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Jimmy Reed

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. His best-known songs -- "Baby, What You Want Me to Do," "Bright Lights, Big City," "Honest I Do," "You Don't Have to Go," "Going to New York," "Ain't That Lovin' You Baby," and "Big Boss Man" -- have become such an integral part of the standard blues repertoire, it's almost as if they have existed forever. Because his style was simple and easily imitated, his songs were accessible to just about everyone from high-school garage bands having a go at it, to Elvis Presley, Charlie Rich, Lou Rawls, Hank Williams, Jr., and the Rolling Stones, making him -- in the long run -- perhaps the most influential bluesman of all. His bottom-string boogie rhythm guitar patterns (all furnished by boyhood friend and longtime musical partner Eddie Taylor), simple two-string turnarounds, country-ish harmonica solos (all played in a neck-rack attachment hung around his neck), and mush-mouthed vocals were probably the first exposure most white folks had to the blues. And his music -- lazy, loping, and insistent and constantly built and reconstructed single after single on the same sturdy frame -- was a formula that proved to be enormously successful and influential, both with middle-aged blacks and young white audiences for a good dozen years. Jimmy Reed records hit the R&B charts with amazing frequency and crossed over onto the pop charts on many occasions, a rare feat for an unreconstructed bluesman. This is all the more amazing simply because Reed's music was nothing special on the surface; he possessed absolutely no technical expertise on either of his chosen instruments and his vocals certainly lacked the fierce declamatory intensity of a Howlin' Wolf or a Muddy Waters. But it was exactly that lack of in-your-face musical confrontation that made Jimmy Reed a welcome addition to everybody's record collection back in the '50s and '60s. And for those aspiring musicians who wanted to give the blues a try, either vocally or instrumentally (no matter what skin color you were born with), perhaps Billy Vera said it best in his liner notes to a Reed greatest-hits anthology: "Yes, anybody with a range of more than six notes could sing Jimmy's tunes and play them the first day Mom and Dad brought home that first guitar from Sears & Roebuck. I guess Jimmy could be termed the '50s punk bluesman."

Reed was born on September 6, 1925, on a plantation in or around the small burg of Dunleith, MS. He stayed around the area until he was 15, learning the basic rudiments of harmonica and guitar from his buddy Eddie Taylor, who was then making a name for himself as a semi-pro musician, working country suppers and juke joints. Reed moved up to Chicago in 1943, but was quickly drafted into the Navy where he served for two years. After a quick trip back to Mississippi and marriage to his beloved wife Mary (known to blues fans as "Mama Reed"), he relocated to Gary, IN, and found work at an Armour Foods meat packing plant while simultaneously breaking into the burgeoning blues scene around Gary and neighboring Chicago. The early '50s found him working as a sideman with John Brim's Gary Kings (that's Reed blowing harp on Brim's classic "Tough Times" and its instrumental flipside, "Gary Stomp") and playing on the street for tips with Willie Joe Duncan, a shadowy figure who played an amplified, homemade one-string instrument called a Unitar. After failing an audition with Chess Records (his later chart success would be a constant thorn in the side of the firm), Brim's drummer at the time -- improbably enough, future blues guitar legend Albert King -- brought him over to the newly formed Vee-Jay Records, where his first recordings were made. It was during this time that he was reunited and started playing again with Eddie Taylor, a musical partnership that would last off and on until Reed's death. Success was slow in coming, but when his third single, "You Don't Have to Go" backed with "Boogie in the Dark," made the number five slot on Billboard's R&B charts, the hits pretty much kept on coming for the next decade.

