YOUNG AT HEART – legendary ‘Memphis Boy’ and session guitarist REGGIE YOUNG talks to SJF

  • Home
  • Interviews
  • YOUNG AT HEART – legendary ‘Memphis Boy’ and session guitarist REGGIE YOUNG talks to SJF

You might not know his name but I’m betting you’ve probably heard his guitar at some point during your life. That’s because Reggie Young has played on myriad hit records during an extraordinary career that spans over sixty years. You can hear his distinctive fretboard work on, for example, such classic ’60s records as Dobie Gray’s ‘Drift Away,’ Dusty Springfield’s ‘Son Of A Preacher Man,’ Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline,’ and Elvis Presley’s ‘Suspicious Minds.’ And the list goes on. And on.  In fact, Reggie, who’ll be 81 in December, has played on hundreds of records in a multiplicity of genres but, remarkably, has never cut a full-length LP under his own name until now. It’s been a long time coming but ‘Forever Young,’ a collection of tastefully played, soul-infused instrumentals with his guitar firmly centre stage, has been well worth the wait.

“I’d been so busy doing sessions that I never really had time to put one together,” explains Reggie from his home in Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee. “I thought about it but it was time-consuming so I never pursued it until the last few years when session work became less busy around here.” Reggie lives 30 miles south of Nashville, the country music Mecca where he’s done most of his session work since the early ’70s. Before that, he was part of an elite session group dubbed the ‘Memphis Boys’ working at  producer, Chips Moman’s American Studios in Memphis between 1965 and 1972, which became renowned for producing soul, country and pop hits. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Reggie played in Bill Black’s Combo, a quintet who scored a massive R&B hit with ‘Smokie,’ and also supported The Beatles on their first US tour.

Recalling how ‘Forever Young’ came about, Reggie says “It just fell right into place. In the studio when I was setting up my instrument, I would play snippets of tunes that I had written to help me get in tune. People started asking me, what is that you’re playing? They’d say, you ought to record some of that, that’s really good. I got to thinking about it and thought well, all right, and that’s what I did. Trying to make them five or six minutes long was a bit of a challenge but it worked pretty good.”

 ‘Forever Young’ is a beautiful record which reveals that the modest and softy-spoken guitar player originally from Missouri to be a true master craftsman. Its seven songs – which feature brass arrangements by Jim Horn and cello parts by Reggie’s wife, Jennifer – range from elegant ballads (‘Soul Love’) to tight R&B grooves (‘Memphis Grease’) and elegant mid-tempo songs (‘Seagrove Place’). Unlike some guitarists, Reggie never overplays – everything is executed with a tasteful economy where each note or phrase just seems absolutely perfect.

Via an in-depth interview with SJF’s Charles Waring, Reggie Young talks about his new record as well as some of those classic recordings he’s appeared on and his close encounter with the ‘Fab Four’…


What’s the response to ‘Forever Young’ been so far?

It’s been great and much more than I ever expected. I was doing it more or less for my own benefit and my family but as it went along, people were just amazed at how good it sounded. I was amazed that they were amazed!

The opening song is ‘Coming Home to Leaper’s Fork.’ What’s the story behind it?

I’d been on tour a few years ago doing shows with the Memphis Boys in Europe. Afterwards, when I came back to Leaper’s, I was sitting on the porch just noodling around (with the guitar), my wife said, what is that? I said, I don’t know, I’m just writing a little song here, maybe I’ll call it Coming Back Home To Leapers Fork.’

What’s Leaper’s Fork like?

It’s just a small place. We’re sort of in the woods by the Natchez Trace There’s a national park right outside front door, and it goes for 450 miles down to Natchez, Mississippi. There are a lot of music people out here but it’s not busy. It’s a quaint, little community and you run into everybody. They’ll be millionaires and people that are just barely getting by, but everybody gets along. There’s no class thing. We really enjoy living out here. We’ve been out here 40 years.

Another of your songs is ‘Seagrove Place.’ What does that refer to?

Once a year we go down to Florida to the Gulf Coast, which is about seven hours from here. The place we stayed at was called Seagrove Place, it was the name of the condominium that we stayed in.

You’ve got another tune called ‘Exit 209’ …

It’s the exit off of the interstate into what we call ‘Music Row’ down in Nashville. There’s a whole area down there that’s just studio after studio. On the interstate, if you take exit 209, you’ll go right into it.

You’ve got some great players accompanying you on the album, like Clayton Ivey, David Hood and Chad Cromwell. What are these guys like to play alongside?

