Reed, Jimmy 1925–1976
Jimmy Reed 1925–1976
Blues vocalist, guitarist, harmonica player
Blues music has had its individualists—performers with powerful, poetic feeling, tremendous instrumental virtuosity, or a unique sound. But the tradition has also had its Everymen and Everywomen, and one of these was Jimmy Reed, the most popular Chicago blues performer of the 1950s and early 1960s. Reed had a guitar technique that rarely varied, and his vocals were relaxed to the point where hearers couldn’t always understand the words he sang. Yet Reed found a groove and stuck to it, creating a sound that any blues fan could identify after hearing only a few seconds of his music. That sound, moreover, influenced nearly every rock music ensemble that had a blues element in its style. Reed’s music distilled the essence of the blues.
Reed’s life followed a course outwardly similar to those of many other Chicago bluesmen. Mathis James Reed was born in the Mississippi River Delta, in or near Leland, Mississippi, on September 6, 1925, and he and his nine siblings grew up working the fields on a sharecroppers’ plantation. Reed and his childhood friend Eddie Taylor, who would later play in Reed’s band, taught themselves to play the guitar and harmonica whenever they could get away from farm work.
But Reed’s main musical activity when he was young consisted of singing in church choirs. Reed dropped out of school in his early teens to work the fields full time in nearby Duncan and Meltonia, Mississippi.
The entry of the United States into World War II brought news of factory jobs in Chicago to the Delta, and Reed followed countless other young people northward. But after a short time in Chicago he was drafted into the Navy himself. After his discharge in 1945 he returned to Mississippi, where he married and, with his wife Mary, raised a family of eight children. Mary, who would become known as “Mama” Reed, would go on to compose many of his most popular songs. By 1948 the couple were living in Gary, Indiana, and Reed was working in a steel mill. Later he worked as a butcher at the Armour Corporation’s meatpacking plant.
After the experience of living in Chicago, however, Reed had become more and more interested in playing the guitar. “There was a tavern—it wasn’t no ‘club’—
At a Glance…
Born on September 6, 1925, in or near Leland, MS; died on August 29, 1976, in Oakland, CA; son of Joseph (a sharecropper) and Virginia (Ross) Reed; married; wife’s name Mary, later known as “Mama” Reed; children: Loretta, Jimmy Jr Arlene, Michael, Malinda, Roslyn, Rosemary, Avery. Military service: Served in U.S. Navy, 1944-45.
Career: Sang in church choirs and did farm work in Mississippi, late 1930s and early 1940s; worked in steel mill, Chicago, IL, 1943-44; worked in foundry and later in meatpacking plant, Gary, IN, late 1940s; performed blues on street for tips, 1948; performed in clubs in Gary and Chicago, early 1950s; recorded for Vee Jay label, 1953-65; recorded for Bluesway label, 1968; numerous chart hits; toured extensively; sidelined by illness, 1969; performed at clubs and blues festivals, early 1970s.
Awards: Inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1991.
across the street from my house when I was living in South Chicago,” he told Guitar Player interviewer Dan Forte (as reprinted in the Blues Guitar collection). “I said to myself, ‘Well, if these guys can play in here—I don’t see too much that they’re doing—I think I could do some of the same thing.’” Reed bought an electric guitar and amplifier and began practicing in the alley behind his house. He honed his style by recording his own sessions on blank 78 rpm discs with a crude recording machine and listening critically to the results.
Soon Reed was playing for substantial tips on the streets with washtub bassist Willie Joe Duncan. He reunited with Taylor, and the two began playing in Chicago and Gary, Indiana, lounges. Reed began to think about joining the Windy City’s growing blues recording scene and, with some newly acquired harmonica skills inspired by listening to the elder Sonny Boy Williamson, Reed cut some demonstration 78s. In 1953 he took them to the city’s premier blues entrepreneur, Leonard Chess. Chess, to his later dismay, brushed Reed off, but Jimmy Bracken, whose wife Vivian Carter was a Gary, Indiana, disc jockey, overheard the audition. Bracken and Carter were planning to launch a new label, Vee Jay, whose name was formed by combining their initials, and they jumped at the chance to bring Reed into the studio.
Reed’s languid, simple sound, with its roots still deep in the Delta, took a few years to sink in with blues listeners, and several Vee Jay releases went nowhere. But one evening in 1954, as Reed was coming home from work at Armour, he heard his recording “You Don’t Have to Go” on the radio. The announcer said, “That’s Jimmy Reed; he’s going to be out in Atlanta, Georgia, this Friday and Saturday night,” Reed told Forte. “And this was Thursday evening! I didn’t know that I was booked in Atlanta.” Reed convinced Taylor to accompany him to the gig, and never returned to his meatpacking job.
“You Don’t Have to Go,” a “Mama” Reed composition, was a hit even overseas, and one Vee Jay Reed release after another began to reach the charts. Reed placed 18 singles in the Billboard rhythm-and-blues chart between 1955 and 1961, more than any other musician. Well in advance of the 1960s blues revival, Reed’s records crossed over to white audiences, and 12 of his records made the pop charts. His single biggest hit was “Bright Lights, Big City” in 1961, but several other Reed releases became blues standards almost from their dates of release. “Big Boss Man,” “Baby, What You Want Me to Do,” and “Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby” were universally known among blues listeners and fans, as well as among the white rock bands who began to emulate Chicago blues in the 1960s.
