Blues heroes | Jimmy Reed

Jimmy ReedI’ve had Jimmy Reed on repeat these last few months. I love his lazy yet insistent guitar rhythms. His laid-back harp and vocals are so cool.

Maybe you already know Jimmy Reed, but if you don’t, you’ll know some of his songs for sure. 

‘Baby What You Want Me To Do’, ’Shame, Shame, Shame’ and ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ are just some of his wildly popular classics, which is why you’ll hear them at blues socials and in blues bars all over. He was a huge influence on The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison and even Elvis who all covered him.

I got hooked on Jimmy Reed after hearing ‘Crazy About That Mini-skirt’ at Blossom Blues last year. My friend and fellow DJ Jered Morin played it in his Friday night set and I couldn’t get it out of my mind so I pestered him to find out what it was. (I know, I know, what can I say? I’m a blues nerd. I can’t help it, ok?)

I added it to my notebook and a couple of weeks later went for a dive down the ‘rabbit-hole’. I realised I already had some of his music in my collection so I listened to everything else I could find until I’d bought another dozen or so songs that I especially enjoyed.

A couple of weeks ago I went to see Ray Wallen playing with the Dust Me Down Blues Band. While we were chatting in the bar afterwards he told me something about Jimmy Reed that I didn’t know. Jimmy could sign his name but was otherwise illiterate. He relied on his side-man guitarist Eddie Taylor or his wife Mary (Mama Reed) to tell him the lyrics of his songs or he couldn’t remember what to sing next! Hard to imagine.

Recently I found his biography in one of my favourite blues books ‘Legends of the Blues’ by William Stout. It was there that I learned a little more about him.

Born on a plantation near Dunleith, Mississippi, 1925, Jimmy learned the harmonica and guitar from his friend Eddie Taylor. They busked and played together at country suppers and juke-joints until Jimmy moved to Chicago in 1943.

Like many men during the 1940s he was drafted into the US Navy and served in World War II. On his return he married his childhood sweetheart, Mary and relocated to Gary Indiana where he worked in a meat packing factory. He never stopped being a bluesman though, so by the 1950s he’d established himself as a popular musician around Gary and the neighbouring Chicago.

Somehow failing an audition for Chess Records, he was picked up by Vee-Jay Records on the recommendation of Albert King. Vee-Jay brought him fourteen Top 20 hits on the R&B charts. (Leonard Chess must have kicked himself as Jimmy Reed sold more records than even Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James and Little Walter.)

It was during his time at Vee-Jay that he was re-united with his long-time friend Eddie Taylor. Together they developed the characteristic Jimmy Reed style. Taylor has been described as:

“The glue that kept Reed’s lowdown grooves together.” (Cub Koda, All Music Guide to the Blues).

Their laid-back style and deceptively simple playing formed one of the most identifiable blues sounds of the 1950s and 1960s.

“Despite Mama Reed’s loyal support, Reed’s illiteracy, the brutal road life of a bluesman, and severe alcoholism (he described himself as a ‘liquor glutter’) all worked against him.” (William Stout, Legend of the Blues)

His contemporaries shook their head in wonder that he could not only simultaneously stand up straight and perform, but also hold the audience in the palm of his hand.

He was eventually diagnosed with epilepsy and somehow maintained his popularity despite all of his personal problems, but after Vee-Jay Records closed he was never able to produce another hit. He toured Europe in 1968 with the American Folk Blues Festival, but died in 1976, 8 days before his 51st birthday.

In 1991 he was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The sad part of his story is even sadder because his music brings so much joy.

Here’s a playlist with some of my favourite Jimmy Reed numbers. I hope you love them as much as I do. If you see me around I’d love to hear which ones you like best.

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