Young Jessie

I Smell A RatModern 45X921
Mary LouModern 45X961
Don’t Think I WillModern 45X961
Hit, Git And SplitModern 45X1002
Don’t Happen No MoreModern 45X1002
Shuffle In The GravelAtco 45-6101
Brown Eyes (Come On Home)Vanessa V101
Too Fine For Cryin’Mercury 72104
You Were Meant For MeMercury 72146
Hard Working GirlAffiliated 45 45X6612



Young Jessie playlist



Contributor: Dave Stephens … with assistance from Cal Taylor

Rock and Roll and its immediate precursor and ongoing soulmate, Rhythm and Blues, were driven initially by independent labels. Almost inevitably with the forces of conservatism controlling the majors, the presence of such indies, usually with hustling businessmen driving them, and taking risks with their musical output, was essential for breakthroughs to occur.

The big ones, Sun and later Stax (both in Memphis), Atlantic (in New York) and Chess (in Chicago) are now household names. Others aren’t. In particular, that grouping of labels that were formed in Los Angeles after the Second World War to address the burgeoning music scene there are almost as important as Sun etc., particularly to a black audience. Most significant are the trio of Specialty, Imperial and Modern. Specialty had Little Richard. Imperial had Fats Domino. Modern may be the least well-known of the three but it was the earliest established. It was formed by the Bihari brothers, Joe, Jules and Saul in 1945 and, with its subsidiary RPM, had Lightnin’ Hopkins, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, the early Howlin’ Wolf, the early Bobby Bland and . . . Young Jessie.

The last-named is anything but a household name. I suspect that upwards of 90% of such musically informed people as Toppermost readers have never heard of him. And he’s not to be confused with Jesse Belvin who was also L.A. based in the fifties and also recorded for Modern (and Specialty).

“(The name) 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.” (That’s according to Jessie himself as reported in his Wiki write-up and most, if not all, other write-ups on him.)

Did he have any hits? No, but his second solo single, the self-penned Mary Lou, released in 1955, should have achieved that recognition. (If you look it up and find a “Ling” after the “Jessie”, don’t worry; that was just the name the relevant Bihari brother took in order to pick up a share of any composer credit – unfortunately this was almost a standard practice in those days.)

Ronnie Hawkins had a minor hit with the song when he belatedly came out with his version four or so years later. According to the excellent Topper on Ronnie from Peter Viney, Ronnie retained the number in his act for years. To quote Peter: “Not only are many of Ronnie’s best songs covers, but some, like Young Jessie’s Mary Lou were done many times over the years”.

Take a listen and then tell me that this wasn’t hit material. Once that bass voice joins in on the chorus, you’re hooked:

Hawkins wasn’t the only person to cover Mary Lou. Others included Buddy Knox (prior to Hawkins), Billy Lee Riley, the Steve Miller Band, Bob Seger, Gene Clark and (perhaps less surprising) Frank Zappa. Jessie came out with an alternative version eight years later on the flip side of his final single for Mercury. With Jack Nitzsche on board as arranger, it was a decent record, but perhaps lacking some of the joie de vivre of the original.

Joie de vivre is a good overall term for much of Jessie’s Modern output. While there were rare, but acceptable, sides like Nothing Seems Right which virtually defined soul blues well before anyone dreamed of putting those two nouns together, the bulk of his output for the label was squarely aimed at the dance floor. Record numero uno for Modern, I Smell A Rat, had originally been cut by Big Mama Thornton but it was the song’s writers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who persuaded the Biharis to let them produce a version of it with Jessie at the mike which subsequently saw release very shortly after the original. The name “Young Jessie” was born at this juncture.

I have three other selections from Jessie’s Modern period though there could easily have been more. What’s noticeable about all three (and most of the Modern tracks) is that the sound of the band often assumes equal importance to that of Jessie. While one might have thought that a black band in this timeframe would have still been producing jump blues, in fact the sound we hear is closer to rock and roll, that is, the rock and roll of, say, Little Richard (helped by Bumps Blackwell); it’s the sort of thing that Bill Haley tried to emulate but came off distinctly second best. And there are two good reasons for the “Young Jessie sound”: first Leiber & Stoller were pushing him in the direction of “this new music”, and second, the arranger and band leader responsible was Maxwell Davis. I waxed lyrical about that gent in the Topper on Percy Mayfield – I counted and there were nine references to him in that document. What he generated for Percy was elegant miserabilia but what he came up with for Jessie could have been the heights of hedonism. Let’s let the music talk for itself:

Don’t Think I Will (the flip to Mary Lou) – note the vocal emulation of a bass plus other doowop attributes.