I’ve been knowing Clayton, and David Hood, from back in the sixties. We’re all alike. If we sit down and do a session with someone, no one usually tells us what to play – we always come up with something that works. We work together as a group instead of individuals. Anyway, we get along, we play music and get together. Nobody tells anybody else what to play.

You produced the album yourself –  did you have to direct the band or did you just leave them to their own devices?

That was a problem for me. When we went down to Muscle Shoals to record, there I am in the studio with all these great players and I’m trying to produce and play guitar at the same time. It just didn’t work. We had charts that we played but everybody did their own thing and it was exactly what I was looking for.  But when I got back home here in Leaper’s, I played what we’d done down there and I hated what I did. I loved what they did but I just didn’t like what I did. I didn’t sound loose enough so I got an engineer to come over here at the house and I redid all my guitar parts at home. It worked out great so then I got a fellow named Jim Horn, who wrote the horn parts to record the horns on in the bedroom of our house. So we did the horns and then David Hungate, who played bass with Toto originally, played on a couple of the tunes. Everything just fell together and then I got a fellow named Robbie Turner, who I was on tour with The Highwaymen, to play steel guitar. He has a studio out in East Nashville and I went out there and he mastered the album, and it just sounds great.

At what age did you get hold of a guitar and what inspired you to pick it up in the first place?

My dad played Hawaiian guitar and he taught me chords that he knew but I wanted to play lead when I first started playing. I remember when I was 14, I bought me an amplifier, got me a pickup for the guitar, then I was electrified and there wasn’t no stopping me then (laughs).

Did you have lessons or were you self-taught?

I started taking lessons maybe for a year or two after I started playing but they wanted me to play things like ‘Three Blind Mice,’ which was so boring, but it would have taught me how to read music. But I was just in too big-a-hurry I guess.  I wanted to step out and play lead guitar.

Who were your early influences?

Well, in Memphis, it’s sort of in between Nashville and the southern delta, down in Mississippi, so I’m kind of a cross between B. B.  King and Chet Atkins. A mixture of that. Most of the soul music was back then in Memphis. That’s where I came from.

A blend of country and soul then?

Yeah, very much so. That’s exactly what it was.


You played with a guy called Eddie Bond early on, didn’t you?

Yes, it was an early rockabilly band back in the ’50s. We had a regional hit called ‘Rockin’ Daddy’ and Eddie’s manager was also Elvis’s manager. He would book these package shows and we played all over the United States with Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins – he had a hit out with ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ – and a rockabilly guy named Warren Smith. Anyway, right off the bat, we had a hit.

You also played with Bill Black’s Combo and had a hit with ‘Smokie.’

That was in 1959. We were the number-one instrumental group during the early ’60s in Billboard magazine. Back then you could sell a whole lot of instrumentals because people liked them. With Bill Black, we cut this record called ‘Smokie.’ It was a hit but then I got drafted and had to go to the army. (Laughs).

Is it true that the CIA wanted you to join them after you had done your stint in the military?

Yeah, it was because I was in the ASA, the Army Security Agency, and when I got out, I had this very high security clearance. I guess it cost a lot of money to get that clearance and they sent me papers so that I could apply for the CIA but after I got home, I decided no, I’m going back to work with Bill Black.


What memories do you have of touring in Bill Black’s Combo on the first Beatles’ tour? (the two bands pictured together aboveReggie is second from the right on the top row)

I was working in the studio with Bill Black and recording with him when the people with The Beatles contacted him Bill’s road man, a guy named Bob Cover, and asked us to be the opening act for the first Beatles American tour. We’d do 30 days here and then 30 days in Europe with different headliners…. there was Billy J Kramer, and the Yardbirds with Eric Clapton. I wanted to go to Europe and I really didn’t know who the Beatles were but I didn’t say anything about it. We played the first night at the Cow Palace in San Francisco and I’ve never experienced anything like it. From the time they went on to when they went off, there was just screaming. It lasted the whole time. We’d come out to get the crowd revved-up and the announcer would say, “are you ready to see the Beatles?” The crowd would scream “yeah.” “Do you want to see Ringo?” “Yeah.” “Do you want to see George?” “Yeah.” They went through all the Beatles’ names and then they said “well, here’s the Bill Black Combo” and we got greeted with boos. We played for an hour and we backed up the other acts on there, like the Righteous Brothers and Clarence “Frogman”  Henry. We had to say to the announcers, you guys are going to have to stop that, you’re going to get us killed. (Laughs). But it worked out great and we became real good friends with the Beatles.

Did you share any guitar tips with George Harrison?

