Photo by Ruth Morgan
Master Saxophonist and Blues and Gospel Vocalist
“I always say, ‘God gave me to Harlem, and Harlem to me.’
I thank God for Harlem.”
Lonnie Youngblood, since the ‘60s known as the “Prince of Harlem,” traverses many genres of music—R&B, blues, soul, and jazz among them. But for seven years now he has focused on the music beloved by his mother, telling the good news of God’s grace through gospel.
“I’m a living testimony,” he proclaims. “I grew up in the Baptist Church; my mother believed in the power of prayer, and I grew up believing that too. When I hit rock bottom, I got on my knees.” When he rose up, “I told my wife, ‘I’m ready’.”
After decades of off-and-on drug and alcohol abuse, thirty years after leaving his birthplace of Augusta, Georgia for his first professional gig, Youngblood surrendered to rehabilitation in 1989. He’d been riding high in a successful career including early ’60s work with Jimi Hendrix, and sessions with such legends of soul as James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Chuck Jackson, and Joe Tex. His charismatic and raunchy sax style is modeled after his main man, King Curtis.
In fact, Youngblood became known as the “Prince of Harlem” after gaining a strong rep during gigs and uptown jam sessions with Curtis, Irene Reid, Jimmy “Preacher” Robins, and Ben E. King at Harlem spots such as Small’s Paradise, Showmans’ Cafe and Sugar Ray’s Club.
His queen, Debra-May, has been his sweet lily and his solid rock since they wed in 1965. She’s stood strong with him through the lows of jail and substance abuse and by his side for standing ovations in Japan, Harlem’s Aaron Davis Hall, and churches throughout the metro area since the release of his 1999 traditional gospel CD In the Garden.
Love and gratitude inspirit every breath he blows into his horn or releases in song, as does appreciation for Harlem, where he’s played all sorts of occasions at innumerable venues. On most Saturdays for the last 20 years, he’s held court at the famous Sylvia’s Restaurant uptown. “Harlem? Some of the best people in the world live there, even in some of the most run-down buildings. I always say, ‘God gave me to Harlem, and Harlem to me.’ I thank God for Harlem.”