Hit, Git And Split – both this one and the next came from a session held in New York with a suitably raucous Mickey Baker (of Mickey & Sylvia) on guitar and Sam “The Man” Taylor on sax.


Don’t Happen No More – the flip to Hit, Git And Split and one that seems to arouse as much interest, in part because of Jesse’s lyrics.


Jessie left Modern somewhere around the end of ˈ56 and the start of ˈ57. Dik de Heer in his excellent TIMS essay on Jessie states: “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 cut a couple of singles for Atlantic/Atco and the first, the self-penned Shuffle In The Gravel, produced by Leiber & Stoller, can’t be ignored; the title alone warrants attention. This is what it sounded like and I can tell you in advance, that the title refers to a new dance. Of the other Atlantic sides, two are revamped oldies and the last, That’s Enough For Me, has a vaguely pre-soul sound but there’s nothing too distinctive about it.

From Atlantic it was on to Capitol where he cut one single which coupled Lula-Belle with The Wrong Door. The tracks offer easy listening, jazz and latin to greater or lesser degrees. Nothing wrong with them but nothing distinctive either – those words again. After Capitol was Vanessa Records, (also L.A. based) with Make Me Feel A Little Good c/w Brown Eyes (Come On Home). Both have (Jessie, Rogers, Douglas) as writers but given that Johnny Rogers was the band leader and Walter Douglas was the label owner, I suspect that Jessie did most of the writing. According to Bill Millar – see footnote #1 – Jessie was also the producer. I strongly like both of these sides but there’s such a similarity that I felt that choosing both would be OTT. I ended up plumping for Brown Eyes on the basis that it had more going on (including a riff). You could attach the description, slow or slowish minor key soul to both but it’s not overly helpful.


Mercury followed Vanessa and one has to say that they tried harder than their forebears; four discs were released between 1961 and 1963. The first pair were unexceptional novelty affairs so, other than mentioning Bumps Blackwell who was instrumental in getting Mercury to take Jessie (info from Bill Millar), I’m skipping forward to single #3 and its flip side, Too Fine For Cryin’ which was produced by Lester Sill & Steve Douglas and arranged by Jack Nitzsche. Now this is a soul ballad. Originally written and recorded by Earl Bostic (with Bill Jones on vocal) in ˈ57, with a later version i.e. after the Jessie release, coming from Charles Brown in December ˈ63. Arranger Nitzsche on Jessie’s single was obviously familiar with the original judging by the fact that a fiery sax leads into the record in just the same way that Bostic himself introduced his song. Pleasingly, too, the quality of the Jessie version is at least up to that of its predecessor and the Brown take. To these ears, it betters them. Why oh why couldn’t anyone have recorded more from Jessie in this mode? Judging by this track, he was born to it.


The A-side of Jessie’s fourth Mercury platter, You Were Meant For Me (another self-penned effort), may not have had quite the intensity of Too Fine For Cryin’ but it made up for that by added punch and was certainly on the right track suggesting that Sill, Douglas & Nitzsche had got the message. Unfortunately, Mercury hadn’t, since they let Jessie go after its release. This is You Were Meant For Me.

Further experimentation followed. 1964 saw the release (on Bit Records) of Young Jessie Bossa Nova (Part 1) / Young Jessie Bossa Nova (Part 2) which we’re informed, via its label, was “Done Live From The Soul Club” with the Jerry Long Orchestra though one of the 45cat commentators remarks that the live atmosphere is more likely faked. No disagreement there. In addition, rather than coming up with what it says on the tin it’s trying to be a funk-cum-disco number with a latin overlay.

A much better attempt to move Jessie into the funk arena came in 1972. Who’s The Blame was cut for Ro-Mark Records but got picked up by Jerry Williams aka Swamp Dogg and released on his Stone Dogg label. It was attributed to Obe Jessie & Seeds Of Freedom – note the spelling, “Obe” rather than “Obie” – if you key in Obie Jessie to 45cat you won’t find it. Jessie’s lyrics on the plug side wouldn’t appear on a record these days – see footnotes for more.

I’ve jumped ahead and ignored the fact that a single was released on the Affiliated 45 label in 1966, attributed to Clarence Daniels And Obie Jessie. It coupled Hard Working Girl and I’ve Got My Walkin’ Papers. Both are jazz blues of the finger-snapping variety and the A-side is my final Top Ten track. Think of it as a-little-less-young Jessie in Tony Bennett mode. The track could have been representative of his work in a club environment in that time frame. He had reverted to using Obie Jessie as his stage name, Clarence Daniels was the band leader and the pair shared writing credit.


