Interview with legendary guitarist, Reggie Young
Alabama, Paul Anka, Eddy Arnold, BabyFace, Joan Baez, Bill Black Combo, Clint Black, Bobby 'Blue' Bland, Eddie Bond, Bonnie Bramlett, Garth Brooks, Buck Owens, Jimmy Buffett, Buffy Sainte-Marie, JJ Cale, Glen Cambell, Ace Cannon, Johnny Cash, Rosanne Cash, Ray Charles, Kenny Chesney, Petula Clark, Patsy Cline, Joe Cocker, Jessie Colter, Earl Tomas Conley, Conway Twitty, Bing Crosby, Crusaders, Billy Ray Cyrus, Lacy J. Dalton, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Duane Eddy, Don Everly, Donna Fargo, Janie Fricke, Lefty Frizzell, Amy Grant, Lee Greenwood, Dobie Grey, Merle Haggard, Ronnie Hawkins, Highwaymen, Clarence Frogman Henry, Johnny Horton, Etta James, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Tom Jones, Doug Kershaw, B.B. King, Al Kooper, Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dave Loggins, Patty Loveless, Loretta Lynn, Herbie Mann, Dean Martin, Delbert McClinton, Little Milton, Scotty Moore, Willie Nelson, Aaron Neville, Mickey Newbury, Danny O'Keefe, Roy Orbison, Buck Owens, Dolly Parton, Johnny Paycheck, Carl Perkins, Wilson Pickett, Elvis Presley, Charlie Pride, John Prine, Kenny Rogers, Earl Scruggs, Dusty Springfield, Cat Stevens, George Strait, Ernest Tubb, Shania Twain, Dion Warwick, Andy Williams, Don Williams, and there are many more. Reggie Young is known internationally and his style of playing is copied by guitar players all over the world.
Can you tell us about your background and how you got started in the music business?
I was born in Caruthersville, Missouri on December 12th 1936, I never lived there I was born at my Grandmothers house and grew up in a little town in Arkansas called Oceola. I lived there till I was fourteen. Oceola was only a few miles from Dyess where Johnny Cash is from. I didn't know John during the time I lived in Arkansas I met him a little bit later. My dad and his brother used to have a radio program back in the thirties in a little town in Arkansas. They played guitar and sang. This was before I was born.
What made you decide to play guitar and who were your early influences?
My earliest influence was my dad, he played Hawaiian guitar and not like country steel guitar, Hawaiian music like Sweet Leilani and all those songs. He knew chords on regular guitar and I got a guitar for Christmas when I was fourteen and he showed me the basic chord structures and I just kinda went from there. We moved to Memphis when I was fourteen and Memphis was like a melting pot, it was in the middle of Nashville and the Mississippi Delta so I was influenced by all the Delta blues and the Nashville country music.
My style of playing was a mixture of Chet Atkins and BB King. I think that influenced the music that came out of Memphis. All the guitar players I knew back then like Scotty Moore were all influenced by Chet, Jazz and the blues, mostly blues and country though.
Q : When did you start playing guitar?
A : I started playing guitar back in the early 50's. My dad played and he showed me what he knew and I just kind of went from there. And one of the first bands I was with was a guy named Eddie Bond and the Stompers. This was like 1955 or 56 in Memphis, a rockabilly band. And we toured, this guy named Bob Neal used to book us, let's see, it was us and Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and sometimes Elvis would be on some of these things. We worked that whole year of 1956 with Eddie Bond. We were just rocking around all over the country. After that I went to Shreveport and worked on the Louisiana Hayride, Elvis had just left down there. I was working with Johnny Horton, had a record called 'Battle of New Orleans'.
Anyway, I was with him until I got drafted in 1960. I spent a couple of years in Ethiopia, of all places, with the army. Came back and I formed a group with Bill Black.
