Last summer I saw Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore in concert before I had a chance to listen to their Downey to Lubbock album, and I was pretty surprised when they pulled out an artifact from the ’60s, well known as a hit for The Youngbloods. The late Chet Powers (aka Dino Valenti) was a folk musician who played on both sides of the country, and sometime around 1963 he wrote “Let’s Get Together,” which eventually lost the first word to its title. Over the next few years it was covered by a number of groups including The Kingston Trio, Jefferson Airplane, Dave Clark Five, H.P. Lovecraft, and We Five.
In late 1966 The Youngbloods recorded the song, but it wasn’t until two years later that it was picked up to be used in a series of television and radio commercials promoting brotherhood, which launched it into the top ten and to the status of generational anthem. But it was their next album that was recorded and released in 1967, titled Earth Music, that caught my attention, and primarily because of this song.
“Sugar Babe” still jumps out of my speakers today with a crisp vocal by bass player and lead singer Jesse Colin Young and great pedal steel playing from Lowell “Banana” Levinger. On my first listen it was as if someone pumped steroids into a folk song while mainlining blues, jug band, country, and rock. Along with The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Youngbloods were among the early adopters on the East Coast to swap out their acoustics for electric, and I played that album to death, as well as the follow-up that came out two years later, Elephant Mountain.
By 1965 Young had already released two solo albums — The Soul of a City Boy and Young Blood— before hooking up with Jerry Corbitt, who came out of the bluegrass scene, such as it was back then for a 22-year-old kid. They kicked around clubs in New England and Canada as a duo before adding Banana, who at 19 was already accomplished in playing banjo, bass, guitar, mandola, mandolin, and piano and skilled in multiple genres. With Joe Bauer joining the band on drums, they became the house band at Greenwich Village’s Cafe Au Go Go and were soon signed by RCA Victor Records.
Earth Music featured about a half-dozen original songs and also covers of songs by Chuck Berry, The Holy Modal Rounders, and Tim Hardin. It was produced by Felix Pappalardi, another Village folk musician who transitioned to the soundboards in the studio. After working with Joan Baez and The Youngbloods, Pappalardi went to England and produced the second Cream album, Disraeli Gears,and wrote their hit “Strange Brew” with his wife, Gail Collins, and Eric Clapton.
Meanwhile, back in the USA, Earth Music got great reviews but little airplay and didn’t even come close to the expected sales potential. Just before they recorded Elephant Mountain, Jerry Corbitt left to pursue a solo career and the rest of the band moved to Marin County in Northern California. They began to expand their sound into a more country vibe, and also experimented with improvisational jazz with Banana stretching out on the keyboards.
In 1970 the aforementioned “Sugar Babe” from Earth Music became a relatively minor, but international, hit when it was included in the soundtrack to Zabriskie Point. The film was an overwhelming commercial failure that has morphed into a cult classic, and the music is the epitome of diversity, with Jerry Garcia, Pink Floyd, Patti Page, David Lindley, Roscoe Holcomb, and John Fahey.
This year Banana has been out on tour with Little Steven And The Disciples Of Soul. Jesse Colin Young has been living on his coffee plantation in Hawaii for many years, and he still occasionally tours. Joe Bauer passed away from a brain tumor in 1982, and Jerry Corbitt died of lung cancer in Texas in 2014. The Youngbloods are one of those “gateway” pre-Americana bands whose music not only still stands up well over time, but has aged to near perfection.
Many of my past columns, articles, and essays can be accessed at my own site, therealeasyed.com. I also aggregate news and videos on both Flipboard and Facebook as The Real Easy Ed: Americana and Roots Music Daily. My Twitter handle is @therealeasyed and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.