Author: Peter J. Black
Jimmy Reed was born Mathis James Reed on September 6, 1925 at Dunleith, Mississippi. His own distinctive musical style earned him the reputation as American blues musician and songwriter. His appeal to mainstream audiences made him popular in the field of electric blues, giving a contrast to his contemporaries who worked around the more acoustic-band sound. His trademark includes the lazy, slack-jawed singing, piercing harmonica and hypnotic guitar patterns.
Jimmy started to learn harmonica and guitar from his close friend Eddie Taylor who was later responsible for bringing his career to its peak of success. His early days with these instruments were spent in his hometown before moving to Chicago, Illinois in 1943. He had little time to learn more about his chosen style of music because the war years intervened in what might have developed into a unique talent.
His was a talent that could have had a far greater influence on, not only American music, but the music of the entire world if it was given the time to develop during his formative years. However, the war intervened.
He was drafted into the US Navy during World War II but after being discharged in 1945 he returned to Mississippi. There he married Mary "Mama" Reed and shortly thereafter they moved to Gary, Indiana. It is worth noting that Mama Reed was a backing singer in many of Jimmy's songs although she was not credited. These songs include, among others, "Baby What You Want Me To Do", "Big Boss Man", and "Bright Lights, Big City".
His entry into the world of blues music started when he decided to quit his job in a steel foundry and become a full-time musician. He was 28 when he signed with Vee-Jay Records in 1953. His big hit "You Don't Have to Go" (1955) gave him his first taste of the R&B charts. Between 1955 and 1961, Reed notched up a remarkable 18 top twenty R&B hits, all under Vee-Jay Records. His collaboration with Eddie Taylor helped him to churn out one hit song after another.
Except for B.B. King, no other artist in the 50s and 60s was able to effectively reach both black and white audiences like Reed. He was able to make classic hits that were simple and accessible. Artists of later generations, such as the UK 1960s band The Rolling Stones, openly admit that their sound was influenced by Reed. Actually, according to them, Reed's songs were part of their set lists. These include tracks such as "Ain't That Lovin' You Baby", "The Sun is Shining", "Bright Light, Big City", and "Shame, Shame, Shame".
Reed's songs have been covered by other artists over and over again. Ron "Pigpen" McKernan with the Grateful Dead regularly sang "Big Boss Man" during the 60s and early 70s, and also appears on their album titled "Skull and Roses". Jerry Garcia revived the same song a few times in the 80s. Other artists who were influenced by Reed's "Big Boss Man" were Bob Weir in the mid-70s and Phil Lesh with Phil and Friends. The Grateful Dead took interest in doing "Baby What You Want Me To Do" with Brent Mydland on vocals.
The iconic Elvis Presley made a 1967 hit with "Big Boss Man" and performing his version of "Baby What You Want Me To Do" for his 1968 Comeback TV Special. Wishbone Ash's 1972 live album "Live Dates" also included a cover of the same track.
Reed's recording and performing career continued until the 70s. He was able to maintain his reputation until his rampant alcoholism could no longer be contained. Little by little this ruined his career. There were even times when his wife had to help him with the lyrics of his song during one of his performances because he forgot some words. To make things worse, in 1957 he was diagnosed with epilepsy after doctors had previously believed his condition to be a case of delirium tremens brought on by his drinking.
A string of hits was not able to sustain his popularity as personal problems continued to pin him down. Compared with other popular artists of his time, Reed had a greater number of hits than most of them, but his career continued to swoop down when Vee-Jay Records closed their doors. There was an attempt to revive his career under another company, but he was never able to make another hit after his successful years with Vee-Jay.
Jimmy Reed died aged only 51 on August 29, 1976 at Oakland, California after suffering an epileptic seizure. His remains were buried at the Lincoln Cemetery in Worth, Illinois.
Reed was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. He was a great talent that unfortunately went wrong for reasons that we shall likely never know.
This Jimmy Reed biography was originally published at http://encyclopediaofblues.com/?p=182
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