Captain Hook: Session Legend Reggie Young Steps into the Spotlight at Last

Listening to Reggie Young’s record, Forever Young [Whaling City Sounds], you could be forgiven for thinking, “I’ve heard some of these licks a million times.”
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Listening to Reggie Young’s record, Forever Young [Whaling City Sounds], you could be forgiven for thinking, “I’ve heard some of these licks a million times.” If you have, it’s because Young invented most of them, and he employed them to color more than 100 Top 40 hits. For example, the funky intro to Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man,” the harmonized whole-tone hook of Billy Swan’s “I Can Help,” the acoustic intro to Elvis’ “In the Ghetto,” and the guitar bonanza that is Dobie Gray’s hit “Drift Away” are all the product of Young’s fertile musical imagination. Your familiarity is no doubt enhanced by two subsequent generations of players “borrowing” liberally from his lick lexicon.

Young’s professional life began in the ’50s, playing rockabilly with Eddie Bond & the Stompers. In 1955, he cut the hit instrumental, “Smokie Part 2” with the Bill Black Combo, which led to a package tour with the Beatles. As part of the “Memphis Boys” at Chips Moman’s American Studios, the guitarist added memorable hooks to hits by Presley, Aretha Franklin, Neil Diamond, and the Box Tops (the electric sitar on “Cry Like a Baby”). Since the ’70s, Young has continued his creative run on Nashville recordings with Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, George Strait, and others.

Now, after a half-century career, the man behind the curtain has finally stepped out front. Young, 80, endured major heart surgery a couple of years ago, and the guitarist is undergoing physical rehab in order to promote Forever Young onstage. Happily, the record—mixed by Nashville recording ace Robby Turner—features a handful of instrumentals that bring into sharp focus the touch, taste, timing, and tone that have made him a hero to those of us who research album credits.

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How did you start playing the sliding fourths and sixths that are such a part of your style?

It was working with Bobby Womack back in Memphis. We’d sit and watch each other, and I picked up a lot of that from him. Don Was said I did it before he did, but I don’t know. Bobby started playing my old style with the thirds, and I started playing his style because I loved his playing.

He was sliding the fourths and you were sliding the thirds?

Yeah [laughs]. On the Wilson Pickett record “I’m in Love,” I was playing the high part, and he was playing the low part.

When did you start this record?

About four years ago, down at Mac McAnally’s studio in Muscle Shoals. I like it there, because it is a great-sounding room and has a Neve console. I went down with some people from Nashville, and I used David Hood, a bass player down there. You don’t have to tell these players what to do—that’s why I used them. But trying to produce and play at the same time didn’t work for me. When I played the tracks at home, I hated my guitar parts. So I put it in the closet for a couple of years, and one day I said, “I’m going to get that out, see what it sounds like, and whether it can be fixed.” The rest of the band sounded great, but I redid all the guitar parts.

What didn’t like about your guitar?

I didn’t like the leakage in the guitar mic. It also sounded like I wasn’t relaxed when I was playing, and that I wasn’t part of the band.

Do you think that was because you were trying to produce and play at the same time?

Yeah. I got an engineer, and we recut all of my parts here at the house. I had my ’65 Fender Deluxe Reverb in the other room.

What did you mic it with?

I used this old Shure SM57 [Pulls out a Shure SM57 housed in an athletic sock. The mic has “old” written on it].

I guess that’s how you know it is the “old” one.

The engineer mixed in a Cascade Knucklehead ribbon mic. It’s a cheap mic, but it sounds great on guitar, and he blended the two mics well. And then, Robby Turner’s mix brought it up another notch. Mine is just a regular Pro Tools system, and he has that HD system. It took on another life when he started mixing.

Can you talk about your main session Tele?

I think it’s a ’69. There’s no serial number on it. I put a Joe Glaser B-Bender on the back where the serial number was.

What is the middle pickup?

It’s a Seymour Duncan. The bridge pickup is a Ron Ellis, and the neck is a Bill Lawrence Strat pickup. I don’t think I used any of the back pickup on the record.

On “It’s About Time,” the sound is a little different. Was that the same guitar?

It’s the same guitar. The only different one was “Exit 209.” That’s a ’57 Strat.

Do you remember getting that Strat?

I bought it shortly after I moved here in ’72. A friend had two or three, and let me pick out whichever one I wanted. I was like, “Whoa! Okay.”

It probably was still affordable in ’72. Yeah. They’re ridiculous now. Are there Bill Lawrence pickups in that as well?

They are all Bill Lawrence, and they don’t make any noise. I had EMGs in it for a long time, because those are very quiet, as well. I’ve had every pickup ever made in that guitar.

What strings are you using?

I’ve used a D’Addario .0095 set for years and years, and that’s the set I used to cut this record. But, since the operation, I don’t have the same strength in my hands, so I went to a lighter .009 set.

Photo Credit: Anthony Scarlati

Were you planning on having horns when you first cut the original tracks?

No. After I got my guitar parts on it, I thought, “It needs something else.” I decided on horns, and I thought of Jim Horn, who wrote some parts and did a wonderful job. We had some Muscle Shoals players, another player from here, and Jim. We did the horns in my bedroom.

“It’s About Time” reminds me of one of those great Mike Post TV themes, like the Rockford Files. Were you thinking in those terms when you wrote it?

No. I had actually written another melody over that song, and that was one of the things I didn’t like about the original guitar tracks, so I rewrote it. I just used the same chords and rewrote the melody.

Did you use any pedals when you were recording the record?

I used this board here. [A Mark Kendrick overdrive—given to Young by Merle Haggard—Whirlwind compressor, Boss EQ, Boss TU-2 tuner, Boss DD-6 Digital Delay, Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive, TC Electronic Chorus, and Voodoo Lab Tremolo].

Were you using the equalizer?

Yeah. I set up my amp and guitar, get them sounding as good as I can, and then I kick in the EQ to add a little low end and fatten the sound.

The arpeggio you play in the head of “Memphis Grease” sounds very different than the notes before it and after it. Did you double it or is there a chorus on it?

I doubled all the melody lines, and sometimes Robby mixed in the doubled tracks.

Are you going get out and play to promote the record?

That’s what I’m trying to do now. After the surgery, I couldn’t play and I had kind of lost the desire to play. Then, when I wanted to play, I couldn’t play what I used to. It’s slowly coming back, but there are still a lot of intricate things I used to play that I get to and have to stop. I have a guitar teacher coming over for therapy who is teaching me a lot of finger exercises. It’s just notes and coordination with your fingers and your pick. I have to say, it’s pretty boring.

Still, it’s great you’re getting back in shape.

We worked up about an hour-and-a-half show—including the new album, plus some old tunes we cut in Memphis and here in Nashville. I’m going to have to try to remember what I played on them.

Why did it take so long to record your first solo record?

I was busy. When I had some time off, the last thing I wanted to do was record more. But, to make sure I was in tune when we started a session, I used to play some things that were like what I did on this album. People would say, “What is that?” I’d say, “I don’t know. I’m just tuning up.” They said, “You ought to record some of that.” Eventually, I did.