Episode 16: George Young, Legendary Sax Player and Composer
This month’s podcasts will be in two parts and feature legendary woodwind musician, George Young. Part one will focus on the early days. Both musicians and non-musicians will be inspired by George’s focus and discipline in developing his musical gift.
When first I started working with my husband, Alfred, over 40 years ago, he told me tales of his years with George Young. They had met in Wildwood, NJ, during a time when live music was plentiful and clubs were packed. They worked together for a few years as the George Young Review, which played show houses in many major metropolitan cities and also performed on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Then George went on to take his place among jazz’s most respected “session musicians” whose work in recording studios for record companies, films, television productions and commercials has kept him pretty much flying under the radar. However, he has also performed and toured internationally with countless bands and is a wonderful composer.
After gigs, Alfred and I used to drive into NYC to see him perform at Mikel’s or jazz brunches on Sundays and when we recorded our two CDs, George played on several tunes.
This podcast will be in two parts, the first focusing on his early days. The second part will air two weeks later.
George says “Keep Moving!” and he sure does!
You can learn more and contact George on his web site.
Thanks for listening.
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Sharman Nittoli: 0:13
Welcome to the Live Your Bloom Podcast where I interview people stepping out of their comfort zones to fulfill old dream seeds or plant new ones, regardless of their age. And sometimes I have someone, like today, who is consummate in their field and still doing it. Mr. George Young, musician, has had a long career and I'm not even going to waste any time, I'm going to bring him right in. Hi, George.
George Young: 0:41
Hi Sharman. Thank you for having me.
Sharman Nittoli: 0:44
So I have met you many years ago, but my husband and my listeners know, I talk about Alfred a lot work with you in his youth. So could you tell us your background, where you're from, how you got into music?
George Young: 0:58
Well, okay. Will do. I'm originally from Philadelphia. My mother is a first-generation Slovak and my father is first-generation Croatian. There's a lot of music in our background from some of their folk music, that middle Eastern European flow of music, and that was very prevalent in my upbringing. Plus a lot of listening to classical music my parents would play, for example, they would play a lot of Tchaikovsky. Especially around Christmas time where we hear the Nutcracker Suite, which has become one of my favorite works and he's become one of my favorite composers. Although there are many as I'm sure you'll agree.
Sharman Nittoli: 1:45
George Young: 1:46
And it got me into really appreciating music being unaware of what music was. Dad used to come home with Tonettes, ocarinas and stuff, little musical toys, because one of our adopted uncles, uncle Monty, rest his soul, he saw me going like this with my hands in the cradle, when I was just a couple of days old. He's gonna play something and it freaked and it freaked out. So my father took that serious. And as soon as I was old enough, he got me a slide whistle, he got me all these things. And believe it or not, unknowingly, I'm making music with these little things, as a child, I wasn't aware of what I was doing. We were listening to the radio all our range, right. Rossini. So the Williams fell over.
Sharman Nittoli: 2:42
George Young: 2:42
So I would play *sings tune* on the Ocarina, because that was our thing. He'd come home from work, we'd both get on the floor, listening to the little radio, play our favorite serials, and then the green Hornet, same thing, 'fire under the bumper'. And my father he'd say, 'Hey sin', which is son in Croatian. He'd say, 'Hey, sin, play the Lone Ranger'. So this was where it started.
Sharman Nittoli: 3:10
George Young: 3:11
Then I broke into my father's horn the day the war ended. I think I told you that story a long time ago. Got home from school early that day. The story goes, I was a ruder. I like to look at things I wasn't supposed. I was a very, very curious young kid. I was around six years old. I got home, the war was ended, dad was still working. And mom had a day gig too, she was working mother. I get home, first thing I want to do is I want to go check it is is Alto, which he put under the bed. It's very sacred to him because my mom used to chase him, 'Get the heck out of here with that thing, you're giving me a headache. Go in the basement or go up in your room.' So he found the bathroom as the optimum spot because of the echo that the tile provided enhanced the sound. So long story short, I'm in there, I put the horn together like I had seen him do. I felt bad for him. I used to go sit on the edge of the tub while he closed the commode and use the towel rack as a music stand. And he would try to woo my mom with things like it's 'June in January'. He could play a little bit. Didn't have a lot of fingers, a lot of chops because he didn't have time to practice.
