Hard Hitting Blues: Remembering the Mighty Man

Mighty Man
Blind Pig
Date of Release:
5 May 1997

Bluesman Mighty Joe Young is often remembered for his visionary spirit. Mentioning his name will jumpstart memories of powerful Chicago-style soul blues that telegraphs a rhythm into the soul of any blues fan. He started out boxing, like some other bluesmen of his era, and Mighty Joe’s moniker is still closely associated with the sport.

In a town that was exploding with bluesmen, guitarist Mighty Joe Young was a mainstay onstage in Chicago’s blues scene from the ’50s all the way into the early ’80s. He began making his name when he joined up with Howlin’ Wolf’s group in 1956, then established himself with the Jimmy Rogers and Otis Rush bands. Fronting his own band in the late ’60s, Mighty Joe Young was among the first to break through the city’s invisible barrier. He carried the blues out of the South Side across the divide into the North Side of town, where he became a perpetual favorite. The ’70s watched him as busy on national club and college circuits as he was locally on Chicago stages. Just as he was gaining international attention in the early ’80s, Young dropped from sight. For a time, no one was sure what had happened. Eventually the sad news drifted out that Young had passed on in 1999. Things don’t stop even there for Mighty Joe Young, according to those closest to him.

Most people only know about bluesmen from their achievements as entertainers, even those who had also been boxers. The boxing stories are sometimes distant in time, and hard to track down. Opportunity arrived in the form of Leah Funchest, Joe Young’s granddaughter. She graciously opened the door to other members of her family, who were those people who knew Mighty Joe Young and his life story the best. Both his son Joe, Jr. (Leah’s father) and Anne Hughes (Leah’s grandmother and Joe Sr.’s wife for more than forty years) spoke at length on the phone about Mighty Joe, his music, his boxing, and his great spirit. But all stories have a beginning, and that’s as good a place as any to start.

Joseph Young was born 23 September 1927 in Louisiana, as Anne Hughes good-naturedly began reminiscing. “A town near Shreveport. But we always said Shreveport. Nobody wants anybody to know they came from a town only two car lengths long. That town . . . just like the place I come from in Mississippi . . . they aren’t even on the map,” she laughed.

Mrs. Hughes also verified, “He had a short, sweet career in boxing. He boxed a bit in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Just a flat footed fight. But he loved boxing. He had a choice between the two — entertaining or boxing and decided to go with his music. He was young — a teenager. He thought he was going to be a boxer, but after a few fights I think it was more than he wanted to take on. He loved playing his music and he had to make a choice.”

“But if he had stuck with that, he would have been a great boxer. He was strong.”

Joe Young took the long way round to Chicago blues scene, from Shreveport, Louisiana to Los Angeles, California then a stop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In the late 1940s, he left what had once seemed like the promised land of California. Young had struggled along there for a few years, even starting a family of his own, but was finding it impossible to make much headway. Many of the jobs that had swollen the area’s population had lasted only as long as the war. While industry readjusted, the streets began filling with men willing to work who could find only a day or two of menial labor out of any week. Hearing of these circumstances, Young’s brother encouraged him to move to Milwaukee, where he was sure he could get him a job at the factory where he worked. Borrowing money from a kindly cousin in Louisiana, Joe Young moved his new family to a new life in the Mid West.

In Milwaukee, Young found steady work to support his growing family. He worked at a steel mill there (A.O. Smith Foundry) and also drove cabs. He began playing seriously in the early 1950s, working clubs in Milwaukee and also down in his native Louisiana. But he would head down to Chicago, the center of the blues universe, to play music on the weekends. Just as life was beginning to stabilize, his wife died. In 1956, Joe Young considered his options and relocated his family to Chicago where he worked day and night, holding down all sorts of jobs in the daytime and playing in clubs at night. He began meeting musicians and played with every one there, Howlin’ Wolf, Magic Sam, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Dawkins, Otis Rush. He also met and soon fell head over heels for Anne Hughes, the woman who would become his second wife and companion for a lifetime.

