Jimmy was easily the last and the most successful of the 50’s Chicago bluesmen.
Mike Rowe – Blues Unlimited Magazine, Sept. 1976
It’s relatively simple to play. The vocals are pretty easy to sing along with. So many of the songs are blues standards now and have become a requirement for any budding blues player. And best yet, they are immediately recognizable. This was the legacy of one of the most popular bluesmen of his time.
This was Jimmy Reed.
Jimmy Reed was an unlikely blues hero. He was hardly noted for being a virtuoso, either for his playing or for his singing. Blues purists love to dismiss him and his work for its lack of technical finesse. But Jimmy Reed didn’t play for the critics. He played for the fans and the fans loved him for it.
Born to sharecroppers in Deleith, Mississippi in 1925, Mathias James ‘Jimmy’ Reed, was born to a hard life. Like so many of the other local kids, Jimmy spent his days working the fields with his family between infrequent trips to school. And like so many other kids, both then and now, Jimmy would cut out when he could and find other ways to amuse himself. Around the age of ten, Jimmy would meet up with his friend Eddie Taylor. He told Living Blues magazine in an interview “When we’d come out of the field from work, we’d practically just meet and both of us get a box (guitar), and we’d decide to go out and set under a shade tree and see who could find what on a box .. we wasn’t nothing but little old kids”.
He began to sing with the local church gospel group but the church never seemed to grab ahold of the young man. At the age of 14, he and his brother moved to Duncan, Mississippi and he continued on with his guitar playing. “I used to slip out of the cotton patch and go on up on to the house, and get me a cold drink of water and steal my brothers guitar, you know and sit ‘round there and hide and fool around”.
A year later, Jimmy moved onto Chicago where he moved in with another brother and took various jobs to support himself, working for both the local YMCA and a coal company. At 18 he was drafted into the Navy where he spent two years working in the kitchen at a California naval station. It was during his hitch in the military that Jimmy began to drink, something that would have a profound and sad effect on his later life.
After his discharge, Reed returned to Mississippi where he married Mary Lee ‘Big Mama’ Davis and moved back to Chicago where he took work in a local steel mill. According to an interview with noted blues historian Jas Obrecht, Reed explained his immersion into the Chicago blues scene. “ I was working in a steel mill and listening to that old Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, The Aces, all of them. There was a tavern – it wasn’t no ‘club’ – across the street from my house when I was living out in South Chicago. I never did worry about going in the place or nothing; I would stand out there and listen to them playing a little while – but I couldn’t play nothing. I said to myself, “Well, if these guys can play in here – I don’t see too much what they’re doing – I think I could so some of the same thing”.
So that’s what he did. He went and bought himself a guitar and a small amp and sat outside in the alley behind his apartment and started to play. Not long after that, Reed recorded a few of his songs at the ‘dub’ booths that had been popular in larger American cities at that time. The scratchy recordings were etched onto 78-rpm drums for the price of a few coins. Reed took the discs to Leonard Chess to audition for the Chicago blues kingmaker. Chess listened to the recordings and although initially supportive, declined to record Reed saying that he was ‘too busy with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf’ to accept any new artists. This was in 1953. (A decision that later haunted Leonard Chess when it became apparent that he passed on a veritable hit machine in Reed).
A Gary, Indiana disc jockey named Vivian Carter and her husband Jimmy Bracken were just starting their own label. Bracken was working for Leonard Chess at the time and happened to have heard the dubs. He went home and told Vivian about the recordings and the pair contacted Reed and invited him to come audition for the fledgling label. “So I took the dubs over with my guitar and my little amplifier too. I played a couple of the records for her and got my guitar and amp out so she could see me do it’. He passed the audition and Vivian arranged for a recording session. Reed, without a backing band, showed up for the session and lo and behold, one of the musician brought in to back him up was his childhood friend, Eddie Taylor (who continued to back Reed up through out the rest of his career) who had carved out a living as a backing / studio musician in Chicago. Reeds first single ‘Found My Baby Gone’ was released on VJ Records.
From there Reeds popularity took off. He began to produce a string of hits between 1954 through the early 1960’s, Jimmy Reed was one of the most popular blues players and also one of the very first to have crossover hits. Songs like ‘Bright Lights, Big City’, ‘ Big Boss Man’, ‘Take Out Some Insurance On Me’ and ‘Honest I Do’ kept him almost continually on one chart or another.
But not only was Jimmy Reed one of the most popular and biggest selling bluesmen, he was also a severe alcoholic. And it was alcoholism that brought about his end. Even while he was at the height of his popularity, the ravages of his drinking were having a terrible effect on him. During his recording sessions of some of his biggest hits, Big Mama Reed would have to whisper the lyrics to him one at a time while he was recording, as Reed himself could not remember the words. If you listen closely to many of his recording, you can hear her faintly on the microphone.
The alcohol, the heavy touring schedule and his battle with epilepsy (which some historians attribute to his alcoholism) began to work the musician over in a bad way. Apparently Reed had begun having seizures in the mid-50’s, including simple passing out on stage only to wake up back stage after members of his band had carried him off. The epilepsy was not correctly diagnosed until the mid-60’s with doctors originally thinking that the singer was simply going through ‘DT’s’ when he would pass out. His medical condition worsened in an almost parallel arc with the demise of Vee-Jay Records. When the label went bankrupt, Reeds manager at the time secured him a quick contract with ABC / BluesWay Records but when Reed tried to cut records for ABC, the magic was gone.
Reed’s seizures got worse and he entered a VA hospital in 1969 for treatment (and an attempt to quit drinking as well). He stayed under doctors’ care until 1973 and did not tour or record for those 4 years. But late in 1973 Reed attempted to make a comeback on the blues revival circuit. As he was beginning to tour again and regain a little momentum on his career, he passed away from respiratory failure after a gig in Oakland, California on August 29th, 1976 and the age of 50.
Yet despite a somewhat abbreviated career, Reeds influence was undeniable. He has been cited as a major influence to Elvis, The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, Hot Tuna, Vanilla Fudge and countless others and just about every blues player to come down the pike since. His music still crops up in television commercials and movies.
Simple music? Maybe. Unforgettable? Absolutely.