Sharman Nittoli: 4:28
George Young: 4:29
But he got a good sound and he knew about music. He knew about it. As did his family, his brothers, he had lots of siblings, they all played, they had a family band. Anyway, I later got into it, put it together, close the door, put the musical on a towel rack, couldn't read a note, just was pretend, fantasy land. And I'm squeaking and squawking away and I can't make sense of this piece of tubing with this thing. And pretty soon the crack of the door opens. Who is it? My dad, being a factory worker, he too was let out early in celebration of the wars ending. So I figured, 'Oh, geez, I'm really going to get it now.' He often threatened the strap when I would misbehave, but never hit me. And I figured this is going to be definitely a strap day, so I better prepare my butt. Instead of him being bummed out he has tears in his eyes to think this little brat took it upon himself to investigate this saxophone. And that's where it all started.
Sharman Nittoli: 5:35
George Young: 5:36
Then we had the family band, I played in that band and he always used to encourage me to put a little stuff in it. 'Cause I would read everything, literally. Honest quarter note, dotted half note, whatever it was, I would honor the mathematics and he would always say, 'Alright, now that you know where the melody's going, put a little stuff in it.', he used the word stuff. I'm very proud of the peasantry that we came from, our music and all that kind of stuff. I found out later, just about five years ago, that his mother, my grandmother was a gypsy. My grandfather Opaliski, which is my family name, he married Magdela Margaret, close it up. And she was from a gypsy camp. So my cousin and I, who his family, his kids have been researching all this. And plus he's been over to the family house that my grandfather built. That whole thing tells us that that's possibly with a musical situation comes from. Although that culture is loaded with music, especially the gypsies. So that's where it all started, and we would play, we had a revolving band we'd go to Aunt Katie's house, my father's sister. I had an uncle George, played the violin; Leon and Raymond, the twins, piano and violin players; my cousins played trumpet became a great classical trumpeter, Lou; and everyone that didn't play in it. Uncle Louie was the main guy, my cousin's father. He played banjo, piano, beautiful trumpet, but most of the time he would play the piano or the banjo, depending upon how far back to tune went you played the banjo. And that's what we did, we would play tunes of the day. Popular tunes where I'd stand near the piano and transposes the piano sheet. And everyone else would sing, all the folks that didn't play an instrument, so it was like a chorus. And my mother, she would, the only way she really felt comfortable is if she sang on her knees.
Sharman Nittoli: 7:53
George Young: 7:53
So she would be on her knees, like she's praying, singing. That's what I remember so vividly, and it used to happen every Sunday at either uncle Louie's house and aunt Mary's and uncle Andy's house. We have a big family. All the brothers, they had like pianos, and if they didn't have a piano uncle Louie would bring his banjo. But nonetheless, we would play every Sunday and everybody would get drinking and you know.
Sharman Nittoli: 8:20
Rich memories and a lot of passion. I know Sundays with me, we used to have the church. We were involved in a Greek church, we'll have a similar thing, but just a Greek dancing.
George Young: 8:32
Sharman Nittoli: 8:32
And barbecues in the back and singing Greek songs.
George Young: 8:36
Sharman Nittoli: 8:37
And your love of music, and you understand that music touches your soul, it starts. When you want to be with your family on a Sunday, after a certain age, that's pretty powerful.
George Young: 8:50
That happened for many years.
Sharman Nittoli: 8:51
George Young: 8:52
Up until I was about 10 or 11 years old. Then the older cousins, thank God, they sort of moved on. They were already older than us and they disperse. And then of course I'm involved now. They found out that I can do this in the school, I'm playing clarinet and saxophone.
Sharman Nittoli: 9:11
George Young: 9:12
They're grooming me for scholarships and stuff. The system in Philadelphia was very fertile, they encouraged the arts very much.
Sharman Nittoli: 9:21
Philly has always been a musical town, different kind of sensibility.
George Young: 9:27
Sharman Nittoli: 9:27
Did you get the scholarship?
George Young: 9:29
I did. I got two scholarships, but I said I had a band. I blew em off. Lebanon Valley State Teacher's College at the time in Philly and or to Juilliard School.
