Jimmy Reed - An American Original ©JCMarion


Jimmy Reed was born Mathis James Reed in 1925 in Washington County Mississippi. He dropped out of school and worked with his sharecropper parents on a local farm. Shortly after a two year service in the U.S.Navy during the Second World War, he moved to Gary Indiana to find work in the steel mills of that city. On the side he played music with John Brim, Albert King, and other blues performers transplanted from the South. Reed mainly appeared with his boyhood friend and guitar teacher, Eddie Taylor. In July of 1953 in Gary, Vivian Carter a radio personality announced that she and Jimmy Bracken had started a new recording company to be called Vee-Jay Records. The first artists signed for the new enterprise are a vocal group, The Spaniels, and blues guitarist and singer Jimmy Reed.

The first recording by Reed is however on the Chance label, and is released in September of 1953 and is "Roll And Rhumba" / "High And Lonesome". The first Vee-Jay record comes out late in the year and it is #105 "Jimmy's Boogie" bw "I Found My Baby" and is billed by the Jimmy Reed Trio. Neither record does much with sales or airplay. But it is the next recording for Vee-Jay that captures the imagination of many listeners and record buyers. It is released in late 1954 and pairs "Boogie In The Dark" / "You Don't Have To Go" on Vee-Jay #119. The world hears the signature sound of all Jimmy Reed performances in these two songs-the insistent droning sound of the bass strings on the two guitars (Reed and Taylor) and the soulful wail of the harmonica played by Reed. His vocal style is also distinctive, almost a primitive type of crooning steeped in the dialect of his native Mississippi, rather than the usual shouting style used by most blues performers. On "You Don't Have To Go" however, Reed does some of his strongest vocal work.The up tempo side "Boogie" is a driving instrumental with the droning bass strings carrying the beat and some snappy harmonica riffs and the drums heavy on the cymbals. It set the standard for the Reed sound which was instinctive, personal, and immediately identifiable.

In early 1955 Reed appears at a huge R & B revue at Chicago's Trianon Ballroom with Roy Hamilton, Big Maybelle, LaVern Baker, and his labelmates, The Spaniels. He then makes some appearances in the south with "Little Walkin'" Willie and his combo. In March "I'm Gonna Ruin You" / "Pretty Thing" is released by Vee-Jay #132. It seems that this disc is overshadowed by continued sales for "You Don't Have To Go" which is big nationally. In the spring Reed goes on a five week tour with The Spaniels. In late summer he hits the road again this time with The Cardinals, and "Little Walkin'" Willie's combo. "She Don't Want Me No More" / "I Don't Go For That"#153, is out in late August but again sales and airplay are a bit on the disappointing side. Late in the year Reed gets back on track with the Vee-Jay #168 recording "Ain't That Lovin' You Baby" / "Baby Don't Say That No More". The 'A' side is a solid uptempo tune in the Reed style with great guitar work. Reed makes some appearances in the mid-west with The Spaniels and The ElDorados as part of Vee-Jay Records Cavalcade of Stars. In April "Can't Stand To See You Go" and "Rockin' With Reed" #186 is released. The 'A' side "Can't Stand" is an intense slow blues with the driving bass drone of the guitars and the heavy backbeat that Reed has made his signature. In June Jimmy Reed headlined a big R & B show in his adopted home town of Gary Indiana. Also on the bill were The Kool Gents, Magnificents, ElDorados, Willie Mabon, and Reed's bandmate Eddie Taylor who has a record out for Vee-Jay as a solo performer.

In mid June of 1956, "My First Plea" / "I Love You Baby" is released on Vee-Jay #203. "Plea" is an instant winner that contains the all time mystical line "Don't pull no subways, I'd rather see you pull a train". The appeal of the blues tune is its easy going rhythmic feel rather than the blinding intensity of some of his earlier work. "Plea" is named by radio deejays as one of the top R & B records in the country. One of the deejays polled is (surprise !) Vee-Jay owner Vivian Carter. In the fall Reed makes an extensive tour of the mid south and southwest, in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana. In October "You Got Me Dizzy" and "Honey Don't Let Me Go" is out on Vee-Jay #226. "Dizzy" is an immediate winner. Near the end of the year Reed is a victim of something that has plagued so many R & B performers, a serious auto accident, one of the hazards of life on the road. His wife is seriously injured, but he is only shaken up, and the good news is that she is expected to recover fully.

The year 1957 starts off with a new Vee-Jay release #237, pairing "Little Rain" and "Honey Where You Going". The slow, insistent, and intense "Rain" is in marked contrast to the midtempo rocker "Honey". Both sides get extensive airplay throughout the country with "Honey" being the favored side in the East, and "Rain" getting the nod in the South. Jimmy Reed begins to gain popular acceptance of the adult R & B fans, as the younger set prefers the vocal groups and the teenage performers that have become the front line of rock and roll. Another blockbuster recording is released in the spring - the dramatic and soulful "Honest I Do" #253, which is noted for its use of a massive clash of cymbals at the beginning of the instrumental breaks. This coupled with Reed's impassioned vocal makes this a memorable hit for Vee-Jay. The flip side is "Signals Of Love". The continuing popularity of "Honest I Do" affects sales and airplay of "The Sun Is Shining" / "Baby What's On Your Mind", but late in 1957 Vee-Jay #270 features another Reed rocker "You're Something Else" that proves to be another Reed winner. This is followed in March of 1958 with another intense blues tune "You Got Me Crying (A Valley of Tears), #275 that gets national attention and keeps Jimmy Reed a top R & B draw.

During the late 1950's, Reed keeps up the string of recordings with some success with "Down In Virginia", "Take Out Some Insurance", and "Going To New York". The highly influential Vee-Jay LP album titled "I'm Jimmy Reed" (and the accompanying LP "I'm John Lee Hooker") bring great numbers of new fans to the blues artists. Reed especially is the favorite of young fans because of his simple yet driving sound of the droning guitars and the intense sound of his harmonica on the slow blues numbers. Just when it was thought music such as that produced by Reed was in eclipse, came the folk music boom of the late fifties and early sixties which focused so much interest on American 'roots" music and its long neglected blues musicians. Now folk music festivals were drawing huge crowds to hear such artists as John Hurt, Furry Lewis, Bukka White, and Jesse Fuller. Within a few short years the British Invasion rock bands made known their influences by these American blues artists such as J.B. Lenoir, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, and Jimmy Reed. Now Reed had an entirely new audience hearing his music for the first time. Add to this mix three massive hit records during this time - "Big Boss Man", "Bright Lights Big City", and "Baby What You Want Me To Do" that transcended all musical tastes and divisions, and Reed had attained a popularity and stature unthinkable just a few years before.

However there was a down side to all of this success. Reed had been battling the effects of epilepsy for much of his life, and here at the time of his greatest acceptance and popularity, he was forced to stop performing for periods of time because of the illness. He appeared sporadically at blues festivals all over the United States and England, including a memorable set at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival which was broadcast live across the country on Public Radio. In 1968, on Elvis Presley's "comeback" TV special for NBC, Elvis did a great version of Reed's "Baby What You Want Me To Do" including a rare chance to see Elvis play lead guitar complete with a couple of Jimmy Reed licks ! Reed continued to perform into the 1970's, an acknowledged American original, his importance in history assured by more than twenty years of performing and recording his unique style of music. One of his last appearances was on the radio show "Blues By The Bay" in San Francisco. He died of respitory failure brought on by an epileptic seizure on August 29, 1976. He was 51 years old.

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