Jimmy Reed: Remembering a Blues Icon & His Influential Songs

Remembering Jimmy Reed

Photo by Felipe Furtado

Mathis James Reed, better known as Jimmy Reed, was born on this day September 6th in 1925 and would have celebrated his 96th birthday today. Despite leading a career that would last less than a quarter of a century and would be fraught with professional and personal issues, Reed was able to establish himself as a highly prominent and influential artist whose reach would span across multiple genres upon his arrival on the music scene in the early 1950s. Although he would prove to be very successful during his own lifetime, writing and recording a number of perennial blues classics such as “Baby What You Want Me to Do,” “Bright Lights, Big City,” “You Got Me Crying,” and “Honest I Do,” the impact of Reed’s music has perhaps been felt most substantially through the output of artists who would shape their own sound around Reed’s decelerated approach to electric blues.

While it would not be feasible to produce a comprehensive list of musicians who have cited Jimmy Reed as an influence on their own work, if such a list were to exist it would feature names like Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Hank Williams Jr., and The Everly Brothers, just to name a few. Songwriting legend Bob Dylan even went as far as to pen the song “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” which would feature on his 2020 studio album Rough and Rowdy Ways, in dedication to the blues icon.

Jimmy Reed was born and raised in the Mississippi delta from where American blues found its origins. Reed was a child when then-unknown singer and guitarist Robert Johnson was carving out the style of music that would come to define not only the geographical area but also various prominent musical subgenres decades later. As for Reed, his primary musical influence would be his friend Eddie Taylor who was the first to teach him to play guitar as well as harmonica. The two would perform together locally during their teen years before Reed decided to relocate to Chicago in 1943 at 18 years old.

Once he came of age, however, the powers that be ran interference and Reed was drafted into the United States Navy where he would serve in World War II before seeing discharge in 1945. Following his stint in the Navy, Reed returned to Mississippi where he wed his girlfriend Mary, a loyal supporter and invaluable professional asset of her husband’s throughout his career. Adopting the moniker “Mama Reed,” Mary performed with her husband on many classic recordings and became essential as a guiding force in his career as the effects of his alcohol abuse began to take a toll on his ability to fulfill his professional obligations.

The couple would take up residence in Indiana where Reed worked a day job at a food packing plant while continuing to perform on the local music scene. Reed decided he would try his luck auditioning for a record contract with the highly influential Chess records whose artistic ranks have included acts such as Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters among others. Reed’s audition was not successful, leaving him to contemplate the next steps of his career as a musician. Reed’s fortunes would soon improve, however, when fledgling drummer and subsequent guitar legend Albert King assisted in securing him a contract with Vee-Jay records where he would produce his most highly regarded material.

Reed found success in the singles market, producing a slew of popular songs that would later be rounded up and released on various “hits” and “best of” compilations. Reed’s music was clearly rooted in American blues, but the key factor in the perseverance and overarching influence of his material lies in its presentation. Having chosen to all but do away with the sense of urgency which was baked into the delta blues sound of contemporaries such as John Lee Hooker and that had defined the sound of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s crackling bebop the decade prior, Reed chose to exercise a measured, almost leisurely approach to playing which more closely echoed Miles Davis’s forays into the cool jazz of the 1950s. Reed’s performing technique has been affectionately referred to as lazy, slack-jawed, and simple.

Choosing to forego all but the most fundamental melodic elements of composition, Reed effectively eliminated many of the harmonic tensions generally present within traditional blues music which provide its distinctive bite and attitude. What remained was an aesthetically pleasing, fairly predictable, and highly palatable variant of the blues, a clear precursor to modern-day r&b, and a sound that would prove to be highly resonant among the general record buying public. Reed’s lackadaisical numbers saw him steadily delivering monologues just behind the beat, the rhythm behind him mirroring his measured delivery with just enough swing to properly maintain the tempo.

The highly accessible nature of Reed’s approach and style rendered it highly effective not only in introducing listeners to his music specifically, but also in providing a gateway to the blues as a genre. Much in the same way that a jazz novice may need to develop their understanding of the genre by way of a more commercial musician such as Louis Armstrong before they can properly appreciate the free jazz of Ornette Coleman, one’s introduction to the fundamentals of the blues through the music of Jimmy Reed could very well prime them for understanding what makes an artist like Lead Belly so special. This is part of why Reed’s influence is so highly significant. Along with his own indelible contributions to music which rival those of contemporaries Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, the distinctive approachability of Reed’s output made the unearthing of the work of those same contemporaries possible for entire audiences to whom the music may not have been otherwise accessible.

Perhaps the most outspoken proponents of Jimmy Reed’s music over the years have been London’s own Rolling Stones to whom Reed’s influence was highly significant. Members of the band developed their musical chops playing along with Reed’s records and would later implement them frequently in their own live performances. The band’s debut album would include an interpretation of one of Reed’s most popular songs “Honest I Do,” and their most recent album at the time of writing – 2016’s Blue & Lonesome – featured a version of Reed’s “Little Rain.” Guitarist Keith Richards spoke of Reed’s influence on his own playing in his memoir Life, citing the bluesman’s penchant for repetition and simplicity in his execution, as well as his tendency to forego complex chord fingerings in favor of sparser chords which utilized open strings and were less strenuous on the left hand.

