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Reggie Young

Ace Records aficionados will very likely be familiar with the uniquely soulful guitar-playing which embellished such notable hits as Dobie Gray’s ‘Drift Away’ and Billy Swan’s ‘I Can Help’, as well as the ground-breaking use of electric sitar on the Box Tops’ ‘Cry Like A Baby’ and ‘Hooked On A Feeling’ by B.J. Thomas. Add to these Elvis Presley’s ‘In The Ghetto’ and ‘Suspicious Minds’, Dusty Springfield’s ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’, Joe Tex’s ‘Skinny Legs And All’, and many more significant chartbusters by the likes of Bill Black’s Combo, Joe Tex, Neil Diamond, Wilson Pickett, King Curtis, Jimmy Buffett, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Merle Haggard. Such an imposing list should provide an idea of the enormous contribution made over six decades by Memphis and Nashville’s most versatile and in-demand session guitarist, Reggie Young, who has died at the age of 82.

Reggie Grimes Young, Jr. was born on 12 December 1936 in Caruthersville, Missouri, but raised in Osceola, Arkansas. The family moved to Memphis in 1950, and that Christmas his father, who played Hawaiian lap guitar, bought 14-year-old Reggie his first guitar. He was a quick learner with a will to succeed and rapidly graduated through bands playing school functions, various hillbilly and western swing outfits throughout high school, and in 1954 landed his first known recording session - in Nashville- accompanying hillbilly crooner Tommy Smith. A stint playing rockabilly with Memphis singer/entrepreneur Eddie Bond saw three classic singles released by Mercury Records in 1956.  The first of these, ‘Rockin’ Daddy’, was a regional hit and got Eddie Bond and the Stompers booked on package shows with Sun recording artists Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and Warren Smith.  In late 1957 Reggie quit Bond’s band to play guitar for the higher profile Johnny Horton and spent an eventful year on the road, returning each weekend to Shreveport for Horton’s regular spot on the Louisiana Hayride.  Reggie also accompanied the singer on his 1958 hit ‘Whispering Pines’, playing second guitar to the legendary Grady Martin.

Reggie Young’s meeting with G.I. Elvis Presley’s erstwhile bass player at Hi Records in Memphis resulted in the formation of Bill Black’s Combo who hit paydirt in 1959 with their first record, ‘Smokie - Pt. 2’.  Reggie was drafted shortly after and spent two years in Ethiopia as a morse code operative. On return to civvy street he rejoined Hi as a session man and played on numerous instrumentals by Willie Mitchell, Ace Cannon and Bill Black’s Combo, and accompanied singers such as Memphis soul man Don Bryant and ex-Sun artists Charlie Rich and Gene Simmons. Reggie also had two instrumental singles released under his own name for Hi’s subsidiary M.O.C. label. During occasional downtime at Hi he would slip away for a Tommy Roe, Tams or Arthur Lee Maye session at FAME in Muscle Shoals, particularly when the studio’s regular lead guitarist was unavailable. In 1964 Reggie insisted on rejoining the touring line up of Bill Black’s Combo when the band was booked to support the Beatles on their 30-day first US tour. For Reggie Young the fun continued for a further month when the Combo joined a UK package tour featuring the Ronettes, Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas, Cliff Bennett & the Rebel Rousers and the Yardbirds.  Ace Records MD Roger Armstrong attended one of the shows and remembers having had the good fortune to catch three great guitarists in one night: Reggie, of course, along with Eric Clapton (Yardbirds) and Mick Green (Dakotas).

Although Reggie Young still played occasional sessions at Hi Records’ Royal Studio (O.V. Wright, Bobby Bland, James Carr, etc), by 1967 he was officially a member of the American Studio house band that owner/producer Chips Moman had assembled from the cream of Memphis musicians. Initially known as the 827 Thomas Street Band (after the studio’s address) this talented and creative unit played on around 120 US hits over the next five years, including numerous million-sellers, as well as having indelibly contributed to significant albums by the likes of Dionne Warwick, Elvis Presley, King Curtis, Brenda Lee, Wilson Pickett, Neil Diamond, Dusty Springfield, Bobby Womack, B.J. Thomas, John Prine and jazz instrumentalists Herbie Mann and Hubert Laws. Having played on the Box Tops hit ‘Cry Like A Baby’ the band then cut their own sitar-heavy instrumental version for Bell, and in 1971 Scepter Records released Reggie Young’s ‘Pencil’, somewhat of a rarity - being his only vocal single.  The music made during those ground-breaking years at the American Studio was probably the most significant and wide-ranging Reggie was involved in, but there was considerably more money to be made in Nashville where one or two top producers had already been testing his Memphis loyalties. Reggie, however, remained at American until the end, which turned out to be not far off. Disenchanted with a lack of recognition from the Memphis establishment, Chips Moman along with his musicians upped sticks for what resulted in an aborted attempt to create a similar set- up in Atlanta. It lasted just a few months.

