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Jimmy Reed

Jimmy Reed (born Mathis James Reed)– 1925 – 1976


For many of us who got hooked on the rhythm ‘n blues in the early sixties Jimmy Reed’s sound was one of the first that we tried to copy. His walking boogie in E on the bottom two strings of the guitar were the foundation of it all for many. Chuck Berry, Muddy, Wolf, were all great but there was nothing so easy to hook into as Jimmy Reed. There isn’t a sound in the blues as accessible, recognizable and easy to play and sing as the Jimmy’s.  His songs were the base-line for so many; ‘Baby, What You Want Me to Do?’, ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ , ‘Shame, Shame, Shame’, ‘Big Boss Man’, ‘Down in Virginia’, ‘Honest I Do,’ ‘Big Boss Man’ – everyone played them – The Pretty Things, The Stones, Downliner’s Sect, Jimmy Powell & the Five Dimensions and hundreds more. During the ‘Mersey-beat’ boom in the early sixties numerous albums contained covers of Reed’s tunes. They became and remain standards, just recently at the 100 Club the Pretty Things played ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ in their set. Shame, Shame, Shame

The bottom string walking boogie rhythm guitar patterns came from Reed’s boyhood friend and longtime musical partner Eddie Taylor, added to that were his simple two-string turnarounds, country tinged harmonica solos  and slurred vocals. It was possibly the first exposure many white people had to the blues. His music was laid-back, chilled yet full of great hooks and it proved a successful formula that yielded regular chart hits. Jimmy Reed hit the charts consistently both nationally and locally. This highly unusual for a real bluesman. Perhaps it was the very simplicity of his music that was the key to its popularity; it was very simple on the surface; his guitar and harmonica style was basic and his vocals didn’t have the edge of such figures as Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Waters but maybe that is what gave him a more general appeal. It was something that almost anybody could try, yet the element of simplicity is often exaggerated. It was Billy Vera who wrote in the sleeve notes to a Reed greatest hits anthology: ‘Yes, anybody with a range of more than six notes could sing Jimmy’s tunes and play them the first day Mom and Dad brought home that first guitar from Sears & Roebuck. I guess Jimmy could be termed the ’50s punk bluesman.’  That really is way overstated, (no one could play such things on the first day) and it overlooks the two magic ingredients that made it successful – the first is the one that you cannot learn from a book and certainly not on your first day playing – it’s in the ‘feel’, the swing and gentle lilt. The second ingredient is that all of his best songs had great hooks – just consider the list above – each one has an instantly memorable hook-line, that is what makes a hit, there are numerous technically gifted players yet the ability to write really good hooks is rare. Baby What You Want Me to Do?

Jimmy was born in September 1925, on a plantation in or around the small dwelling of Dunleith, Mississippi. He left the area at 15, with the basics of harmonica and guitar that he’d learnt from his friend semi-pro musician Eddie Taylor. Taylor was working country suppers and juke joints. Reed moved to Chicago in 1943, and was drafted into the Navy. He served for two years. After his marriage to his beloved wife Mary (known to fans as “Mama Reed”), he moved to Gary, Indiana and succeeded in breaking into the growing blues scene around Gary and neighboring Chicago. In the early ’50s he worked with John Brim’s band the Gary Kings (Jimmy played harmonica on Brim’s classic tune “Tough Times” and the flipside instrumental, “Gary Stomp”).

 Jimmy failed an audition with Chess Records- which would appear to be their loss.  Brim’s drummer at the time was, surprisingly, the future noted blues guitarist Albert King, he brought him over to the newly formed Vee-Jay Records where his early recordings were made. During this time Jimmy was reunited with Eddie Taylor, it rekindled a musical partnership that lasted off and on until Reed’s death. It was Jimmy’s third single, “You Don’t Have to Go” backed with “Boogie in the Dark,” that gave him his first chart hit – it got to number five slot on the Billboard charts and the hits flowed for the next ten years.. Big Boss Man