“There’s simply no sound in the blues as easily digestible, accessible, instantly recognizable, and as easy to play and sing as the music of Jimmy Reed,” noted Cub Koda of the All Music Guide. Reed enjoyed several more years on top after his string of hits ended, playing top venues like New York’s Apollo Theater and even Carnegie Hall. But by the mid-1960s listeners had begun to tire of Reed’s walking boogie woogie bass lines and brief harmonica interjections. The Vee Jay label hit hard times, and Reed proved unable to deal with the pressures of success. “I wasn’t never no pot smoker, and I never did fool with any of that cocaine or junk or crazy pills, but I’d drink me some liquor,” Reed told Forte. He sunk deeper into alcoholism, becoming the butt of jokes among his fellow blues musicians.
Worse still, Reed’s increasingly severe epileptic seizures were mistakenly chalked up to delirium tremens, the “shakes” that accompany long-term alcohol abuse. By 1969 he was forced to stop performing and check into a veterans’ administration hospital in Downey, Illinois. Reed continued to record, with Taylor or his wife giving him cues as to what words he should sing or when to begin playing. He subsequently released several albums on the ABC-Bluesway label, but they were generally thought to be inferior to his work for Vee Jay. In 1976 Reed went through an alcoholism treatment program and successfully quit drinking. Prospects seemed bright for a comeback in the blues festival scene, but Reed died in Oakland, California, from the effects of an epileptic seizure, on August 29, 1976.
Lost in the Shuffle, 32 Jazz, 1997.
His Greatest Recordings: Original Classics, Aim, 1998.
Boss Man: Best of Jimmy Reed, Recall, 1999.
Blues Masters: The Very Best of Jimmy Reed, Rhino, 2000.
Big Boss Man (boxed set), Collectables, 2001.
Contemporary Musicians, Volume 15, Gale, 1995.
Harris, Sheldon, Blues Who’s Who, repr. ed., Da Capo, 1991.
Herzhaft, Gérard, Encyclopedia of the Blues, University of Arkansas Press, 1992.
Obrecht, Jas, ed., Blues Guitar: The Men Who Made the Music, GPI Books, 1990.
Rucker, Leland, éd., MusicHound Blues: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink, 1998.
Slonimsky, Nicolas, ed. emeritus, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Music and Musicians, centennial ed., Schirmer, 2001.
The Observer (London, England), August 11, 2002, p. 14.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com
Lycos Music, http://music.lycos.com
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, http://www.rockhall.com
—James M. Manheim
"Reed, Jimmy 1925–1976." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 30, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/reed-jimmy-1925-1976
"Reed, Jimmy 1925–1976." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved April 30, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/reed-jimmy-1925-1976
Singer, guitarist, harmonica player
Jimmy Reed was one of the most popular blues artists of the mid-to late 1950s. He had a “real gift for hooks,” and a “very personal groove—a dense electric rumble pierced by keening harp leads” that “helped transform Chicago rhythm and blues into rock and roll,” according to Rolling Stone. During his heyday from 1954 until 1963, Reed’s songs ascended the rhythm and blues charts dozens of times. “Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby,” “Baby What You Want Me to Do,” “Big Boss Man,” and “Bright Lights, Big City,” for example, have become blues and rock and roll standards. An alcoholic, Reed had many drunken misadventures for which he became notorious. He was also epileptic, and his addiction to alcohol worsened his epilepsy. In 1976, at the age of 51, he died after a gig in Oakland, California. Fifteen years later, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Mathis James Reed was born on a plantation in Mississippi on September 6,1925. At the age of ten he began learning to play the guitar. After working in the fields, he would meet with his friend Eddie Taylor. “When we’d come out’ the field from work,” he recalled in Living Blues magazine, “we’d practically just meet and both us get a box, and we’d decide to go out an set under a shade tree and just see who could find what on a box…. We wasn’t nothin’ but little old kids.”
Reed also displayed an early talent for singing. He and two other boys formed a gospel singing group that became popular in the Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in Meltonia, Mississippi. But gospel turned out to be an inappropriate genre of music for someone as footloose as Reed. At age 14 he moved to Duncan, Mississippi, to farm with his brother; there, he continued his guitar playing. “I used to slip out of the cotton patch,” he told Living Blues, “and go up on to the house, and get me a cold drink of water and steal my brother’s old piece of guitar, you know and sit ’round there and hide and fool around.”
After a year in Duncan, Reed traveled to Chicago to live with his brother Tommy. He worked for the downtown Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and then for the Hefter Coal Company. In 1943, when he was 18, he was drafted into the U.S. Navy. He spent much of World War II working in a base kitchen in Riverside, California. Though he started drinking heavily while in the service, his stint in the navy also gave him the chance to learn to read.
