Jimmy Reed ranks as one of the most popular and significant bluesmen of the postwar era.
No one, save B.B. King, so effectively reached both black and white audiences in the Fifties and Sixties. His most popular songs are indelible in their simplicity and accessibility. They include such classics of the genre as “Big Boss Man,” “Bright Lights, Big City,” “Baby What You Want Me to Do” and “Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby.” But that just scratches the surface of a very prolific artist who recorded extensively throughout his lifetime.
Jimmy Reed was born Mathis James Reed on September 6, 1925, in Dunleith, Mississippi, one of 10 children in a sharecropping family. Reed and Eddie Taylor were raised together from the age of seven, and Taylor gave Reed his first guitar lessons. The two played together well into the Sixties.
Reed moved to Gary, Indiana, in 1948. Then, in the summer of 1950, he quit his job at an iron foundry and began devoting himself to music. Unlike a lot of his Chicago contemporaries, Reed performed in a more relaxed, measured style typified by foot-tapping rhythms and a casual vocal delivery. He played guitar and harmonica, strumming time with the former and adding riffs and solos on the latter.
In 1953, Reed signed with a new label, Vee Jay Records. Two years later, in March 1955, his recording of “You Don’t Have to Go” became a Top Five R&B hit. It was a prototypical Jimmy Reed recording, featuring him and Taylor on guitar and Earl Phillips on drums. The following year, Reed hit with “Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby,” which reached Number Seven on the R&B charts.
Many more hits followed, as Reed scored a remarkable 18 Top 20 R&B hits on Vee-Jay between 1955 and 1961. The highest-charting of these was his classic “Bright Lights, Big City,” which rose to Number Three in September 1961. At the same time, he entered the pop charts on a dozen occasions, his most notable success being “Baby What You Want Me to Do.”
Reed’s success inspired a legion of admiring and imitative blues singers. The relaxed, rural quality of his work came naturally to south Louisiana bluesmen like Slim Harpo, Whispering Smith and Lazy Lester. By 1962, Reed was attracting a new group of fans he could hardly have imagined.
The Rolling Stones covered “Honest I Do” on their first album and wrote “The Spider and the Fly” for their second album in direct emulation of Reed. Van Morrison and Them recorded “Bright Lights, Big City.” The Pretty Things cut “Big Boss Man.” Back in America, Reed’s influence extended to such groups as the Grateful Dead, who performed his songs in their jugband days and recorded “Big Boss Man” on a 1971 live album. And Reed’s bittersweet, high-end harmonica blowing left an indelible mark on the playing of both Stevie Wonder and Bob Dylan.
Reed continued recording and performing into the Seventies, but his career was hampered by health and drinking problems. On August 29, 1976, Reed died after suffering an epileptic seizure at age 51. In music writer Pete Welding’s words, the lasting appeal of Jimmy Reed’s music stems from the fact that “it was honest and simple. . . and it drew its strength from the authenticity and clarity of Reed’s observations about the everyday affairs of ordinary people.”
Mathias James Reed aka Jimmy Reed (vocals, guitar, harmonica, songwriter; September 6, 1925 – August 29, 1976)