SO WHAT’S IT TO BE? The complex vertical harmonic structures of Coleman Hawkins or the supple, flowing, melodic lines of Lester Young? Hendrix’s blinding note clusters or B.B. King’s economy? Early on, Reggie Young figured it out. He’ll blow you away but with deceptively simple, elegant phrases. You almost miss the painstaking craftsmanship because now it seems as if no other notes could be there. A perfectionist to the core, Reggie doesn’t want any of his solos back. He knows they either complement the record or make it, and he’s pretty sure he can’t improve on them. With that degree of accomplishment, you’d think he’d want his name on the records, “…featuring Reggie Young on guitar”, but not so. Those who needed to know it was him, knew. Inside the small circle of recording studios and even smaller circle of fans who feasted on album credits, his first name alone became shorthand for a style. Spare. Soulful. Economical. Lyrical.
The 17 March 1956 issue of Billboard magazine included a review of Eddie Bond’s ‘Rockin’ Daddy’, noting its “down-home sound coupled with a dynamic beat”. It wasn’t even Reggie’s first recording, but it was the first to bubble to the surface. Between then and now, he played guitar parts that, like family members, are encrypted onto billions of neurons in our brains, often with more pleasurable connotations. Bill Black Combo’s ‘Smokie Part 2’, James Carr’s ‘Dark End Of The Street’, the Box Tops’ ‘Cry Like A Baby’ and ‘The Letter’, B.J. Thomas’ ‘Hooked On A Feeling’, Dusty Springfield’s ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’, Joe Tex’s ‘Skinny Legs And All’, Wilson Pickett’s ‘Midnight Mover’, King Curtis’ ‘Memphis Soul Stew’, Herbie Mann’s ‘Memphis Underground’, Neil Diamond’s ‘Holly Holy’ and ‘Sweet Caroline’, Danny O’Keefe’s ‘Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues’, Elvis Presley’s ‘In The Ghetto’, ‘Suspicious Minds’ and ‘Kentucky Rain’, John Prine’s ‘Sam Stone’ and ‘Hello In There’, Merrilee Rush’s ‘Angel Of The Morning’, Dobie Gray’s ‘Drift Away’, Jimmy Buffett’s ‘Come Monday’, Billy Swan’s ‘I Can Help’, J.J. Cale’s ‘Cocaine’ and ‘Cajun Moon’, Waylon Jennings’ ‘Luckenbach, Texas’, Hank Williams Jr’s ‘Family Tradition’, Reba McEntire’s ‘Little Rock’, Kenny Rogers’ ‘Lucille’, Willie Nelson’s ‘Always On My Mind’, Merle Haggard’s ‘That’s The Way Love Goes’ and Willie & Merle’s ‘Poncho And Lefty’. Add to that, the Beatles’ first American tour, several trips around the world with the Highwaymen, and a starring role in Waylon Jennings’ last band. Reggie Young has been there, just slightly out of the spotlight, through Southern music’s modern era.
Reggie shuttles between self-effacement and understated pride. Sessions crossfade, but he remembers much of what went down. The guy from London Records who licensed ‘Smokie’? That was Ed Kissack. The guitar he played on ‘Drift Away’? A ’69 Les Paul Goldtop with mini humbuckers. If a name or date eludes him, he has his diaries, not because he foresaw the importance of what he was doing but to ensure he got paid. The diaries alone are almost an inferred history of our favourite music.
As his 80th birthday approaches, he still plays every day out of love and habit, not out of necessity. He met his wife, Jenny Lynn, a classically trained cellist, in 1999 when Waylon Jennings was assembling his Waymore Blues Band. In 2008, they released an inspirational album titled “Be Still”. The passing of friends and associates, most recently Merle Haggard and Chips Moman, makes him realise that if he’s going to make his own music in the style we know as his, now’s the time.
Some of Reggie’s contemporaries, like Grady Martin, Thumbs Carllile, Scotty Moore, and Hank Garland, made LPs under their own name. Reggie recorded a go-go version of ‘Dream Baby’ and an exotica take on ‘Ebb Tide’ for Hi Records about 50 years ago, and there was another single for Scepter Records several years after that. Until now, those singles and “Be Still” were the only records to bear his name. If ever there was a long overdue album, this is it.