Around 1964 I went on tour with the Beatles, that was their first tour and with the Bill Black Combo. They requested us to be the opening act for them on their first tour of America, and so we did that. That was a hoot, and a guy named Malcolm Evans was their road manager and he was a card-carrying Elvis fan, he belonged to the Elvis fan club and he was proud to show that right in the midst of all this Beatle mania going on.
And after that, sometime around 65, I got with Chips Momon and Tommy Cogbill, bass player. And we just sort of bound ourselves together and got Gene Chrisman, Bobby Emmons and Bobby Wood and Mike Leech and formed the Memphis Rhythm Section at American Studio where we cut Elvis in '69 I guess. But during that time that we were there, I'm not sure, somebody I've heard, well, ridiculous numbers, I think the honest number of the hits that we cut with the same band, just different producers, was somewhere around 120 something. And everybody from Elvis to the whole gamut of R&B artists: Wilson Pickett and Dionne Warwick and, it was quite a list that we did that. And I was there until 72. And then, we packed up everything and moved to Atlanta and stayed down there for about six months. And then we sort of all disbanded, I came to Nashville. Actually, we're all the band, the American band, here in Nashville now. And, everybody, as far as I know still playing and having a great time.
Q : When was the first time you heard of Elvis?
A : The first time I heard of him was probably maybe through the disc jockey, Dewey Phillips in Memphis because everybody listened to Dewey Phillips when I was in high school. He got 'Thats All Right Mama' and 'Blue Moon of Kentucky'. And he would just play them over and over and over again. And it was an R&B station, it was black artists, and here's this guy shows up. That was probably the first time I ever heard of him.
Q : What did you think when you heard the record?
A : Oh, I thought he was very unusual, very different. I thought he was really cool. I knew, well, it was a place in Memphis called the Eagle's Nest. And they had a western swing band playing, it was a pretty big band. And Elvis played the intermission. And, I remember Bill Black was still working at Firestone. And Elvis had this pink coat on. He bought his clothes from Lansky Brothers down on Beale Street, which was outrageous back then, but it was cool because nobody did that. You know, not the white guys anyway. And he was just kind of his own. And, they would play the intermissions. The band would play like 45 minutes and Elvis, Bill and Scotty Moore would go on and play. And I knew Bill and Scotty just from things and records from back then. And, when the western swing band would play then, it wouldn't be anybody in there. When the intermission band, which was Elvis and his guys, everybody would rush in out of the parking lot and just pack the place, you know.
Q : Was that when you first met Elvis?
A : The first time I met him was at a radio station, I believe it was WMPS. There was a disc jockey named Dick Stewart. And he had a nickname, Poor Richard or something, I can't remember. But, I was up there with a friend of mine. And, Elvis came in with his record and gave it to Dick Stewart and introduced himself. And Kenneth, the guy I was with, knew Elvis. Anyway, we walked around down Main Street and Elvis went in Kress, this dime store, and he was flirting with the chick behind the counter, you know, and carrying on with her.
With Elvis in the army you teamed up with Bill Black.
Did this lead to the formation of the Bill Black Combo?
Yes it did. I knew Bill from around Memphis and we'd played some gigs around town. Elvis was in the army and Bill and DJ had quit. I knew DJ in Shreveport he lived down there. I lived in Shreveport for a little over a year and my best friend down there was David Huston, he had a record out called Almost Persuaded. DJ's dad had a grocery store in Shreveport and we all hung out there during the day. Anyway back to Bill. I knew him in Memphis and he wasn't working with Elvis. We used to go to a place called Hi Studio or Royal Studio, same thing, Hi Records was a label they had. We'd do demos with different people around town. I remember one day we were sitting around and I had tuned my guitar down two whole steps and had a pencil and I was playing this shuffle rhythm with the guitar tuned down and instead of a guitar pick I was using a pencil like a drum stick. It came out with this old funky shuffle beat and we just played blues changes and recorded this goofy little instrumental. A week or so later a guy from London Records was in to hear the stuff we'd been working on and different artists and he heard the instrumental and loved it. He took it and they released it on london Records. So we were trying to decide what to call the band and it was either going to be Reggie Young's Combo or Bill Black's Combo or whoever. But we figured that out of the band the disc jockeys would know who Bill Black was more than me so we named it the Bill Black Combo and shared equally artists and writers royalties. The record was released in September 1959 and was a top ten pop record which was a huge break and that's kind of how we got started with Bill Black.
