Augusta, GA, you know, the one that James Brown immortalized in song, experienced something like a pediatric earthquake on August 3, 1941. For the first time, the old-timers said, a baby descended from his mother’s womb with a saxophone in his mouth. When the doctor smacked the baby on his behind to see if he was breathing, the baby blew into that horn one of the most marvelous notes ever heard. The baby’s been blowing ever since. As you might have guessed, Lonnie Youngblood, born Lonnie Thomas, was that wonder-working baby.
In truth, Lonnie was the only musically-influenced child of three born to Mildred and Vernon Thomas. Baby Lonnie would tap his feet, sway his tiny bones, and toss his head to musical beats while being cuddled in his mama’s lap.
Seeing how music had seized Lonnie, and Lonnie had seized music, the boy’s parents bought him his first saxophone, an E-flat Alto, when he was 10. For the next three years, Lonnie listened to records and pushed his way with fiery determination through scales and chords. Lonnie’s brilliance with the instrument was quickly becoming apparent. As a teen, he played professional gigs in Augusta, and the Lucy Laney High School band tapped him for lead sax.
After graduating at the top of his class in 1959, a Newark, N.J. band snatched up the young talent. Youngblood’s mother had been vacationing in Newark and talked to local star Pearl Reeves about Lonnie’s abundant skill with the horn.
Lonnie was grateful for the break in Newark, but true to his trailblazing nature, he was not satisfied. He wanted to soar with that horn to musical heights unknown. Lonnie organized his own expedition with a small organ trio. Soon, a friend and blues singer, Billy Lamont, directed Lonnie to another singer, Faye Adams of Shake a Hand, Shake a Hand fame. So impressed were Adams and her manager, Duke Pilgrim, by the outstanding musicianship of the young man, they hired him to be bandleader. They also produced Lonnie’s first record, a local hit, Nitty Gritty.
This was the beginning of a long and difficult journey in search of stardom for Youngblood.
On the one hand, hope bubbled up and overflowed like water from a fountain. Lonnie was on course to lead bands for some of the biggest and finest R&B, soul, and blues performers of the day, such as Ben E. King, Chuck Jackson, The Coasters, Joe Simon, Joe Tex, Sam and Dave, Buster Brown, Jackie Wilson, James Brown, the Mamma Lu Parks Dancers, Baby Washington, and The Moments aka Ray, Goodman, and Brown.
While on this glorious musical journey, Lonnie met the love of his life, Debra-May. The year was 1964 and the heated gazes between them produced love at first sight. To hear Lonnie talk about that first meeting, it was a powerful enough experience to be worthy of a book. A year later, Sept. 18, 1965, the couple married.
In 1966, Lonnie met and hired a young guitarist, Jimmy James. He later became the world renowned Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix matched his sizzling guitar wits with Lonnie’s soaring saxophone as they worked clubs, such as Small’s Paradise, and on dozens of recording sessions,
Lonnie Youngblood Biography including the record, Wipe the Sweat Off My Brow, which they co-wrote. At the end of 1966, Jimi went to “the village” to play for tips. He invited Lonnie to come along, but with a wife, son, rent and car note to pay, Lonnie said he couldn’t afford to “tip out.”
The following year, a good hometown friend Charlie Pope, convinced Pete McDugal to hire Lonnie in the regular entertainment lineup at Harlem’s famous Small’s Paradise. Youngblood became the talk of Harlem. Another great sax player, King Curtis, was enjoying uptown popularity at the time as well. Lonnie admired him, and they became good friends. Since Curtis was the “King,” Lonnie was crowned the “Prince.”
Youngblood was at the point where he could say to his saxophone “Cry,” and that smooth, golden horn would let out a moan for the ages. He could command it to shout “Hallelujah!” and watch the rafters shake. When Youngblood put a saxophone to his lips, soul-stirring, mesmerizing sound blasted forth. Audiences were often catapulted from their seats and moved to alternately clap their hands, shake and shimmy, pump fists, shed tears, and cry out in uninhibited joy.
It wasn’t long before Youngblood signed his first major recording contract. Two others followed. But in every case, the companies went bankrupt before Lonnie’s music could reach the charts.
It was shattering news for this remarkable artist. Disappointment and disillusionment grew like enormous weeds in Lonnie’s musical garden. They began to choke his saxophone-playing passion. He couldn’t understand why he couldn’t get a break. His dreams of making it into the “big time” seemed more elusive than ever.
One night, a “friend” introduced Lonnie to cocaine. Lonnie believed the cocaine would escort his spirits to that forgotten high. Instead, the drug became a foe that pulled him down into the depths of a 15-year-addiction. Debra-May, a woman of glamorous beauty and amazing strength, soldiered on. She worked hard and kept a roof over their heads. Lonnie, meanwhile, continued cycling in and out of prison and in and out of drug use.
One day, in the depths of despair, Youngblood heard the comforting voice of his beloved mother saying, “Lonnie, prayer can change everything. Prayer can make a difference.”
Lonnie fells to his knees and prayed himself into a new awakening. Debra immediately took him to Bergen Pines Drug Rehabilitation Center. It was January 31, 1989. With dependence on God, and his raging desire to live wholly and completely again, Lonnie broke through the clouds that had blocked his bright future.
Prayer resurrected Lonnie Youngblood’s life and gave him a new start. He has played in every venue imaginable, including churches, schools, stadiums, concert halls, hospitals, political events, block parties, parks, restaurants, corporate affairs, funerals, prisons, and rehab centers.
Lonnie Youngblood Biography
He is a man who plays with uncommon, jaw-dropping style and passion. Lonnie’s unique blend of emotion combined with technical study have made him a formidable music force, and one of the greatest saxophonists and vocal artists around. His background and musical curiosity have led him to fuse elements of folk, gospel, jazz, and pop to create a musical synthesis that is uniquely his.
He has released four albums in the past four years: In the Garden, Count Your Blessings, In the Garden II and Unforgettable, all of which reveal that his musical dexterity extends far beyond his masterful manipulation of the saxophone. Youngblood’s versatility comes naturally. It is not forced. It’s the reason that after decades of professional playing, Lonnie remains popular and sought-after by audiences young and mature, black, white, red, yellow, and brown, the wealthy and the working masses, in America and abroad.
“Thank you, Father, for my life,” Lonnie says appreciatively. “And thank you for my wonderful wife, who stuck by me through the worst of times. As long as there is breath in me and a horn in my hands, I will always give you praise.”