My interest in and research of this matter was spurred on by an email that I received from my friend and former student, Phil Lewis. Last week Phil asked, “Okay big guy - what is the REAL meaning of this song? The ‘Doobie Brothers’ don't seem to be the Jesus type but the song lyrics are keenly interesting. It really seems to be homage to Jesus but I know there was a lot of confusion and such going on back then so I was curious to see what you thought about this enigma.”
I am sure I thought about this, but never considered finding an answer. When you think about it, the Doobie Brothers are not a likely candidate for singing a song about Jesus. First, none to my knowledge are professed Christians – not that any the original band members weren’t, it just isn’t something of which the average person is aware. Second, their name “Doobie” Brothers – with “Doobie” as a nickname for a marijuana joint is certainly not in the “Jesus” vein. Third, it appeared on their second album “Toulouse Street” in which the gatefold of the album contained a photo of band posed as if they were in a brothel. Sort of a mixed message, hmm. Maybe, Phil was onto something here.
The Art Reynolds Singers – Sing it First
I promised my friend that I would have an answer, but I did know that the Byrds recorded it before the Doobies for their album, “Ballad of Easy Rider.” I didn’t know about its history and was unaware of the prototype version of the song until last weekend. Written by Arthur Reid Reynolds, the original was recorded by his group, the Art Reynolds Singers in 1966. It was written and recorded as a pure gospel song with Reynolds attempting to use the vernacular of the day when “alright” meant “spectacular” – hence, “Jesus is Just Alright.”
The Byrds Take off with It
Three years later, the song was a part of the Byrds’ repertoire as Gene Parsons, who had been present at the original Art Reynolds Singers’ session, brought it to the band. They used it as part of their live shows for some time before recording it for their 1969 LP “Ballad of Easy Rider.” The song was released as a single; however, it never charted above #97. Although The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn is an avowed Christian, the recording of this song occurred prior to his conversion. While YouTube does not have a copy of the studio version, here’s a live recording of “Jesus is Just Alright” by the Byrds.
The Byrds Do It; D.B.s Do it
Influenced by the Byrds’ version, the Doobie Brothers’ version is just a heavier adaptation of the Byrds’ arrangement with one notable exception – the bridge. In the middle of the song, it slows and they add: “Jesus, He’s my friend; Jesus, He’s my friend; He took me by the hand, far from this land; Jesus, He’s my fried.” The interlude really adds to the song. So I guess Phil, you now have your answer. Like with the Byrds, a studio version is not available on YouTube – although the accompanying live version may have been lip synched to their recording.