But if selling more records than Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James, or Little Walter brought the rewards of fame to his doorstep, no one was more ill-equipped to handle them than Jimmy Reed. With signing his name for fans being the total sum of his literacy, combined with a back-breaking road schedule once he became a name attraction and his self-description as a "liquor glutter," Reed started to fall apart like a cheap suit almost immediately. His devious schemes to tend to his alcoholism -- and the just plain aberrant behavior that came as a result of it -- quickly made him the laughingstock of his show-business contemporaries. Those who shared the bill with him in top-of-the-line R&B venues like the Apollo Theater -- where the story of him urinating on a star performer's dress in the wings has been repeated verbatim by more than one old-timer -- still shake their heads and wonder how Reed could actually stand up straight and perform, much less hold the audience in the palm of his hand. Other stories of Reed being "arrested" and thrown into a Chicago drunk tank the night before a recording session also reverberate throughout the blues community to this day. Little wonder then that when he was stricken with epilepsy in 1957, it went undiagnosed for an extended period of time, simply because he had experienced so many attacks of delirium tremens, better known as the "DTs." Eddie Taylor would relate how he sat directly in front of Reed in the studio, instructing him while the tune was being recorded exactly when to start to start singing, when to blow his harp, and when to do the turnarounds on his guitar. Jimmy Reed also appears, by all accounts, to have been unable to remember the lyrics to new songs -- even ones he had composed himself -- and Mama Reed would sit on a piano bench and whisper them into his ear, literally one line at a time. Blues fans who doubt this can clearly hear the proof on several of Jimmy's biggest hits, most notably "Big Boss Man" and "Bright Lights, Big City," where she steps into the fore and starts singing along with him in order to keep him on the beat.

But seemingly none of this mattered. While revisionist blues historians like to make a big deal about either the lack of variety of his work or how later recordings turned him into a mere parody of himself, the public just couldn't get enough of it. Jimmy Reed placed 11 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts and a total of 14 on the R&B charts, a figure that even a much more sophisticated artist like B.B. King couldn't top. To paraphrase the old saying, nobody liked Jimmy Reed but the people.

Reed's slow descent into the ravages of alcoholism and epilepsy roughly paralleled the decline of Vee-Jay Records, which went out of business at approximately the same time that his final 45 was released, "Don't Think I'm Through." His manager, Al Smith, quickly arranged a contract with the newly formed ABC-Bluesway label and a handful of albums were released into the '70s, all of them lacking the old charm, sounding as if they were cut on a musical assembly line. Jimmy did one last album, a horrible attempt to update his sound with funk beats and wah-wah pedals, before becoming a virtual recluse in his final years. He finally received proper medical attention for his epilepsy and quit drinking, but it was too late and he died trying to make a comeback on the blues festival circuit on August 29, 1976.

All of this is sad beyond belief, simply because there's so much joy in Jimmy Reed's music. And it's that joy that becomes self-evident every time you give one of his classic sides a spin. Although his bare-bones style influenced everyone from British Invasion combos to the entire school of Louisiana swamp blues artists (Slim Harpo and Jimmy Anderson in particular), the simple indisputable fact remains that -- like so many of the other originators in the genre -- there was only one Jimmy Reed. ~ Cub Koda, Rovi
full bio

Selected Discography


Track List: Essential Boss Man

Disc 1
Disc 2
Disc 3


And, yes, I am aware of the fact that Albert King helped Jimmy Reed get his record deal with Vee Jay and played drums (not guitar) on some of his early stuff - but, still, they are very different styles of blues. Not liking Albert King does *not* equate not liking the blues.
I swear, if Pandora suddenly decides to list Albert King as a similar artist to Jimmy Reed...
If you like Jimmy Reed... you might also like Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester, and Duster Bennett. Some of their songs really have the Jimmy Reed vibe to it, and all seemed to be directly influenced by him.
Jimmy Reed big with the Bossman Porky
Okay, I guess his songs from Cry Before I Go isn't as good as his earlier stuff. That funk-blues sound really isn't my cup of tea. Crying Blind was the very first song of his that I thumbed down - and I've been listening to the station for over a week, now. Howlin' Wolf had also put out a few clunker albums towards the end of his career, and he's my favourite blues artist.
My station is playing more stuff by him than by anyone else, and I don't even mind - because his stuff is just so good. It's quite sad what happened to him, though.
Can Jimmy Reed even make a bad blues song?!
Jimmy Reed! He seems to currently be my most thumbed up artist on my radio station, although I actually prefer Howlin' Wolf. But Jimmy Reed does rank up quite highly, too, as far as blues artists go.
Jimmy Reed one of the best blues players of all time !
He is the best and Big Boss Man is the best song, a favorite dance sound at Carolina Beaches
love it
reed the man rog the real deal
Love this song
Jimmy Reed.....
A true bluesman, it just does not get any better,Mr Reed thanks for all the great music you gave us.
I'm gonna ruin you.
nice way 2 began my weekend
love me some jimmy reed puts me in a zone
back in my garage band days there was a term called the reed beat and every one knew what you meant.