“I have the time to do it now,” Reggie says. “Before, I just worked all the time. A lot of the tunes came from little warm-up licks. I’d play ’em in the studio. People would say, ‘What’s that?’ I’d say, ‘Awww, I dunno,’ but I’d keep them in my head and finally made tunes out of them. Most of the tracks were done at Mac McAnally’s La La Land Studio in Sheffield [Alabama] with Clayton Ivey, David Hood, Chad Cromwell. All players I totally admire. Nobody tries to steal the show, but it’s hard for me to tell those guys ‘Play this … play that.’ I was worried about offending somebody. I took the tapes home. Liked everything I heard except my parts. The tapes just sat on the shelf. Then I thought they could be salvaged if I redid the guitar parts, so I did those at the house, then got Jim Horn to arrange a horn section. Did the horn parts in the bedroom. By then, it was knocking me out. Sounded real good. Then I went to Robby Turner’s studio, and he took it up a notch. Mixed and mastered it.”
BORN IN CARUTHERSVILLE, Missouri, Reggie grew up an hour north of Memphis in Osceola, Arkansas, moving to Memphis in 1950 when he was 14. In high school, he was a couple of years ahead of Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn. Reggie, Sr. was a bookkeeper for the levee-building programme. Back in Osceola, Reggie held down the only day job he has ever had, bagging groceries. A guitar for Christmas, 1950, led him to his calling. His father played Hawaiian guitar, so perhaps some legato Hawaiian phrasing rubbed off. A neighbour built him an amp from jukebox parts. Reggie had already figured out how to play lead when he decided to take music lessons, but one tutorial on ‘Three Blind Mice’ sent him back to his self-taught ways. He can’t really explain where his style originated. “Some Nashville players would come through Memphis,” he says. “I remember hearing Sammy Pruett with Carl Smith. I just wanted to go home and burn my guitar. Then maybe the third time I saw him, I knew I could play some of that stuff.” Of course, Chet Atkins influenced everyone. Reggie had seen him in Memphis, and built a Chet-style whammy bar from junk car parts and bits and pieces from his high school welding shop. You can hear the Chet influence on his first Memphis session in ’55 backing Barney Burcham, but rarely thereafter. “Melody and tone perhaps,” he allows. It wasn’t until Reggie moved to Nashville in 1972 that he met the master. Chet’s office called. There was a Perry Como session. Could Reggie make it? During the warm-up, Chet pulled up a chair and said, “Do you mind if I sit and watch you play?” Reggie said, “Ummm, okay.” Seeing that Reggie was uncomfortable, Chet went back to the booth.
Reggie’s first-ever session was in Nashville in late 1954, backing a singing hairstylist from Memphis, Tommy Smith. There’s a sweet, confident solo on Smith’s ‘Magic Girl’. Getting word that it had been pressed, Reggie drove to Nashville just to hear it, then set up his amp in the window of his room at the Clarkston Hotel and played all night, hoping someone would hire him for the road. Even then, it seems, he had twin celestial cities. Driving home, he ran out of gas and had to sell the car’s spare tire.
Then came Barney Burcham, a ghastly singer whose 1955 Meteor single has value only because it’s on a collectable label. Burcham was a one-off gig. Week in, week out, Reggie was with Eddie Bond at the Eagle’s Nest. As a singer, Bond was barely a notch above Burcham, but he was keyed into the new music. By then, so was Reggie. He’d been at KWEM, West Memphis, when Elvis came in with a copy of ‘That’s All Right’ for one of the country deejays. Elvis, Reggie, and steel guitarist Kenneth Herman went down to the five-and-dime. “There was a bunch of cheap rings,” said Reggie. “Elvis took one, asked the girl behind the counter if she was married. She said, ‘No.’ He put it on her finger, said, ‘We’re engaged now.’ He was wearing those zoot suits from Lansky Brothers. He was just beginning, but you could feel the aura.”
