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Young Jessie Remembered

It was with dismay that we at Ace learned yesterday of Young Jessie’s passing. A superb singer and songwriter in the 1950’s R&B vein, he was also a highly accomplished pianist who made a living as a solo jazz pianist/vocalist, as well as with his own bands, the Obie Jessie Combo and the Obie Jessie Trio, playing club dates from the 1960s until recently.

Young Jessie was born Obediah Donnell Jessie in 1936, just outside Dallas, Texas. His mother Melinda was a talented pianist who was a distant relative of the great Texas bluesman, Blind Lemon Jefferson. Obie inherited his mother’s musical genes and was taught to play piano by her as a child.

Young Jessie moved with his family to Los Angeles in 1946, where his mother took him to concerts by artists including Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton and Count Basie. In 1950 Obie returned to Texas with his mother when his grandmother became ill and while there he played in a high school band which included David ‘Fathead’ Newman. Returning to Los Angeles, he continued his studies at Jefferson High School, where he studied music and in his early teens got involved with the burgeoning South Los Angeles vocal group scene, working with  Leon Hughes, Richard Berry, Arthur Lee Maye, Cornell Gunter and Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson, among others, in groups such as the Debonaires, the Flairs and the Hollywood Blue Jays.

He made his first record aged 16 as a member of the Hollywood Blue Jays with his own composition ["I Had A Love" - Recorded In Hollywood 396] before signing with Modern Records in 1953 as a member of the Flairs. In 1953 he also signed a contract with producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and in January 1954 his first solo release [“I Smell A Rat” / Lonesome Desert”] was released on Modern 921. For this release, Obie adopted the name Young Jessie, as he was worried that because of his deep baritone, people would think that he was much older than he was and he figured that the ‘Young’ moniker would be more suitable for the rock’n’roll market.

In 1955 he wrote and recorded the single ‘Mary Lou’(Modern 961), backed by the Jacks, which incredibly failed to chart, even in the Cashbox charts. ‘Mary Lou’ of course is Jessie’s best-known song and has subsequently been covered by dozens of artists, including Ronnie Hawkins, the Steve Miller Band, Bob Seger, Frank Zappa and Gene Clark.

In 1956, he cut another classic rocker ‘Hit, Git And Split’ (Modern 1002), recorded in New York with an all-star backing group including guitarist Mickey Baker. He also cut some sides as a session singer with the Coasters in 1957 (including harmony vocals on ‘Searchin’’ and ‘Young Blood’). Another significant record was the single ‘Shuffle In the Gravel’, again produced by Leiber and Stoller, on the Atco label in 1957.

Jessie continued making records without success through the early Sixties, recording for Atlantic, Capitol, Vanessa, Mercury and even trying Bossa Nova with a 1964 release, ‘Young Jessie Bossa Nova’ on the Los Angeles indy Bit label, now a very hard-to-find disc. In 1966 he cut an obscure single, ‘Hard Working Girl’, with the Clarence Daniels Band for the Modern subsidiary Affiliated 45 label and this has recently been discovered and re-released by Ace Records on the Kent Select label (City 036). During the rest of the 1960s and early 1970s, he worked club dates as a jazz pianist, cutting unreleased material for Jake Porter and Harvey Fuqua. In 1972, he recorded a single as Obie Jessie Seeds Of Freedom for Stone Dogg Records.

In 1976 he became musical director for Esther Philips and she included 2 of his compositions “The Man Ain’t Ready” and “Pie In The Sky” on her 1978 Mercury LP “ALL ABOUT”. Obie was invited to tour and record as a jazz artist in Germany in 1982 and it was just after this that I was introduced to him in Los Angeles.

The following year in 1983 he spent a week in London, which included a sensational appearance at a concert I promoted at The Electric Ballroom in Camden Town. He stole the show from an all star bill of vintage R&B performers, Big Jay McNeely, Chuck Higgins and Willie Egans, with a dynamic set featuring many of his classic recordings including “Mary Lou”, “Don’t Matter No More’ and “I Smell A Rat”. Obie eventually moved with his family from Los Angeles to Atlanta, where he continued working as a jazz pianist in clubs. he later released several jazz albums, including ‘What Happened to Junior’. (1995), ‘Here’s To Life’ (2002), and ‘New Atmosphere’(2009).

Following his success in 1983 at the Electric Ballroom show, he was regularly invited to star in various rock’n’roll / Fifties R&B shows in the US as well as in the UK and Europe. Obie Jessie was a true original, a talented  singer, writer and musician, whose unique R&B records will never be forgotten.

Born 28 December 1936 ~ Died 27th April 2020.


Ted Carroll

Selected releases