Born Mathis James Reed, September 6, 1925, in Leland (one source says Dunleith), MS; died of respiratory failure, August 29, 1976, in Oakland, CA; son of Joseph Reed (a sharecropper) and Virginia Ross (a sharecropper); married Mary Lee "Mama" Reed, 1945; children: Loretta, Jimmy, Jr., Arlene, Michael, Malinda, Roslyn, Rosemary, Avery. Military/Wartime Service: U.S. Navy, 1944-45.
Jimmy Reed was one of the most popular blues artists of the mid- to late 1950s. He had a "real gift for hooks," and a "very personal groove--a dense electric rumble pierced by keening harp leads" that "helped transform Chicago rhythm and blues into rock and roll," according to Rolling Stone. During his heyday from 1954 until 1963, Reed's songs ascended the rhythm and blues charts dozens of times. "Ain't That Lovin' You Baby," "Baby What You Want Me to Do," "Big Boss Man," and "Bright Lights, Big City," for example, have become blues and rock and roll standards. An alcoholic, Reed had many drunken misadventures for which he became notorious. He was also epileptic, and his addiction to alcohol worsened his epilepsy. In 1976, at the age of 51, he died after a gig in Oakland, California. Fifteen years later, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Mathis James Reed was born on a plantation in Mississippi on September 6, 1925. At the age of ten he began learning to play the guitar. After working in the fields, he would meet with his friend Eddie Taylor. "When we'd come out' the field from work," he recalled in Living Blues magazine, "we'd practically just meet and both us get a box, and we'd decide to go out an set under a shade tree and just see who could find what on a box.... We wasn't nothin' but little old kids."
Reed also displayed an early talent for singing. He and two other boys formed a gospel singing group that became popular in the Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in Meltonia, Mississippi. But gospel turned out to be an inappropriate genre of music for someone as footloose as Reed. At age 14 he moved to Duncan, Mississippi, to farm with his brother; there, he continued his guitar playing. "I used to slip out of the cotton patch," he told Living Blues, "and go up on to the house, and get me a cold drink of water and steal my brother's old piece of guitar, you know and sit 'round there and hide and fool around."
After a year in Duncan, Reed traveled to Chicago to live with his brother Tommy. He worked for the downtown Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) and then for the Hefter Coal Company. In 1943, when he was 18, he was drafted into the U.S. Navy. He spent much of World War II working in a base kitchen in Riverside, California. Though he started drinking heavily while in the service, his stint in the navy also gave him the chance to learn to read.
After his discharge, Reed visited home and got married. In 1946 he returned to Chicago and started working in the steel industry. While on a job at the Valley Mould Iron Works, he met a washtub bass player named Willie Joe "Jody" Duncan. He and Duncan began playing together, first in each other's houses and then in beer joints, stores, and on street corners. They played for tips, which were often substantial. "I'm tellin' you," Reed remembered in Living Blues, "them folks would load that old hat of Jody's up with nickels, dimes, quarters and halves, and dollars and things."
Duncan eventually left town but Reed continued playing and joined a combo with drummer Kansas City Red and pianist Blind John Davis. He also sat in regularly with the blues duo of John and Grace Brim. He was eventually reunited with his childhood pal, guitarist Eddie Taylor. Reed and Taylor became a regular duo, playing on the South Side of Chicago or in nearby Gary, Indiana. When the jobs were big enough, they added other musicians.
Around this time, Reed added harmonica to his guitar playing and singing. Though he had been playing harmonica since childhood, he had never been able to achieve the bending sound he wanted. It was not until he came up to Chicago and started playing "Marine Band" harmonicas that he developed his simple yet distinctive style. "I got hold of me one of [those harmonicas]," he explained in Living Blues, "and then I started trying that thing and therefore I don't know exactly just what happened that I started playing that devilish harmonica, 'cause couldn't nobody teach me to play it."
By the early 1950s, Reed began to get ambitious about recording. He made several albums in "do-it-yourself" booths and auditioned for Leonard Chess, owner of the famous Chess Records blues label, which was busy with famed blues artists Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Howlin' Wolf. Reed, however, was soon approached by Vivian Carter, a disc jockey from Gary who was starting a new label called Vee-Jay.
Reed began recording for Vee-Jay in 1953, and within a year he hit the charts with "You Don't Have to Go." Other singles followed: "Ain't That Lovin' You Baby," "You've Got Me Dizzy," "Bright Lights Big City," "I'm Gonna Get My Baby," and "Honest I Do." Through the remainder of the 1950s and the early 1960s, Reed was among the biggest- selling blues artists in the United States.
Reed's wife, Mary Lee "Mama" Reed, whom he had married in 1945, was usually present during his recording sessions. She wrote several of his songs and would whisper the words into Reed's ear just before he sang. If one listens closely to his records, her voice is often audible.
Reed toured constantly during this time--usually with Taylor backing him up. Outside of Chicago, Reed proved particularly popular among white audiences. His songs were consistently covered by white rhythm and blues groups, while his classic tune "Big Boss Man" was adopted by blues and country artists alike.
On the road, Reed became infamous for his drinking problem. "I used to get so lit up," he admitted in Living Blues, "and so tore down off that Scotch and junk, man, till where all I could practically picture out was just my instrument and think about just what I was going to do." To help him with the demands of the touring life, Reed hired Al Smith as his road manager. Smith proved to be a significant influence on Reed's career, eventually becoming his agent and writing some of his songs.
In the early 1960s, sales of Reed's records flagged. Vee- Jay tried various gimmicks to revive his career, but the changing times, along with Reed's alcoholism and worsening epilepsy, undermined his ability to make a comeback. When Vee-Jay went bankrupt in 1966, Reed cut a few unsuccessful sides for the ABC/BluesWay label. In the mid-1960s his epileptic seizures grew worse, and in 1969 he entered a Veteran's Administration hospital in an effort to give up drinking. He stayed under a doctor's care until 1973. Toward the end of his life, Reed became something of a recluse, embittered by the music industry and his failure to keep the money he had made. He died of respiratory failure on August 29, 1976, in Oakland, California.
by Jordan Wankoff
Jimmy Reed's Career
Singer, guitarist, and harmonica player, 1948-76. Worked variously for Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), Hefter Coal Company, and in the steel industry, Chicago, IL. Played in streets and clubs for tips, often with Willie Joe "Jody" Duncan, 1948; played with Eddie Taylor, 1949 to early 1960s; recording artist, 1953-76; recorded for Vee-Jay label, 1953-65; toured extensively, 1953-76; toured England, 1963-64, and Europe, 1968; recorded for ABC/BluesWay label, 1966-68.
Jimmy Reed's Awards
Inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1991.
- Selective Works
- Jimmy Reed at Carnegie Hall/The Best of Jimmy Reed, Mobile Fidelity, 1992.
- (With Johnny Winter) Live at Liberty Hall, Houston, Texas, 1972, reissued 1993.
- Best Of, GNP Crescendo.
- Greatest Hits, Hollywood.
- Speak the Lyrics to Me, Mama Reed, Vee-Jay.
- Billboard, September 12, 1953.
- Blues Unlimited, August 1974.
- Living Blues, May/June 1975.
- Rolling Stone, February 7, 1991.