Zak Young is a collector. He mainly collects records. That much I knew before we sat down for an interview in the sunny, second-floor home office that houses his turntables, an iMac and the vinyl library he samples to create hip-hop beats.
Known in the producer community as DJ Mentos, Young has become an indispensable member of the Richmond music scene since his 2014 move from New York. He has released a pair of well-received LPs in collaboration with standout rapper Noah-O, as well as beat tapes that have bent ears as high up the hip-hop food chain as Bandcamp Daily and SiriusXM host Sway Calloway.
But Young also collects memories – ashtrays and matchbooks from his family’s bygone Washington businesses, including the Roumanian Inn restaurant, its associated Romany Room nightclub and his grandfather’s eponymous Paul Young’s restaurant.
“Whenever stuff pops up on eBay, I buy it,” he says.
And, yes, he collects rocks.
“I’m in my 40s. Who collects rocks?” he jokes while surveying his souvenirs from various family vacations. “It sounds crazy, but I really do have a weird connection with these little physical things.”
- Scott Elmquist
- Zak Young creates hip-hop beats under the name DJ Mentos. An avid vinyl collector, Young discovered a lost Nat King Cole song in his father’s record collection. The song, which mentions his grandfather by name, is now part of the Cole discography.
The revival of vinyl has validated those who see multidimensional value in objects. Streaming may be king, but unlike files stored in the cloud, individual albums can accrue value over time – both monetary and sentimental. Behind every album you flip past in the used section of Plan 9 is a story of who owned it and why and how it changed hands. In that sense, one record Zak Young found in his father’s collection is in a class all its own.
“It shouldn’t have survived,” Young says of his 78 rpm shellac disc containing “The Romany Room Is Jumpin’.” The recording, released for the first time on the 2021 Grammy-nominated Resonance Records box set “Hittin’ the Ramp: the Early Years (1936-1943),” has turned a Young family legend into an official piece of the Nat King Cole discography.
So how does one end up in possession of the sole copy of a lost song by one of history’s great vocalists? It helps when the lyrics mention your grandfather by name.
It was a story Zak Young, his brother, Jeremy, and their mother, Gayle, knew by heart – that when Nat King Cole performed a string of dates at the Romany Room in 1941, he penned a personalized song to celebrate the birth of Zak’s father, Barry. Then again, his father and grandfather told a lot of tall tales.
“They earned their reputation as storytellers,” he recalls. “I say it in a very endearing way. It’s not like they were lying or anything, they just had a flair for embellishing stories.”
Young had been digging through his dad’s old jazz records for years, but he dug deeper after his father died in 2010, exploring discs that had been separated from their outer jackets. One binder marked “Nat King Kole[sic]” stood out.
“It’s spelled wrong, plus it’s hand-written,” Young says. “It was probably my great-uncle [David Young] who slid it in there, wrote it on there, put it up on the shelf.”
- Scott Elmquist
- “The Romany Room Is Jumpin’” survived as a fragile 78 rpm shellac disc, hidden for decades in a hand-labeled binder.
Though his turntables don’t have a 78-rpm setting, Young sped the discs up by hand to investigate. Two weren’t music at all – rather recitation of Jewish prayer – but the third contained a bouncy, swinging jazz tune proclaiming that “the Romany Room is jumpin’,’” with a verse that explains why: “Paul Young is the father / Of a seven pound baby boy / He’s so glad about it / He’s jumpin’ up and down for joy.” Suddenly, the tale didn’t seem so tall.
“That’s not the sort of thing that comes around, ever,” says Jordan Taylor, the Richmond-based Cole expert who served as discographer and co-producer on “Hittin’ the Ramp.” “The best part of it for me is that it’s this thing that’s not just unreleased, it’s undocumented. Nobody even knew this existed outside of [the Young] family and whoever they shared it with.”
- Scott Elmquist
- Richmonder Jordan Taylor served as discographer and co-producer on the Grammy-nominated Cole box set.
Young emailed Jordan in 2014, hoping to learn whether the recording was what it appeared to be. Jordan quickly confirmed that the King Cole Trio toured the East Coast around the time of Barry Young’s April 20, 1941, birth, and he unearthed a press clipping from May of that year advertising the Romany Room engagement. It was a pivotal time, not just for the growing Young family – Barry was the first of Paul and his wife Tamara’s four children – but also for Cole, who at 22 was getting his first taste of cross-country touring.
“This was the first time that they had left California,” Taylor notes of Cole’s group. “They’d been in L.A. for four years, playing all over town. They played Chicago right before this, [then] came to D.C. Right afterwards, they would go to a place called Kelly’s Stable in New York and they would back up Billie Holiday, so it was a big moment for them.”
Still, their commercial recordings were scant and Cole was two years shy of the Capitol Records session that produced “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” which marked the start of his stardom. There’s little chance those in the Romany Room knew they were having an I-saw-him-way-back-when experience for the ages.
Read between the lines of the concert announcement Taylor found and a whole other significance emerges.
“Paul Young’s Romany room, a downtown ofay spot, is featuring its second colored act of the season,” the clip reads. The mention of “ofay,” once slang for white people, is a sobering reminder that Washington remained segregated in 1941. Paul Young began playing host to Black performers when integrated stages weren’t yet the norm.
“I would remind people that Washington was a very different city then,” says Laurie Young, Zak Young’s aunt and Paul Young’s only daughter. “It was clearly a Southern city. It was segregated, it was very parochial, [and] my father really broke barriers. [He] helped, in his own small way, to change some of the complexion moving forward in that city.”