“‘Mighty’ Joe Young came from when he entered in the field of entertainment. The promoters gave him that name for his first record with them,” Mrs. Hughes remembered. For those who might not know, his nickname was drawn from the classic 1949 film about a heroic big-hearted creature who is charmed by music.

While there continues to be a lot of folklore about bad acting characters attached to the blues world, not everyone who moved through that milieu was always so deserving of a bad reputation by their mere association with the blues.

By all accounts, Joe and Anne’s courtship was quite proper by anybody’s standards, even though they first came together at a notorious blues spot, Chicago’s 1815 Club.

“Joe and I met at that very club. It was the last part of May,” Mrs. Hughes recalled fondly. “I was at the bar listening to the music. At that time, women could go out by themselves and not be bothered. He finished playing and came by the bar and we started talking, and I was complementary because I enjoyed his music and then I asked him who the manager of the group was. He said. ‘I’m the manager.’ Then he offered me a drink and I turned it down; I told him I already had a drink earlier on. He asked me for my phone number and I wouldn’t give it to him. I would never give out my phone number to a guy until I got the guy’s phone number first. If you ask a man for his phone number and he doesn’t give you his number, that means he’s married. Joe gave me his phone number.”

“Then he asked if he could call me, and I said yes, he could. He said he would call me the next day at 3 o’clock when he woke up. At 3 o’clock he called, and we talked for three hours on the phone and then he asked if he could call me again. The next time he called, we made a dinner date and he took me out for a steak dinner. We went out to restaurants a lot and always had a steak dinner. Then after awhile he asked me if I liked him, and I said yes. He said, ‘I’m crazy about you.’ Then we started seeing a lot more of each other, and after we got comfortable and familiar with each other we started going to clubs, too. I’d go with him when he was playing and when he wasn’t playing we’d go to hear other people.”

“I got to know him and felt a little sorry for him. It was so sad, here he was trying to raise his children without a mother. His wife had passed away. It was so sad, he was trying to make it with those four kids all on his own and they were young. And I had 3 children of my own. I still think a big family is a happy family.”

“Then after we got together,” she laughed, “. . . no more steak dinners . . . it was McDonald’s after that. Always hamburgers. He’d go to Checkers and he’d bring a little Checkers bag with two hamburgers, one for him and one for me. He’d always bring me whatever he had. But it was years of hamburgers, and I got so I couldn’t look at another hamburger, and then, finally after many years, Joe said he didn’t want to eat another hamburger ever again, either.”

Anne Hughes stepped into the role of wife and mother in an already large family. She also worked as a salad technician for years at the Riveredge Hospital in Forest Park, a suburb of Chicago, to help support the family. Even though, she admits, she got sick of even looking at lettuce.

Neighborhood grapevines being what they are, reports would travel back to Anne about her husband’s behavior in clubs when she was home minding the family. “The clubowners would tell me about Joe. When he got paid, he left. He never drank, he never used drugs. He got high off his music. He would go to work, get paid, and leave, and never hang around the club afterwards.”

And when he went out on tour with the boys: “Joe was a nice, nice man.” Mrs. Hughes has such a rich voice, and is lively but considerate in conversation. “One time he was on tour and saw a lady and baby stranded by the side of the road, hitchhiking in the cold. He was driving in the car with all the band and he felt funny asking her into the car with all the men. But he gave her and her baby a ride to the next place.”

She witnessed all the get-togethers at home, too. “He loved boxing so much. When he wasn’t working, he always had friends over and they watched it together. He was happy as ever when boxing was on. He was right up in the TV. You could never talk to him when the fights were on, he wouldn’t hear you. He’d get into it, he’d almost be throwing punches himself. That was his favorite sport.”

“He would have been a good boxer, though. He was strong and could throw punches.”

