Obituary: Mighty Joe Young

Karl Dallas
Thursday 01 April 1999 23:02

ALTHOUGH HE had not played much guitar for over 10 years - he played on only two tunes on his last album, Mighty Man (1997), and they were recorded before surgery on a pinched nerve in 1986 left his hands virtually powerless - Mighty Joe Young was still living up to his name as recently as last December, when he was touring the United States with Buddy Guy's Legends show. He had built up a strong following among all who appreciated his continuous efforts to give his blues playing and singing a contemporary feel.

"It's different from traditional blues," he said of his last album, which had as much soul as blues in it, with its punchy horn choruses arranged by Gene "Daddy G" Barge and Willie Henderson, "but it is blues. I like a beautiful arrangement, not a traditional sound that's the same all the time. I want a different sound."

Born in 1927 in Shreveport, Louisiana, Young began playing in the early 1950s, working clubs in Milwaukee and then back in his native Louisiana where in 1955 he first recorded for the Jiffy label. He was already well known for his work with the harmonica-player Billy Boy Arnold, the guitarist Jimmy Rogers, and his brilliant contemporary Otis Rush, when in 1961 a manager added the "Mighty" sobriquet to his name for his solo albums for the little Fire label. The name was borrowed from the 1949 cult movie about a gorilla, Mighty Joe Young, a remake of which was released just last week.

Young is notable in blues history for breaking out of the South Side Chicago ghetto and playing to largely white audiences on the North Side, becoming a regular on the US and European festival and university circuits and at Chicago night-clubs. He played every New Year's Eve at the Wise Fools club for 12 consecutive years, and released an album recorded there, Live at the Wise Fools Pub, in 1990. His playing and singing was in many ways a bridge between the sound of the Chicago blues bands which had nurtured him in his early days, and the soul music that had broken through to "cross- over" acceptance; his solo albums included Blues with a Touch of Soul (1970), Legacy of the Blues (1972), Chicken Heads (1974) and Mighty Joe Young (1976).

Young appeared regularly on albums by Magic Sam (Morris Holt), Willie Dixon, Albert King, Jimmy Dawkins, and Tyrone Davis (and also on Davis's hit single, "Can I Change My Mind"), but it was his playing with Koko Taylor at Chicago's first Grant Park Blues Festival in 1969, recreated on her Grammy-nominated debut album Alligator six years later, which helped to establish both of them as contemporary blues artists of stature.

Between tours, in 1986 Young took his band into the studio for a self- financed album over which he would have total artistic control, a project which took over 10 years to come to fruition as Mighty Man. After recording only three numbers he went into hospital for surgery on a pinched nerve in his neck. "That's when things started to go to hell," he recalled later. "I went in on September 3 and I got back out at the end of October. I was in rehab for a year."

A keen amateur boxer in his early years, he had continued to work out in the gym all his life - and especially when he strove for 10 years to learn to walk again and regain his strength after the operation which disabled him - and with his barrel chest and deep, throaty voice, he had an impressive stage presence which continued well into his 70th year.

"Mighty" Joe Young, guitarist and singer: born Shreveport, Louisiana 23 September 1927; married; died Chicago 24 March 1999.

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