As I wander into the depths of downtown New York’s bustling Broadway-Lafayette subway, the thought strikes me that I might have to traverse all of the station’s platforms before I find who I’m looking for. It’s a dreaded prospect, considering the post-work rush hour is in full swing. But before I even see him, I hear him: a weathered, resonant baritone somehow cutting through the din of the arriving F train.
I follow the singing until I’m right in front of the source, an older black gentleman in a polo shirt and baggy jean shorts. He’s belting Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” with a devotion that would make you believe he wrote it. Most of the people on the platform ignore him, but there are several bystanders watching in awe, some of whom film him on their phones. I wonder if it’s because his voice touches them, or because they recognize him from the internet, or both.
Lord. Jesus. The difference between sing and saaaaang in one clip. pic.twitter.com/cTnMKhDlBG— Ry (@JustRyCole) September 8, 2016
His name is Mike Yung (born Michael Young), and from a numbers standpoint, he’s a proper viral star. A recent video of him singing the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” has been viewed millions of times in the past week. From morning to night, Yung makes his living singing in the subway. Many New Yorkers are familiar with his presence at the station on 23rd and Sixth Avenue, though not all of them may know his name. But years before that ever began, Yung was signed to a label, under the tutelage of producer (and “Santa Claus Is a Black Man” writer and future “Power of Love” co-writer) Teddy Vann.
“I met him at Harlequin Studios in 1975, when I was 15, and he got me a contract with RCA Records in 1975 with a guy named Ron Moseley,” Yung says. “Then I went to CBS, at 18. Then I got another contract with Jim Tyrell, who started a company called T-Electric. He signed Etta James, he signed Love Committee, and he signed Mike Yung.”
Tyrell, a former vice-president at CBS Records (now Sony), founded T-Electric Records in 1979. The label released Etta James’ album Changes in 1980, and according to Yung, his own album was next on the docket. But the moment never came. “Something went wrong, and Tyrell didn’t get to do my album before he went bankrupt,” he says, adding that Vann never was able to help him secure another deal. “Nothing came of that. But you continue to do what you can do to pay your bills and keep your head from going insane.”
For Yung, what he could do—what he could always do—was sing. Following a brief stint working for the city's Parks and Recreation Department, the near-lifelong New Yorker has paid his bills with music for the past two decades, both by busking soul and gospel standards and singing in several bands. “I sing with a band called Dejá Blue, my band is called Majestic K-Funk, and also a group called Whispers and Sounds,” Yung says, counting them off on his fingers. “It keeps you going. People I know, that I've been with, have been doing it just as long as me. You have to love what you do automatically, because what I do is not easy. I sing against trains for four or five hours.”
On the surface, it looks like Yung is poised for his big viral moment: the video is still blowing up, and the late-night talk shows have begun inquiring about appearances. But when I ask if he feels excited about everything that’s happening, he waves me away. “See, I had another viral video in October,” he says, an amused look on his face. “And it went to 13, 14 million views. I got some shows out of it, but no cash. And now, I’m getting calls from everywhere again.”
Yung’s story reminds me of Ted Williams, the once-homeless radio announcer that the internet dubbed “The Man with the Golden Voice” after a video of him speaking went viral nationwide. Both men possess incredible voices that sound as if they were lifted from another era—because they were. It makes you consider the consequences of the music industry’s scrambling pace, where extraordinary talent can fall through the cracks simply because of circumstance—be it bad business deals, shifting trends, or even age. Yung has clear contemporaries in Daptone Records stars Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley, powerful funk and soul singers who found mainstream success with their musical careers well into middle age.
“I know that the things that I do is not done anymore. It’s very rare that you find somebody that sings like me without a microphone,” he tells me, a serious look across his face. It’s not a boast—it’s just a fact. “You have to love what you do. All of us are blessed, but I’m blessed to wake up in the morning and be able to sing at 7:30 a.m. when I have to.”
Near the end of our conversation, Yung recalls the story of a man who leapt from a train car as he was singing on the platform and hugged him, without a word of explanation. “He’d just done five job interviews, nobody would hire him, and his brother sent him a video of me singing and said ‘A change is gonna come,’” he tells me, smiling, the semblance of tears appearing in his eyes. “Thank God that I’m still here. I’ve never been to jail. You get locked up for singing in the subway or something, but I never did no time, never been up north, never did anything bad enough to have to go through. I’m saying I went through everything. Being jumped, being stabbed, I’ve been through everything. But singing is easier. To me, it comes naturally.”
After that, Yung excuses himself—the work day was over for myself and the oncoming rush of commuters, but it wasn’t quite finished for him. A hug and a handshake later, he disappeared down a flight of stairs and took the stage.