Skip to main content

Reggie Young, shown above, played guitar on hundreds of hit recordings, such as Elvis Presley’s Suspicious Minds and Neil Diamond’s 1969 Top 10 hit Sweet Caroline, in a career that spanned more than six decades.Country Music Hall of Fame via AP

Reggie Young, a prolific studio guitarist who appeared on landmark recordings by Elvis Presley and many others and played a prominent role in shaping the sound of Southern popular music in the 1960s and 70s, died Jan. 17 at his home in Leipers Fork, Tenn., just outside Nashville. He was 82.

His wife, Jenny Young, said the cause was heart failure.

Mr. Young played guitar on hundreds of hit recordings in a career that spanned more than six decades.

Among his best-known credits are the Box Tops’ The Letter and Mr. Presley’s Suspicious Minds, both No. 1 pop singles in the late sixties, and Neil Diamond’s 1969 Top 10 hit, Sweet Caroline.

Mr. Young also played the funky chicken-scratch guitar lick on Skinny Legs and All, soul singer Joe Tex’s 1967 Top 10 pop hit. He contributed the reverberating fills and swells that punctuate James Carr’s timeless soul ballad The Dark End of the Street, also from 1967. And his bluesy riffing buttressed the sultry, throbbing groove on Son of a Preacher Man, a Top 10 single for British pop singer Dusty Springfield in 1968.

Mr. Young appeared on all these recordings, including those associated with Mr. Presley’s late-sixties return to the limelight, as a member of the Memphis Boys, the renowned house band for the producer Chips Moman’s American Sound Studio.

Living and working in Memphis, where there had long been a fertile cross-pollination between country music and the blues, was critical to the development of Mr. Young’s down-home style of playing, a muscular yet relaxed mix of rhythmic and melodic instincts.

“In Memphis, it’s sort of in between Nashville and the Southern Delta down in Mississippi, so I’m kind of a cross between B.B. King and Chet Atkins,” Mr. Young said in an interview published on the website Soul and Jazz and Funk in 2017.

“Most of the soul music back then was in Memphis,” he added. “That’s where I came from.”

In addition to playing guitar, Mr. Young added the psychedelic accents of the electric sitar to a handful of influential recordings, among them the Box Tops’ Cry Like a Baby and B.J. Thomas’s Hooked on a Feeling, both of which reached the Top 10 in 1968.

After American Sound Studio closed in 1972, Mr. Young moved to Nashville, where his soulful less-is-more approach graced hits such as Dobie Gray’s Drift Away, Waylon Jennings’s Luckenbach, Texas and Willie Nelson’s Always on My Mind.

Mr. Young’s Nashville session credits also include Billy Swan’s I Can Help, which topped both the country and pop charts in 1974.

Mr. Young made an indelible contribution, especially during his years in Memphis, to the Southernization of pop music in the 1960s and early 70s. This influence was felt not just by the number of records made in the South that were played on AM radio throughout the country, it was also evident in the procession of artists, among them Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon and jazz flutist Herbie Mann, who came from outside the region to make records steeped in the Southern musical vernacular.

Reggie Grimes Young was born on Dec. 12, 1936, in Caruthersville, Mo., and was raised in Osceola, Ark., and later in Memphis. His father, Reggie, was an accountant who played Hawaiian-style classical guitar and taught his son to play when he was 14. His mother, Thelma (Mayes) Young, was a homemaker.

In 1956, Mr. Young joined Eddie Bond and the Stompers, a rockabilly band that had a regional hit with a record called Rockin’ Daddy and opened shows for Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins.

Three years later he joined Bill Black’s Combo, an instrumental quintet led by Mr. Presley’s former bass player. He played on two No. 1 R&B singles with the group, Smokie and White Silver Sands, before joining the army in 1960, and rejoined after his return to civilian life in the early sixties.

He arrived just in time to travel with Bill Black’s Combo when it opened for the Beatles on their 1964 tour of the United States. During that tour, Mr. Young had the opportunity to introduce George Harrison to the finer points of his Southern style of playing.

“George asked me, because I’m a blues player, ‘How do you bend and stretch your strings like that?’ ” Mr. Young recalled in the Soul and Jazz and Funk interview. “I told him, ‘You have to have light-gauge strings,’ and after that I think he went to lighter-gauge strings on his guitar.”

A compilation album of 24 tracks from sessions on which Mr. Young played, including recordings by Merle Haggard, Jackie DeShannon and Bobby (Blue) Bland, is to be released by the English label Ace Records this week.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Young leaves a son, Reggie III; a daughter, Cindy Evans; a sister, Alice Weatley; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Mr. Young played with so many luminaries over the course of his career that he said “it was nothing special” for him and his fellow Memphis Boys to be tapped to support Mr. Presley in the studio in the late sixties.

“We played with all the top stars of the time, and Elvis hadn’t had any hits for a while and didn’t have an album on the charts,” he said in a 2013 interview with Premier Guitar magazine.

“As he stepped into the studio though – boy,” he continued. “I never met any other person with such charisma. It was very special for me.”