Legendary guitarist Reggie Young — key sideman to Elvis, Waylon, Willie and more — dead at age 82
Bob MehrUpdated 3:23 p.m. CT Jan. 18, 2019
Reggie Young's name may not be instantly familiar to the masses, but his guitar work has been heard by nearly everyone with a set of ears: The sultry opening of Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man,” the signature electric sitar of the Box Tops' "Cry Like a Baby," the dramatic swells on Elvis Presley’s "Suspicious Minds" and "In the Ghetto,” and literally hundreds of other hits and classics.
The 82-year-old Young died Thursday night at his home outside Nashville, following an illustrious seven-decade career. Young served as the anchor of house bands at Memphis’ Hi Records and American Studios and as one of Nashville's most revered session men.
Legendary guitarist Reggie Young died Jan. 17 at age 82. His guitar work appeared on hundreds of hits and classics. (Photo: Chart Room Media)
His passing was confirmed by family, friends and several artists he worked with, including singer B.J. Thomas.
“From the first time I was in the studio with Reggie in 1967, we just fit together like a hand in a glove, and over the years became like brothers,” Thomas said.
Young played on most of Thomas' big hits including “Hooked on a Feeling” and “(Hey, Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song.”
“It’s hard to really get it straight in your mind that a guy who had no ego about what he was doing could play the amazing things Reggie played," Thomas said. "He was never trying to stand out. That’s the difference between Reggie and a lot of guitar players. He’d be playing right in the groove — but all the while doing these little things that made a song special or made it a hit.
“But then, when he wanted to, like with ‘Hooked on a Feeling,’ he stepped up with that (signature Coral electric sitar) part and did what I think is one of the classic solos of all time,” Thomas added. “You know, after working with Reggie, Eric Clapton said he was the greatest guitar player he ever heard — that’s a pretty good accolade.”
Reggie Young: Fans, musicians mourn legendary guitarist's death
Born in 1936 in Caruthersville, Missouri, and raised in Osceola, Arkansas, Young moved with his family to Memphis in 1950 at the age of 14. A relative prodigy, Young was gigging professionally at age 15. He would go on to back local rockabilly singer Eddie Bond — putting his signature lick on Bond's hit "Rockin' Daddy" — before being hired away by country star Johnny Horton. In the late-'50s Young would land as the house guitarist at the fledgling South Memphis’ Royal Studios/Hi Records, making hits with Bill Black’s Combo.
After being drafted and serving a stint in the Army, where he was stationed in Africa, and recruited by and rebuffed an offer to join the CIA, Young returned stateside. He would tour with Bill Black's Combo, getting a first-hand glimpse of Beatlemania as the Fab Four’s opening act in 1964. Young also played on some of the great soul sides Hi Records began producing under bandleader Willie Mitchell.
Reggie Young through the years
By the mid-'60s Young had moved on to work with producer Chips Moman at his American Studios. As part of American’s famed house band, “The Memphis Boys,” Young and company would sire an unprecedented run of chart hits — more than 120 — into the early ‘70s for the likes of Elvis, Neil Diamond and B.J. Thomas, among others.
Like most of the American crew, Young would leave Memphis in 1972, briefly for Atlanta, before settling in Nashville and becoming one of Music City’s top guns. Over the next two decades Young worked with country giants, adding his signature licks to songs by Merle Haggard ("Pancho & Lefty), Willie Nelson ("Always on My Mind"), Waylon Jennings ("Luckenbach, Texas"), Hank Williams Jr. ("Family Tradition"), Kenny Rogers ("Lucille") and Reba McEntire ("Little Rock").
Though he was a self-effacing and humble character, fellow musicians always took note of Young's great gifts. His talents were revered by fellow guitarists like Eric Clapton and George Harrison, and utilized by a stunning array of artists from Bob Dylan to Gladys Knight, the Staple Singers to Paul Simon, Herbie Mann to Joe Cocker, B.B. King to Sinead O’Connor.
Fellow Music City session legend Norbert Putnam recalled Young as “perhaps the greatest studio guitarist I ever worked with.”
“Country, pop, R&B, blues — Reggie could play about a dozen styles,” Putnam said. “The thing that made him so amazing was that a producer could say, ‘Hey Reggie — play something for the intro, OK?’ And, literally, he’d play something off the top of his head that would absolutely make the song. He didn’t say, ‘Give me 20 minutes and I'll think of something.’ If he was called upon, he’d have something every time.
“Reggie got to Nashville about '71 or '72, and I remember Dobie Gray came in with ‘Drift Away.’ Mentor Williams was producing and he said, 'Reggie, you got an idea for the intro?’” Putnam recalled. “And, on the spot, Reggie played that opening part that’s so iconic. It was the biggest record of that year. I don’t know anyone who was faster or better than Reggie. He was special. All the studio guys are special, but Reggie was a cut above.”
Young, who remained in the Nashville area, was a frequent presence in Memphis, participating in numerous Elvis-related programs with the Memphis Boys in recent years.
Despite his prolific career as a sideman, Young waited until 2017 to release his first solo album, “Forever Young," a collection of soulful original instrumental compositions, via the U.K. label Ace Records.
Later this month — which marks the 50th anniversary of Young and the American Boys' sessions with Elvis Presley — Ace is set to release "Reggie Young: Session Guitar Star," a compilation highlighting Young's work in the studio.
Plans for funeral services have not been announced.
Memphis music history