Mathis James “Jimmy” Reed (September 6, 1925 – August 2, 1976) was an American blues singer, guitarist, and harmonica player. He was the best-selling Chicago blues artist of the later 1950s and early 1960s, with classic blues hits such as “Big Boss Man,” “Bright Lights, Big City,” “Baby What You Want Me To Do,” and “Aint That Lovin’ You Baby.”
Reed was a major player in the early days of electric blues, whose unpretentious style proved highly popular with R&B fans. His lazy, slack-jawed singing, piercing harmonica, and hypnotic guitar patterns were one of the blues’ most easily identifiable sounds in the 1950s and ‘60s. He also had a major influence on rock and roll players, most notably the Rolling Stones, among many others.
Despite outselling his Chicago contemporaries during his heyday, Reed’s battles with alcoholism led to his early decline and caused him to be unable to take advantage of the blues revival of the late 1960s and early ‘70s to resurrect his career. He died in 1976 at the age of 50. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.
Reed was born on a plantation near Dunleith, Mississippi in 1925, where he lived until the age of 15. He learned the basics of harmonica and guitar from local semi-professional player Eddie Taylor, who became a close friend.
After spending several years performing in clubs and playing for tips in the area, Reed moved to Chicago, Illinois in 1943 before being drafted into the United States Navy during World War II. In 1945, he was discharged and moved briefly back to Mississippi, marrying his girlfriend, Mary Reed, before moving to Gary, Indiana to work at an Armour & Co. meat packing plant.
Chicago and success
Reed soon began to break into the growing blues scene in Gary and nearby Chicago. By the early 1950s, he had established himself as a popular musician known for his ability to play guitar and harmonica simultaneously by using a neck-brace harmonica-holder. He joined the “Gary Kings,” playing harmonica and guitar with John Brim, with whom he also recorded. However, when Reed attempted to gain a recording contract with Chess Records, the premier record company for Chicago-based blues artists, he was rebuffed. With the help of Brim’s drummer and future guitar legend Albert King, he then signed with Vee-Jay Records. At Vee-Jay, Reed began playing again with his old mentor, Eddie Taylor. His third single, “You Don’t Have to Go,” was his first hit record, reaching number three on the Billboard R&B chart in 1956.
A string of blues hits soon followed. Reed’s simple, straightforward style was easy for fans to relate to and was also highly danceable. He was soon outselling even the great Chess blues stars like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter. In New York, he not only played Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater but also performed across town in the prestigious Carnegie Hall, although his Live at Carnegie Hall album (1961) was actually a studio reproduction of his performance there.
Like some other successful bluesmen, Reed suffered from alcoholism. However, unlike some of them, did not hold is liquor well. He became notorious for being drunk on stage, slurring and forgetting his words, and losing the beat. His wife often had to help him remember the lyrics to his songs and stay on beat while performing. Reed’s bouts with delirium tremens were so common that when he was stricken with epilepsy in 1957, the disease went undiagnosed for months.
Despite these problems, reed continued to succeed as a recording artist. He reached his peak in 1961 with the classic “Big Boss Man,” followed by “Bright Lights, Big City,” which reached number three on the R & B charts.
Decline and death
Although he had more hit songs than many of his peers, Reed’s personal problems prevented him from achieving the same level of respect and long-term fame as other popular blues artists of the time. When Vee-Jay Records temporarily ceased operations in the second half of 1963, Reed’s manager signed a contract with the fledgling ABC-Bluesway label, but Reed was never able to score another hit. He made a minor comeback as a performer in the days of the blues revival of the late 1960s and early ‘70s, but continued to prove unable to rise above his problems with alcohol, often proving a disappointment to his new live audiences.
Reed lived a reclusive life in his final years before finally getting proper medical treatment and attempting a comeback, playing at the blues festivals that had achieved popularity in the mid-70s. He died in Oakland, California on August 29, 1976, a few days short of his 51st birthday. He is interred in the Lincoln Cemetery in Worth, Illinois.
Although not the most skillful, passionate, or powerful of the Chicago bluesmen, Reed is arguably one of the most influential. In addition to his numerous R & B hits, Reed produced 11 records that made the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart, a figure unmatched even by the most successful bluesman of all time, B.B. King.
Reed’s simple style was easily imitated, and he became a major influence on other performers from Chuck Berry to Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Jr., and the Rolling Stones. His guitar style found its way into numerous rock and roll songs, while his harmonica riffs were often copied by players like the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger.
Indeed, The Rolling Stones have cited Reed as a major influence on their sound, and their early set lists comprised many of Reed’s songs. In their early years Stones recorded Reed songs like “Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby,” “The Sun is Shining,,” “Close Together,” “Bright Lights, Big City,” and “Shame, Shame, Shame” as demos to offer to record labels. Their February 1964 hit single “Not Fade Away” was backed by “Little by Little,” an obvious remake of Reed’s “Shame, Shame, Shame.” Their first album, The Rolling Stones, released in April 1964, featured their cover of Reed’s “Honest I Do.”
Elvis Presley also covered several of Reed’s songs, scoring a 1967 hit with “Big Boss Man” and performing “Baby, What You Want Me to Do” for his 1968 Comeback TV Special. “Big Boss Man” was performed regularly by Grateful Dead, sung by the band’s Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, from their inception in the mid-1960s through the early 1970s. The song appears on the live album known as Skull and Roses.
Few blues bands omit Jimmy Reed songs from their set lists. In 2007, Austin Texas-based bluesmen Omar Kent Dykes and Jimmie Vaughan released a tribute album to Reed entitled On the Jimmy Reed Highway featuring guest performances by Kim Wilson, Delbert McClinton, James Cotton, Lou Ann Barton, and Gary Clark Junior.
In 1991 Reed was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He became a member of the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980. His recordings of “Big Boss Man” and “Bright Lights, Big City” were both voted onto the list of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.