Lionel Young is the first double champion in the history of the IBC. Lionel Young won the 2008 IBC in the solo-duo category, and the 2011 International Blues Challenge (IBC) band competition as The Lionel Young Band.
I first met Lionel on the October 2009 Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, the infamous ‘cruise to nowhere’. That was the cruise that ran into hurricanes and we just did donuts in the Pacific Ocean. It seemed that Lionel was everywhere on that cruise, whether it be playing as a band or jamming in with Debbie Davies, Fiona Boyes and the historic late night jams. He was impressive not only in his musical prowess but also for his openness and friendliness shown to all who enjoyed his shows.
I wanted to speak to him because he is from Rochester, NY – adopted home of Son House for many years. Here is our conversation.
BB: You were taking violin lessons when you were six years old at The Eastman. How did this happen?
LY: It happened this way. My mother saw an article in the local newspaper about a woman who was going to start teaching violin a revolutionary new way. Her name was Anastasia Jempelis. The way that she was teaching is called the Suzuki Method derived from a man from Japan, Shinichi Suzuki. It focused on a thing called the mother tongue method, which is a way of learning music on an instrument by ear or imitation.
BB: Who were your early influences, and who would you say are at your musical Roots?
LY: I would say my earliest strong musical influence was from my family, which was very musical. My mother played piano and organ very well. She played organ in the church we went to. Both of my parents had strong musical tastes. My dad grew up in New Orleans & had lots of records, mostly jazz. My sister was a good pianist in her own right and listened to a lot of soul, R&B and funk. I would often raid my dad and sisters record collections so their music got into my musical veins. My favorites were people to listen to out of their collections were Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, James Brown, Aretha, Miles Davis, and Funkadelic. This was along with the fact that my brother played the cello and I played violin early in our lives. I was 6 and he was 5 when we started. My brother now plays in the Boston Symphony. I consider us lucky to have lived in a city like Rochester and have an Eastman School of Music to go to. Our teachers and fellow students became strong influences. Every week we were exposed to high level musicians playing. Those were my strongest earlier influences. It was later on that I became obsessed with Hendrix and the Beatles, and even later after digging up their influences when I caught the blues & boogie woogie flu that I felt I had to play the blues. Also, I was a good researcher. I’d go find out about and listen to all of these old records for hours on hours. For a little while in high school, I got so obsessed with violin music and the blues, that I’d skip school and go to the library to listen to and later play music all day. How square is that? I think at one point I skipped a couple weeks straight doing nothing but that until it was found out. I got into a little trouble with the school and my folks. It was my passion and I couldn’t stop. I haven’t stopped yet.
BB: I saw you on the October 2009 Bluescruise, and was blown away with your playing and stage presence, it was warm and affable, yet you took no prisoners when you played. It seems to me there is a large difference between classical performances and blues performances, and crowds – do you like the engaging persona of blues audiences, and did you find this in classical performances?
LY: Here’s what I’ve found about those audiences. I don’t think that their is that much difference. People are people. The music is either good or bad. When the music is good, classical or blues audience will react to it. I’ve seen and experienced classical audiences go nuts crazy over a good performance. It could have a deep effect on you like it did me sometimes. I remember seeing a Vladimir Horowitz recital, and an Ornette Coleman show not long after that had about the same lasting good effect on me. They both gave me so much energy that you almost feel like you could run through a brick wall.
BB: Can you tell us some more about your classical training, and some of the events you played at thru those connections?
LY: Some the more memorable events were traveling to Europe, specifically Austria and Switzerland as a teenager with the Pittsburgh Youth Orchestra, getting a full scholarship to Indiana University and studying with Josef Gingold. Playing in LA for part of the summer at Universal Pictures Studio Orchestra, playing at Carnegie Hall in New York, going to the Olympics in “88 in Seoul Korea with the National Repertory Orchestra.
BB: Would you say these prepared you for the move to the blues scene?
