Born Obediah Donnell Jessie, 28 December 1936, Lincoln Manor, Texas
Young Jessie embodies the primal blend of R & B and rock 'n' roll. Though he never scored a national hit, he has succeeded in making a living out of music for the past 55 years and is still active today. Obie, as he likes to be called, was born in a suburb of Dallas. His father, James Jessie, was a cook and had no musical accomplishments, while his mother, Melinda Harris (nicknamed Plunky) was a housewife who confined her piano playing to home and church. She taught Obie how to play ukelele and piano. In 1946, the Jessie family relocated to Los Angeles, where Melinda exposed Obie to jazz concerts by the greats of the day (Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton a.o.). After Obie's grandmother became ill in 1950, he and his mother returned to Dallas, where he began his study of music (piano and sax) and joined the high school band. He completed his education at Jefferson High in Los Angeles where he met Johnny Watson and Richard Berry. With the latter and three others, Jessie formed a vocal group, as yet unnamed, who auditioned for John Dolphin. They recorded their first single ("I Had A Love", written by Jessie) in 1953 for Dolphin's Recorded In Hollywood label. Dolphin credited them as The Hollywood Blue Jays, a name he had previously used for another gospel-oriented group. "We were pretty dissatisfied and thought We gotta get ourselves a real record company", says Obie. That company was Modern/RPM Records, run by the Bihari brothers. Their first record for the label was a remake of "I Had A Love". The Biharis dubbed the group The Flairs and put them on their new subsidiary label Flair. For the story of the Flairs see http://www.rockabilly.nl/references/messages/flairs.htm
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller pulled Obie out of the Flairs in 1954 and became the producers of his solo recordings for Modern, the first of which was a cover of Big Mama Thornton's "I Smell A Rat". From now on he was credited as "Young Jessie". Obie : "It came about because I sounded like I was forty, like ancient for a boy of 17. I had this deep baritone voice and the Biharis wanted me to get close to the rock 'n' roll market. I could have called myself Obie Jessie but I didn't want people to think I was old."
Jessie's biggest seller was "Mary Lou", released in June 1955, with vocal participation by Dub Jones (the deep voice in the chorus) and possibly also other members of the Cadets. It did very well on the West Coast and in Texas and was successfully revived by Ronnie Hawkins in 1959 (# 26 pop). "Mary Lou" has also been recorded by Bob Seger, Frank Zappa, Steve Miller and many others. But my personal favourite from the Modern period is the torrid rocker "Hit Git And Split", cut in 1956 in New York City, with fuse-blowing guitar licks by Mickey Baker. "Hit Git And Split" was co-written by Buck Ram (by then Jessie's manager), under the pseudonym of Lynn Paul. The flip, the overtly sexist "Don't Happen No More", was just as powerful. From the same NYC session came "Pretty Soon", again with stunning guitar work by Baker, which was inexplicably held in the can until the tape was discovered in Nashville by Ray Topping (of Ace Records in the UK) in 1987.
Fed up by the co-writing credits that the Biharis gave themselves (as "Ling" and "Josea"), Jessie left Modern at the end of 1956. He continued to work with Leiber and Stoller, who employed Obie's harmony vocals on two sessions by the Coasters, most notably on "Searchin'" and "Young Blood". Obie never was a member of the Coasters, though (contrary to what has often been written) and did not appear with them in public. Leiber and Stoller also produced Obie's only session for Atco/Atlantic, on June 18, 1957, with a stellar L.A. session crew that included Plas Johnson, Earl Palmer, Ernie Freeman and Barney Kessel. This yielded the splendid coupling "Shuffle In the Gravel"/"Make Believe" (Atco 6101) and the somewhat less convincing "Margie"/"That's Enough For Me" (Atlantic 2003, autumn 1958), plus two unissued tracks. After hard-edged rock 'n' roll had gone out of fashion, Jessie was unsure about his musical direction. He recorded jazz for Capitol (1959), Coasters styled novelties for Mercury (1961-62) and soul ballads for the Vanessa label (1963), all to no commercial avail.
>From 1964 to 1991 Obie became a familiar face to the supper club venue with his Obie Jessie Trio, which mainly played jazz. He was musical director for Esther Phillips from 1976 until 1981. In 1982 he made his first trip to Europe and recorded jazz in Germany. The next year he was an important participant in the "R & B Jamboree" that Ace Records staged at London's Electric Ballroom in Camden Town. On the same bill were Chuck Higgins, Willie Egan and Big Jay McNeely. Obie astonished the audience with a charismatic performance. That powerhouse baritone had lost none of its authority. His most recent CD (January 2009) is "New Atmosphere", credited to Obie Jassie, on the Jazz Family label. Like "Here's To Life" (2002) and "What Happened To Jr." (1995), it is pure jazz.
Sources / acknowledgements / further reading:
- Bill Millar, Sleeve notes for the LP "Shuffle In the Gravel" (Mr R&B 1004, released in 1986). Includes "Make Believe" which has never been reissued on CD.
- Ray Topping, Liner notes for Ace 607 (see below).
- Obie's official website at http://obiejessie.com/ With a discography by Pete Hoppula.
- Stuart Colman, Repeating Echoes With Young Jessie. In : Now Dig This, issue 208 (July 2000), page 13-16.
CD : Young Jessie, I'm Gone . The Legendary Modern Recordings. 21 tracks from 1953-1956. Released in 1995 on Ace 607.
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