Jessie died on the 27th April 2020.

Ace UK Records have a tribute to him on their site which starts in the following manner:

“It was with dismay that we at Ace learned yesterday of Young Jessie’s passing. A superb singer and songwriter in the 1950s 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.”

Most, if not all, of us folk who produce these Toppermosts do so in order to tell readers (and listeners) about artists we love. I’d go further on this one. Jessie should have been a star.




1. Obediah “Obie” Donmell Jessie was born on the 28th December 1936 in Lincoln Manor, a suburb of Dallas, Texas. However, in 1946, the Jessie family moved to Los Angeles where his mother Malinda, who was musical, took him to performances by some of the jazz greats who appeared there. Malinda played piano and she taught the young Obie to play both that instrument and the ukelele. In 1950, Obie and his mother returned to Dallas due to his grandmother being ill. He started his formal musical education in Dallas and continued it in Jefferson High, L.A. on return to the city. It was in L.A. that he started singing in a group with new friend, Richard Berry. The group’s name varied, from the Debonairs, to the Hollywood Blue Jays, to the Flairs.

The usage of the Hollywood Blue Jays sobriquet was purely for the group’s first disc cut for the “Recorded In Hollywood” label and a full explanation on how that came to be is contained in Marv Goldberg’s R&B Notebook on the Flairs. The A-side of the group’s debut disc held the Obie Jessie written (but not sung) I Had A Love. This is what it sounded like after the Flairs got themselves a proper recording contract with Modern and the song was recut. According to the TIMS version of the Young Jessie story, it was the Bihari Brothers who gave the group the name, the Flairs – Flair was also a Bihari label.

It was Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller who had been working with artists at Modern, including the Flairs, who started cutting Obie as a soloist kicking off with I Smell A Rat in January, 1954. From here on, his recording activity is covered in the main text. However, there are aspects of Jessie’s ongoing career that aren’t covered there, viz.

After he left Modern, Leiber & Stoller used him again on certain Coasters’ records – usually quoted are Searchin’ and Young Blood – but he didn’t become an official member of the group. From ˈ76 to ˈ81 he operated as musical director to Esther Phillips and she recorded some of his songs. From ˈ64 to the early ˈ90s, Obie worked the supper clubs, sometimes as part of the Obie Jessie trio. In ˈ83 he spent a week in London with the highlight being an appearance at the R & B Jamboree that Ace Records staged at the Electric Ballroom in Camden Town. To quote Dik de Heer: “Obie astonished the audience with a charismatic performance. That powerhouse baritone had lost none of its authority.”

I must mention that the most informed source of biographic information I found for Jessie was Bill Millar via his book, “Let The Good Times Rock”. Bill utilises what was evidently a lengthy interview with Jessie and quotes him directly in several places. Hence such things as the spelling of his mother’s name, the spelling of Jessie’s own middle name, the usage of Leiber & Stoller as producers on the Atlantic/Atco discs which isn’t mentioned by 45cat etc. See also footnote #4.

2. Herewith my slightly reduced footnote on Maxwell Davis from the Percy Mayfield Toppermost:

“Originally from Independence, Kansas, Maxwell moved to L.A. and started his music career as sax player with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. By the mid-forties he had become a session musician and subsequently arranger, for many of the small record labels that started springing up in L.A. Some of these I’ve alluded to but others included Aladdin and Modern, the early home for B.B. King. Mike Stoller has referred to Davis as “an unsung hero of early rhythm and blues”. (Source Wiki)”

3. Modern released a shared LP, Chuck Jackson And Young Jessie, on their bargain label, Crown, in 1963, but that would only be available secondhand now – Cal has one though. Currently there are several albums available covering Jessie’s Modern output. I suspect that the first of these would have been Hit, Git & Split from Ace UK which was among the earliest of the albums put out after Ace picked up Modern’s catalogue – I’d warn that it’s not currently on Spotify but it was reissued after Jessie’s death. Ace have a second Jessie album, I’m Gone, which is on Spotify, and has some rare tracks. There’s a further non-Ace album (on Spotify) called Presenting Young Jessie which has the bulk of his Modern work plus a goodly smattering from his post-Modern singles. It’s not in release order but, as a taster, it’s excellent. According to Wiki, three albums have been released under the Obie Jessie name: What Happened To Jr. (1995), Here’s To Life (2002), and New Atmosphere (2009). None of these (nor any others) are on Spotify. Amazon UK does have Here’s To Life. It also has Hard Workin’ (on Ace) from the Clarence Daniels Orchestra featuring Obie Jessie & Sandy Miller. Both sides of the Hard Workin’ Girl single appear on this album.

