Mighty Joe Young
A remembrance of the late Mighty Joe Young by bandmate and friend Kenny Saydak, written on the occasion of the release of Mighty Joe Young (BPCD 5073).
One day in 1975, a blues guitarist/singer and veteran sideman on some of the most influential recordings in the history of Chicago blues walked into Streeterville Studio on East Grand Avenue to begin recording his second album for the Chicago-based Ovation label. Along with him was an excited and wide-eyed young man about to record his first album as a member of an international touring blues band. I was that youngster, and the man for whose session tape was about to roll was Mighty Joe Young. It was the beginning of a more than five-year association, one which covered hundreds of thousands of miles, a thousand nights of music, and uncountable lessons about the blues, professionalism, friendship, life, and love. You see, it was damned near impossible to be around Mighty Joe Young without being influenced by his gifts as a musician, as an entertainer, and perhaps most importantly, as a human being. Some people believe that a man's music reflects his character, and in the case of Joe Young, that parallel accounts for the high quality of both.
Joe's tragic passing in 1999 from complications resulting from elective surgery did not just deprive his family, friends and fans of his unforgettable presence. It also deprived the new generation of blues musicians and listeners the opportunity to become acquainted with an artist who was a link between the glory days of Chicago blues and the contemporary blues scene. Even though Joe's woefully few recordings will continue to afford new listeners the chance to hear him, they unfortunately do not bear witness to the power of his live performances. Joe invested every single appearance with incredible presence and showmanship, reflecting his love for both his music and his audience. Whether he was playing for a huge festival crowd overseas or a handful of people at the tail end of a long club night in Cleveland, Joe delivered the goods, always wearing his gigantic contagious smile. Everybody left a Mighty Joe Young show satisfied and in high spirits.
This compilation serves to make available again tracks from his two sessions for Ovation Records in 1974 and 1976, both of which were previously available only on vinyl and recently very difficult to find. The tracks herein are a fine representation of Mighty Joe Young's talents as a guitar player, singer, and songwriter. They demonstrate his affinity with the smooth contemporary blues of the day (As The Years Go Passing By), urban soul (Chickenheads), and the hybrid of sounds incorporated into his own songs. At the time these tracks were recorded, the trip from Chicago to Memphis to New Orleans to Detroit to London to Haight-Ashbury was but a short stroll down the pop charts. Fueled by the ever-elusive dream of writing that one song that would cross over the narrow channels separating pop music's markets, Joe drew on regional sounds from Motown (Green Light) to New Orleans (I Give, New Orleans Woman), as well as more specific influences from Bo Diddley (Take My Advice) to Freddie King (Need A Friend). While Joe had been a part of historic sessions with legends like Magic Sam and Otis Rush, he was never content to be a golden oldie. In all of his efforts, he showed that his mind and ears were wide open and he was able to take cues from a variety of sources and infuse them with his own unique musical sense.
When asked by the uninitiated what kind of music he played, Joe had a stock response, which he always delivered with a proud smile: "blues with a touch of soul." He certainly did play the blues, and he absolutely did so with more than just a touch of soul. Listening to these tracks is a chance to either discover or rediscover the still relevant, still vibrant sound and heart of a beloved Chicago blues giant: Mighty Joe Young.
A biography of Mighty Joe Young written by Justin O'Brien in 1997.
Mighty Joe Young was one of the first blues artists to break through on the North Side of Chicago in the very early 1970s, playing to packed clubs and becoming one of the premier and best-known touring blues artists on the festival and university circuits. Then in the mid-1980s, it seemed he suddenly dropped off the face of the Earth. Between tours in 1986 he had taken his band into the studio on his own money and started to lay down tracks to finally do a recording - his way. But after recording only three numbers he shelved the project when in the fall of 1986 he decided to have surgery on a pinched nerve in his neck. "That's when things started to go to hell," remembers Young. "I went in on September 3 and I got back out at the end of October. I was in rehab for a year."