LY: Most definitely these prepared me to move to the blues scene. Any time spent in front of an audience prepares you for any other time. Being in front of an audience isn’t natural but becomes more natural with practice. That’s why a lot of people get stage fright. I got it too. That doesn’t happen much any more. I get a little anxious sometimes, but not like when I was a kid when my legs would shake and my mouth would be dry and it was hard enough to stand there and almost impossible to make music. You have to relax and breathe. No matter what kind of music you’re playing, you can only communicate your state of being.
BB: The Blues, why? Did it just present itself to you one day, or was it always there waiting to be discovered by you?
LY: I think in a previous life, I played the blues guitar or bass. For a while, I tried to play with a slide on the violin. It almost worked but it wasn’t quite right. It was when I first took a slide to guitar that I really felt that I’d done it before. Everything just fit. I seemed to know where things were without any real practice. The real blues is always there waiting to be discovered by everybody. It seems like it was always there in my life. Why not blues? It’s great music and I love it. It’s changed me and I know it’s changed most of you. It shows up at transformation points, and turns negative situations into positive energy. It has everything I need in it. In it there’s a microcosm of everything else. It feels like it’s essence has always been here.
BB: There is a history of violin in the Blues, from the Jug Bands, to the Folksy Good Time Music of the 60’s, to Papa John Creach – did any of this inspire you, or encourage you to pursue the blues?
LY: To tell you the truth, no it didn’t really encourage me to pursue playing the blues though I wish I could say it did. I was more into the general sound of the Blues. As we all know, it would appear in all kinds of music and in many ways like for me Aretha or Count Basie or Ray Charles. I was more shock influenced by the sound of Hendrix, Blind Willie Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf & John Lee Hooker. It was later when I heard Charlie Patton or early Muddy or the Mississippi Sheiks and Sugar Cane Harris that I realized that the violin had been there all along. By then in my life I was already deep into the blues music, so it did inspire and encourage me but I’d already tried to play the sounds I heard on the violin. Nothing inspired me more that hearing Hendrix. I can still remember trying to imitate what he did on the only thing I knew how to play at the time, the violin. I think that the violin was kind of fazed out of the blues and popular music. My guess as to why that happened is that it probably had to do with how it was perceived, like it was old fashioned or it was king in some bygone musical era. Also, I think that this happened partly because it wasn’t loud enough compared tohorns and later the electric Guitar. I got a chance to speak with Claude Fiddler Williams a few years ago (1999) in Kansas City. He played violin and guitar with Count Basie. He told me that as a condition to get signed, John Hammond senior told Count that he had to get rid of the strings, so he was out. I believe that the time for the violin to be out of the blues and other popular music is forever passed to the past. I see it coming back. There’s just too many of us violin players and there are so many newer electric violins that volume isn’t an issue any more. I’m so glad you asked this question. In a way for me, when I saw it, it was like opening Pandora’s box. I sincerely believe that part of what my spirit in this body is here to do is tied in with the violin and is connected with winning the IBC in Memphis this year. The violin has enjoyed many years of being the alpha or dominant instrument in the orchestra. I’m in love with it. It can do so many different things musically. It’s said to be the musical instrument most like the human voice. I could see no reason why it wouldn’t have a more prominent place in blues or other popular music. I have to admit that in coming to this years IBC, I had something to prove.
After I won the solo/duo part of the IBC in 2008, I was a little bothered at how I was perceived. I’m not whining, I’m just saying. I’d hear whisperings about how the only reason I won was because I was playing a “novelty instrument”. That’s bullshit! I heard that some people were even upset that a non guitar player won and that my winning was just a fluke. That attitude (when I’d find it) really pissed me off. It discounted how hard I worked and the true love I had for the blues and all the great people that influenced me. It doesn’t matter what you play as much as how you play, who you are and what you have to say. I really believe that. If someone played fork or a paper plate really well and could sing and make you feel something, theoretically they should have be given the same consideration at the IBC as someone playing a guitar, piano or harmonica. I saw that if I really believed that, I had to prove it and win the IBC again against all odds. By that I mean playing a violin primarily and winning twice. Winning once is hard enough. That can be a charm or a curse. It can be an obstacle if you attempt to do it again because the IBC process is based on subjective opinions. It’s not who makes the most baskets or who crosses the finish line first. A judge could consciously or unconsciously score you less high just because you won it before giving someone else a chance. I saw that happen so I knew that whatever I did had to be strong enough to overcome that too.