Moving onto American Sound. How did you meet Chips Moman?
I met Chips before I got drafted in the army. I used to see him around Memphis, he would be playing clubs and I knew him as a guitar player and when I got drafted he replaced me in the Bill Black Combo as a guitar player. I'm not sure how long he did that ‘cause there were various guitar players that did that gig while I was gone. I had known Chips for a long time.
In 1969 Elvis recorded some of his best material in years at American. What was it like working with him?
Now that was a trip. Chips Momon said', Hey, we gonna be cutting Elvis. We had been recording with quite a few artists and we had records in the top ten, so we weren't that impressed. I remember thinking at the time 'oh well Elvis is coming in' but he hadn't had a hit record in about eight years so it was like no big deal. But the day he showed up I'll never forget it. The back door opened and in walked Elvis and I remember we all just backed up a step. He looked great and I remember thinking 'wow that is Elvis Presley' it was just incredible. He had this charisma around him that was overwhelming. He had his entourage with him and he'd put a cigarette in his mouth and there would be seven or eight lighters, click, click, click!. The first day was like that. After the first day the entourage were asked to leave and in the studio it was just the band, Chips, Felton Jarvis, his producer, and a couple of engineers from RCA to run the tape machines. I remember we would sit around and talk to Elvis about Memphis, school and different places around town. Just a bunch of guys sitting around laughing and carrying on and someone would think of a song and we'd play it and that's kinda how the sessions went. We had the material picked. I remember he brought in a bunch of songs, I say he did, his publisher did. They had most of the material, actually they said they had all of the material picked, but it was just like show tunes, really bad. We were standing around and they played a demo and Elvis turned to me and said 'do you like that?' and I said 'well, no not really', and he asked Bobby Wood 'do you like that song', and Bobby said 'man that's awful', Anyway we had a laugh about it and Felton called us over to the side and said 'Hey, we got all them songs picked, so don't make any waves', Then Moman pitched Suspicious Minds and In The Ghetto to him and he loved Suspicious Minds. There was a little controversy over that. Moman told some official with RCA, who wanted all the publishing rights on those songs', look we have a reputation for cutting hit records and if you want to do that, then let's do that, but if you don't just get out, just take everybody and leave', Well that got back to Elvis and he made everybody leave and we cut, I don't know, thirty seven songs and they were all great, they really were and he just had a great time. He really tried, he'd be singing and I remember Moman said something to him one time', that he might have been a bit flat on this word and 'could we do this part again', Nobody else would ever have said anything to him about it, but he really appreciated it. And as history has revealed that was his comeback album that we did and got him back out on the road. He tried to hire the band to go out on the road with him but nobody was interested in doing that, I didn't want to and nobody else did either. That's when he hired the band that toured with him, you know James Burton and Ronnie Tutt, and he started touring again, thanks to that From Elvis In Memphis album we did.
Reggie Young (far right) with Elvis and The Memphis Boys in 1969.
Q : Didn't Neil Diamond already have the time at that time?
A : We had been recording with Neil Diamond and there's another guy named Roy Hamilton was in there also. And so it was in that same frame that we did Elvis. As a matter of fact, when we got through with those sessions, we went back and we were finishing up some stuff we did with Roy Hamilton. Elvis really liked him.
Q : Elvis gave him a song.
'Angelica'. Anyway, the back door opened while we were doing right in the middle of Roy Hamilton's session. And the back door opens again and it's Elvis walks in and he's got this song. And he said',I think this would be a great song for you, Roy'. And he took it up and we gave it to him. And we cut it and it was 'Angelica'.