Mrs. Hughes hesitated for a moment. “I saw him in a fight once in a bar,” she began shyly. “And it scared me to death. I was at the 1815 Club with him, and he and his guys did a show. One of the regular guys couldn’t make it, and Joe had told the owner that the guy couldn’t make it and he would have to bring in another bass player to fill out the band. They did the show. At the end of the evening, Joe was to collect his money. The club owner, his name was “Boss”, said he wouldn’t be able to give him his full pay because he wasn’t playing with his regular band, he had replaced the guy.

“Joe was a little mad but just said, ‘All right. If you won’t give me all my money, you keep it all. But I won’t play here any more.’ Then Joe went back to the stage and began breaking down his equipment. Then the owner came running down the aisle over to the stage and Joe jumped down from the stage to talk to him.

“I was sitting way back at the bar in a chair, and all of a sudden the club owner just hit Joe. My heart went into my mouth when I saw that. Joe just threw one punch back and knocked him out cold. All I saw was this guy going down with his feet in the air.

“I was screaming, I was scared. I was so worried Joe was hurt. I was so scared … I crawled up into the bar and hid. Joe went back to breaking down his equipment, and the owner got on his feet and ran back to his office. We didn’t know what he was going to do, maybe get his gun. A woman came over and got me and told me that we should get out of there. She and I went down to the stage to get Joe and he said, ‘I’m not afraid. I’m not worried.” But when he heard the owner might have a gun, he and his band went back and locked the owner in his office. Then they finished packing up and we left.”

Mrs. Hughes stopped to confess, “I wasn’t going to mention that, but I did.”

Things were soon sorted out, however. “Later the next day we ran into the owner’s wife, and she said, ‘You come back to the club. Come by the house tomorrow and I’ll bring you your money out to your car.’ And that’s what we did. She saw us pull up and she walked out of the house to the car, and he got paid all his money.

“Two years later, Boss was killed in his own club. He died in his own club. Two ladies were beginning to fight, and he jumped in between them to break up the fight. He got stabbed in the back. That was at the 1815 Club on Roosevelt Road.”

One memory sometimes leads to the next. “On the road, we ran into some pretty jam places. Plenty of times we had to run to get away from the fights. I always told him I never wanted to go to the motorcycle club bars and I didn’t want him to go there either. He did once, and he came home and told me a fight broke out while they were onstage playing. Then they came up on the stage and started fighting there. Then a guy came up on the stage with a shotgun. Joe jumped off the stage and right over some tables and got out.”

Even when not fraught with danger, touring can be wearing. “I got so tired of that life, being on the road all the time, and when you go around and do the same thing over and over.” Her spirits perked up as she finalized with warmth, “The good thing was meeting a lot of nice people.”

“Joe spent most of his time with his guitar in his hand at home. On the road, he would always reach for his guitar first thing. Then we’d get dressed and go out for breakfast.”

The entertainers have to keep themselves entertained during the down time on the road. Mrs. Hughes remembered, “Sometimes all they would talk about is boxing. Sometimes backstage waiting to go on, that’s all they’d talk about is boxing. Joe liked all the boxers, but especially the outstanding ones. Ali, and Joe Louis . . . everyone looked up to Joe Louis.

“Pinetop Perkins, Detroit Junior . . . Joe knew all the great musicians. He knew a lot of boxers, too. He knew Jack Dempsey, they were friends. Whenever we went to New York, we’d always go to Jack Dempsey’s restaurant.”

Joe Young remained a stalwart on the Chicago blues scene, and is recalled as a major figure in bringing the blues to the white audiences of the North Side. But he will also be remembered for his pioneering work to weld blues with soul. His songs and playing carried an extra emotional weight because he concentrated on bringing soul sounds into his blues. His experiments showed his command of the blues canon, his arrangements rather elegant and amazing in versatility. His guitar playing was focused and sharp, while altogether, his music was slamming, sophisticated, and urbane.

There are many parallels that can be traced between blues and boxing. One is learning and understanding the nature of rhythm and timing. A boxer who is in control sets up a particular rhythm, and his opponent follows the rhythm looking for a place to drop in. Musical arrangements are an expression of this form of balanced movement, but the trick with arranging as with boxing is to minimize the number of notes and effects, to leave necessary space around the movement, or all will end up flailing or noise.

