By Deardra Shuler
Lonnie Youngblood sat across from me munching upon a mouse-shaped chocolate mousse cake that we both were sharing. We grinned at one another as we discussed what part of the mouse we would attack with our forks. "You can have the ears," the singer and musician gallantly offered. We stuck in our forks with gusto. Me, attacking the ears and Youngblood cutting off its tail.
Black and white-garbed waiters scurried pass our booth as the clatter of dishes gave credence to the dinner hour. The brightly lit diner was filled with hungry patrons too preoccupied with their meals to notice that an acclaimed saxophonist sat within their midst.
"I'm a Leo you know," claimed Youngblood. I was born on August 3, 1941 in Augusta, GA. It's the perfect sign for a show business personality. I like that Leo thing. I wear it well. It fits me," mused the instrumentalist.
Born Lonnie Thomas, the singing saxophonist ranked third in the sibling order. "Although, I was not the baby, I was very close to my mother. She was like my refuge. She was my hero and was always there for me. I think it was because I was sick when I was little.
"It was a different time then. This may sound amazing, but my father made about $12 a week as a laborer. My mother, who worked as a domestic, also offset the family income by baking cakes and pies. Those cakes and pies alone netted over $20 a week, which was pretty good, because the mortgage was only $10.00 a month. My mother left my father when I was around 4 years old and started working in the Buckhead section of Atlanta as a maid. You know women are really wonderful. They do so much for their families and I don't think they get enough recognition for the sacrifices they often make to keep things together.
"It is funny how men seem to forget about how special women are. I can only talk about Black people because that is what I know. I often wonder why, when I see so many couples, I don't see many Black men out on the town with Black women. Usually the women are alone. I wonder why that is? Someone told me because too many Black men are incarcerated. While that may be, there certainly are enough Black men who are not in jail who could be out there appreciating and spending time with their women. I just notice when I am playing these clubs, the ratio of Black women who are alone far exceed that of other races."
"I also think that the way rap music dishonors Black women is a disgrace. This demonstrates self-hatred and a complete ignorance of ones self worth. I can't understand why anyone would want to disgrace themselves in such a way. It's mostly Black men doing this, too.
"I just respect and honor my wife and mother so much. They both mean everything to me, especially my wife. From the beginning she encouraged me in my music. And, she was really there for me when I got caught up in drugs.
My wife is my best friend and champion," said Lonnie. "Although, I never told my mother about my problems with drugs, she knew. She was so glad when I finally stopped. But it was my wife who was always there constantly encouraging me take hold of myself and get off the drugs. She deserves a great deal of credit for my recovery."
Youngblood was addicted to drugs for about 10 years before becoming clean in 1989. "I was just ignorant. There was no reason for me to get into drugs. It was really a cop-out because I didn't want to face reality. I let some fool talk me into trying cocaine one day because he told me how good it was. I tried some and for a long time it wasn't bad. But of course, you think its cool, but it really isn't," reminisced Lonnie remorsefully.
"I let that same fool convince me to draw my friends into it and just lost my common sense. Stupidly, I ended up taking more and more and before I knew it I was hooked. At first, I tried to convince myself I wasn't really hooked but finally I had to accept that I was," reflected the musician. "Who knows why I allowed myself to go so far. I think my career wasn't gong in the direction I wanted and I just started using. I am so lucky that my mother instilled God in me. I believe that prayer changes things and one day I got so tired of being on drugs that I started praying. I prayed for hours and when I finished, I got up and went into rehab. I worked at getting myself straight and once I did, I never looked back. That was about 12 years ago."
Youngblood began playing the sax as a youth after his father gifted him with the instrument. He honed his skill and began performing in a school band. At 17, he secured a gig in Newark after his mother convinced a friend of his talent. "I was making $15 a night and over $25.00 in tips. To a 17-year-old that was crazy money. I started making so much money that I was spending it on suits for every day of the week and even bought a car."
After two years, Youngblood decided he was good enough to strike out on his own. "My ego got so big I let people convince me I was ready to start my own band and I jumped out there and nearly starved to death. I had to beg for my job back," recalled Lonnie with amusement.
One day Youngblood met Fay Adams. "Her manager and I developed a great rapport. We put a record together and it did well. It became an overnight success in the Newark area. From that record deal I just went into another and kept recording and then went on the road with Fay as her band leader."