Q : Did George Klein bring in 'Suspicious Minds'?
A : You know, we had cut 'Suspicious Minds' on, one of the writers that worked there, his name was Mark James, for Sceptor Records I think. And the arrangement was pretty much what we did with Mark, as what we did with Elvis. Oh there was one thing, it was this guitar. Chips had traded a guitar, had traded a set of keyboard bells to Scotty Moore. Scotty had a studio in town at that time. Scotty wanted those bells, keyboard bells and traded this beautiful super 400 Gibson guitar that he played on a lot of these Elvis classics Scotty played. Well, anyway, this guitar had been laying around the studio, it was always there. You know, and I'd pick it up and play it sometimes. Anyway, I thought, dang, Elvis is gonna come in, it would be great to play that guitar on this stuff. So we sent it out and had it all fixed up and playable and everything. You know, and that's what I played on all that stuff we did with him. It was with Scotty's old guitar, you know.
Q : Do you remember Mac Davis coming in and playing?
A : Yea, Mac Davis, what I played on In The Ghetto is exactly the way he played it, it was the same lick. I remember when Mac Davis pitched 'In The Ghetto' and he played it while Elvis was there. And he played that same guitar lick and I just stole it right off of him and played the same thing on Elvis' record.
But that's the way he wanted me to do, I mean, you know, if I could have thought of a better guitar lick to put on it, I would have. But I couldn't come up with anything better than what Mac had already played so I just aped what he did and played that on 'In The Ghetto'.
Q : Elvis' sense of humor, did that come through a lot during the sessions?
A : Yeah, you could tell he was very relaxed, he wasn't up tight about nothing. He was just like we're sitting around in this room and just started talking and it took a while to get over the fact that he was who he is, you know. But, then we were just like a band, everybody and it was, he was a pretty funny guy.
Q : What song are you the most proud of that you worked with Elvis on?
A : Gosh, well, I guess 'Suspicious Minds', I really enjoyed that, 'In the Ghetto' was so cool because it was, before any over dubs, it was just like I counted it off and it's just me and him, just the two of us. And I remember being kind of nervous, you know, just me and him played for a while before the band came in. And then there's over dubs and sweetening and stuff goes on after that. But the basic track, I remember that was really cool, 'Kentucky Rain', I remember that being a good track.
Q : Where were you when you learned of Elvis passing?
A : I was here in Nashville working for Buddy Kelin. And he came in and said, he had just got a phone call that Elvis had died. And we stopped and went home, everybody left.
Q : What has working with Elvis meant to you?
A : Well, I fell like I was blessed to be just a little small part of having to playing on some of his records. As I look back I'm totally honored that I was there, I feel like I'm totally blessed that I was there. It was just a magical time and the music. You know, and that whole era back then was just magical. And, I'm just so grateful that I had just a little bitty part of what happened to launch his career again. And, matter of fact he asked us if we would like to go out on the road and go play some gigs with him and do that. And I think we all turned him down because we were sort of into ourselves I guess.
Q : Do you get together with the guys from American Recording Studio and talk over times about Elvis?
A : We got to talking about the Elvis things. But when we all moved to Nashville in 72, nobody hired us as a rhythm section. Buddy Cohen did on occasion. But that just amazes me that they didn't, cause it was such a tight section, you know. But I don't know. That never happened. So we didn't work together a lot as a band here. And usually when we got together, we'd talk about our Memphis days. Cause we had such a track record of all those hits and stuff that we did. And Elvis was, man, that was a big part of that too, you know.
Q : Of all the performers you played with, do you get the question, what was Elvis like?
