In Jimmy Reed’s hands the blues were as relaxed as they get. He was one of the most commercial bluesmen, selling records in large numbers and while his style may have gone out of fashion he deserves his place among the greats.
One of sharecroppers, Joseph and Virginia Reed's ten children he was born Mathis James Reed on 6 September 1925, near Leland, Mississippi. He learned to play guitar from boyhood pal and blues man Eddie Taylor and sang with the Pilgrim Rest Baptist Choir from 1940 to 1943, before moving to Chicago. Shortly after he arrived in the Windy City, Reed was drafted into the US Navy, in which he served until the end of the war.
Jimmy Reed got back together with Eddie Taylor and by 1949 they were playing clubs in Chicago’s south side. Having built his reputation he made some records for the Chance label before signing to the newly formed Vee Jay records in 1953 (Vee Jay would later release the first Beatles’ singles in America). The label was started by husband and wife Vivian Carter and Jimmy Bracken from their store, ‘Vivian's Record Shop’. By 1955 Reed was having hits on America's R&B chart, his first was ‘You Don’t Have To Go’ and in 1957 he made the US Hot 100 with ‘Honest I Do’ (No.32). His four-beat walking bass patterns made his records j perfect for the jukebox and for dancing
From 1958 to 1963, always accompanied by Eddie Taylor on second guitar, he appeared in the American singles chart another ten times, he also made the UK singles chart with ‘Shame Shame Shame’ in September 1964 that peaked at No.45. Aside from BB King, Reed was the biggest selling Blues artist in America.
Some have given a large measure of credit to his long-term guitarist Eddie Taylor, who played on nearly al of Reed's sessions in the 1950s. There’s also Jimmy’s wife, Mary Lee ‘Mama’ Reed, who helped write many of his songs and sat behind him both in the studio and when they played live, whispering the lyrics in Reed’s ear. She’s audible on several recordings, including Big Boss Man,
Reed influenced many artists, while his easy and relaxed style of playing was very accessible to white audiences. The Stones covered Reed's ‘Honest I Do’ on their first album while The Pretty Things and Elvis Presley recorded ‘Big Boss Man’, The Animals and Them did versions of ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ and Little Richard covered Baby What You Want Me To Do.
A diagnosis of epilepsy in 1957 did not suppress his enthusiasm for performing, he toured constantly. During the late 60's his illness curtailed his roadwork but he continued to play during the first half of the 70's although mainly around Chicago. In 1976 he died when he suffered an attack of epilepsy while asleep. Sadly it was just as he had overcome his drink problems and was again appearing on the Blues circuit. He was only 51 years old.