Reggie Young, a versatile and prolific guitarist who recorded with Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson and Dusty Springfield and brought a distinctly Southern flair to a vast range of pop music, died Jan. 17 at his home in Leiper’s Fork near Franklin, Tenn. He was 82.
The cause was a heart ailment, said his wife, cellist Jennifer Young.
Mr. Young’s notable credits included Neil Diamond’s Top 10 hit “Sweet Caroline” and Presley’s “Suspicious Minds,” the No. 1 pop single from a 1968 session credited with revitalizing the singer’s career.
Known as a master of hooks, Mr. Young’s song introductions inevitably caught the listener’s ear and set the tone for the lyric, whether the delicate finger picking on Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away” (1973), the slyly teasing licks on Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” (1968) or the dissonant chords on Billy Swan’s “I Can Help” (1974).
He created idiosyncratic sounds: mimicking a sitar on the Box Tops’ “Cry Like a Baby” and B.J. Thomas’s “Hooked on a Feeling,” both from 1968; imitating a chicken on Joe Tex’s “Skinny Legs and All” in 1967; and making his guitar ring with an organ-like tremolo on James Carr’s original 1967 version of the much-covered soul ballad, “The Dark End of the Street.”
“The thing that made him so amazing was that a producer could say, ‘Hey Reggie — play something for the intro, OK?,’ ” Nashville bassist and producer Norbert Putnam told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “And, literally, he’d play something off the top of his head that would absolutely make the song. He didn’t say, ‘Give me 20 minutes and I’ll think of something.’ If he was called upon, he’d have something every time.”
Mr. Young grew up in Memphis and served from 1968 to 1971 as the house guitarist for the Memphis Boys, the recording unit at producer Chips Moman’s American Sound Studio. The city had a long history of musical hybridization. Mr. Young’s relaxed, yet sinewy style of playing, which he once described it as “a cross between B.B. King and Chet Atkins,” reflected that heritage, evoking country, blues and gospel music in equal measure.
Mr. Young moved in the 1970s to Nashville, where his spare licks adorned such country hits as Nelson’s “Always on My Mind” and Merle Haggard’s “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.’’ In the 1990s, he toured with the Highwaymen, a country supergroup featuring Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson.
Reggie Grimes Young Jr. was born in Caruthersville, Mo., on Dec. 12, 1936, and was raised in Osceola, Ark., and later in Memphis. His father, an accountant, also played guitar and taught the instrument to his son. His mother was a homemaker.
While in his teens, Mr. Young worked with local rockabilly singer Eddie Bond. He later joined Bill Black’s Combo and played on its 1959 hit records “White Silver Sands” and “Smokie.” On “Smokie,” he achieved a twangy bass sound by tuning two whole steps low and tapping on the strings with a pencil.
After Army service, he continued with Bill Black’s Combo, which toured as an opening act for the Beatles in 1964. Mr. Young reportedly advised George Harrison to switch to lighter gauge strings so that Harrison could more easily bend strings. The band had the misfortune to be announced right after a local disc jockey would work the crowd — mostly screaming teenage girls — into a frenzy about seeing the Beatles.
“They would boo and start throwing stuff,” Mr. Young once said. “Later, the DJs learned to wait to build them up after we were through.”
The combo also served as a house band for Hi Records. After a financial dispute with the record company, Mr. Young teamed up with fledgling producer Moman and recruited bassist Tommy Cogbill, drummer Gene Chrisman and keyboardist Bobby Emmons as the nucleus of the American Sound Studio band.
In more recent decades, Mr. Young focused on his own projects such as “Be Still and Know That I Am God” (2008), an album of instrumental hymns recorded with his wife, Jenny. “Forever Young,” an album of soul and country flavored instrumentals, was released in 2017.
His first wife, Diane Young, died in 2001. Survivors include his wife of 15 years, the former Jennifer Lynn Young; two children from his first marriage, Cindy Evans and Reggie Young III, both of Spring Hill, Tenn.; a sister; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Mr. Young could be self-effacing about his musicianship.
Recalling his work on “Son of a Preacher Man,” Mr. Young told Premier Guitar magazine in 2016: “I was just sitting there goofing off. It’s sort of a Chet Atkins lick, because it uses an open string. They call them ‘identifying licks.’ ”
“That’s what you used to do to make records sound different,” he said. “It seems like nowadays there’s none of that.”
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