Joe Young concentrated even more on his singing and arranging after an unsuccessful surgery in 1986 to repair a pinched nerve in his neck. After the surgery, things went to hell — he couldn’t play the guitar any longer, his fingers were numb. As always, Young persevered, and after a year in rehab where he regained his balance in walking, he headed back into the studio to complete a project he had laid aside. Financing the whole project himself, taking ten years from start to finish, he completed his richest work, Mighty Man (1997).

Joe Jr. provided rhythm guitar and sang his way through some sessions even with bronchitis. The disc drips with rich horn-laden sections and smooth background singing, for which Royalene Wilson arranged all the choral parts. One of the tunes revisited was “Turning Point”, a song by his old friend Tyrone Davis which Young performed in the 1979 film Thief when he was at the top of his game. Though every one who had heard him knew Young’s music was twenty times better than his moment in the film. This year, Blind Pig compiled Young’s great 1974 and 1976 long out of print Ovation sides and released Mighty Joe Young. One of those early songs happened to a director’s favorite and appeared recently in the movie soundtrack for Ali, “As The Years Go Passing By”. Joe Jr. recalled that what his Dad liked the most about boxing was the perseverance, how people come back and don’t stay down.

Such devotion to a sport might be misunderstood when viewed in today’s light, in our current era when boxing’s reputation has sunk to the lowest it’s ever been, regarded as bloodsport or absurd spectacle, on one side “cockfighting” on the other “Celebrity Boxing”. Once upon a time, boxing produced men who we desperately wanted to win, to become our champions, because they somehow represented us, whether those fighters were named Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, or Mohammed Ali.

Mighty Joe Young didn’t survive a second surgery in 1999. As she came to that day in her memory, Anne Hughes was overwhelmed and struggled to continue speaking through her tears. It’s obvious she very much loves Mighty Joe Young, and just thinking about him, she said, makes her feel better. “He would bring out the best in people,” she said. “He was so strong that he made other people strong just being around him.” He was her husband of many years, she explained, but also her best friend in life. “We were very happy together, all of us.” His rehearsal room in the basement is exactly as he left it. In her life, Mrs. Hughes has learned a way to get through some of the hardest times; she can pick herself up by concentrating on the good things. The friends they made in the music world continue to call and visit, and Joe’s fans, she said, stay in touch and are like her family now. “I’m blessed,” she decided.

In his memory, as something that they thought he would like, the Young family established a non-profit foundation to raise funds to promote blues education in the schools. Each year there is a fundraiser held in Chicago and the proceeds are donated to a Chicago school to support Blues education.

Joe Jr. elaborated, “Our 4th foundation show is coming up. We do the benefit to get the money for the “Blues in the Schools Program,” to help educate the children that the blues is part of their heritage and to keep blues alive. Last time we donated the money we made, a thousand dollars, to the Community academy, where Roy Hytower and Billy Branch had been working diligently for a year with the kids educating them about the blues and teaching them how to play and sing.”

Mrs. Hughes provided the concluding thoughts, “We started up the Mighty Joe Young Foundation in Joe’s memory. Around September 23 (Joe’s Birthday) we have a get together every year. You’re invited, if it’s possible for you to come.”

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Many thanks to the Young family for their kindliness and sharing their memories of Mighty Joe Young. Gratitude to his wife, Mrs. Anne Hughes; his son, Joe Young, Jr.; and to granddaughter, Leah Funchest (of Red Jaguar Records http://www.redjaguar.com) for setting up the interviews. Thanks also due to Edward Chmelewski and Jerry Del Giudice of Blind Pig Records for their ongoing support.

If you enjoyed this article, share your gratitude by making a donation to the Mighty Joe Young Foundation, 1650 N. Lorel, Chicago, Illinois 60639. Keep your eye out for their blues busting fundraiser around September 23. This year’s event is tentatively scheduled to take place at Buddy Guy’s Legends.