This song has a very convoluted origin story. It was written as "Let's Get Together" by Chester Powers, who recorded as Dino Valenti. He died in 1994 at age 57, stricken with a brain mass that required surgery. Raised by carnival performers who did a vaudeville-style act in the off-season, he was constantly on the move. A stint in the Air Force didn't take, so he tried his hand at music, making his way to Greenwich Village, New York, where the folk scene was taking shape. In the early '60s, he moved to Los Angeles; he claimed he wrote the song in the summer of 1963 at the estate of the actress Edie Sedgwick, where he was staying. In the florid version of his tale, he was thinking about the power of music, and how he could use it to convey a powerful message: Relax
. Smile at each other
Valenti may have had more pragmatic aspirations, as he was working on songs he could sell or record to get his career going, and "Let's Get Together" fit the mood of the times.
In 1964, The Kingston Trio became the first to record the song, including it on their album Back In Town
(as "Let's Get Together"). Later that year, the actor Hamilton Camp, who was taking a turn as a folk singer, included it on his album Paths of Victory
(as "Get Together").
In 1965, the California group We Five were the first to release the song as a single, taking it to #31 in the US (as "Let's Get Together"). This same year, Powers was arrested three times: the first two busts for marijuana possession, the third for speed. In 1966, Jefferson Airplane included the song (as "Let's Get Together") on their debut album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off
. The song became a fixture on the San Francisco music scene, with Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins sometimes performing it. This is around the time Powers began serving his one-to-ten-year sentence at Folsom Prison. He got out early in 1967 though a series of legal maneuvers that included a deal with Epic Records as a solo act - with his song making the rounds, the label was hot to have him on the roster. Signing him signified that he was worthy of parole, as he was less of a threat to society. This deal required a lawyer, which Powers paid for by selling the rights to "Get Together" to SFO Music.
Jesse Colin Young, who had been performing the song as a solo artist, released it with his band The Youngbloods in 1967. This release had little impact, peaking at #62 in America in October, somehow missing the Summer Of Love. Powers released his debut solo album (as Dino Valente) in 1968, but didn't include "Get Together" on the track list because SFO would have earned the royalties.
"Get Together" stayed in the zeitgeist, with covers by Linda Ronstadt, The Sunshine Company, and The Staple Singers in 1968, but it didn't break through as a hit until 1969, when The National Conference of Christians and Jews distributed it to radio and TV stations to support Brotherhood Week. At the time, broadcasters were required to run public service announcements for the public good. Non-profit organizations vied for this airtime with messages that were often preachy (Don't do drugs!) or unappealing (Have a rash? It could be a sign of something worse...
). Brotherhood Week was a fun one, with this catchy tune in the background. These PSAs were very popular, and listeners started calling radio stations to ask about the song. This prompted The Youngbloods record company, RCA, to re-release it, and this time it was an undeniable hit, reaching #5 in September 1969.
When Rolling Stone asked Powers
if he regretted selling the song, he answered, "A lot of people say I was stupid for selling all my rights to the song, but for ten years of my life, man, I can write another song."