A : Yeah. Yeah, all the time. It's amazing, I mean, people ask that probably weren't even born yet at the time Elvis was happening. I remember, I was in the airport one time. a drummer here named Larrie Londin. He and I were in the airport in Toronto. And Larrie I think had played the last tour with Elvis. I believe it was the last. He had backstage pass on his bag that he had over his shoulder. I think it had Elvis, maybe Elvis backstage pass or something. And anyway, this girl came up, she was probably 13, 14 years old. And she asked Larry, she said, 'Oh did you see Elvis?' And he said, 'I'm a drummer, and I played on his last tour. Last tour he did'. And she looked at Larrie and man, just started crying, you know. So, where does that come from, I'm sure she must have been just a little bitty kid, or even born at all when Elvis was alive.
Q : Have you ever seen reactions to any other performers like that?
A : Never, no.
Q : What was there about Elvis that was really unique? Elvis had a lot of charisma.
A : Oh, he did. I don't know. He was different. Lot of people, when he first started, I guess, probably looked down at him and maybe even laughed at him and stuff. But man, what a energy force he was. I mean, he stuck out, like going to (Bernard) Lansky's and buying clothes at Lansky Brothers. Nobody did that, you know. And now, dang, everybody does. I mean, he started the whole trend of everything. Music, the way he looked, clothes. He wouldn't back off one instant, either. Not one thing. He was Elvis, and if nobody liked him, there'll never be anybody like him, ever, you know. I don't know how you could top that act, you know.
Do you have any particular memories of working with Johnny Cash?
I respect John Cash, he's an icon in this business and I'm glad to have known him all these years. There's a funny thing that happened to me while we were doing the Highwaymen tours. We hadn't done the show for quite a while and we were playing in Central Park, New York. The four guys were on stage all the time during the two hour show we did and the way Johnny Cash was introduced, he would step up to the microphone and say 'Hello, I'm Johnny Cash', which triggered my brain to play the intro to 'Folsom Prison Blues'. To me, in my mind, the intro to Folsom Prison was two parts - John Cash saying 'Hello, I'm Johnny Cash' and then I'd play the intro. We hadn't done the show in a while and it came time for Folsom Prison and John walked up to the microphone and I'm standing there all keyed up and he didn't say anything. He didn't say 'Hello, I'm Johnny Cash', and I was waiting for it so I could play the rest of the intro. He finally turned and looked at me and nodded to go ahead and play. I couldn't think what to play without his intro and I knew it was on the low strings so I started playing something hoping that Gene, the drummer, would pick up the tempo.
We got through it and Waylon Jennings walked over after it started and said 'Hoss, what was that you were playing!' He was laughing, he was about to fall down on the stage he was laughing so hard. John Cash is a true trooper. I remember seeing him on stage when he was in so much pain from this tooth following some dental work that went wacky on him. We had been touring pretty heavy and I was thinking how tired I was and anyway to see him when he was on stage and when he turned around and looked at the band you could just see the pain in his face. I thought man if he can stand up there and do this for two hours, and I know he's hurting, I have no complaints whatsoever. He's a true trooper. It's been a trip just knowing John Cash and I'm so proud that I can say I know Johnny Cash.
Q : Do you have a special memory with Elvis?
A : Well, it's all a special moment. But especially American, the one on one, when we were just sittin' around talking and you know, after the fact I look back and say, man I was just sittin' around talking to Elvis. And, and he wasn't the king, he was just Elvis Presley.
Q Close : He's probably looking down and saying, that old Reggie. Thanks for everything.
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Tupelo's Own Elvis Presley DVD + 16 page booklet.
Never before have we seen an Elvis Presley concert from the 1950's with sound. Until Now! The DVD Contains recently discovered unreleased film of Elvis performing 6 songs, including Heartbreak Hotel and Don't Be Cruel, live in Tupelo Mississippi 1956. Included we see a live performance of the elusive Long Tall Sally seen here for the first time ever.
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The 'parade' footage is good to see as it puts you in the right context with color and b&w footage. The interviews of Elvis' Parents are well worth hearing too. The afternoon show footage is wonderful and electrifying : Here is Elvis in his prime rocking and rolling in front of 11.000 people. Highly recommended.