(Laughs out loud). George asked me, because I’m a blues player, how do you bend and stretch your strings like that? I told him, you have to have light gauge strings, and after that, I think he went to lighter gauge strings on his guitar because of that. He would usually send a hello to me when somebody would go there to the UK and come back home. We kept in touch. It was a time in life. Boy, Beatlemania! (Laughs).

In mid to late-’60s you became a key musician and one of the so-called ‘Memphis Boys’ at American Sound Studios, didn’t you? How did that happen?

I was working at Royal Studios for Hi Records with Bill Black and Willie Mitchell. Chips Moman had opened a studio in Memphis called American Sound. Anyway, me and him and Tommy Cogbill, a bass player, used to go to New York, and the three of us worked with Jerry Wexler for Atlantic Records and we’d cut people like Solomon Burke and Wilson Pickett and some more of their artists. Hi Records wanted to cut our salary and I said no, I can’t do that, so I made my mind made up to leave. I told myself, the first opportunity I get I’m gonna leave here because I can’t work that cheap. Then Chips Moman asked me if I would be interested in working over at his new  studio and I said yeah, so I left Hi and went over to American. And then we got Gene Chrisman as a drummer and Bobby Emmons as an organ player and then Bobby Wood as a pianist and eventually we had another bass player because Tommy Cogbill was starting to produce. I remember we decided that because we had to travel a lot to different studios, we made a pact with ourselves so that we wouldn’t go anywhere unless they used all of us. If somebody wanted to use me, for example, they had to use the whole band. And vice versa. So we stayed there at American from ’65 to ’72 and I think we cut 120 chart records. We cut everything. We did a lot of R&B and a lot of pop acts like Neil Diamond. We cut Elvis’ ‘Suspicious Minds,’ which just last year went over 40 million copies.


How did the Elvis Presley sessions come about in 1969? (Reggie is pictured third from the right).

He was going to go to LA to record but the drummer, Hal Blaine, was sick with the flu so one of Elvis’s people who actually worked for us in the studio at American, told him, “don’t cancel the sessions, you can do them in Memphis instead of going to LA. These guys have a reputation for cutting hit records.” So Elvis said, “okay, we’ll try it,” but his manager, Colonel Parker, didn’t want him to do it and said nothing’s going to come of it. We had been cutting everybody in the world and so I didn’t think I’d be impressed because Elvis hadn’t had a hit in about eight years. I remember we were standing around in the studio – American was a pretty funky old studio – and the back door opened and Elvis walked in with all his entourage. I remember thinking that I had to back up a second: “Woah, that’s the King that’s just walked in!” I didn’t realise that I would be as impressed as I was but he came in and he was dressed real nice, he looked great, and he wasn’t doing drugs or anything like that then. Moman had picked some songs for him and ‘In The Ghetto’ was one of them and ‘Suspicious Minds’ was another. But there was somebody there with Elvis in a suit and he told Moman, “we’ve already got material picked that we want to cut but if we have any outside material we want the publishing rights.” Moman said, “well, here’s the deal: we have a reputation for cutting hit records and if you don’t want to do that, just pack everybody up and get out.” Anyway that conversation got back to Elvis and he wanted to do ‘In The Ghetto’ and ‘Suspicious Minds’ so he made all his people leave and it was just Elvis and the five of us in the band and the engineer and Chips Moman. The people that were with Elvis were “yes” men. If he said it was raining they’d go and get their raincoats even if the sun was shining. After they left, we became one-on-one with Elvis and it was really a lot of fun. We talked and got to know him and we did 30-something sides in a week. It was quite enjoyable working with him.


You also worked with Dusty Springfield on her ‘Dusty In Memphis’ album – what was she like to work with?

I think she was a little scared at first when she came in. She came down with Jerry Wexler and Atlantic Records. I think she had been used to just going in the studio and have another singer sing the song she was going to sing while they worked out the arrangement and everything, so she didn’t have to sing until she came in later and did her part. At American, when she came in, we started from the ground up. We all swore to be her band rather than a bunch of studio guys. I think she was a little nervous about that, but we built the songs from the ground up and I remember doing ‘Son Of A Preacher Man.’ But by the end of the week she loved it, although I think she redid her vocals in New York. She had a good time.


You also worked on some instrumental hits at the time, for example, King Curtis’s ‘Memphis Soul Stew.’ What was King Curtis like to work with?

