Reed, A. C. 1926–
A. C. Reed 1926–
Blues saxophonist, vocalist, bandleader
The saxophonist A.C. Reed stands out from the ordinary run of Chicago blues musicians in at least three respects. He formed and led a successful band of his own—something few saxophone players in the blues tradition have done. He was a classically-trained musician, having attended music school and aspired to a big-band career before he started to play the blues. And most distinctive of all is Reed’s unique sense of humor. While many other blues musicians have incorporated humor into their music and stage presence, none has, like Reed, mined a comic vein rooted in a tongue-in-cheek dislike of blues music itself.
Reed was born Aaron Corthen on May 9, 1926, in Wardell, Missouri in the state’s southeastern boot heel; he took the name of Reed in emulation of his friend (and according to some accounts his cousin), Jimmy Reed. He grew up there and in nearby southern Illinois, and the family was musical; one brother played piano and another a handmade bass constructed from a wash tub. Reed himself was drawn to the saxophone after hearing records by swing saxophonists Jay McShann and Paul Bascomb. During World War II he joined the many thousands of other young African Americans who migrated north to take factory jobs.
Landing in Chicago in 1942, Reed found work at a steel mill. He took his first paycheck to a pawnshop to buy a saxophone. A fan of jazz tenor sax player Gene Ammons, Reed set his sights on a jazz-band career and took courses at the Chicago Conservatory of Music. The rising style in Chicago at the time was not jazz but blues, however, and Reed began to sit in with blues musicians after a day’s work at the steel mill. Saxophonist J. T. Brown of the Elmore James band showed him the ropes, and Reed, recalling Brown’s influence in comments quoted on the website of the Alligator music label, offered a concise definition of the differences between jazz and blues. “The first thing he taught me,” Reed said, “was to play less notes, play simpler and try to tell a story with my solos.”
It wasn’t long before Reed was performing in South Side blues clubs with vocalist Willie Mabon and guitarist Earl Hooker. In the 1950s Reed toured with Dennis Binder’s Rhythm & Blues All-Stars, performing for white college-age audiences across the nation’s midsection in the same milieu that nurtured other rhythm-and-blues stars such as Ike & Tina Turner (with whom Binder had earlier been associated). Even Mabon had made a number of records that were rock and roll music in everything but name, and Reed was distinctly unimpressed by the rise of Elvis Presley and his cohorts.
By the early 1960s Reed was an in-demand session player in Chicago’s well-established blues recording industry, and, with a profusion of small record labels having sprung up in the city, was given a chance to record singles on his own from time to time. Recording for the Age, Nike, and T.D.S. labels, Reed enjoyed a modest hit with “Talkin’ ‘Bout My Friends” (1966). Some of his singles followed closely in the Jimmy Reed mold, but Reed began to find a voice of his own: in the words of blues historian Gérard Herzhaft, “’I Stay Mad’ and the excellent ‘My Buddy Buddy Friends’ were
At a Glance…
Born Aaron Corthen on May 9, 1926, in Wardell, Missouri. Education: Studied at Chicago Conservatory of Music.
Career: Moved to Chicago and took job in steel mill, 1942; began playing jazz and blues after work hours; performed in bands of Willie Mabon and Earl Hooker, late-1940s; toured with Dennis Binder’s Rhythm All-Stars, 1950s; recorded numerous singles for small Chicago labels, 1960s; joined Buddy Guy band, 1967; with Guy and Junior Wells toured Europe with Rolling Stones, 1970; toured with Son Seals and Albert Collins, late-1970s; formed own band, the Sparkplugs; contributed four tracks to Living Chicago Blues anthology, 1980; released solo debut, Take These Blues and Shove ‘Em, 1982; I’m in the Wrong Business!, 1987; toured extensively, early-1990s; released Junk Food, 1998.
Awards: W.C. Handy Award nomination for “I Am Fed Up with This Music” 1982-
Address: Record Label —Alligator Records, P.O. Box 60234, Chicago, IL 60660.
pieces full of the disenchanted and caustic humor that was A. C.’s mark.”
In the late 1960s and 1970s Reed was an integral part of the electric blues scene that grew as an adjunct to big-name rock music. He joined the band of guitarist Buddy Guy—another likely source for Reed’s subtle, self-mocking humor—in 1967, and when Guy and harmonica player Junior Wells joined forces as an opening act for the 1970 European tour of the Rolling Stones, Reed went with them. Reed remained with Guy and Wells until 1977, staying on the road after that with Son Seals and the showman guitarist Albert Collins, the self-proclaimed “Master of the Telecaster.”
Collins, who recorded for the Alligator record label, exemplified the beginnings of a third phase of electric blues that followed its homegrown Chicago roots and its phase of interaction with rock: blues as one of what New York Times writer Peter Watrous called “the rituals of good-time music.” On breaks from tours with Collins, Reed began to see new possibilities in blues performances that were danceable and playful. He put together a band of his own, the Sparkplugs (the name referred to the popular AC automotive spark plug brand), and by 1980 had contributed four tracks to an Alligator series of releases called Living Chicago Blues that showcased emerging artists—which Reed, at the age of 54, had once again become.
Reed’s solo debut album, Take These Blues and Shove ‘Em, released in 1982 on the Ice Cube label (co-owned by Reed), offered material that fit with the stage routine Reed had developed—that of a bluesman who had the blues about playing the blues, comically looking to more optimistic ways of making a living but completing the joke with virtuoso sax blasts that bespoke a veteran’s enjoyment of what he was doing. Anticipating the hip-hop practice of releasing “clean” and unexpurgated versions of songs with raunchy or obscene lyrics, Reed released two versions of a single drawn from the album, “I Am Fed Up with This Music.” That single earned Reed a W. C. Handy Award nomination for blues single of the year.
With his 1987 release I’m in the Wrong Business!, Reed graduated to the Alligator label himself and enjoyed strong promotional support. The depth of affection that Reed commanded in the blues community was shown by the album’s roster of guest stars, which included guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, vocalist Bonnie Raitt, and singer-guitarist Maurice Vaughn (with whom Reed also recorded a duet album, I Got Money). I’m in the Wrong Business! showcased Reed’s own songwriting on numbers such as the autobiographical “These Blues Is Killing Me.”
For several years after the release of I’m in the Wrong Business! Reed was a fixture of the blues-club circuit. He retired briefly in the 1990s, but he kept writing songs and resurfaced in 1998 with the album Junk Food, featuring Albert Collins and released on the Delmark label. The album showed Reed in fine songwriting form as he neareds the end of his sixth decade of professional music making; it mixed Reed’s trademark themes with new observations on subjects ranging from the saxophone-playing U.S. president Bill Clinton (“The President Plays”) to weight-loss entrepreneur Florine Mark (“Florine”).
Take These Blues and Shove ‘Em, Ice Cube, 1982.
I’m in the Wrong Business!, Alligator, 1987.
Junk Food, Delmark, 1998.
Herzhaft, Gerard, Encyclopedia of the Blues, trans. Brigitte Debord, University of Arkansas Press, 1992.
Larkin, Colin, ed., The Virgin Encyclopedia of the Blues, Virgin, 1998.
Rucker, Leland, ed., MusicHound Blues: The Essential Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
Santelli, Robert, The Big Book of Blues, Penguin, 1993.
Scott, Frank, The Down Home Guide to the Blues, Down Home Music, 1991.
New York Times, April 6, 1989, p. C22.
Alligator Records, http://www.alligator.com
All Music Guide, http://allmusic.com
—James M. Manheim
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