Reggie and Jack Clement had a weekly gig at the Kennedy Veterans’ Hospital’s Home for Incurables. Jack was just breaking into the business as a partner at Fernwood Records, and recorded Reggie as a singer. “It was embarrassing,” says Reggie. “Thank God, it was never released.” Around the same time, Bond latched onto a rock’n’roll record from Texas, ‘Rockin’ Daddy’, and covered it. Reggie lit up the single with a wonderfully lyrical solo, introducing it with one of the most imitated licks in rock’n’roll. “We had a regional hit,” says Reggie. “Elvis’s first manager, Bob Neal, booked us out. We went all over the country with Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Johnny Horton, and Warren Smith. Cash would stink up the car with Picayune cigarettes. Orbison was forever saying he wanted a Cadillac by the time he was 21. We were bottom of the bill.” Bond’s second Mercury record was cut at Bradley’s studio in Nashville. It was Reggie’s first union session. 41 dollars and 25 cents.
Somewhere along the way, Johnny Horton fell out with his guitarist, and Reggie took over, moving to Horton’s home base, Shreveport, Louisiana. Horton was in one of life’s in-betweens. Success as a rockabilly singer was in the past, but redoubled success with saga songs was in the future. The only way to make ends meet was the road. Years later, Waylon Jennings reminded Reggie that he and Horton had come by KLVT in Levelland, Texas when Waylon was a deejay there. Reggie’s pretty sure it happened, but can’t recall it. Easter Sunday, 1958, found Horton in Calgary, Alberta, and he took Reggie to a spiritualist church. As the service ended, the pastor began talking, apparently to herself. “Okay, I’ll tell him that... I’ll tell her that.” She came to Horton and they chatted, then she offered Reggie a reading. “We went over to her house the next morning,” said Reggie. “She had the crystal ball and all that stuff. She said, ‘Your aunt’s here with you. She passed away when you were just a kid.’ And that was true. She was accurate on a lot of stuff. Then she said, ‘I see something bad for you in an airplane.’ So I was scared to fly for a while after that, and by the time we got back to Shreveport I was sleeping with the lights on. Horton would tell me the spirits would knock on the headboard of my bed.” Horton held séances at his house in what became known as the spook room, and became convinced that he would die imminently in a car wreck.
Told that he’d soon be drafted, Reggie handed in his notice and returned to Memphis at the end of ’58, but the draft notice never arrived. Elvis, though, had been drafted, and Reggie began working with his former bassist, Bill Black. There was a new studio in town, Royal Recording, and an affiliated label, Hi Records. “Bill called and asked me if I wanted to join him there. One of the owners, Ray Harris, said Bill was just spinning his wheels, goin’ nowhere. So I took my guitar, tuned it down a couple of steps, and I took a pencil and started tapping on the strings. It was an old trick that drummers would do, hitting on a bass. Set it to a shuffle. We called it ‘Smokie Part 1 and 2’.” Harris said it wasn’t that spontaneous, and took three weeks to nail. Spur-of-the-moment or not, ‘Smokie’ had the aching precision and minimalist funk that would become Reggie’s trademarks. “The guy from London Records came down,” says Reggie, “heard it, and put it out. Next we knew, we had a Top 10 record. THEN I got drafted.” There were two appearances on the Dick Clark Show. “When I went to take the oath, I told the company commander there was something I’d like to do before basic training. He let me have a 31-day leave before I went into the service, and we went to New York for the Dick Clark Christmas show.” That was 19 December 1959.
Reggie had forgone session fees for a piece of ‘Smokie’, and was part-composer, so royalties accumulated during his tour of duty in Ethiopia. But there was bad news, too: one morning, he got word that Johnny Horton had been killed. If not for the draft, Reggie might have been in Horton’s car. “I was over there 18 months,” says Reggie. “Got top-level cryptographic security clearance. When my tour was up, the CIA invited me to join, but I went back with Bill. He’d quit the road, then we all quit to work in the studio.”