On his way back from Atlanta, Reggie Young stopped off in Nashville to see some old friends he had worked with years before at Rick Hall’s FAME Studio in Muscle Shoals. By 1972 keyboard man David Briggs and bass player Norbert Putnam were running the successful Quadrafonic Sound Studio, while having retained a good deal of their R&B sensibilities, and had no hesitation in offering Reggie a gig.  They would help ease him into the Nashvilleway of recording. At the time - as Reggie ironically recalled in one interview - Danny O’Keefe’s ‘Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues’ was high in the charts. It was also one of the last cuts Reggie had played on in Memphis. Back to Nashville, and before long his soulful, understated guitar patterns adorned such hits as ‘Drift Away’ by Dobie Gray and Jimmy Buffett’s ‘Come Monday’. Reggie also played on Waylon Jennings’ superb “Honky Tonk Heroes” album, beginning an association that would last until the end of Jennings’ career.  Through the 1970s Reggie was heard on other notable Nashville recordings by such unique talents as Delbert McClinton, Gary Stewart, James & Bobby Purify, J.J. Cale, Billy Swan (whose debut LP included the chart-topper ‘I Can Help’), Waylon Jennings again with ‘Luckenbach, Texas’ (from his big-selling “Ol’ Waylon” album), and Willie Nelson’s ‘Always On My Mind’.

Reggie Young’s old colleagues from the vintage American Studio band had also gravitated to Nashville and they reunited for recording sessions on numerous occasions, particularly when Chips Moman threw in his lot with Music City U.S.A.and opened a new studio. The Memphis Boys, as they were now known (to distinguish them from the Nashville ‘establishment’), enjoyed even more success with the part-time super group of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, collectively known as the Highwaymen following the massive success of their 1985 single ‘Highwayman’ and like-titled album. On completion of those sessions Chips, the Memphis Boys and one Highwayman were off to Memphis for another such project, the “Class Of ‘55” album, featuring former Sun legends Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison.  

Just as he had been in Memphis two decades earlier, Reggie Young was by now indisputably Nashville’s most in-demand session guitarist.  Having also been gradually drawn into the country music mainstream he was busier than ever and decided to double his fee in order to reduce the workload.  The ploy worked for a while, but normal service was not long in resuming.  Fellow guitar great, James Burton, had featured on some of Merle Haggard’s 1960s recordings and Reggie had taken up the mantle at the turn of the 1980s playing on several Haggard albums and was showcased on the # 1 country single ‘I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink’, Merle’s first chart topper in four years. A second Highwaymen album in 1990 again hit the mark and the group were now ready to hit the road. Reggie and the other Memphis Boys were up for it too and went on to accompany the four superstars on several international tours. Manna from heaven arrived for southern soul fans when the early 1990s found Reggie strongly featured on Arthur Alexander’s excellent last recordings, and saw him briefly back in Muscle Shoals adding his soulful licks and fills to Dan Penn’s long-awaited “Do Right Man” album. During his three decades in Nashville Reggie contributed to the recordings of most everyone who was anyone – and some who weren’t. Star turns like Conway Twitty, Reba McEntire, George Strait and Travis Tritt shone brightly among hundreds of other stars of varying wattage. No matter, they all benefitted from Reggie Young’s ability, attitude and professionalism during the many thousands of sessions he played for them in just about every studio in Nashville.

In 1996 Reggie briefly revived Bill Black’s Combo to record a track for Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana’s “All The King’s Men” album. The Combo’s contribution, ‘Goin’ Back To Memphis’, composed by Reggie Young and keyboard maestro Bobby Emmons, received a nomination for Best Country(!) Instrumental Performance at the 1997 Grammy Awards. Reggie was back on the road in the late 1990s after he’d been invited to join what transpired to be his old friend Waylon Jennings’ final music venture, the Waymore Blues Band. Jennings featured ‘Drift Away’ in his live set and made damn sure audiences knew who played on the original. The project comprised a mixture of Waylon’s old band members and a number of new faces including violin and cello player Jenny Lynn Hollowell. She and Reggie fell in love, got together, and in 2018 celebrated their 14th wedding anniversary.

The new millennium saw Reggie taking it a little easier in terms of his session work, but he still kept himself busy playing on albums by the likes of Merle Haggard, Little Milton, Natalie Merchant and soul diva Queen Emily, in addition to gigging with the Memphis Boys, both at home and on Elvis tribute shows in Europe. He played with the Crickets on the long-serving group’s Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame induction, and contributed to the J.J. Cale tribute album “Breeze” by Eric Clapton and Friends. After 60 years of having played on all manner of other artists’ records Reggie Young finally found time to record his first - and now, sadly, only - solo album “Forever Young”, which Ace Records were proud to release in 2017. The following year he was honoured at the annual music festival in Osceola, the town where he was raised during the 1930s and 40s, and ceremoniously given the keys to the city. 

By the time of “Forever Young”’s release, Ace had already started production on a CD overview of Reggie’s career in the recording studio, a project which had been germinating for a number of years. Reggie himself came on board and over a two-year period provided track suggestions, quotes, anecdotes and photos, as well as confirming his participation on all the titles selected. His wife Jenny lovingly took on the correspondence duties and informed us how excited Reggie was as the project neared completion. We were aware he wasn’t in the best of shape but it was a shock to all of us involved in the project when we learned of the rapid deterioration in his health. It was a relief to know that Reggie already had a finalised audio of “Session Guitar Star” and a scan of the CD booklet, although there still lingers a sad feeling that he didn’t quite make it to see the finished package. Reggie Young passed away on 17th January 2019.


Selected releases