Sharman Nittoli: 9:42
George Young: 9:42
Of which both I attended and taught, and it's now the University of the Arts. I taught, I did a semester there as well as in Julliard. I went up, I played with the students quartet while I was engaged in the studio business. And I had done a lot of studying, although not in school, but formal. But personally, when our ban d dispersed or splintered, I was still doing little gigs here and there. Nothing serious, where I wanted to make a future out of traveling the world with the band, but I wanted to get something that was like more stabilized in one place. And I had a couple of experiences after recording in Philadelphia. This is now going into my early twenties, maybe I was 21 or 22 when I recorded for Bobby Rydell, his first hit, kissing time, which was my first hit as a studio player in Philly playing the first tenor solo that I ever did all over the world. And it blew my mind, I said, *music plays* And then he called me again to do Chubby, I wasn't available, Buddy Savitt did "The Twist". And then I did "Let's Twist Again", when I was back home, because by then I'm traveling to Vegas in and out with Alfred and the group that we had.
Sharman Nittoli: 11:23
George Young: 11:23
Which was a stunning group. It was better than we thought it was at the time.
Sharman Nittoli: 11:27
George Young: 11:28
We were unaware of how great it was.
Sharman Nittoli: 11:31
The album we had that you did. I transcribed the "Birth of the Blues" and what was really powerful in that was that, what, four or five pieces?
George Young: 11:41
Sharman Nittoli: 11:43
Big sound, big sound.
George Young: 11:44
We had the organ and, I had doubling you know, unison's are strong when you duble like the guitar with the bass...
Sharman Nittoli: 11:51
George Young: 11:51
That bourbon street beat. Remember that TV show *music*? Well, I used that line from the TV. That would be so apropos for the "Basin Street Blues", it's in the neighborhood. So it worked with Bobby DiNardo to bounce that thing through. That was fun times. And then we tried to capture the mood of every song that we did, be at a rocker or a more serious thing. I'm still in search of the other music that we recorded that seems to have disappeared. There are tapes around and Joe Stamile Jr. Was trying look for us.
Sharman Nittoli: 12:31
You said Joe Stamile Jr.?
George Young: 12:33
Yes, his father, Norman Baker and myself, we formed a production company called BSY productions. Bakers Stamil Young productions. And we recorded Reco art in Philly, our second various. But we never released it. I know the tapes are floating around somewhere, but.
Sharman Nittoli: 12:54
Wouldn't that be nice? Yeah.
George Young: 12:56
That would be wonderful because we moved on to other material and it was some stunning stuff in there, as I remember back on those arranged and the performances that the kids did was really outrageous.
Sharman Nittoli: 13:09
I know that the listeners have heard you on a multitude of songs. Because I didn't know you played on Chubby Checker, I didn't know that "Let's Twist Again". So...
George Young: 13:21
And the Dovell's "Can't Sit Down". That was another Philly song, *songs plays* "Turn the Beat Around" with Vicki Sue, and then Frankie Valli's solo album later, we did The Four Seasons.
Sharman Nittoli: 13:51
Kenny Rankin. I know I had that one too.
George Young: 13:53
Yeah, that was the Because of You album.
Sharman Nittoli: 13:55
George Young: 13:56
We did a duo on that one.
Sharman Nittoli: 13:58
Yeah. That was beautiful. Transfer, I think you played for.
George Young: 14:01
Oh yeah. I played on most of their New York recordings. I did Lena Horne.
Sharman Nittoli: 14:06
Oh goodness. Okay.
George Young: 14:08
I was on two of her projects. Played on Frank Sinatra's last, New York album, Portrait of an Album, I was on that. Played all the lead alto on that one. So I played the saxophones, clarinets, and the flutes.
Sharman Nittoli: 14:25
And the bamboo...
George Young: 14:26
yeah. Well, I play all of the ethnic instruments. Yes, ethnic flutes. Don't forget John Lennon. I played on his Double Fantasy.
Sharman Nittoli: 14:35
George Young: 14:36
That was a big disastrous situation. He was going to steal us from Paul Simon, another artist, to go out on the road with that album that he did with his wife. "Well, I don't know how I'm going to be able to get out on that stage with you guys, George, you're wonderful players." I said, "John, you just got to remember one thing, man. You're John Lennon." We broke up. Very generous he was. He was such a good good guy in heart. He was everything you think he is, plus.