Jimmy Reed sold more records than Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James or Little Walter but unfortunately he was poorly equipped to handle fame. Jimmy was barely literate, in fact signing autographs was close to all he could manage. He slipped into alcoholism that was aggravated by a back-breaking schedule. He described himself as a “liquor glutton.” Reed’s behavior showed the classic signs of alcoholism – devious plans to tend to his craving – and occasional abhorrent behavior- it has been said that he became ‘the laughing stock’ of his show business contemporaries, but how true that may be is definitely questionable – alcohol and drug induced problems were rife in the business. Some who shared the bill with him in top-of-the-line venues such as Apollo Theatre still shake their heads and wonder how Jimmy could actually stand up straight and perform, much less hold the audience in the palm of his hand. An account of him urinating on a headline artist’s clothes in the theatre wings has been repeated many times by some old-timers, but it probably means that there is an element of envy at Reed’s success in those stories. Again there are other accounts of Jimmy being ‘arrested’ and thrown into a Chicago drunk tank the night before a recording session, that were long remembered in blues community, but a tempestuous life-style was common-place among blues musicians at the time. Due to alcoholism and the resulting DTs it is not surprising that when he was stricken with epilepsy in 1957, it went undiagnosed and remained so for a long time. Other effects of drinking were reported; Eddie Taylor told of sitting directly in front of Reed in the studio and instructing him exactly when to start to start singing, when to blow his harp, and when to do the turnarounds on his guitar, all while the tune was being recorded. It is also said that he was often unable to remember the words to his new songs – and Mama Reed would sit on a piano bench and whisper them to him as the song progressed. This is hardly a surprise as short term memory loss is another symptom of chronic alcoholism. BRIGHT LIGHTS BIG CITY

In view of all this Jimmy Reed was remarkably successful and despite all the criticism the public really went for his music. Reed scored a remarkable 18 Top Twenty R&B hits on Vee-Jay between 1955 and 1961. The highest-charting of these was his classic “Bright Lights, Big City,” which rose to #3 in September 1961. Few of the Blues greats got close to such success. The truth is the people loved his music

Reed’s decline through alcoholism and epilepsy loosely paralleled the decline of Vee-Jay Records.  They went out of business at around the same time that his final single “Don’t Think I’m Through” was released, His manager, Al Smith, arranged a contract with the new ABC-Bluesway label. A handful of albums were released into the ’70s, but they lacked the old magic. Jimmy last album was a misguided effort to modernize utilizing funk beats and wah-wah pedals. He then became a recluse in his latter years. He died trying to make a comeback on the blues festival circuit on August 29, 1976 having finally received proper medical attention for his epilepsy and he had stopped drinking, but it came to late.

Reed’s crossover appeal hit a peak in the rhythm & blues revival during the  Sixties, he got to play major venues such as Carnegie Hall and the Apollo Theatre. He also toured the UK, where he was revered by many who had covered his songs – musicians such as the Rolling Stones, Them (Van Morrison) and numerous others.

Jimmy Reed’s story is tinged with sadness but it’s typical of the hard life endured by such musicians. This was particularly so in the days before the US Civil Rights Movement began to win the battle for liberation. Yet there is a lot of joy in Jimmy Reed’s music, that is apparent whenever you give one of his classic sides a listen, or try out one of his classics yourself. His bare bones style influenced everyone from the 60’s and 70’s British bands to the entire range of Louisiana swamp blues artists (Slim Harpo and Jimmy Anderson in particular), the truth is that there was only one Jimmy Reed and he certainly left his mark on music.–eMjFMNg Jimmy Vaughan & Omar Kent Dykes  – The Jimmy Reed Highway with a cover of ‘Big Boss Man’

The following list of Jimmy’s single hits and selected albums is courtesy of Wikipedia, 

Jimmy Reed Singles Hits

Year Single U.S. R&B Pop
1956 “Ain’t that Lovin’ You Baby?” 3 -
“Can’t Stand to See You Go” 10 -
“I Don’t Go for That” 12 -
“I Love You Baby” 13 -
1957 “Honest I Do” 4 32
“Honey, Where You Going?” 10 -
“Little Rain” 7 -
“The Sun is Shining” 12 65
1958 “Down in Virginia” - 93
1959 “I Told You Baby” 19 -
1960 Baby What You Want Me to Do 10 37
“Found Love” 16 88
“Hush-Hush” 18 75
1961 “Big Boss Man” 13 78
“Bright Lights Big City” 3 58
“Close Together” - 68
1962 “Aw Shucks, Hush Your Mouth” - 93
“Good Lover” - 77
1963 “Shame, Shame, Shame” - 52


Selected albums

Year Album
1958 I’m Jimmy Reed
1959 Rockin’ With Reed (Collectables)
1960 Found Love
Now Appearing
1961 Jimmy Reed at Carnegie Hall
1962 Just Jimmy Reed
1963 Jimmy Reed Plays 12 String Guitar Blues
Jimmy Reed Sings the Best of the Blues
T’Ain’t No Big Thing But He Is…Jimmy Reed
1964 Jimmy Reed at Soul City
1965 The Legend: The Man
1967 The New Jimmy Reed Album/Soulin’
1968 Big Boss Man/Down in Virginia
1971 Found Love
1974 Best of Jimmy Reed
1976 Blues Is My Business

Jimmy Vaughan Podcast

"We break all the rules - we don't care what they  think about how you're supposed to do things these days!"   Jimmy Vaughan podcast Listen to it here

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