Keith Richards has referenced the hypnotic quality of this technique which he and Rolling Stones founding guitarist Brian Jones apparently spent countless hours learning to emulate. Serving as a point of entry to the blues for so many musicians over the decades, Jimmy Reed’s music was also selected as a means of initiation into the genre for newfound drummer Charlie Watts whose more discerning tastes had previously rooted him squarely in the world of jazz. While Watts’ ardent devotion to jazz would remain unshaken throughout his life, he did develop a love and admiration for the blues music which would shape the sound of The Rolling Stones and consequently of popular music as a whole over the course of generations.

Reed’s music continues to be held in high regard by members of the band, with longtime guitarist Ronnie Wood announcing over the summer his intention to release an album honoring Reed’s legacy. The album Mr. Luck – A Tribute to Jimmy Reed: Live at the Royal Albert Hall is set to be released this month on the 17th and will feature Wood’s predecessor in The Rolling Stones – Mick Taylor – who played with the band during what is generally considered their most productive and fruitful period.

While any man could count himself lucky to have been an influence for the biggest rock and roll band in the world, the scope of Reed’s impact can be felt through the work of many genre-defining acts including the King of Rock and Roll himself Elvis Presley, who recorded a number of Reed’s songs including “Big Boss Man” and “Baby What You Want Me to Do,” both of which would prove to be hits for the legendary performer. Another prominent proponent of Reed’s music over the years has been none other than Bob Dylan who, aside from honoring the musician on his aforementioned 39th studio album, developed much of his own early sound from Reed’s records.

Indeed, traces of Reed’s distinctly half-cocked approach to blues harp, characterized by brash, drawn-out bursts of squealing harmonics, are clearly perceptible in Dylan’s own application of the instrument. Dylan’s chord progressions, particularly those found on his early albums, are rooted in the basic 12 bar blues technique commonly utilized in Reed’s own music, although Dylan would often opt for an acoustic approach in keeping with the folk influence which greatly informed his early material.

Reed’s signing to Vee-Jay records reunited him with old friend and tutor Eddie Taylor with whom he would collaborate for much of the rest of his career. Attaining significant chart success during his tenure on Vee-Jay, Reed landed 14 songs on the R&B charts as well as 11 on Billboard’s Hot 100 pop charts. Many of these songs were compiled and released as Reed’s debut album, 1958’s I’m Jimmy Reed.

Professional fortunes notwithstanding, Reed’s personal life began a steady decline with success exacerbating his already debilitating abuse of alcohol. Conflicting directly with his growing popularity among the listening public, Reed’s reputation for heavy drinking began to precede him in industry circles with his unpredictable behavior and failure to properly conduct himself in professional settings leading to his being considered a liability. One widely recounted anecdote regarding involving Reed’s struggle with the bottle tells of his being so incapacitated during recording sessions in the studio that his wife – Reed’s most faithful advocate without whom his career would likely have petered out long before it ultimately did – would sit with him at the microphone singing the lyrics so he could remember what they were.

However, it is not definitively clear as to whether this arrangement was truly a result of Reed’s worsening alcoholism, his apparent forgetfulness, or the lifelong illiteracy which restricted his ability to reference written lyrics or to carry out the most basic of written functions outside of signing his own name. It is also unclear whether Reed’s incapacity to retain lyrics during recording sessions was a contributing factor to his wife’s addition as backing vocalist to a number of his songs. Compounding the deterioration of his physical condition due to alcohol abuse was the epilepsy which plagued him for years before being given a proper medical diagnosis. Reed’s symptoms were often attributed to delirium tremens, a common ailment associated with alcoholism.

Vee-Jay Records, much like Reed himself, underwent a steady decline throughout the early 1960s culminating in their filing for bankruptcy in 1966. Following the dissolution of his record label, Reed signed a contract with the newly established Bluesway Records who would also procure artists such as B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, and T-Bone Walker for their roster. Despite a new record contract and his resolution to pursue sobriety, Reed’s success continued to diminish and it became clear he would likely never be able to replicate the success of his early days at Vee-Jay. Reed refused to acquiesce to his situation, however, and would continue to produce albums to progressively receding critical favor. He would continue to perform live until his death, despite worsening health problems, and passed away of respiratory failure in 1976 just eight days shy of his 51st birthday.

While mention of the name Jimmy Reed may not elicit the immediate recognition of those of contemporaries such as Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King, it is through his extensive influence of artists who themselves would influence countless others that Jimmy Reed’s music remains alive and well. His artistry resides within the undercurrent of the music we all know and love, his contributions a creative oasis for those who have sought inspiration in every conceivable place aside from right under their own noses. So for those looking to honor the iconic bluesman on what would have been his 96th birthday, the most appropriate tribute would dimly be to play his music. To quote Bob Dylan “Goodbye Jimmy Reed – Godspeed! Thump on the bible, proclaim the creed!”

Jimmy Reed: Remembering a Blues Icon & His Influential Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021

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