BB: Do you find these two seemingly opposite styles of music complimentary and can you incorporate them within each others presentations effectively?
LY: I don’t find the styles seemingly opposing and find them complementary. When I play, I sometimes use aspects of both classical, blues and everything else. Sometimes I try to make the classical music swing a little with rhythm and it works sometimes. Other times your thinking and playing chord progressions.
BB: You have won the International Blues Challenge twice now, one in 2008 for Solo/Duo, and now in 2011 as band, congrats. What made you ‘go back to the drawing board’ and form/re-form as a group?
LY: When I did the IBC the first time in 2008, I originally wanted to bring a band. The seed was sown then to come back and do it that way. It’s just so much funner to play music with others than by your self. It was always in the back of my mind. That’s why there were 6 of us in Memphis.
BB: How has the dynamic changed within the band, and do you think this is the best vehicle for what you are playing?
LY: The dynamic is in the process of shifting from being focused on doing our very best at the IBC to conquering the world as we know it. I’m having a little fun with this question but that answer is partly accurate. We want to focus on touring well, playing with the same commitment,drive and integrity that we had in Memphis. I want us to set our sights higher in the recording department by aiming for a BMA or eventually a Grammy. I’m not sure if it’s the best vehicle for what I’m getting into or not. I’m sure it fun though. It’s kind of like driving a high powered car. It’s more of a luxury. I still like to play by myself too, but I prefer to play with others.
BB: Speaking of winning the IBC’s, did you learn anything about the process, and intimacies of the Challenge, the first time that helped you prepare for the second, and resoundingly successful second attempt?
LY: Yes I did. I hate to sound cliche, but the more time you put into preparation, the better you’ll do at anything you want to do. We spent a lot of time preparing. I wanted to do my best to put us in a position to win. First, I picked the best players I could find. There I started backwards. I started with the sound I wanted in my head first and picked musicians who best fit that image. Most but not all were already my friends but friendship wasn’t a priority. Some I’d played with a lot. Some not so much. The most important thing was that they were great players that took pride in themselves and the way they played and knew how to play in the texture of the band. Before we played a note to prepare for the local preliminary rounds of the IBC, we worked backwards starting with the judging criteria. We’d talk about everything we did and would choose music according to the judging criteria, trying to maximize the heavier criteria like blues content, showing instrumental and vocal talent. We picked music that showed a good variety of rhythms and feels. We tried to be as original as we could be choosing songs that we wrote. If we did any covers they wouldn’t be something you’d hear at a blues jam. They’d have to serve the purpose of scoring high in other criteria. We dressed up and had a blues dance instructor help us with stage presence & stage show issues. We went in the studio and recorded the “on the way to Memphis” CD which prepared us musically to have a CD’s worth of music really down and tight. That was one of the hardest things we did. We timed everything, both the songs individually and sets as a whole so we wouldn’t go over. The recording helped us with that. We even took a chance and did an all acapella song that ended up being a our secret weapon. It was a chance to score high in vocal talent if we did it well. We covered Sam Cook’s “bring it on home”. Not an original tune but an original way of doing it. We tried to do what I knew other bands wouldn’t do to set us apart, like play a real slow blues or play real quiet or with good dynamics. I knew that making decisions to do stuff that set us apart would be advantageous going into the first IBC in 2008. Almost everyone else in the situation tries to bang you over the head with their music. The IBC a high pressure situation. Because of that we knew that most acts would play louder and faster but not slower and quieter. That’s something I really learned from Josef Gingold, one of my violin teachers. He unlike most people, could play so quiet and beautiful, it would take your breath away. One thing I noticed about guys like BB and Buddy Guy and all the really good bands is that they can play really quiet. People listen harder and get sucked in. All this equipment and watts and amps doesn’t matter as much. Don’t get me wrong, I like to play loud and proud like anyone else. That’s something that just feels good, but loud noises scare the little children and take away many people’s ability to hear. Also, I really tried to connect with the audience by simply looking up. You’d be surprised how many people don’t do that and how important it is to do. Most people want to feel something, a connection to you of some kind. That’s just another thing to think about for any performer. It’s really why you’re there.
