The world lost one of the greatest session guitarists who ever lived, on Thursday, January 17: Reggie Young. Although he didn’t record an album of his own until age 80, by that time Young had been helping other artists, from Elvis Presley to Bing Crosby to Willie Nelson to Martina McBride, make records for more than half a century. Young died at his home outside of Nashville. He had suffered through surgeries in recent years and never fully recovered, and is survived by his wife, Jenny, who he met while they were both in Waylon Jennings’ touring band in 1999. Young was 82.
Reggie Young, Jr. was born in 1936 in Osceola, Arkansas. When he was 13, his family moved to Memphis. His first guitar was a National flattop that he fitted with a DeArmond pickup and ran through a Rickenbacker amp. He was soon learning the licks of Chet Atkins and fellow Memphis resident B.B King.
As a teenager, his band Eddie Bond & the Stompers had a regional hit and found themselves touring with Elvis, where Young met Presley bassist Bill Black. Black started him on his studio career and employed him in his own Bill Black’s Combo, which led to Young playing on his first national hit, the Combo’s “Smokie Part 2.” Young’s unique sound on that record was created by tuning his Gibson ES-335 down two whole-steps and tapping on the strings with a pencil.
Drafted right after the song hit the charts, the guitarist spent most of his military tour in Ethiopia, where he played a newly acquired Fender Duo-Sonic at the enlisted men’s club. Back in Memphis, Young began working at Hi Records’ Royal Studios, and again with Bill Black’s Combo. Though mostly a studio band, they made an exception to tour with the Beatles in 1964. After the first concert, George Harrison began questioning Young about gear. He told the Beatle he played through a Standel amp, and schooled Harrison on the use of an unwound third string for easier bending. The Combo also toured Europe, where Young met young Eric Clapton.
Back at Royal Studios, Young was dissatisfied with the meager pay, so when former Stax producer Chips Moman asked him to start doing sessions at his new American Sound Studio, the guitarist was happy to jump ship. There, they put together the legendary band of Tommy Cogbill, Gene Chrisman, and Bobby Emmons. The Memphis Boys, as they would come to be known, went on to record a perhaps-unparalleled string of hit records, including Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” and “In the Ghetto” (recorded with Young’s 1967 Garcia nylon acoustic), Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” Merrilee Rush’s “Angel of the Morning,” and Dusty Springfield’s classic Dusty in Memphis—to name but a few. Young’s iconic riff for the intro to Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” was only one of many signature licks he would provide over the years to lift already great songs into the stratosphere. The Memphis Boys created the sound of the Box Tops’ hits “The Letter” and “Cry Like a Baby”—the latter showcasing Young’s first work with the electric sitar. It was at American Studios that Young met Clarence Nelson and Bobby Womack, two guitarists who would greatly influence his style.
After five years, Chips Moman moved his operation to Atlanta, Georgia. Unhappy there, Young headed back to Memphis, fatefully stopping off in Nashville. He ran into pianist David Briggs and bassist Norbert Putnam, musicians he had met doing sessions in Muscle Shoals in 1963, and who had a Nashville studio called Quadrafonic Sound. Young began working with them. He commuted back and forth from Memphis to Nashville for a while, but by the early ’70s was firmly settled in Music City. Around 1973, Putnam and Briggs used him on a session for Dobie Gray, where Young laid down the legendary guitar intro to “Drift Away.” When the song became a hit, country acts started requesting the guitarist who played the unforgettable parts on that record. Another classic identifying lick was his harmonized whole-tone intro to Billy Swann’s 1974 hit “I Can Help.” It wasn’t long before the transplant was earning double-scale and working three sessions a day.
Young was soon called to play for country legends like Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, George Jones, and Willie Nelson. His soloing on Haggard’s “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” played on his 1957 Stratocaster, is a textbook for would-be country guitarists. He cut records with artists who would currently be labeled Americana, like J.J. Cale and Tony Joe White, and in the ’80s added a new generation of country legends to his list: George Strait, Reba McEntire, John Anderson, Travis Tritt, Clint Black, and Hank Williams, Jr.
That decade saw studio work falling off, even for a master of Young’s stature, so the guitarist returned to the road, backing Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson, who were known collectively as the Highwaymen, and later he toured as a member of Waylon Jennings’ Waymore Blues Band. His studio schedule slowed further, but the guitarist still turned in stellar work into the ’90s, for Martina McBride, Boz Scaggs, and others.
The upside to this downslide was that, in 2017, the octogenarian Young finally had the time and inclination to make his first solo album, Forever Young. The recording began in Muscle Shoals, with Chad Cromwell on drums, David Hood on bass, and Clayton Ivey on keyboards, and Young added horns at his home studio in Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee. Unhappy with the guitar sound from Muscle Shoals, Young rerecorded the parts at home on his black ’69 Fender Telecaster through a ’65 Fender Deluxe Reverb amp. Forever Young’s tunes are rife with the tone, taste, and time that made him the first-call guitarist for many producers, songwriters, and artists through the decades. And fortunately, Young lived long enough to enjoy the plaudits of peers and acolytes, who welcomed this recorded distillation of his brilliance.
As long as the talent of session guitarists is required, generation after generation will study the work of Reggie Young as a how-to template. But on a larger scale, everyone—musicians and non-musicians alike—who hears “Son of a Preacher Man,” “In the Ghetto,” “Hooked on a Feeling,” and “Drift Away” will be instantly drawn into those songs through the art of Young’s intros, and he will live on in his brilliant music.
Re-experience the classic Memphis guitar sound that Reggie Young played a major role in developing at the American Sound and Royal studios in the Bluff City, in this tribute to the era, “Memphis Grease,” from his lone solo album, 2017’s Forever Young.