Black hired east and west coast groups to tour as the Bill Black Combo, and then, in 1964, he sold the name, and so wasn’t on the shows supporting the Beatles. In fact, Reggie was the only original member on the tour. The Combo played a set, then backed the supporting acts, including Clarence Frogman Henry, the Exciter and Jackie DeShannon. “That first night,” says Reggie, “a local dee-jay came out and got the crowd revved up. ‘You wanna see Ringo?’ Screams. ‘You wanna see George?’ Screams. ‘You wanna see Paul?’ Screams. ‘You wanna see John?’ Screams. ‘Well, here’s the Bill Black Combo.’ Boos.” It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that George Harrison would find Reggie Young. “He came to ask about my amp,” said Reggie. “I told him it was an old Standel tube model. Then he said, ‘How are you bending those strings?’ I told him to get an unwrapped third string. I probably stole that from Chet Atkins.” The first show was at San Francisco’s Cow Palace on 19 August 1964. By 10 September, they’d reached Florida just as Hurricane Dora was coming on-shore. The Beatles hunkered down in Key West, while Reggie flew home to cover Lenny Welch’s version of ‘Ebb Tide’. The Combo’s last date with the Beatles was in Dallas on 18 September. The Beatles played a few more US dates while the Combo flew straight to Europe to work a tour with Billy J Kramer, the Kinks and the Yardbirds. That was where Reggie hung out with Eric Clapton. “We were both blues players and we hit it off,” he says.
So 1964 ended. In a 10-year career, Reggie had been present at two cultural flashpoints: the birth of rock’n’roll and its transformation into rock music. The essentials of his style remained unaltered. For someone so diffident, he was very sure of his craft. Coming back to session work felt anticlimactic, and the disenchantment was soon compounded. “We had a record in the charts with James Carr on Goldwax Records we never had been paid for,” said Reggie. “Me and the keyboard player, Bobby Emmons, talked to [Goldwax owner] Doc Russell and asked where our money was. He said, ‘Would 15 bucks be cool with ya, man?’ I needed the money. Had to take it. Then Ray Harris said he was gonna cut us back to 10 a side. I knew I had to get out of there. Not long after that, I got with Chips Moman.” Another transformative moment.
Reggie was with Eddie Bond when he first met Moman at the American Legion Hall in West Memphis. A few years later, Chips subbed for Reggie in the Bill Black Combo, then helped to build the Stax studio. With the funds from a lawsuit against Stax, Chips and his attorney, Sy Rosenberg, started American Sound circa 1962. Two years later, an Arkansas farmer, Don Crews, bought out Rosenberg’s share, and American became more a business than a hobby. All the lauded Memphis studios were unprepossessing from the exterior. Sun had been a squat storefront on a busy thoroughfare. Royal-Hi and Stax were converted movie theatres in rapidly de-gentrifying neighbourhoods. The American building on Thomas Street was equally downmarket. “At one time there was a restaurant next door,” says Reggie. “Moman and Crews bought it. The rats that were eating the garbage had nowhere to go so they came in the studio. There was always rat noise up in the ceiling. One time, we were recording a girl group called the Blossoms. A rat ran across the floor. I heard a scream. All three of the girls jumped on a chair. Bobby Emmons hit the rat with a boom mic.”
Reggie’s first collaboration with Chips yielded a hit, the Gentrys’ frat party anthem, ‘Keep on Dancing’. Chips issued it on his own label before cutting a deal with MGM. “We recorded it at Royal,” says Reggie, “finished it at American, and then we talked about putting together a house band.” Around that time, Chips, Reggie and Tommy Cogbill were travelling to New York to work sessions for Jerry Wexler and to Nashville to work for Buddy Killen. Moman sold Reggie on the idea of making the business come to them. “Sounded good to me,” said Reggie. “We hired Gene Chrisman on drums and keyboard player Bobby Emmons. We cut a lot of records, just the four of us. Then Cogbill began taking other jobs as a producer, so we brought in Mike Leech as a bass player and arranger, and Bobby Wood on piano and keyboards.” Unlike the Sun, Stax and Hi studios, American wasn’t affiliated with a record label other than Chips’ on-again, off-again ventures. The diurnal and nocturnal business was cutting records for third party labels. It didn’t take long for American to establish itself.
Between 1967 and 1972, American notched around 120 charted hits. Asked if there was a secret sauce, Reggie shakes his head: “I just thought you cut hit records all the time. It was, ‘How many do we have on the charts this week?’ I didn’t realise what a feat that was.” They were there all hours. They knew about the union norm of three-hour sessions, but didn’t adhere to it. Reggie believes they worked 58 hours straight on James & Bobby Purify’s ‘Shake A Tail Feather’. Producer Papa Don Schroeder, who’d been up with them, immediately took the tape to New York. Getting out of the cab outside Bell Records, he dropped the tape and it unspooled along the sidewalk in the rain. Someone helped him spool it back. Dried out, it was undamaged. Not a big hit at the time, it became a classic.
