How the Kentucky Headhunters Went From a Southern Rock Bar Band to Playing the Blues With a Legendary Pianist
In 2003, the Kentucky Headhunters recorded an album with legendary blues pianist Johnnie Johnson -- then shelved it until very recently. Most would say that the project, which was released in June, was 12 years in the making, but Richard Young will tell you that the foundation for Meet Me in Bluesland can be traced back much further than those studio sessions in the early 2000s.
The Kentucky Headhunters -- now Young and his brother Fred, their cousin Greg Martin and Doug Phelps -- began in 1968. Back then, they were known as Itchy Brother, and the lineup consisted of the Youngs, Martin and another cousin, Anthony Kenney. Their influences ranged from '60s rock 'n' roll and Southern rock to blues and gospel music -- influences that, in a way, led them to collaborate with Johnson so many years later.
"We were this bada-- four-piece blues-rock band," Richard Young tells The Boot. "... If somebody told me in the '70s that I was gonna be in a [country] band, I would have laughed them out of the room."
By 1970, they were only teenagers, but "we'd gotten pretty good," Young says, and their parents were driving them around to play bar shows with artists such as the Outlaws and Charlie Daniels.
"The bad part was, we'd open for them in these bars," Young recalls, "and after we played, we'd have to stand outside and peer in the door to hear 'em play!"
In the next decade and a half, the blues-y rock band was nearly signed to two different record labels: Capricorn Records showed interest in the mid '70s, and then Led Zeppelin's Swan Song Records came calling, but the label closed in the early 1980s.
"You've got to imagine, being a bunch of kids from Kentucky, and all of a sudden, you're going to be on this major label with Led Zeppelin ...," Young explains. "What a let-down. It was just crushing."
In 1986, the Youngs and Martin hooked up with Phelps and his brother, Ricky Lee Phelps, who were "more country than us," according to Richard Young, and became the Kentucky Headhunters. They landed a deal with Mercury Records in 1989 -- and "were in disbelief that somebody gave us a shot," according to Young.
Around the same time, Johnson -- who spent years working with Chuck Berry -- was being recruited to appear in the Berry-focused documentary Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll. The film earned Johnson major recognition, allowing him to return to making music and release his first solo album in 1987.
The Kentucky Headhunters' and Johnson's paths collided at a pre-Grammy Awards party in 1992: After listening to Johnson's then-newest album, Johnnie B. Bad, all the way to the party, the Headhunters just so happened to meet Johnson there.
"They've got all the flavors of the year struttin' around like peacocks, and there's this poor old man sittin' in the corner," Young recalls. "... Nobody knew who he was, but we were runnin' over there, sittin' down with him. We stayed with him all night."
It proved to be a fortuitous meeting: A few months later, Johnson asked the Headhunters to appear on his 1993 solo album, That'll Work, and they jumped at the opportunity.
"It was like, 'When do we start?'" Young recalls with a laugh.
Ten years after that, while recording a project of their own in 2003, the Headhunters were working on a cover of "Have You Ever Loved a Woman?" and knew that what was missing was Johnson.
"We had to have him for it to sound right," Young explains.
The legendary pianist joined the country group in the studio to record the tune -- but after getting the song, the Headhunters put a hold on material for their album and instead turned their focus to recording more songs with Johnson -- enough for what would eventually become Meet Me in Bluesland. Then, they shelved those tracks and finished their disc, 2003's Soul.
When Johnson died in April of 2005, people began inquiring about who might have some of his final recordings -- but the Headhunters didn't say a word.
"We might be country, but we've got a lot of class," Young says, "and we weren't about to put that album out in the wake of Johnnie's passing."
Young explains that, in the years since Johnson's passing, they've been "waiting for the stars to line up in all directions" -- and in October of 2014, the stars lined up. Once again, while working on an album of their own, the Kentucky Headhunters found themselves shelving their project in favor of those recordings with Johnson.
"... We felt it was time in our hearts to release it," Young says, "but the big factor was [Johnson's widow,] Frances," who told the Headhunters, "I want to hear it before I die."
The quartet thought it might take a while to whip the recordings into shape, but as it turned out, they only had to do a very little bit over.
"It's all live!" Young explains, adding that Johnson himself is the reason for that.
"...You'd better have your ducks in a row because you don't get but one take out of Johnnie Johnson," Young says.
"... I love it when that happens," he continues, on the topic of the record being live-to-tape. " ... You know what it's called? Real. It makes it real."
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