As one half of male-female double-act Blackburn & Snow, Jeff Blackburn wrote and performed some of the most powerful and moving folk-infused rock to emanate from the West Coast in the mid-60s. On the eve of his memorial, Alec Palao pays tribute to one of many unsung heroes within the San Francisco Bay Area music scene.
The San Francisco rock meritocracy of the 1960s has often been likened to Camelot, with a high clique – cabale? – of eminent worthies and an expanded retinue of almost-but-not-quites. Amongst those many courtiers, there are some who truly deserve more attention and at this far remove, whose recorded legacy has an equal cachet to many if not most of the bigger acts. Such is the case with Blackburn & Snow, an appealing boy-girl duet with captivating harmonies, prescient in their rootsy excitement and knowing outlook. The essential elements of the sound were shared equally: the dulcet, crystal-clear pipes of Sherry Snow and the tremendous songcraft of Jeff Blackburn.
Born in Berkeley, California on August 18, 1945, by the time Jeff turned twelve, his mother had been married an incredible nine times - twice to his jazz musician father alone. Shunted as a child all over the country, by the mid-fifties Blackburn had finally settled in Bakersfield, California, and fired by the country music scene there, began to teach himself guitar. With the arrival of rock’n’roll, Blackburn graduated through several bands to play in the popular Bakersfield Rebels.
However, the young man’s rootlessness understandably saw him ditch the Central Valley before he had even finished high school, and Blackburn ended up hanging out at San Jose State as a self-proclaimed “road scholar”, where he encountered southern California native Sherry Snow - in his words, “a screaming blonde fox playing blues songs and accompanying herself on guitar, and somehow I got lucky enough to become her partner.” The couple eventually drifted apart, only to run into each other in San Francisco a year or so later. By now it was the summer of 1965, and the partnership became romantic as well as musical.
Somewhere in-between, Blackburn had unlocked a remarkable songwriting acumen, with a unique line in worldly, epigrammatic wordplay married to pungent musical themes that were completely in the vanguard of what was percolating through the Bay Area in the heady days of the nascent scene. When their voices coalesced in strident and soaring harmony, the newly minted Blackburn & Snow was a force to be reckoned with. Decamping across the Bay to Berkeley in late 1965, with only a handful of coffeehouse performances under their belt, the duo was signed to Trident Productions, helmed by Kingston Trio manager Frank Werber.
Their first recording, and eventual signature song, was ironically not one written by Jeff but an obscure cast-off from David Crosby that had been passed over for release by his own group, the Byrds. ‘Stranger In A Strange Land’ was a riff upon the heightened consciousness espoused in Robert Heinlein’s forward looking sci-fi novel of the same name, and perfectly in sync with the questing zeitgeist of the new generation. Cut with members of Trident’s successful folk-rockers We Five in January 1966, the dynamic ‘Stranger’ was intended as a single on a new label, SFO Records, but an imminent licensing deal with MGM-Verve delayed its release until a full year after the track’s recording. Needless to say, while the disc got favourable airplay, had it been issued at the time of recording, it would have been amongst the first yet most powerful statements to emerge from the local scene. As it was, ‘Stranger’ still came across as cutting-edge as contemporary rock had gotten by the start of 1967.
Prior to this, during 1966, as well as performances at alternative venues like the Avalon and the Matrix with a small group of players that included future Country Joe sticksman Chicken Hirsh, Trident had the pair hard at work in their basement Columbus Recorders cutting a swathe of Blackburn originals. The intention was a full album with the provisional title “Something Good For Your Head,” which would act as the flagship release for Trident’s MGM deal. While early sessions were encouraging, the pair did not truly find their sweet spot in the studio until producer Randy Sterling summoned some sessioneer acquaintances – the Candy Store Prophets - from Los Angeles to accompany Jeff and Sherry in November 1966. The results might be among some of the richest and most evocative moments in 1960s rock’n’roll – by turns, pensive and poignant, or wildly electrifying. The strident ‘Yes Today’ or rocking ‘It’s So Hard’, the rueful yet optimistic ‘Sure Or Sorry’ or the prescient country rock lilt of ‘Time’, Jeff Blackburn’s songs spoke fully to that moment, yet thanks to these recordings remain curiously timeless in their emotional appeal
With a solid album in the can, hopes were high on both the couple’s and Trident’s halves, but the failure of ‘Stranger’ to break through commercially set off a schism that would lead to a parting of the ways. The management wanted the singers and their band to follow the expected path of that era, with club residencies, road work and a more professional outlook, while Jeff and Sherry felt Trident lacked understanding of who they were and where they were coming from. All this coincided with Werber’s lack of ardour in dealing with the new breed of petulant young musician, and so he eventually let Blackburn & Snow out of their commitments. The duo’s live work in 1967 had included a spot at the KFRC Magic Mountain Festival, a Marin County precursor to Monterey Pop, and while there is no doubt Blackburn & Snow were a complete fit for the direction that West Coast pop was headed, they themselves had no desire to play the game required to get themselves there.