Sharman Nittoli: 15:32
You became a very successful studio musician.
George Young: 15:38
Well, I was very blessed. I got to learn from the greatest people. It was like a team, it was like on the school going to the studio. I mean, and if you have any awareness and you're, you're looking to better yourself, there's no better scholastic opportunity to learn about what you're doing there and how you can improve it because you're sitting next to all these iconic figures that nobody knows who they are, except the people in the business. Nonetheless, you're getting like people like Romeo Panqueca in the saxophone section alone. And it goes on, the drummers that took me under their wing because they liked the way I played their time when they would play, that I would jump into their tempo and just be there. I wouldn't fight it, if they wanted to have a conversation, we would talk. There's ways of getting intimate and having fun with it, and we found ways of doing that kind of stuff. And you talk about Greek music, one of the things while I was catching on up in New York, I met a fellow by the name of Gus Vallis. He went as Gus Valley, my Greek dear friend, and Gus used to hire me to play substitute for him when he would overbook his gigs. I went in as George Massalopias Greek guy here. Oh yeah. What a Flute player this guy, he sounded like a dove when he played the flute and he was a wild dude, man. I had a Greek gig on there, and this discreet gentleman came up to me and he was, 'I had a couple of Ouzos.' And then at the end he says, he's talking to me in Greek. 'Who are you?' I said, 'I'm George Masalapolis, front of Gus Valleys.' He says, 'Do you speak Greek?' I said, 'No, I don't speak Greek.' 'You're not Greek. You're not Greek.' So I got busted. Just then I, Gus came in like D'Artagnan. He just came in to save me like a blessing. He comes in, he has a cape on in his tenor case, cussing the guy out, 'Get away from him.' he said. Cussing him away. Cause Gus was a wild man. But I learned the repertoire - 7/8s and the 9/8s and sailor dances and Nina Nai. Do you know what that Nina Nai? *sings tune*
Sharman Nittoli: 18:14
George Young: 18:14
Like a Sailor Dance or something I used to...
Sharman Nittoli: 18:17
"Hasapiko" it sounds like I said, we learned them in church, but my mom was a very good dancer, but I did back up choir in a church. It's one thing to sing that stuff because you're just raised on it, but to play it, that's a whole another story. That 9/8, that's a little tricky, you know.
George Young: 18:35
I'm going to send you a couple of things that I have. One is from Sanskrit, it's from Gurumayi, this beautiful woman guru, who I did several CDs for up in South Fallsburg, when I was back east, I would drive up in the middle of the night to record these beautiful chants. I am a very devout faithful person. I pray every day, I have a mantra I -have two mantras. This one mantra is called Om Namah Shivaya and it was just to be spoken. But like a lot of things with me, I'm repetitive with it. Somehow music seems to want to stick its nose in it and all of a sudden it becomes a song. This thing Om Namah Shivaya, I'll send it to you. It's in seven and it goes one measure of nine at the end.
Sharman Nittoli: 19:31
George Young: 19:31
Oh, people could get their breath, but it's *sings Om Namah Shivaya* and it just goes and goes.
Sharman Nittoli: 19:48
George Young: 19:49
And when they sing chants, they go for a long time, at least 108 times.
Sharman Nittoli: 19:55
George Young: 19:56
And the same thing happened with "A Day at a Time". Did I send you "A Day at a Time" during the pandemic, there's a piano sheet.
Sharman Nittoli: 20:04
George Young: 20:05
With the lyric by Dot Lee Regan, I believe it was, she had passed. But Cynthia gave me this little card, it says "A day at a time, one day at a time." And I got to include that with my routine, my prayer routine. And again, I became, I went from a poem to a prayer, to Him. And I wrote a hook to it, and I sent that to you just to share with you, because "A Day at a Time", that's what we would do. We didn't know when the thing was going to end. We still don't know when it's going to end. They we're dealing with the day at a time.
Sharman Nittoli: 20:47
George Young: 20:47
So it was a very apropos. It's just the universe hit me right in the head with this one.
