Millions of people worldwide have heard Jesse Barish’s original songs countless times — usually without knowing who wrote them. A few years ago, his “Count on Me,” as recorded by the classic Jefferson Starship lineup with Marty Balin singing lead, was featured on the soundtrack of the film “The Family Stone” starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Diane Keaton, played over the end titles.
A Top 10 pop/AC/AOR hit from the Starship’s “Earth” album in 1978, “Count on Me” has been featured on more than three dozen Starship and various-artists compilation albums since then. It’s also one of two songs in his 600-plus song catalog to earn a BMI Millionaire Award for more than a million plays on the airwaves. The other song is “Hearts (Is Everything All Right?),” Balin’s first Top 10 solo hit in 1981.
His sixth and latest solo album, “Wheel Keep Turning” (Void Echo Records, 2008) features 16 original songs he composed and recorded over the last two years, working in the studio with his longtime producer Jeff Pescetto. “Wheel Keep Turning” is a mix of musical styles all tied together with lyrics about peace, love, hope, regret, believing and redemption, ending with a taste of Beatnik poetry.
Even though the tracks are stylistically different, there’s a story woven through the sequencing and segues between the songs — an inspirational story about life, time going by, believing in and holding on to your dreams, living in the now without regrets, hoping for the future. This musical journey that’s been underway for more than four decades began in Brooklyn. The album’s cover photo, in fact, was taken at the entrance to his childhood residence.
In 1963, he headed west to California. After living in Venice Beach in the mid ’60s he landed in the middle of the Haight Ashbury musical explosion fueled by psychotropics and psychedelics just before the scene peaked, joining The Orkustra, a seminal experimental Bay Area outfit that also included David LaFlamme, who went on to fame with It’s a Beautiful Day.
In the early ’70s, he returned to Southern California, where he worked as a sideman with John Phillips, the former Mamas & Papas leader/songwriter/singer/guitarist. While picking up songwriting tips from Phillips, he played flute and percussion on Phillips’ “Wolfking of L.A.” tour, which included numerous dates on both coasts among them the legendary 1970 Big Sur Folk Festival.
After touring with Phillips, he landed a record deal with Shelter/Capitol under the banner of Jesse, Wolf and Whings (Capitol required the band to add the extra “h” because it already had Paul McCartney’s Wings on the roster). Shelter chief Denny Cordell produced the group’s eponymous debut album. Jesse, Wolf & Whings toured to support it, opening for Leon Russell and bands like Spirit and Tower of Power as well as headlining smaller arenas. At that point he headed back to Northern California and spent the next eight years in Marin County, living the life and writing songs. Some of them found their way, through a mutual friend, to Marty Balin, then co-lead singer of Jefferson Starship. Flying high again after their multiplatinum “Dragon Fly” and “Red Octopus” LPs (1974 and ’75), the band recorded Jesse’s “Love Lovely Love” and “St. Charles” (the latter co-authored with the Starship) for their next LP, “Spitfire” which went multiplatinum in 1976. Versions of his songs were included on Starship’s “Earth album,” including “Count on Me,” a Top 10 pop, A/C and AOR smash, and “Crazy Feeling,” a Top 30 hit. The LP went multiplatinum in 1978. That success led to a solo record deal with the Starship’s label, RCA. Produced by Balin, “Jesse Barish” (1978) included his own version of “Count on Me” and was voted Best Debut Album by BAM (Bay Area Music magazine), winning the Bammie Award. He followed up with “Mercury Shoes” (RCA, 1979), and performed at clubs and concerts in the greater San Francisco area with his band.
In 1981, for his eponymous debut solo album (EMI America), Balin recorded Jesse’s “Hearts (Is Everything All Right?)” and sent that song into the Top 10. Internationally, “Hearts” was a Top 5 hit in many countries, hitting No. 1 in Japan, France and Israel. Balin’s next single, Jesse’s “Atlanta Lady,” made the Top 30. For his 1983 follow-up album, “Lucky” (also EMI America), Balin also recorded Jesse’s “Do it for Love.”
As the ’80s progressed, additional songs were recorded by former Tower of Power lead singer Lenny Williams (“Always,” a Top 40 R&B hit, and “You Know What I Like,” co written with Terry Shaddick, composer of the Olivia Newton-John hit “Physical”), and The Manhattans (“Back into the Night”), produced by Bobby Womack. Also in the mid 80’s legendary French chanteuse Dalida recorded a version of “Hearts, which became a hit in France. Several videos of her doing the song can be seen on YouTube.
Focusing on songwriting during most of the ’90s, he composed and recorded an album of acoustic guitar and vocal duets with his then-grown son A.J. titled “Farther Sun” (AKA Records, 1995). He continued writing and occasionally performed at clubs around Southern California, staying in touch with Pescetto while carefully developing the original songs and direction he wanted to take for his next solo album.
Meanwhile, a reconstituted Jefferson Starship (with Balin back on vocals) included a pair of Jesse’s songs — “See the Light” and “Ways of Love” — on their “Windows of Heaven” album in 1999 (CMC International).
“Cherry Road” (Wheeltime Records, 2001) marked his return to full studio production, featuring his lead vocals and guitar, harmonica and flute, with additional backing by Pescetto. The album is a folk-rock Americana blend of California soul that’s an autobiographical journey, into the past, the future and the moment.
Following his muse, the next couple of years were devoted to practicing and elevating the level of his flute-playing, and, with Pescetto, collaborated on writing and producing an album’s-worth of flute-centric instrumentals titled “Flute Salad” during 2004-2005. Playing a different flute on each track, the collection features jazzy ambient tropical free-style flute with a cool funky backbeat vibe. Around this same time, Jack Wagner included a song of Jesse’s, “American Dream”, on his “Dancing in the Moonlight” record.
His latest songs, as recorded with Pescetto for “Wheel Keep Turning,” range in style from rock to pop to jazz to reggae to country-rock to spoken word, yet are remarkably cohesive. “Wheel Keep Turning” is the latest chapter in a story that’s still being written.
Psychedelic sixties relic north beach floating world
Bebop jazzman foreign flim flam turtleneck beatnik girl
Zoroaster faster faster trying not to fall
Hippie cogitater catch you later at the california ball
— From the song “California Ball” by Jesse Barish