There was only one and there will never be another Jimmy Reed, the blues godfather.
Alright Now
really good
Proper paragraph breaks are essential to writing that flows well
Bright Light , Big City ANOTHER great one by Jimmy Reed
Shame Shame Shame...anot h e r great one
Big Bossman>>>>A n o t h e r one of Jimmy Reed's best
one of about 100 great songs Jimmy Reed turned out
Jimmy don't get much better than Down In Mississippi
Hey Boss Man----you ain't so big, you just dumb that's all!
Jimmy Reed the king of the blues. The best of the best.
Honest I Do another one of Jimmy Reed's great ones
Baby, What you want me to do? one of Porky's favorites { and mine too }
dymentedfrea k
If you love the blues, then check out my youtube channel and leave me some love? :> I play guitar much like jeff healey. Over the top and I'm in a wheelchair. http://www.y o u t u b e . c o m / u s e r / B r o c k D a v i s s o n 1 9 7 8
just speed up jimmy reed and you've got rock 'n roll -- he's the godfather
The Nighthawks did this as an instrumental and called it Two Bugs and a Roach.
1955 thru 1960's Big big in Atlanta GA Jimmy Reed...Big Boss Man
sounds like Porky on WAMO
What a great feel he had. I love his voice and his songs are so great to play and sing. Easily accessible even to novices like me. Love me some Jimmy Reed!
I grew up in western Canada where my father and grandfather were both champion fiddlers who played old time dance music. At 17 my family moved to Wisconsin and it was on a Memphis station in about 1960 that I first heard the southern blues . It was so different from what I had know but I was sold on old Jimmy from the start and have collected as much of his music that I can find. Thanks Jimmy.
He was big with Porky Chedwick...i n the 50's
Great tune from the dinosaur age. You just tall---THAT' S ALL!
just starting listening to blues I am 38 years dold and first heard jimmy read when i was like 26 yrs old till thennever reeally paid attention to blues music, now i cant stop listening to it jimmy reed' is the s**t ! but alll blues music i love now fromm jimmy reed , b. bking , muddy waters , eric clapton , and many more ! thanks jimmy reed for bringing the beautiful sound of music (the bluese ) to my hears now I look for place like restraunts (like lucillees bbq ) just to watch and listen
I started listening to Jimmy back in the early 50s when I was a lad. My Father rest his soul, introduced me to it by telling me that if I ever wanted to hear honesty in music listen to Jimmy Reed. Technically he's pitiful vocally he's real bad, so bad till it's magnificent. Mr. Reed has gotten me through some hard times, Thanks,Jimmy Reed
I've been a Jimmy Reed fan since my lovely late bride Billie Lee McMellon Weber turned me on to him and Howlin Wolf in 1966 in Columbia,Mo . For me the top of the top blues men are : Jimmy Reed ,Howlin Wolf ,John lee Hooker ,and Lightnin Hopkins !!
In 1957 I was 15 years old and growing up happy in Sulphur, Louisiana. We were really into muscle cars, girls and music. Jimmy Reed was one of our favorites and remains so to this day. My wife and I still dance to the many Jimmy Reed records we still have. He remains a true blues legend!
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