When Nat King Cole played the Romany Room, the Young family, Cole’s career and an evolving city stood at a single intersection, their paths briefly but meaningfully joined. But time is often the missing ingredient in meaning. 2019 marked the centennial of Nat King Cole’s birth, and as well known as he became in his lifetime via hit songs, Grammy nods, and his own NBC television show, his successes hid elements of his own musical legacy.
- Library of Congress
- While Nat King Cole is known as a legendary vocalist, his early trio work highlights his masterful piano playing.
“I think narratives can form and congeal,” Jordan Taylor says. “The image that was established is that he’s a guy you hear at Christmas when you’re in the mall on the escalator, or you hear on a commercial. It’s saccharine, kind of sentimental love songs. I’ve always thought it was really hard to get people to fully appreciate the entirety of his catalog.”
His piano playing was particularly influential. He didn’t play the most notes, or play the loudest or the fastest, but he laid the groundwork for the next generation of jazz pianists. Taylor called him “the greatest bridge piano player.”
“He connected the swing era to people like Bud Powell, [Thelonious] Monk, Bill Evans. All these guys who came later – they all owed a huge debt, and they all were on record as saying that.” Oscar Peterson was another Cole disciple. “For years,” Taylor says, “he was a clone of Nat Cole. Especially early on, you listen to [Cole] all day and then you go and you play the piano. There are so many similarities between Oscar and Nat. And [Peterson] would be the first to tell you ‘That was my guy. That’s who I modeled my game after.’”
The box set “Hittin’ the Ramp” offers a second chance to engage with the fullness of Cole’s musical gift. “His singing was an extension of his piano playing,” Taylor says. “He was probably the most masterful pianist and singer when it came to controlling time and being on the beats, but not sounding stiff. He just had this great ability to be relaxed, and natural, and never forced.”
In that sense, he and the easy-going Paul Young likely found a sense of harmony.
“I have clear memories of my father walking out of a movie theater and singing as he walked down the street,” Zak’s aunt Laurie Young says. “It didn’t matter who was there or what. He would just burst into song.”
Ask Laurie about her dad and you’re likely to start wishing you knew him yourself. “Everybody thought they were my father’s best friend. He was a great host who made everyone who walked in the door feel special and appreciated. He was funny, he was smart. I only hope I inherited a small piece of him.”
Paul Young opened the Roumanian Inn in 1935 with his brother David and mother Eva Vera “Mama” Young, who had emigrated about 30 years earlier from the small town near Kiev where she was born. The Inn gave Washingtonians a taste of the food Mama Young grew up eating – stuffed kishka, sweet and sour calf tongue, stewed prunes.
- Photo courtesy Zak Young
- Paul Young, at left, and his brother David opened the Roumanian Inn in 1935 along with their mother Eva Vera “Mama” Young.
Starting in 1939, the upstairs Romany Room played host to musicians as well as comedic acts including Alan King, Joey Bishop, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. The Young family sold the Roumanian Inn in 1960 and Paul Young opened a new restaurant in his own name, kicking off a storied 20-year run in which Washington power brokers competed for table space. When Paul died in 1989, his Washington Post obituary lauded both the restaurant’s food and the “Old World-style hospitality” resulting from “Mr. Young’s affable personality, which won him many friends among members of Washington’s political, business and social circles.”
- The Roumanian Inn’s menu drew on the home cooking of Mama Young, who grew up near Kiev. The upstairs Romany Room began playing host to musicians and comedians in 1939.
That’s the Young inheritance in a nutshell: an innate ability to bring people closer together. I see it when Zak Young performs DJ sets in Richmond, in the way he instinctively introduces you to folks in the room you don’t know. That openness is inspiring and it’s crucial to any family’s attempt to put down roots in a new country. It’s what makes America’s constant renewal possible. We meet on common ground defined by food and music – spaces where cultures can collide harmoniously and where divisions of race, nationality and class break down. No wonder the Youngs are so fearless.
“When the movie stars and people would come into the restaurant, [my grandmother] would hurry out into the dining room and bring them a little bit of her homemade mandel bread,” Laurie Young remembered. “She was quite the character.”
Thanks to the fragile disc Zak Young found, his family’s legacy found new purchase in the present. The Youngs may even have cause to celebrate when this year’s best historical album Grammy is announced. It will be a moment of culmination for Jordan Taylor, as well.
The Freeman High School graduate began shaping a more complete record of Cole’s career while still a student at Virginia Commonwealth University, contributing painstaking editing, research and archival work to a pair of 11-CD compilations released on Bear Family Records in 2006. He describes an early and enduring connection to Cole’s music: “When I heard it at 15, maybe, it just really resonated and grabbed me.” Taylor was soon struck by the lack of detail surrounding those recordings. “I kind of cared about the particulars. ‘Who’s playing that trumpet solo?’ or whatever it might be. And that led me to realize that there was this gap in research where his career was involved.”
- “Hittin’ the Ramp” is up for this year’s best historical album Grammy. The vinyl edition consists of 10 LPs, as well as essays, interviews and rare photographs.
With seven CDs and a trove of rare photographs, interviews and testimonials, “Hittin’ the Ramp” writes a vital new chapter in the story of an American recording giant – one who sure knew how to make a birth announcement swing.
“I sent [Zak] a little message as soon as I found out,” Taylor says of the Grammy nomination. “The disc that he provided was really one of the two or three essential, rare kind of tracks that gave the set something else that it wouldn’t have otherwise had. So I was really happy for him as well.”
For Zak Young, memories are their own reward.
“I never knew her,” Young says of his great-grandmother, “but I can smell her food, I can imagine her giving me a hug. ... Collecting this kind of stuff, little knick-knacks from the restaurants – to me, the thought that that ashtray sat on one of those tables and rich, fancy people ashed their cigarette in it, that’s what resonates.”