BB: Where there differences in the approach you took for these two different categories or was it about the same?
LY: The approach I took was the same, working backwards from the judging criteria. The difference between the two was that I had much longer to prepare for the band which was needed. Getting 6 people on the same page on anything is tough enough. Just getting 6 in demand musicians in the same room for a rehearsal can be challenging. Naturally, 6 people are harder to manage than just one. In 2008 with the solo/duo, I really didn’t get serious until the weekend before the contest. Like many who go to the IBC, there was a send off performance before we left. I felt I played terrible there so I got to work and prepared seriously, practicing for as many hours as I could. In a way it felt like I’d been preparing for it all my life, but if I didn’t really have what I wanted to do down, I would have felt that I wasted an opportunity . I learned an important lesson. Sometimes playing badly be good for you. It can spur you on to play well later.
BB: Looking at your ‘set lists’ on-line, we’ve got everything from W.C. Handy, Sinatra, and Sly Stone to Count Basie and Jimi Hendrix. It sounds like my CD collection. How do you go about selecting music to cover, what do you look for?
LY: First I get a panel of experts together and poll them on what covers they like. Then I use a computerized rating system. Just kidding. I play what’ll fit the situation or what I’d like to hear in the moment.
BB: Not to be overlooked, your songwriting stands well on it’s own. Do you have any influences as to style of writing, someone who you have heard and say ‘yeh that’s it’?
LY: I’ve heard a lot of people and said, “yea that’s it”. One of my best influences is a guy by the name of Johnny Long. He wrote and played lots of great originals. I know he’s recorded for Delta Groove records. I played with him for a while and he introduced be to Homesick James at one point. He’s just great. Everybody should know him. I wouldn’t be who I am in the blues world without his influence and example. I love the way Sonny Boy Williamson wrote a song. Always interesting and makes you think. In a much different way, I love Otis Taylor because he breaks new ground and writes about heavy stuff. I like James Taylor as a song writer and have met and played with him. Most of what I right about comes from my experience in one way or another. Lately I’ve been writing about warnings and concerns around the topics of our environment and what I envision happening in the next year and 1/2. The way I see where we’re at now is that we feel like we’ve been given platform to sing and speak on the challenges we’re facing as people who are facing extinction. That’s the stuff I care about. How are we gonna survive this next couple of years. Not just me, but everyone. I know that we’re better and stronger if we help each other. That’s part of why I take music so seriously. It brings people together. We need good music now today more than ever.
BB: Where are you and the band going now? Is there anything you guys are up to in the studio, summer festival time is almost upon us, where can we look forward to seeing you?
LY: We’re setting our sights high. Why not go big? We have some stuff in the can that we can release when the time is right. Meanwhile, we’re looking at situations where we can get our music out andmore available. There are some serious looks at some good companies and situations in the immediate future. Meanwhile, we’re going to be all over the US, Canada, and the world in the next 8 months this being April. We’re playing lots of festivals this summer. Most or all of where we’ll be will be posted on our website at lionelyoung.net. We’re presented with lots of opportunities and we what to make the best of them. Going to Europe in November, doing the Blues Cruise again. I’m excited.
BB: And so are we!
Interviewer Chefjimi Patricola is a classically trained chef, blues loving writer and creative master of Blues411.com. He can also can be found on FaceBook and at festivals and clubs in your neighborhood and town.