Sharman Nittoli: 20:55
It happens like that sometimes. Something just like you wonder if it's out there and you just happened to pull it in. When you have a concept for something and then it starts to flow, it's such a joyful feeling.
George Young: 21:08
Oh my goodness, yes.
Sharman Nittoli: 21:10
But I have my own mantras. I do them in Greek, I translated them to Greek. And it's just kind of nice to have my ethnic history floating around me. And it's a wonderful way to start the day. Only I have the worry beads that I got from my mother's house in Greece that she was raised in, her grandmother's house. I just found these, I brought them home and there's 54, not 108. I think I find that really interesting, but so I just...
George Young: 21:40
Less amount. Yeah.
Sharman Nittoli: 21:41
I just do them twice.
George Young: 21:42
It's the same philosophy in a sense.
Sharman Nittoli: 21:45
George Young: 21:45
To the repetitiveness of it. I'll go on my walk, Sharman, and I will be walking. I'll do my introductory lineup for my process. I get to 10, I count 10 and then I don't count anymore. I get stuck there for maybe a half hour.
Sharman Nittoli: 22:05
George Young: 22:06
And it feels so good. And I'm walking and I'm smelling all this spring. My mask is off cause I live in a gated community.
Sharman Nittoli: 22:15
George Young: 22:15
The thing is spaced out.
Sharman Nittoli: 22:17
George Young: 22:18
And I could actually smell spring. Last year I was afraid to do anything, I stayed in the house.
Sharman Nittoli: 22:25
So maybe these are too many pluses that came out of the pandemic, but things like that, being more aware of the environment, the sense, the freedom, the air, the joy of taking the mask off, communicating with people, all of this stuff has become precious to us. Well, first, I think you went to Pennsylvania then to California.
George Young: 23:08
I was doing both. I was doing the Poconos and I was doing New York to get out of that environment because it's fast all the time. Well, I remember when I used to go up from South Jersey, outside of Philly, where I'm originally from. When I would go up that turnpike I get to New York, Joe Farrell, I'd sit with him a lot in the sixties, and my beginning transition from being a band leader to a new sideman, as I call myself an undercover agent. In doing so I get up there and he'd say, 'Hey Georgio.' He used to call me Georgio. He sort of embraced me as an Italian or something. Jews would embrace me as a Jew, and the blacks embraced me as a black because of my musical connection to whatever we're going to play. I go that route, and it all stems from the beginning. But anyway, he used to say, 'Push in' meaning play sharper and play faster.
Sharman Nittoli: 24:08
George Young: 24:08
And when I go back to Philly and maybe play in The Pit, Harold Carabel, the contractor would say, 'Georgie, will you pull out for Christ's sake and slow down. You're playing like those damn New York guys.'
Sharman Nittoli: 24:22
Isn't that something?
George Young: 24:23
So I figured my time and my pitch was somewhere around exit 12 around Carteret, Jersey. Funny story.
Sharman Nittoli: 24:34
I learned a lot of things about time from you. You told me once, 'time- you could be on the beat, a little in front of the beat, a little behind the beat.'
George Young: 24:43
Sharman Nittoli: 24:44
And we talked about...
George Young: 24:44
Attractor, 180 degrees.
Sharman Nittoli: 24:47
There you go.
George Young: 24:48
Hypothetically 90 degrees is to center. Never go wrong with 90, you're right spot on. But if you want to get a pocket going, you go behind 90 without being late. If you have a chase scene, you might lean forward towards 180 and play on the edge of the time.
Sharman Nittoli: 25:05
If you're in New York, you'll be ahead. If you're in Philly, it will be behind.
George Young: 25:12
Sharman Nittoli: 25:13
You had a couple of great jazz bands. You went to Japan, I know we used to go toMikels and hear you in New York, or Saturday Night Live, or both. Maybe they happen at the same time.
George Young: 25:23
Well, these weren't actually my bands. The one at Mikels was a group called Stuff..
Sharman Nittoli: 25:30
George Young: 25:30
Where I played with Gordon Edwards and Steve Gadd and Christopher Parker, Eric Gale and Cornell Dupree. And then the other group was the Manhattan Jazz Quintet. The group would go to Japan, we went to Europe with Joe Henderson and Phil woods as our guests. And that group had a floating rhythm section. We had the best rhythm sections in the world at the time.
