Friday, December 24, 2010

Bright Lights, Big City - The Music of Jimmy Reed

If someone were to ask you who sold the most blues records or who had the most charted blues singles during the 1950's, most of you would be inclined to say B. B.  King or Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf or Little Walter or maybe even Elmore James or Lightnin' Hopkins.  If you submitted any of those names, you would be wrong.  The correct answer would be a guitarist named Jimmy Reed from tiny Dunleith, MS. 

Jimmy Reed
Some newcomers to the blues may not know who Jimmy Reed was, but you certainly are familiar with at least one or two of his songs.  Songs like "Baby, What You Want Me To Do," "Bright Lights, Big City," "Going To New York," "Honest I Do," "Big Boss Man," and "Ain't That Lovin' You, Baby" are standard tunes in most blues bands' repertoire even today, and Reed was a primary influence on artists like Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, Hank Williams, Jr., and a large number of the Excello Records roster.

Reed's style was pretty straight-forward, simple, and easy to imitate.  Anyone who picked up a guitar had a passing chance of learning one of his tunes.  Consisting of a simple boogie shuffle pattern with country-flavored harmonica (played on a neck-rack), and a lazy, loping rhythm, Reed enjoyed hit after hit in the 1950's on the R&B charts (and the occasional venture into the pop charts) and his music was enjoyed by both black and white listeners.  Joining him on nearly all of his recordings was his lifelong friend and musical partner, Eddie Taylor, whose steady rhythm guitar provided the glue that held everything together.

Eddie Taylor
Jimmy Reed was born in Dunleith, MS in 1925.  As a teenager, he learned to play guitar and harmonica basics from his friend, Taylor.  He relocated to Gary, Indiana and worked at a meat packing plant while paying his dues on the blues circuit in Gary and in Chicago.  He also worked with John Brim, playing harmonica on a couple of Brim's recordings (including his classic, "Tough Times").

Reed also auditioned for Chess Records, but was rejected.  Soon afterward, Brim's young drummer, Albert King (yes, THAT one) pointed Reed to Vee-Jay Records, where he recorded his first sides, reuniting with his friend, Eddie Taylor.  The hits started coming one after another, much to the chagrin of the powers that be at Chess.  Here's a couple of Reed's classic tracks for you to enjoy......"Baby What You Want Me To Do" and "Big Boss Man."  As I said earlier, nearly anybody can play a Jimmy Reed tune.  I've heard more blues bands at all levels of development play at least one of these songs than any other blues standards.

Early Promo Shot of Jimmy Reed
Though Reed had lots of chart success over the 50's, he was not what you would call well suited for it.  Basically illiterate, the constant rugged touring schedule he faced compounded an already serious alcohol problem.  His drinking problem was so bad at times that he was barely able to stand and even walk to the microphone.  Despite this, he enthralled audiences from coast to coast.  In 1957, he began to be stricken with epileptic seizures, although it was years before it was diagnosed.  Since he drank so heavily, and was usually going through the DT's, most people didn't realize that he had worse problems.  Reed once recalled a show where he remembered going on stage, but not coming off.

Taylor once told how he had to sit in front of Reed during recordings and let him know when to sing and play his harmonica.  Reed's wife, Mary (also known as "Mama") often had to sit beside him during recordings to whisper the lyrics in his ear, even the songs he wrote himself (this was the inspiration for the title to the early 90's compilation, Speak The Lyrics To Me, Mama Reed).  To the record-buying public, none of this mattered.  In all, Reed charted 11 songs on the Billboard Top 100 Pop Charts and 14 songs on the R&B Charts.  No other blues artists could match that.

When Vee-Jay went out of business, so did Reed for the most part.  A few releases were forthcoming in the  60's and early 70's, but none of them really measured up to his Vee-Jay sides.  Eventually, his epilepsy was diagnosed and treated and he quit drinking.  He was attempting a comeback when he suddenly died in 1976, a week shy of his 51st birthday. 

Though Reed's story is not a pleasant one, with lots of pitfalls that could have been avoided with a little bit of good fortune, his music continues to be an inspiration, both in its simplicity and in its joy.  Even now, over thirty years after his death and nearly fifty years after the peak of his career, Jimmy Reed continues to influence blues artists.  One of the best-selling, most popular albums of the past couple of years was Omar Dykes' and Jimmie Vaughan's tribute disc, On The Jimmy Reed Highway.

Nobody sums up Jimmy Reed's music better than the man himself did a few months before his death.
"I just do my one straight thing.  But it seems to work out pretty good like it is."

Eddie Taylor was without a doubt a more talented guitarist and singer than his good friend was, but his recordings (including "Big Time Playboy" and "Bad Boy") didn't sell nearly as well as Reed's.  Such are the fortunes of the music business.  He settled for being an in-demand sideman for other artists like John Lee Hooker, Snooky Pryor, and John Brim.  He did achieve a measure of success in the 70's as a frontman, recording a couple of fine albums for Advent and Antones before passing away on Christmas Day in 1985.  Here's Taylor performing "Bad Boy" at Antone's 10th Anniversary Celebration in July of '85, just a few months before his death, with an all-star backing band (Luther Tucker and Hubert Sumlin - guitars, Sunnyland Slim - piano, Snooky Pryor - harmonica, Bob Strogher - bass, and Ted Harvey - drums).

Blues Masters: Very Best of Jimmy Reed Blues Masters: Very Best of Jimmy Reed  (Rhino) - There have been many collections of Reed's songs over the years.  This set from Rhino Records offers the cream of the crop, along with a few rarities, with the best sound.

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