In Reggie’s telling, it was all so matter-of-fact. Dusty Springfield (“that record still sounds good”), B.J. Thomas (“we’d play corkball until B.J. came in, then someone’d play us a demo, and we’d work up an arrangement”), and so on. But then there was Elvis. It’s the story everyone wants to hear. “The drummer in Los Angeles, Hal Blaine, got sick so they were going to cancel one of his sessions, but our studio manager, Marty Lacker, was a friend of his and told him about our track record.” Elvis hadn’t recorded in Memphis since leaving Sun, but he needed hits and booked into American in January and February 1969. “He came in wearing a blue leather jacket, decked to the hilt,” says Reggie. Photos from that night confirm that Elvis looked like a brother from another planet. “He came in the back door, but you knew he was in the room before you looked. He commanded his space. I was amazed how starstruck I was. We just hoped the rats weren’t running around.” Reggie remembered a song foisted upon Elvis by his music publisher. “He asked me if I liked it. I said, ‘No, not really.’ Then he asked Bobby Wood, and Bobby said, ‘Man, that’s awful.’ Elvis’s producer, Felton Jarvis, pulled us out into the hallway and told us not to make waves. They had the songs picked, but Chips had some songs he was gonna pitch, including ‘Suspicious Minds’. Some guy in a suit told Moman that if Elvis was going to do one of his songs, they’d need the publishing. Moman said, ‘We have a reputation for cutting hits. If Elvis doesn’t want hits, y’all can get out.’ Elvis heard about this, and made the entourage leave. He loved it there. He was planning to get back on the road and he asked us to work with him, but we didn’t want to go. We liked being home every night.” The first single from the sessions, ‘In The Ghetto’, did well, but ‘Suspicious Minds’ became Elvis’s first #1 hit since ‘Good Luck Charm’ in 1962. The album, “From Elvis In Memphis”, was, by common assent, his finest ever. You’d think Elvis would never record anywhere else, but instead he never recorded at American again.
Chips did the old school hustle. He hustled Elvis like he hustled a guy off the street, co-writing songs and publishing as many as he could. Not Reggie. “I was happy just being the guitar player,” he says. Chips and Don Crews could figure out the deals. New York’s Scepter Records came to rely on American. Some of B.J. Thomas’ hits were cut there as was the “Soulful” LP by Scepter’s franchise act, Dionne Warwick. Then there were cult items like Mark James’ original version of ‘Suspicious Minds’ and some early Ronnie Milsap singles. In 1971, towards the end of the good times, Reggie recorded another single, ‘Pencil’, and it went to Scepter. Asked if he went out to work the record, Reggie snorts, “No! Heck, no.”
Crews and Moman fell out in 1970, but the chill had already fallen upon Memphis. “We knew a guy at the Police Department,” remembers Reggie. “He called one afternoon and said, ‘Martin Luther King has been shot.’ This was before he’d been pronounced dead. He said, ‘If I was you guys, I’d shut it down and go home.’ I lived south of town. I was driving home and the news came that he’d died. I could see it all igniting. We had Aretha booked and she cancelled. I remember Moman telling her, ‘We didn’t do that. We hate that.’ But she never did come in. Something changed. I had good friends who became standoffish pretty much overnight.”
The last big hit recorded at American was Danny O’Keefe’s ‘Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues’. O’Keefe had recorded it earlier without success; the difference was Reggie Young. Apposite in a couple of ways, it was a song that drew a line under an era: “Everybody’s leaving town.” Reggie recalls, “Stax was getting all the publicity. Hi Records, too. One day, a delivery driver came in with a box of recording tape. Bobby Emmons said, ‘Another load of sand for the desert.’ See, wasn’t nothin’ happening. Moman said we should go to Atlanta and do what we’d done in Memphis. I didn’t know if he was serious, but dadgum he was. He had a place picked out. Moving people came in and took the board. Off we went.” Billboard announced the move on 20 May 1972, quoting Moman as saying that he was taking “The Thomas Street band” with him. On 24 June, Billboard announced the opening at 2107 Faulkner Road. “Roger Miller came in. That was about it,” says Reggie. “I stayed two months and turned my notice in. Hard to do. We were such close friends.” It was almost as if Reggie hadn’t properly said goodbye to American. Those were, he sees now, his golden years. Not the most remunerative, but the most exhilarating and creative.