Before I met King Curtis when I played a solo on a record while we were cutting it, I would usually want to go back and redo it or fix a mistake, but King never would do that. He was so good, he would just play the solo in one take. I guess me watching him, I thought I want to be more like him, so I started trying to try and play everything correct on the first take with a lot of feel and not worry about the red light being on when we were recording. When we did ‘Memphis Soul Stew’ there was a restaurant next to the studio. It was what we called a meat-and-three-veg place. We went over there to eat lunch and treating it as a joke, we sat down at the table, and King Curtis picked the menu up and making it up off the top of his head, he started reading, “today’s special is Memphis soul stew.” He said: “People have been wanting to know what we put in this stuff and here’s what it is…” He said, “you have fatback drums and cornbread guitar and a pinch of organ.” We all looked at each other, got up and went next door and immediately cut ‘Memphis Soul Stew.’ We only did one or two takes on it.

Another classic soul record that you played on was James Carr’s ‘The Dark End of the Street.’ Do you remember cutting that one?

Yeah, I do, I do remember that. When I was over at Hi, they were paying us $15 a song but it might take all day and it wasn’t as much if we were paid scale, which was around $60 a session. I remember we cut the James Carr record but didn’t get paid. One day we were in the studio when Doc Russell, who was one of the owners of Goldwax Records, came down. This was when James’s record was out in the charts and when Doc walked in, Bobby Emmons, the organ player, said: “Hey Doc, the James Carr record is up the charts, but we’ve never been paid for it.” So he thought awhile and then said, “is $15 cool with you men?” Then he wrote a cheque a gave it us. Bobby Emmons wouldn’t cash it – I guess he still has it – but I needed the money so I cashed mine.

I was interested to find out that you kept a diary of all your sessions back then.

I started it to keep a record of whether I’d been paid or not. If they hadn’t paid me, there’d be a blank spot on my charts so I’d contact the producer. It’s a pretty good book and it goes back all the way to 1964. I put the artist down but didn’t put the song down. Like with Elvis, I didn’t write the songs down we did but how much we got paid and what time the sessions were and all that. But it’s pretty accurate.

You moved to Nashville in 1972. How did the music scene there and the session work compare with Memphis?

I had some musician friends over in Nashville who owned a studio. I remember the first day I went in the studio there, an engineer came up to me and said: “Mr Young, where would you like your amp?” I said what? He said he was going to set my equipment up and I was shocked because in Memphis you always had to set your own equipment up. So Nashville was very professional. It was a three-hour session that paid union scale then and if you went 15 minutes over time, you’ve got paid for that as well. They never did that in Memphis. Never ever. But it worked out really good. I got so busy that a drummer friend of mine, Larry London, and I started charging double scale back in 1979. We were just working all the time and a friend of mine, Joe Osborne, a bass player out in LA, said “you ought to do what we do,” because him and (drummer) Hal Blaine were getting double scale out in LA. He said, “even if you do half the work you normally do, you’re still making the same amount of money.” A light bulb went off and I said oooh, man, I’ll see if that works. So me and Larry went double scale in ’79. It slowed down a little bit but then build back up and then got ridiculous (laughs). There’s not that much work here now but there was a time when all we would do was sleeping and going to the studio. It was quite profitable but we didn’t have much home time. It got so big, most of the people in Nashville were double scale. They aren’t now because the business has shrunk. Everybody’s got home studios now. When they call you for sessions now, the producer will ask, “what do you charge to do a session?” I said, what about union scale and they said we don’t pay union scale. So you had to give them a figure of what you’d work for.


Of all the records that you played on, do you have a favourite one?

I guess ‘Drift Away’ with Dobie Gray was a good one for me, especially working because after that record came out everyone wanted the guitar player who played on it. But as far as fun sessions, I worked with Jimmy Buffett for years and they were always fun. We had the best time. Jimmy Buffett had a saying did, “if it ain’t fun, don’t do it.” I was on those sessions with him and he was always a fun guy to work with.

What has been the biggest highlight of your career?

I enjoyed The Beatles’ tour, that was quite a step for me. I also got the chance to play on two Kennedy Centre honours. One of them was with Willie Nelson when they honoured Johnny Cash. So that was a lot of fun. The Elvis sessions turned out really good and sold a lot of records so I’m really proud to have been a small part of that. I’ve been very fortunate and thank God every day for the success I’ve had. When I look back on what I did, I realise I was very lucky to be involved in all that stuff. I can’t believe it sometimes, the stories that people have written about a lot of things that I played on. I say “wow, I did that?” So I’ve done a lot of work.

Do you have any plans to play any live shows in support of your album?

Right now, no, I don’t. Two years ago I had some surgery so I didn’t play for about a year. It really took its toll because I used to play all the time when I was working. What I need to do now is practice and get my chops back up. The Memphis Boys want to go back out on the road so I may do that again, and may go out with a group of my own. So there’s a lot of things in the fire. Like I said, I’ve got to get my chops back first… I don’t want to go out and embarrass myself.