Jeff himself put it this way to me when we spoke in the late 1990s: “I remember a conference we had up in Frank’s office. Something along the lines of “are you guys ready to make the step to play in Vegas” and I replied that I didn’t think so. My head started going, this is not good, this is not the sixties acid generation music I am living and writing. The other thing was, I’ve always liked rockabilly and blues type of stuff. Sherry was so great at madrigal-variety singing that “hey girl, get funky” was easy to say but wasn’t that easy to do. I wanted to move away from that folk-rock style, and our communicative skills at that point were fading because the love was becoming uncomfortable. So we weren’t really talking and avidly seeking a path or a future. In fact, I was seeking an exit, and that song ‘Time’ says it all. I wanted out of town and out of the contract and out of the business.”
By the release of ‘Time’ in October 1967 Jeff and Sherry were no longer an act nor a couple. Snow would soon resurface as one of Dan Hicks’ earliest “Lickettes,” but Blackburn’s immediate movements were more obscure. He moved to the Santa Cruz area but essentially laid low for much of the early 1970s before a renewed visibility as the founder of the Ducks, a quartet featuring former Moby Grape bass player Bob Mosely, drummer John Craviatto, and area resident Neil Young. The group came together in a delightfully organic fashion and became a sensation at Santa Cruz clubs in the summer of 1977, but what should have been a re-birth for Jeff’s creativity dissipated when Young lost interest after a couple of months, and sadly the project today seems only considered as an adjunct to Neil Young’s own career (Blackburn did however receive co-writer credit on Young’s future staple ‘My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)’.
Jeff would remain in the Santa Cruz area for the rest of his life, eventually finding a proper live outlet in an ad-hoc outfit called Buck & The Odds (“Buck” being his preferred nickname). This group was a regular local attraction until just a few years ago, and Blackburn was a much-respected part of the Santa Cruz music scene throughout his later years. His unfortunate passing on January 5th of this year marks the departure of a truly noteworthy talent.
On a personal level, for many years, my knowledge of the music of Blackburn & Snow came from those two singles, and from a cassette of excerpts from the unreleased Trident album that made the rounds in the early 80s. Yet it was the muffled but clearly discernible magic I could hear on these snippets that became in large part my impetus for tracking down Frank Werber. And it was my great pleasure to discover in his vault not just the masters for those aberrant jewels, but a selection of further material that further impressed upon me the special place that Blackburn & Snow reside in the pop music firmament.
In preparation for the Big Beat release of the Trident recordings in 1999, I got in touch with Ms Snow, who as a follower of Subud, was now known as Halimah, and a wonderful human being who shared my enthusiasm for the project. Although she had not seen Blacky, as she still referred to him, for many years, through mutual friends Halimah was able to track Jeff down in Santa Cruz. Cordial if bemused at my intense interest in his baby pictures, so to speak, when we met, it was obvious Jeff had been through a lot in his life, with a fair share of hard times. Not unexpectedly, the distant past was not a place he cared to revisit much but he still had a twinkle in his eye as he and I and Halimah discussed their time at Trident. At the end of the evening, Jeff picked up his guitar, and for about fifteen minutes I was treated to an unexpected Blackburn & Snow recital, which I was later to learn was the first time they had sung together in a quarter century, so it was a moment laden with emotion. Jeff and Halimah sang together on one further occasion a decade later at the launch of an exhibit I was involved with in San Francisco, this time with an appreciative audience in attendance. Listening back to the tape of that first private audience, and hearing again the sparks that flew between the two singers on tunes like ‘Some Days I Feel Your Lovin’’, is a timely reminder of how an artist like Jeff Blackburn has no need of commercial credential to justify their importance. He was just great.
A private service for Jeff Blackburn will take place in Soquel, California on Saturday March 25th 2023.