Sharman Nittoli: 25:58
So did you find that Japan had a different attitude towards the acceptance of jazz?
George Young: 26:03
Absolutely. Yes. There's so much more as a nation. So culturally adept. What's so much more so than the American, you know, I feel badly because we have so much to offer. Starting with Bill Orleans and the Delta, and Chicago Jazz. And there's so much jazzes being used, but it doesn't get the credit. In a lot of your pop tunes these bands are playing, they're improvising a lot of the rhythm stuff and it's just the jazz is to be more respected, I think. I'm not discrediting classical music as well. That should be, that should also be appreciated more than it is. But it seems that the cultural level, it's coming from more of a greed thing, I think, than it is from, from an artistic. And it's done in an artistic way of low level material with performances that are souped up electronically on most cases to sound as good as they can for that level, that lower element or what it is. And as even prevalent in jazz, I mean, I'd put the jazz station on and it breaks my heart because no one's listening for the music when they're playing and they're just working their stuff out. The note pushers put those notes out there quickly in a way that represents music, not your ego or your chops. So what? So what?
Sharman Nittoli: 27:44
I know what you mean. I know what you mean. Yeah.
George Young: 27:47
You know. 'Give me a melody.', that's what the Gadd always says, 'Give me a melody.'
Sharman Nittoli: 27:50
Because I hear a lot of people and I marvel at the skill.
George Young: 27:54
Sharman Nittoli: 27:54
And it's obvious to me, they put a lot of time in to be able to do that, but I don't always feel like I want to hear the whole song because, you know.
George Young: 28:05
Burner all the time, instead of keeping them on the back burner.
Sharman Nittoli: 28:08
And the building sense. Start here,
George Young: 28:11
Sharman Nittoli: 28:12
Somewhere, hit the climax, bring it down. But if you start up here, are you gonna stay up there? I'm going to have to have another drink, you know?
George Young: 28:24
Sharman Nittoli: 28:25
And that's what we often say, like, 'Please give me a melody.', 'Bend the melody.', 'Give me a phrase.', you know.
George Young: 28:31
'Sing, sing something.',
Sharman Nittoli: 28:33
Which you are so brilliant at.
George Young: 28:36
What about Europe? Close number two. They appreciate over there greatly. They really, really do.
Sharman Nittoli: 28:43
George Young: 28:44
South America, I haven't had the pleasure. I had opportunities to go there, but they were canceled because of a civil unrest in Brazil. I had to choose to go for one of the Jackson, Latoya. She was just going to go down, and my manager, I had an opportunity for me to go. We were getting ready to go down for a couple of days and all of a sudden it was cancelled because there was a coup or something. That happens a lot down there, you know. It's just been wonderful. That's all I've been thinking about was the music, and now can I play it really well? How can I do it the best I can do it?
Sharman Nittoli: 29:34
George Young: 29:35
That is the equation. It's real simple. And am I listening? Am I listening to this? Is that a rule of note over there? Maybe it should have a sharp on it, you know. Because a lot of times, like you said, to Stuff's coming out and it's just the guys up all night, writing this stuff out, he's copying a score, the copyist.
Sharman Nittoli: 29:54
George Young: 29:55
You need parts go on the stand. You're going to assume everything is perfect, and it isn't always.
Sharman Nittoli: 30:03
Well, you know what, George, I think this is going to be a part one part two. But I thank you so much. This could be the longest conversation we've ever had.
George Young: 30:12
Oh my God.
Sharman Nittoli: 30:13
Enjoyed it thoroughly. You had a lengthy career, which you worked very hard for it and maintained it and I've always admired it.
George Young: 30:22
Really that was fun, that was good. I'll play you...
Sharman Nittoli: 30:25
You must - sure.
George Young: 30:26
I'll play you "Summertime". How about that?
Sharman Nittoli: 30:28
Beautiful. Perfect song. Beautiful.
George Young: 32:58
Sharman Nittoli: 32:59
Thank you so much for coming George. I know all my musicians that are listening to you are going to love your stories.
George Young: 33:05
Sharman Nittoli: 33:06
Thank you again for sharing with us. Be well, you and your family. Take care and we'll be in touch. Okay.