By Michael E. Miller
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Roy Young was born in the Bow Bells section of London. (Accepted English wisdom says that if you're born within the sound of the Bow Bells, you're a true cockney.) His father was a carpenter, his mother a hotel worker and avid musician who played piano A black keys only A and sang in the pubs around the college town of Oxford, where Roy grew up. Mrs. Young's piano playing rubbed off on her son, although Roy took a liking to boogie-woogie, which necessitated his learning how to use the white keys as well as the black ones. From the moment he saw the movie Blackboard Jungle in 1955 and heard Bill Haley and His Comets singing "Rock Around the Clock," Roy Young knew that rock and roll was his immediate future. (Like almost everyone else at the time, however, he assumed rock was a fad that would die out in a year or two. But he wanted to ride that trend while it lasted.)
Young quickly made a name for himself as an enthusiastic performer. His musical skill was limited A he played and sang everything in the key of C because that was the only one he knew A but he performed with conviction. Then one day he accidentally started playing a song without looking down at the keyboard, and his hands were improperly positioned. He was in the wrong key (F). Nothing to do but stretch his voice to match it. To Roy's and everyone else's amazement, he sounded great. And just like that, England's Little Richard was born. His unique talent made him the principal attraction on a spate of half-hour television shows airing throughout Britain that featured live-in-the-studio performances by homegrown rock and roll bands as well as raveups by visiting American stars such as Gene Vincent, Fats Domino, and Chuck Berry. Roy Young became a hero to legions of adolescent Brits.
Like McCartney, Elton John, Rod Stewart, and Jeff Beck (all of whom have confided similar experiences to Roy), long-time Young admirer and fellow pianist Ian Hunter first encountered England's Little Richard on TV. "When I was a kid they used to have these half-hour TV shows," remembers Hunter, approximately a half-dozen years Young's junior. "Ready, Steady, Go! Oh Boy! A I remember watching this guy [Young] who looked totally bewildered, just sort of hammering on the piano and singing just like Little Richard. I even went to Oxford once, walkin' around the streets, lookin' for 'im. I just thought this guy was incredible."
Hunter remembers being awestruck the first time he heard Young sing. "That ability to sort of wobble in tune, that breakdown at the end of a line A there's only one guy in the world other than Roy that can do it, and that's Little Richard," states Hunter flatly. "Even he [Young] doesn't know quite how he does it. But he does it better than McCartney could do it, better than Lennon could do it. People tried. But Roy was the only guy who could do that. We couldn't believe a white guy could do it, let alone English."
Dave McAleer, U.K. rock and pop music journalist and author of The Fab British Rock 'n' Roll Invasion of 1964 and NME Rock 'n' Roll Years, also recalls Young from that time. "I was a fan," McAleer allows. "When he first started, he was our Little Richard. He looked like a madman. He'd stand up playing the piano and screaming his tunes out A he really looked like he believed in what he was doing. You thought, 'Yeah, this is the real thing,' unlike 90 percent of the other British artists."
So by the time Brian Epstein broached the subject of Young's joining "the lads" and going back to England to record, Young had a tough decision to make. He already was something of a legend along the Reeperbahn, a seedy stretch of real estate in Hamburg known for its teeming nightlife and burgeoning red-light district. He had a three-year contract at the Star Club, the hub of Hamburg's bustling rock scene, and could share the stage there with anyone his heart desired, including the Beatles.
Young sensed that there was something extraordinary about Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Best (Ringo still labored in the Star Combo, the Star Club's house band, whose members A Young, Tony Sheridan, and Colin Valanda A first had appeared together at the Top Ten club as members of the Beat Brothers, whose changeable lineup occasionally included the Beatles). But after thinking it over for a day, Young concluded the Star Club gig was just too good to pass up for an uncertain future with Epstein's charges.
"I was still under a three-year contract [at the Star Club], and I felt obligated to finish it out," he explains now. "I knew that the Beatles were obviously something special, but I don't think that anybody at that time anticipated they would get that big. You hear people today who say, 'Of course they would be.' At this point it's implanted. But I don't think anybody realized back then, including the Beatles themselves."