style country blues mix. It was a big transition for us when Elvis left and went to Hollywood and Frankie Avalon took over the air waves. A lot of us school aged kids wondered where the grit that Elvis had went; the sound wasn’t the same. We found that grit in old recordings from the 1930’s and ’40’s in roots music; white Celtic black blues music; that influenced a whole bunch of us.”
Young found himself in the middle of the Greenwich Village folk scene when he formed the band and in 1969 the re-release of the Chet Powers/Dino Valenti tune, “Get Together” propelled the group to heights it hadn’t yet seen. Opening for acts such as Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, CSNY and more, The Youngbloods had reached commercial success. “That was a very exciting time to be part of all of that,” he stated with enthusiasm. “To perform to those big audiences, that was a lot of fun but it could sometimes be very intimidating. The size of those crowds could get to you a little bit. We were used to playing much, much smaller places. We started small but what a great way to reach a lot of people at one time; I prefer smaller (laughs).”
The fall of 2016 saw Jesse begin to re-release some of his past material as well as begin to record again; he credits the current vibe and climate of our country and his son as part of his current inspiration. “Well, in the broad way of thinking, I think my country needs me right now. I think we do need to get together and learn from each other and stop the nonsense. I went to my son’s graduation from Berklee and he did a recital with this fine group of musicians, that was dangerous for me to attend because I got the itch again (laughs). So we put a band of him, his friends and myself together and went down to SXSW. I’ll tell ya’, these young people, these millennials, they give me great hope and these kids are so talented that I was just so excited to be back out there. They lit a fire inside me again and I’m really enjoying it again. My son was at Berklee during the Boston Marathon bombing and I remember the stress of trying to get through to him to make sure that he was alright. Things like that are all over the place and we can’t predict what or where it happens next, there’s no real single thread. So I wrote a song about it called, “Cast A Stone,” it’s very strong, very emotional. Being of Irish and Scottish descent, I hear bagpipes and I get a tear in my eye (Laughs), this song does that.”
With an eye to the future, Young still relishes his past and enjoys how the two often unite at his performances. “It never ceases to amaze me how generations have enjoyed my songs. “Get Together,” whenever I play it I feel like I’m in church because it’s such a beautiful song and always one of my favorites to do. My favorite part of the show is when the audience sings the verses and the chorus back to me. Being part of that ’60’s generation, that song embodies the dream of the entire movement. Bringing people together to love one another, stop the war in Viet Nam; it was all that was in our hearts then and now as parents of a new generation, it’s all that we can ever hope for.”
A personal tragedy played a huge role in Young’s life as a raging forest fire destroyed his California home but rather than wilt from the heat, he turned a negative into a positive. “When the house burned down we were devastated. We lost nearly everything but the saving grace was that all was reduced to a foot tall pile of ash except my recording studio. Somehow it survived but here we were with two small kids and our lives in ruin. Fortunately I owned a small home in Hawaii so we were able to move there; the whole thing was very traumatic for the family. I felt very lucky to have that home, so we made the move. About two or three years prior to that happening I had started to grow coffee plants. Suddenly I had a few acres of coffee plants and now I’m a coffee farmer (Laughs). It’s “Jesse Colin Young’s Coffee Farm” and we enjoy it. I never set out to be a coffee farmer but…”
As his voice trailed off, Young returned to the present and spoke glowingly of performing with his son and his, “Younger” band. He relayed the thrill of sharing a stage with their youthful approach and fresh outlook towards his and music in general and also hoping to be part of a milestone celebration. “I enjoy working with them so much. They are extremely talented. I’m hoping to resolve some issues and be part of the, “50th Anniversary Summer of Love Concert” but we’ll see how that goes. I also plan on doing more writing and recording, I’m inspired.”
With a slew of sold out shows already in the books, Young has dates on the west coast beginning in June then heads east to Virginia and back across the the U.S. and then will crisscross the country through the first week of November 2017 before taking some time off.
To discover more about Jesse Colin Young, the tour, the coffee and more, please go to www.jessecolinyoung.com.
Danny Coleman (Danny Coleman is a veteran musician and writer from central New Jersey. He hosts a weekly radio program entitled “Rock On Radio” airing Sunday evenings at 10 p.m. EST on multiple internet radio outlets where he features indie/original bands and solo artists.)