Unsure of his plans, Reggie drove back to Memphis from Atlanta in 1972, stopping off in Nashville to see David Briggs and Norbert Putnam, whom he’d known in Muscle Shoals. “They owned Quadrafonic Studio,” says Reggie. “David said, ‘You wanna work some?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ Been here ever since.” What if he hadn’t stopped over? “I’d have left Memphis anyway,” he says. “Memphis never paid musicians what they should have had.” Reggie moved to Nashville just as ‘Good Time Charlie’ became a hit. “Got some work offa that record,” he says. Reggie also knew Jack Clement, who’d moved from Memphis to Nashville via Texas, and made Charley Pride into a hot property. Jack gave Reggie some work. “One of Jack’s studios looked like India,” says Reggie. “I guess there were some joints smoked there.” Probably so.
On 4 November 1972, Billboard noted that Moman had moved his studio yet again, this time to Nashville. Reggie was already there. Moman sold the Memphis building to Bang/Shout Records, the same company that bought his Atlanta studio. He ran Warner Bros’ Nashville office for a time, and wrote several huge hits, including B.J. Thomas’ ‘(Hey, Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song’, but the prolificacy of his American years had ended.
Billboard, 16 December, noted that novice producer Mentor Williams had brought faded R&B star Dobie Gray to Quadrafonic. Among the songs Williams brought in was ‘Drift Away’, already recorded unsuccessfully by actor/singer, John Henry Kurtz. Reggie distilled the song’s essence into his intro and fills. “Country singers wanted the guy who’d done ‘Drift Away’. I didn’t have to change my style to accommodate Nashville.” Asked how he came up with the intro, Reggie shrugs and says he’d worked it up for a tune he’d written. If there’s a summation of his art, ‘Drift Away’ is it. Minimalist, assured, deeply soulful. He rarely made commercial judgements about records he’d worked on, but he was pretty sure ‘Drift Away’ was a hit. Outside Quad, he ran into one of his heroes, Grady Martin, who was still the most in-demand session guitarist in Nashville. “I said, ‘Hi, Grady.’ He said, ‘Hi, what are you doing?’ I told him about ‘Drift Away’. Asked if he’d like to hear it. He said, ‘Sure.’ We went in, played the tape, and he loved it. He stayed all night long. Most people were afraid of Grady, but we hit it off.” That meeting was almost a symbolic handoff. Grady drifted into touring with Willie Nelson, and called Reggie from far-flung bars. Reggie was as prolific as Grady had been, perhaps more so.
In Nashville, musicians didn’t work 58 hours on a song unless they were paid for 20 three-hour sessions. The union was in control. For Reggie, it was a trade-off: less scope for creativity in return for mightily increased paychecks. He rented an apartment in a building that Grady Martin owned near Music Row. “I worked every day,” he says, “and then it was two sessions a day, then three, sometimes four (10AM, 2PM, 6PM, and 10PM). There was so much work here then, all I was doing was sleeping and working.” Driving around one day, he heard a guitar solo on a record and remarked to himself that it sounded featureless and uninspired. Then he realised that it was him. “I was talking to Joe Osborn, a bass player from LA,” he says. “Joe said to charge double scale. You’d lose half your accounts, but you’d still make the same money. He and Hal Blaine were doing it out there. A light went on for me. New Year’s 1979, I went to double scale. Work went down a little, then it picked back up because all the top guys began charging double. These days, you hardly get scale.” If Reggie had to pick a favourite artist from the Nashville sessions, it was Jimmy Buffett: “He had a saying, ‘If it ain’t fun, don’t do it.’ He’d stop a session and say, ‘Let’s try it again tomorrow.’”