He healed and regained his balance for walking, but he has yet to fully recover the sensation in his fingers to play like he wants to. As a result he has made only rare appearances over the last decade. His greatest hope has been to regain his ability to play guitar as he did before the operation.
Joe Young is still mighty in his seventieth year. His regular work-outs at the health club help maintain his barrel-chested former boxer's physique. Always a strong family man, he has made his recovery surrounded by children and grandchildren. He's been out making appearances again as a singer and was on the schedule for the 1997 Chicago Blues Festival. Things look pretty good for him. But Mighty Joe Young has come a long way to make this CD, Mighty Man. Born September 23, 1927 in Shreveport, Louisiana, Young also lived for a time in Milwaukee and Los Angeles, where in the late 40s he was an amateur boxer.
"It was nothing to write home about, you know," recalls Young, "I decided that music was the best thing to do." He began playing in the early 1950s, working clubs in Milwaukee and then back in his native Louisiana where in 1955 he first recorded for the tiny Jiffy label.
The next year he came finally to Chicago where he served an apprenticeship with Joe Little and his Heart Breakers, Jimmy Rogers, Billy Boy Arnold and Otis Rush. He eventually recorded a few more singles for Atomic H, Fire (where in 1961 he was given the "Mighty" moniker), Webcor, Celtex and U.S.A. and appeared on disc with blues titans Magic Sam (on both Delmark LPs), Willie Dixon, Albert King, Jimmy Dawkins, Tyrone Davis (including his hit "Can I Change My Mind") and Koko Taylor (on Chess and Alligator). In 1969, his sensational appearance with Koko at Chicago's first Grant Park Blues Festival was an enormous boost to both of their careers. In typically humble fashion Joe Young plays down his role as one of the first to bring blues to North Side clubs, but back when blues was new to young, white audiences, he was a huge draw at Alice's Revisited, Minstrels, Biddy Mulligan's and Wise Fools where he played 12 straight New Year's Eve engagements.
"I came in behind older guys like [mandolinist] Johnny Young." recalls Joe Young, who adds, "I worked because I kept a good group together." His memorable appearances at the Ann Arbor Festivals in the early '70s solidified his hold on the festival and university circuits, and by the mid-1980s Young's successful career had taken him all over North America and Europe.
In the wake of his precedent-setting guitar work on LPs for Delmark, Ovation, and Alligator in the 1970s, Young embarked in 1986 on this project to finally do a recording the way he wanted to do it. After getting down the original three tracks and undergoing his subsequent surgery and rehabilitation, he continued to sing and write songs over the years, periodically going into the studio to get more numbers on tape. While Young plays lead on the original three tracks, Will Crosby (son of Jake "Sax" Crosby) handles the balance. The majority of the tracks feature his son Joe Young, Jr. on rhythm guitar and back-up vocals (with Royalene Wilson), Leo Davis on keyboards ("Professor" Eddie Lusk appears on "Turning Point"), veteran sidemen Bernard Reed on bass, and B.J. Jones on drums. Billy Branch makes a guest appearance on harp on "Wishy Washy Woman". Long-time friends and Chicago soul scene veterans and hit producers Gene "Daddy G" Barge and Willie Henderson (who co-produced) wrote the horn charts. Ultimately Jerry Del Giudice, a trusted friend since the 1970's Ann Arbor scene, enthusiastically helped Young put the finishing touches to Mighty Man ten years after the first notes were recorded. "It's different from traditional blues," says Young, "but it is blues. I like a beautiful arrangement, not a traditional sound that's the same all the time...I want a different sound."
A big part of that sound hearkens back to his pioneering work as one of the first Chicago singer/guitarists to meld soul and blues in tight, fresh, horn-laden arrangements. The result is a sound that for some will serve as an introduction to a less-familiar but deep-rooted style of Chicago blues, and for others will spark memories of powerful good-time, jam-packed to the rafters, Chicago-style soul-blues.
Joe Young, the "Mighty Man," is back!