After his discharge, Reed visited home and got married. In 1946 he returned to Chicago and started working in the steel industry. While on a job at the Valley Mould Iron Works, he met a washtub bass player named Willie Joe “Jody” Duncan. He and Duncan began playing together,
Born Mathis James Reed, September 6, 1925, in Leland (one source says Dunleith), MS; died of respiratory failure, August 29, 1976, in Oakland, CA; son of Joseph Reed (a sharecropper) and Virginia Ross (a sharecropper); married Mary Lee “Mama” Reed, 1945; children: Loretta, Jimmy, Jr., Arlene, Michael, Malinda, Roslyn, Rosemary, Avery.
Singer, guitarist, and harmonica player, 1948–76. Worked variously for Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), Hefter Coal Company, and in the steel industry, Chicago, IL. Played in streets and clubs for tips, often with Willie Joe “Jody” Duncan, 1948; played with Eddie Taylor, 1949 to early 1960s; recording artist, 1953–76; recorded for Vee-Jay label, 1953–65; toured extensively, 1953–76; toured England, 1963–64, and Europe, 1968; recorded for ABC/BluesWay label, 1966–68. Military service: U.S. Navy, 1944–45.
Awards: Inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1991.
er first in each other’s houses and then in beer joints, stores, and on street corners. They played for tips, which were often substantial. “I’m tellin’ you,” Reed remembered in Living Blues, “them folks would load that old hat of Jody’s up with nickels, dimes, quarters and halves, and dollars and things.”
Duncan eventually left town but Reed continued playing and joined a combo with drummer Kansas City Red and pianist Blind John Davis. He also sat in regularly with the blues duo of John and Grace Brim. He was eventually reunited with his childhood pal, guitarist Eddie Taylor. Reed and Taylor became a regular duo, playing on the South Side of Chicago or in nearby Gary, Indiana. When the jobs were big enough, they added other musicians.
Around this time, Reed added harmonica to his guitar playing and singing. Though he had been playing harmonica since childhood, he had never been able to achieve the bending sound he wanted. It was not until he came up to Chicago and started playing “Marine Band” harmonicas that he developed his simple yet distinctive style. “I got hold of me one of [those harmonicas],” he explained in Living Blues, “and then I started trying that thing and therefore I don’t know exactly just what happened that I started playing that devilish harmonica, ’cause couldn’t nobody teach me to play it.”
By the early 1950s, Reed began to get ambitious about recording. He made several albums in “do-it-yourself” booths and auditioned for Leonard Chess, owner of the famous Chess Records blues label, which was busy with famed blues artists Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Howlin’Wolf. Reed, however, was soon approached by Vivian Carter, a disc jockey from Gary who was starting a new label called Vee-Jay.
Reed began recording for Vee-Jay in 1953, and within a year he hit the charts with “You Don’t Have to Go.” Other singles followed: “Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby,” “You’ve Got Me Dizzy,” “Bright Lights Big City,” “I’m Gonna Get My Baby,” and “Honest I Do.” Through the remainder of the 1950s and the early 1960s, Reed was among the biggest-selling blues artists in the United States.
Reed’s wife, Mary Lee “Mama” Reed, whom he had married in 1945, was usually present during his recording sessions. She wrote several of his songs and would whisper the words into Reed’s ear just before he sang. If one listens closely to his records, her voice is often audible.
Reed toured constantly during this time—usually with Taylor backing him up. Outside of Chicago, Reed proved particularly popular among white audiences. His songs were consistently covered by white rhythm and blues groups, while his classic tune “Big Boss Man” was adopted by blues and country artists alike.
On the road, Reed became infamous for his drinking problem. “I used to get so lit up,” he admitted in Living Blues, “and so tore down off that Scotch and junk, man, till where all I could practically picture out was just my instrument and think about just what I was going to do.” To help him with the demands of the touring life, Reed hired Al Smith as his road manager. Smith proved to be a significant influence on Reed’s career, eventually becoming his agent and writing some of his songs.
In the early 1960s, sales of Reed’s records flagged. Vee-Jay tried various gimmicks to revive his career, but the changing times, along with Reed’s alcoholism and worsening epilepsy, undermined his ability to make a comeback. When Vee-Jay went bankrupt in 1966, Reed cut a few unsuccessful sides for the ABC/BluesWay label. In the mid-1960s his epileptic seizures grew worse, and in 1969 he entered a Veteran’s Administration hospital in an effort to give up drinking. He stayed under a doctor’s care until 1973. Toward the end of his life, Reed became something of a recluse, embittered by the music industry and his failure to keep the money he had made. He died of respiratory failure on August 29, 1976, in Oakland, California.
Jimmy Reed at Carnegie Hall/The Best of Jimmy Reed, Mobile Fidelity, 1992.
Best Of, GNP Crescendo.
Greatest Hits, Hollywood.
Speak the Lyrics to Me, Mama Reed, Vee-Jay.
Billboard, September 12, 1953.
Blues Unlimited, August 1974.
Living Blues, May/June 1975.
Rolling Stone, February 7, 1991.
"Reed, Jimmy." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 30, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/reed-jimmy
"Reed, Jimmy." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved April 30, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/reed-jimmy