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Remembering Mighty Joe Young

"I for one have maintained stoutly...that Mighty Joe Young is one of the Midwest's most gifted and conclusive guitarists and certainly Chicago's best...Joe Young is a musician who has had it at its worst and has dedicated his all to what his heart has suffered for."
- Jimmy "Fast Fingers" Dawkins, 1970,
from his notes for Blues with a Touch of Soul

"I traveled with him, played and recorded with him, but most importantly, Ilearned from him. The most important things Ilearned had nothing to do with music, but at the same time, they had everything to do with music. Ilearned how a man puts the same energy into a show for 5 people in a club as he does for a festival crowd of 5000. I learned how a man who has every reason to be bitter about his experience in America instead treats people, regardless of who or what they are, with kindness and warmth and understanding. I learned how a man juggles the responsibilities of fatherhood and family with a touring schedule and does so with grace and commitment. I learned that what a man is inside will determine what comes out when he hits the bandstand."
- Ken Saydak, former band member,
at Mighty Joe Young's funeral

Smitty's Corner was one of my first stops when I moved to Chicago in August of 1958. It was at 35th & Indiana and I got there on the "L". Muddy Waters and his exceptional band held sway with James Cotton and Otis Spann already developing their own following. One of the waiters had recorded for Decca and Vocallion in the 30's as Red Nelson and more recently for Alladin as Dirty Red. Years later I found out that this was apparantly the same location where Bix Beidebecke came to hear Bessie Smith and was so knocked out by her that he gave her is entire week's pay from the Paul Whiteman band.

Muddy, who was not playing guitar at that time, concentrating on his singing, was very congenial and hipped me to another club where I should go and hear Billy Boy Arnold and Might Joe Young -- the Green Door on 63rd Street west of the "L". The band played a somewhat newer style of blues in this much smaller club behind a horseshoe bar. I wound up loaning my Sonny Boy I 78's to Billy and began an acquaintance with Joe and with more modern blues than I was capable, immediately, of fully understanding. He had come to Chicago from Shreveport via Milwaukee.

(My blues recording activity at that point had involved the much older stylings of Speckled Red, Big Joe Williams and J.D. Short. I wasn't interested in entering the R&B-blues market and had not yet released the stuff we cut back in St.Louis because there was no real market for blues on LP yet. Chess had only entered the LP field the year before with "Best-Of..." hit compilations, BB was on Crown LP's that cost no more than his 45 singles. $100 would buy every real blues LP issued!)

The main market for our blues albums in the 60's was a very small part of the folk music boom.. By the time I finally decided to take a chance on modern blues, Mighty Joe Young was on that always-too-long list of people to record. When Hoodoo Man Blues, released in 1965, sold well beyone expectations, the way was clear to do more of the same.

When the Green Door job ended we caught up with Joe and his band at a lot of other clubs, mostly on the West Side. He was also heard occasionally as a reliable sideman with Otis Rush etc. Though under contract elsewhere we were able to utilize him on the sessions with Magic Sam (Delmark 615, 620, 651) and Jimmy Dawkins' Fast Fingers (#623) in the 60's.

Joe Young had already recorded for Jiffy in Louisiana in 1956 and contiunued with various other labels (Mad, Fire, Atomic-H,Webcor,Celtex, USA) but finally he was free to record for Delmark at a time when we had the bread so he cut his first LP, Blues With A Touch of Soul (#629, recently reissued) for us at a couple sessions in 1970. Release was delayed by some really foul pressings (which we gave away en masse at the Notre Dame Blues Festival). By this time there was the beginning of a blues circuit away from the venerable chitlin' circuit of the R&B world and Joe was able to work fairly often at the Wise Fools and Alice's Re-visited in Chicago and out to Wisconsin, Nebraska, Indiana and Iowa bars and campus locations. He also was part of the first blues tour of Japan which was booked by Steve Tomashefsky with Magic Sam and Little Brother Montgomery. Of course, he made it to Europe, too.

Joe asked out of his Delmark contract when a much better deal loomed. Unlike some other artists, he was quite straightforward with his proposal which we accepted. Sadly, the other deal fell thru but soon he acquired invaluable management by Scott Cameron which led to his painstaking recordings (now sadly out-of-print), for Ovation who had excellent distribution behind the successes of their Black Jazz (Richard "Ari" Brown, Doug & Jean Carn) label and folksinger Bonnie Koloc. When Ovation folded, the Wise Fools club produced Mighty Joe live at the Wise Fools which eventually appeared on the Intermission label.

Our last business with Joe was as a sideman on Otis Rush's first Delmark, Cold Day In Hell (#638). (I have been told that Joe even used his influence with Otis to bring him to Delmark.)

A few years ago Joe suffered a pinched nerve that inhibited his ability to play guitar. "I play at home sometimes, but I don't want to play half-ass for the public" he would say. He was still well worth the price of admission because he always sang marvelously and always had a great band.

About those bands -- One thinks of West side blues bands as being extremely economical: one or two guitars, bass and drums. Most of the club jobs allowed for no additional sidemen but whenever there was a suffifcient budget Otis Rush would add Harold Ashby (later with Ellington until Duke's passing) or Robert "Sax" Crowder (had been section-leader of the famous Earl Hines Grand Terrace band in the 30's/40's), etc. These were accomplished jazz artists. So were a lot of the horns in Joe's bands.

Jordan Sandke is on the Delmark album on turmpet. He and his brother Randy have built a solid rep in New York jazz circles.

But the guy I remember most vividly is Little Bo, a Milwauke saxman who worked with Joe at a gig under the "L" on Ogden one rainy night. I've lost the notes I took that night but this guy had been around! Basie? Ellington? I don't remember but it was a grand night of blues and jazz. Joe gave his all in spite of sparse attendance that could hardly be called a crowd.

Joe made a brief appearance in the James Caan film Thief.

Another night at the Alex/1815 Club. Joe had some good horns and I was in the company of Frank Powers -- one of the few real masters of 20's jazz clarinet -- an artist capable of reminding you simultaneously of both Johnny Dodds and Pee Wee Russell (and present on the Dixie Stompers' Stock Yard Strut, #229). Joe asked Frank to sit in and Powers was delighted to do so. After the set he commented that a lot of jazzmen underestimate what it takes to play blues and Joe kept asking over the next year or so "when is that clarinet-player going to be back in town?"

Joe finished a final album, Mighty Man, for the Blind Pig label, a monument to a man widely known for his jovial demeanor and his total professionalism.

So Thursday, March 25th, Might Joe Young's life ended. We've lost many fine bluesmen in the past year much ensmalling a blues world that once seemed almost overpopulated. - Bob Koester