After that, Youngblood worked with Baby Washington and then Buster Brown who had a record out called "Fannie Mae." After observing the acclaim and notoriety that Brown achieved with his singing, Youngblood was inspired to expand on his craftsmanship. "I did not know what success was until I hung out with Buster Brown. He got so much attention as a singer, I decided I wanted to sing, too. So that was the beginning of my singing career. I played sax and I sang. That was around 1963."
Youngblood began working at the Peppermint Lounge with his own band. It was during that period that Chubby Checkers had inspired the latest dance craze and everyone was doing the Twist. "The Peppermint Lounge was the hottest thing going. Whites were making money off Black people then. But I made money, too. I toured all the Ivy League colleges as Lonnie Youngblood and the Blood Brothers. We became the #1 band. I got a chance to meet and work with many R&B stars. I met Chuck Berry and backed up a lot of great acts. I met people like Miles Davis, James Brown, Cannonball Adderly, John Coltrane, Lloyd Price, Joe Tex, Jackie Wilson, Ray, Goodman and Brown, Sam and Dave and so many others. I worked with Jimi Hendix at Smalls Paradise and recorded dozens of tapes with him. Hendrix and I co-wrote 'Wipe The Sweat Off My Brow.'
"I even made money as a studio musician pulling down $1,500 a week but it wasn't exciting enough for me. I started hanging out with Tommy Hunt. This was in the 60s. After that, I worked with Chuck Jackson as a bandleader. A year later, I started working with Ben E. King and stayed with him for 2 years. I met my wife, Debra-May in 1964 and a year later we got married. We have been together ever since."
Lonnie recorded the song, 'Sweet Sweet Tootie,' and it went #1 on the R&B charts. Shirley Brown had recorded a song entitled, 'Woman to Woman' and Youngblood wrote a response with his song, 'Man to Woman.' He performed the song on Soul Train and went on to record 'African Twist' and one other called 'Soul Food.'
Youngblood recorded hit record after hit record but always seemed to fall short of a gold record.
"Music is like art. I don't know about painting or poetry. I just know about music. Music can release you. In life, some people can get a break and get hold of that elusive golden egg but somehow it continues to elude me.
I am blessed because I am successful but I am not where I want to be. Compared to what I know and have come to believe true success is, I would have to say, I have not yet achieved that level," laments the artist.
"I worked with Billy Williams, who did that song, "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter," and thought I was about to get my big break then. I had fun but somehow it never seemed to be my time."
Youngblood is presently enjoying the success of his own CD entitled, 'In The Garden.'
"This CD, comprised of 8 traditional gospel songs, is the biggest success I have ever had because all the proceeds come to me," claimed the charismatic bandleader. "My CD is reflective of my spiritual upbringing. It is gut wrenching gospel. You listen to it and get a flavor of the pain and joy that makes gospel music what it is.
"Black Americans are known for three types of music -- gospel, blues and jazz. I have reached the stage of my life where I have rounded out the circle. I've done all three. Unfortunately, Black people have neglected to pass our music down to our young people. When I was a kid, I knew about Louis Jordan, Scott Joplin, Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Clara Ward and all those wonderful singers back in the day. My family introduced those artists to me. Black parents are not passing this great part of our history down to today's children. They really should. It's Black people's experience in America. These kids know all the words to rap music but can't tell you a thing about the music of our history."
A resident of Bergen County in New Jersey, Lonnie Youngblood preaches his message of spiritual hope through his music. "I am on a mission now to get my music out to the public. I also try to do my best to give back. I often help drug users and try to inspire them to give up and remain off the drugs. I am so grateful to have had God and my talent to give me the incentive and the courage to face my drug problem. I credit both for enabling me to remain drug free."
Known as the Prince of Harlem, Youngblood has played his saxophone in churches throughout the greater tri-state area. He has appeared at Abyssenian Baptist, Canaan Baptist, First Corinthians, Bethany Baptist, First Baptist in Crown Heights and even at Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network. "My goal is to be a guest soloist in every Church in the metropolitan area," claims the artist. "That is, if God is willing."
"Right now I am standing in the wings. My career is moving in the direction that God wants it to go. It's cool! I have played my jazz, I've known the blues and now I give praise through the gospel spirituals. I am blessed and continue to do what I love. I'm in a good place now. These days when I pick up my saxophone my music is my tribute. It is my thank you to God. It's my way of telling him he has done well by me and I'm paid in full."
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