4. Jessie had a track that was unreleased but got covered by Elvis; a statement that requires some explanation. The appearance is of a song, Hot Dog, which was cut at Modern but not used at the time and didn’t see release until it appeared in the UK on the Ace album, Hit, Git & Split in 1982 – see above. However, the song’s writers were Leiber & Stoller and, bearing in mind that they also wrote for Elvis, a quote from Jessie in “Let The Good Times Rock”, talking about Leiber & Stoller, adds some clarity: “I used to do Elvis demos for them including “Don’t” and “Hot Dog”. Elvis wrote and thanked them for the way I did the demos”.

5. Singles’ dates given are US releases. According to 45cat only one single saw release in the UK prior to the noughties and that was Shuffle In The Gravel (London, 1958 and it’s in “London Rocks”). 2014 saw UK release of the final Mercury single, You Were Meant For Me / Mary Lou (Jukebox Jam) plus Hard Working Girl (Kent) backed by another artist, and, in the same year, in Germany, another Hard Working Girl (Affiliated 45) backed by a flute-led jazz instro, Black King, from the Obie Jessie Quartet. The last-named had seen earlier release in the US on a mixed EP from the Los Angeles Jazz label. I skipped the fact that Jukebox Jam released a pairing of rare Modern tracks, Pretty Soon / Well Baby in the UK in 2015.

6. Also in 2014 (which was a busy year), an article appeared on J.D. Doyle’s site Queer Music Heritage titled: Young Jessie’s Transphobic 45 RPM Record. It quotes from the lyrics:

“Somebody please tell me what kind of world are we living in where boys want to be girls, good God and woman, she wants to be men (sic) / who’s the blame?”

Apart from the minor typo, that’s a correct transcription, and the line does state the theme of the Jessie-penned song. I have no argument with JD’s point. There are, however, mitigating factors. The record came out in ˈ72 and attitudes have changed a lot since then. The Jessie stance would have been held by a substantial minority as opposed to now when one hopes it’s held by a very small minority in the western world. Jessie came from Texas where I strongly suspect that such an attitude in ˈ72 could have been the norm rather than a minority view. Not excuses, reality. (Words from Dave)

7. I must thank Cal who has been even more helpful than usual in the putting together of this Toppermost. In particular, several of the items in these footnotes originated from Cal’s research.

8. DJ and soul/R&B scribe Mark Raison (aka on BlueSky) wrote a very positive review of Young Jessie’s appearance at Jukebox Jam at The New Empowering Church in Hackney, London on 9th November 2013. After extolling the attractions of Big Chief – one of those Mercury singles I saw fit to ignore! – and many others, he went on to say:

“Seeing Young Jessie – still young aged 76 – perform all these songs and more (minus Big Chief) on Saturday was such a pleasure, a real joy.”


“Looking the dapper gentleman in his sharp suit and hat, and backed with a cool rockabilly band led by Big Boy Bloater, he patrolled the stage, shoulders proudly back, and was in good gravelly voice and shape, only occasionally using the wicker chair to take the weight off his legs during the slower numbers.”

Young Jessie poster 1


Young Jessie at 45cat

Young Jessie at Ace Records UK

Young Jessie biography (AllMusic)

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Cal Taylor has avidly collected records since the early 1960s, gravitating to deep soul and blues. As time went on he got more and more into studying pre-war blues and accumulated a vast record collection. Cal saw many such artists live in the sixties. He has written several posts for this site including Charley Patton, Blind Willie Johnson, Robert Johnson and Otis Redding.

The Stephens/Taylor toppermosts include Johnny Ace, Arthur Alexander, Ray Charles, Cyril Davies, The Falcons, Guitar Slim, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Elmore James, Alexis Korner, Little Walter, Johnny Otis, Junior Parker.

TopperPost #1,102


  1. Andrew Shields
    Feb 14, 2024

    Dave and Cal, thanks for another superb Toppermost. I know ‘Mary Lou’ from the first Charlie Gillett Radio Picks album (arguably one of the best compilation albums ever released). On it it is credited to Young Jessie and the Cadets. A bit of digging suggests this was the backing group of singers on it. Such a great record and there is more excellent stuff to digest here. Thanks again.

  2. David Lewis
    Feb 14, 2024

    Like Andrew said, another brilliant piece. The Man from Utopia meets Mary Lou is a wonderful piece of Zappa insanity and it was only recently I found out Mary Lou was a cover. And you’re right. Jessie should have been a star.

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