Johnny Young

by Rich DelGrosso
Photo by Ernie Thompson
courtesy of Univ of Miss Blues Archive


It didn't take long to get me hooked. A soon as the recording came on I knew I would love this style. First, the piano of Otis Spann kicked into the pick-up notes of the introduction, and then Johnny Young weaved in a mandolin line that perfectly complemented the piano strokes. The work of the duo was pure blues; strong and expressive. I knew I had to play like that, and ever since that moment I have acquired as much of Johnny Young as I could find and absorbed as much as I could! Young proved that even though the mandolin was not regarded as a principal instrument in the modern urban blues, it did work well when accompanying piano and guitar. In fact it sounded great as a foil to the common sounds of the blues combo and it helped to place him in the history of Chicago blues.

Young was born in Vicksburg Mississippi in 1917. He spent most of his childhood living near Clarksburg, Mississippi, the home of the legendary delta blues, where he was surrounded by music. His mother was an accomplished musician and taught him harmonica, while his uncle Anthony Williams introduced him to guitar and mandolin.

"I just taught myself" said Young. "See, I had been playing it in cross-tuning; just picked out tunes on it that way. Then my uncle came be and he tuned it properly for me. Really though, I taught myself to play. I used to go to sleep and his playing would be running through my head, how he played things; phrases. And I would work it out myself" [1]

Young's community was also the home for seminal string band the Mississippi Sheiks, which featured the musical Chatmon family, of which Lonnie played violin and Ed played mandolin. Violinist/mandolinist Walter Vincson also worked with the Shieks, and he probably influenced Young the most; as evident in Young's phrasing and vocal style.

"I grew up in Vicksburg, so I heard all them guys. Even Charlie Patton. Of course, he didn't come to see me, I was too young. He come to see other people, but I was there anyway. The mandolin? I was playing that back in Vicksburg, but I did hear Charlie McCoy play too. He was a mandolin player living over in Jackson that made some records about that time." [2] (McCoy is best known for his mandolin work on recordings where he accompanied his sister-in-law the great Memphis Minnie).

He remained in this area until he turned twenty-three, when he joined other hometown men in a migration north in search of work. Most of the families from this part of Mississippi settled in Chicago.

By 1943 he was often found performing at the Plantation Club at 31st and Giles, sharing the stage with other Mississippians Muddy Waters and John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson. Mandolinist James "Yank" Rachell often drove up from Indianapolis to join the scene. God I would have loved to be at these jams!

Young's popularity really blossomed in the Maxwell Street scene, where he often played with John Brim, Snooky Prior, Big Walter Horton, John Lee Granderson, and Floyd and Moody Jones. Young secured Chicago's first postwar blues recording contract with Ora Nelle records, recording two sides with his cousin Johnny Williams: Money Talkin' Blues and Worried Man Blues. In the next year he recorded with Snooky Prior, with two cuts: Let me Ride Your Mule and My Baby Walked Out.. The records struggled in the market, and Young remained in the Chicago blues background until the sixties.

1966 heralded a revival of the blues on the American folk/blues/jazz circuit. Blues performers were brought out of obscurity and were featured at major festivals worldwide. Pete Welding of Testament Records teamed Young with Granderson, John Wrencher and Carl Martin as the Chicago String Band and they promoted their recording in Europe. Young also joined Otis Spann in several of the "revival" concerts and his reputation as a fine guitarist and mandolinist spread across the country. He was also a popular, likable performer, and Pete Welding described him as "one of the kindest, sunniest, most warm hearted, unaffected, and truly gently men I've had the pleasure of knowing". [3.] Young passed away in 1974.

Young's mandolin style is distinctive; rich in chords and doublestops, most often played in G and D to maximize the inclusion of open strings. His voicings frequently featured the tritone combinations of notes on seventh chords, and his licks swing in the finest Chicago blues form.

This piece that I have arranged to demonstrate his style is rich in these techniques.

In the first arrangement, Johnny Young's Shuffle, the introduction is a shuffling blues scale that starts on the V7 (D7) and ends in a characteristic triplet pattern played over the I7 (G7). Notice the use of slides from the Bflat to the B and from the C to the B.

In measure five the verse and the twelve bar arrangement kick in with a fast shuffle played on the tritone G7 voicing. A similar chord is played on the IV7 (C7), only your finger position shifts to the bottom strings. The rest of the arrangement follows the same form.

In Johnny Young's Solo: Part One, the melody line is based on single string figures, with strong emphasis placed on the blue notes in the G scale: the Bflat and the F natural. There is also a nice mix of shuffling notes and triplets that give the solo a swing! I especially like the way he would warble the B and C in the riff in measure 2.

In Johnny Young's Solo: Part Two the triplets at the start of the solo really keep the music jumping! I especially like the way he used the triplet pattern in measure 4 to break out of the G7 in transition to the C7. Take the riff in measure six slow to catch the subtle changes, and jump all over the triplets on the voicing of the seventh chord in measure 7. Again, the slide from the C to the B is a Young trademark; it makes this riff flow smoothly. The riff in measure 10 is another crowd pleaser!

Enjoy.


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