In 1973, Reggie returned to Memphis for three days with Elvis Presley, this time at Stax. Not fun, they were done anyway. In the four years since Elvis exited American, he had become bloated and apathetic. “He didn’t say anything,” says Reggie. “He had the entourage with him. He’d put a cigarillo in his mouth and there’d be four or five guys flashing lighters. One night he came in at three in the morning. I was yawning and his producer, Felton Jarvis, said, ‘No yawning. Wouldn’t look good for the King to see you yawning’.” The songs on the slate were undistinguished, and Elvis treated them with the indifference they deserved. “The American sessions will scare you, they’re so good,” says Reggie, not quite able to bring himself to say that Elvis had lost it. Later that year, Elvis returned to Stax with better results, but Reggie wasn’t there.
The Nashville way of doing things took a hit in the late 70s when the self-styled Outlaws wanted to use their own bands on sessions. But not every session was an Outlaw session, and some Outlaws, like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, wanted their own bands plus Reggie Young. Chips Moman wrote and produced Waylon’s biggest hit, ‘Luckenbach, Texas’, and later produced the first two Highwaymen albums, placing Waylon with Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash. In 1990, when the Highwaymen hit the road, Reggie and several of the old Memphis guys joined them. Touring had become more well-appointed since the Bill Black Combo went out with the Beatles. The headliners had one bus each, the backing musicians had their bus, and so did the crew. “Looked like Ringling Brothers circus on the road,” says Reggie. “I lost money on the first tour because of the work I had to turn down, but I realised there was life outside the studio. I went out in the fall and spring with the Highwaymen, and I’d do sessions in the middle. We went all over the world. Everywhere you could think of.”
Free studio space in an old fire hall enticed Chips back to Memphis in 1985. Ringo Starr came in for some sessions (Reggie answered the call), but it ended in court. Chips was sued by both Ringo and the City of Memphis. Meantime, the old American studio was reopened briefly so that Chips could record part of another project he’d brokered, “The Class of ’55”. Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison saluted the birth of rock’n’roll. Reggie drove down for that one, too. Then American was boarded up again. In Nashville and New York, studios were, and still are, being demolished to build condominiums and offices. In 1990, American was demolished to become the parking lot of a Family Dollar store. You’d only know it was once there because of the historic marker dedicated during 2014 Elvis Week. Those attending included Reggie, Bobby Emmons, Gene Chrisman and Bobby Wood, alongside Tommy Cogbill’s widow and Elvis’s buddy, Marty Lacker. Even Chips Moman, looking frail and drawn, set aside his grudge against Memphis and smiled for the camera.
As Waylon Jennings’ road neared its end, he assembled his dream team, the Waymore Blues Band, featuring Reggie Young. They toured from 1999 almost until Waylon drew his last breath. Waylon featured ‘Drift Away’ so that the audience would know that it wasn’t just any regular picker on-stage behind him. Waylon’s wife, Jessi Colter, sang her big hit ‘I’m Not Lisa’. Reggie had played that session, too. The Waymore tours were a bittersweet finale to an association that began at KLVT, Levelland in 1958, even if Reggie didn’t remember it, picked up at RCA’s Nashville studio in 1973, and continued through the Outlaw era to within days of Waylon’s death at home in Arizona in 2002.
For Reggie, Nashville session work was plentiful into the 1990s. George Strait, Hank Williams Jr, Kenny Rogers, Travis Tritt, Glen Campbell, Dolly Parton, and many, many more wanted him. His solos on Merle Haggard’s ‘That’s The Way Love Goes’ and Willie Nelson’s ‘Always On My Mind’ rank among his most affecting and lyrical work. At the other end of the emotional spectrum, his intro to Hank, Jr’s ‘Born To Boogie’ subtly restates his intro to Eddie Bond’s ‘Rockin’ Daddy’, making a broader point that the Bond intro now forms part of the collective unconscious of rock’n’roll.
The great work, the modesty, the reliability, and the malleability have created their own kind of good karma. In a notoriously backbiting industry, nobody has a bad word to say about Reggie Young. “Tons of white American guitar players were better than me,” Eric Clapton wrote in his recent autobiography. “Reggie Young, for example … was one of the best guitarists I ever heard.” You don’t get that kind of praise without earning it. More than 60 years’ studio work have provided security. Reggie and Jenny Lynn live comfortably near Franklin, Tennessee. Deservedly so. Reggie Young made this album for himself and for everyone who has ever listened to his intros, fills, turnarounds, and solos and thought, “I’d love to hear an album of that!”
COLIN ESCOTT Nashville, October 2016