Johnny Young: Chicago Blues

Johnny Young
Chicago Blues

Johnny Young was without a doubt one of the great Chicago bluesmen. Fortunately for posterity, his music was captured on a regrettably few, exceedingly rare, but undeniably great, records. Chicago Blues catches Johnny Young when he was at the top of his game and gives a good taste of the kind of the amplified blues that fueled Chicago’s small clubs and taverns. Backed here by two of the topflight rhythm sections of the day, Young plays a vigorous style of tough, good spirited blues. That alone is enough to satisfy any blues fan, but Young switches between guitar and mandolin. Not often do you get to hear the blues played on mandolin, much less modern electric blues. As he is regarded as being the only mandolin player to play in the electric Chicago blues style, best take note right now of Johnny Young.

Though an accomplished guitarist and singer, Young believed the mandolin was his primary instrument. He often didn’t even own a guitar and would have to borrow one even to play onstage, but he always had his mandolin. Raised in Mississippi, Young loved the rowdy, exuberant sound of the Delta string bands, and often drove his blues with his strident mandolin playing. His resulting style is down home blended with the blues. The first 12 tracks feature Johnny Young effortlessly fronting the core members from the Muddy Waters band, with James Cotton on harmonica and Otis Spann on piano. The four mandolin-piano duets feature country-style string breakdowns played in blue note triplets together with the tasteful barrelhouse piano. “Keep Your Nose Out of My Business”, “I’m Doing All Right”, “Moaning and Groaning”, and “Stealin'” (an old dance piece that Young transformed into to a high-stepping blues) are easily worth the price of the whole record.

The remaining sides with the Muddy Waters band show 1965 Chicago blues being played at their absolute finest. From the raw shouting sound of “Wild, Wild Woman” to the more urbane sounding “My Trainfare Out of Town”, from the sophisticated resignation of “Come Early in the Morning” to the wild, wild men squalling and pounding out “Slam Hammer”, this is some hot stuff.

The remaining eight tracks were co-produced by Chicago blues veteran, Willie Dixon, famous for insisting on tight rhythm sections. As recording director for the later 1967 session, Dixon rounded up some of the best available musicians who included Lafayette Leake on piano, Jimmy Dawkins on lead guitar, and Big Walter Horton on harmonica. Throughout these tracks, Leake’s piano work is sensitive and understated, played occasionally with a chiming sound. On the other hand, Dawkins’s electric guitar work sounds as high-powered and energetic as his stage reputation. Onstage, he used to play his guitar with his teeth, play it up over his head, and also down on the ground. He once modestly remembered, “I used to be quite acrobatic and I used to tear up a lot of my little $5 suits and Goodwill pants. . . .”

Moving from the eerie “Strange Girl” and the downright chilling “Stockyard Blues”, to the slow blues shout of “Ring Around My Heart”, into the Ivory Joe Hunter-like soft and romantic “Sometimes I Cry”, this is an amazing variety of blues material. The sweetest song by far is “On the Road Again”. Big Walter Horton shows his uncanny genius on harmonica, imitating the soft buzzing sound of a sun-drenched bee circling around, providing a sonic backdrop for a line about California’s warmth and easy charm. Young even worked a mention of label-owner Chris Strachwitz into his lyrics during the take, and with completely spontaneous sincerity. Johnny Young was happy to be back in the studio making a record, and it shows.

Sometimes, Johnny Young becomes like an archetype or at least the epitome of Chicago working bluesmen of his time. Though it’s often sad to consider how much the future listener will miss in the way of blues. Consider all the music not recorded at all, or the music that wasn’t recorded during the long Petrillo ban, or the music that couldn’t be recorded due to wartime shortages of materials for records, or the treasures recorded on 78s just scrapped and melted in vats to make new records. For being among the first to record in the postwar Chicago blues style back in 1947, being whisked off Maxwell Street into a radio shop to make his first record, the talented Johnny Young did not have much of an ensuing recording career.

But certainly a lot of people heard him at the time in the clubs like the Purple Cat or the Plantation Club. Johnny Young playing shoulder to shoulder onstage with Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson. Or saw him busking on Sundays at the Maxwell Street Market, jamming up a storm with Robert Nighthawk or some of the young players just coming up. Johnny Young had a steady place in his Maxwell Street act for the young Charles Musselwhite, who within a few years covered Young’s song “Early In the Morning” on his own debut album. He may not have recorded a huge catalog, but Young performed steadily in Chicago clubs and on Maxwell Street from 1947 when he arrived until the day he died in 1974.

However much we may have lost because Young recorded so infrequently, Johnny Young’s Chicago Blues has continued providing a lot of pleasure and inspiration to those who have the good fortune to hear him. All in part because Chris Strachwitz had the foresight, good sense, and good taste to go far out of his way to get Young’s music on record. Johnny Young’s Chicago Blues since the day it was pressed into a record has always remained in print at Arhoolie. This generous collection of 20 songs (all but one written by Young) is more than an hour from the best era of Chicago blues. As such, this one really deserves to be in every blues collection. Because this showcases the one who dared use mandolin in modern urban electric blues, it should probably be required in every blues collection.