James Mathis Reed was born on September 26, 1925 near Leland, Mississippi. He spent his childhood as a sharecropper along with his family toiling in the cotton fields. Music was to have an impact on Jimmy from an early age due to being raised in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Blues greats such as Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton and Son House made frequent stops at small towns and plantations throughout Mississippi, and radio would expose him to Sonny Boy Williamson I, Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson II. More importantly he became childhood friends with Eddie Taylor, and they would record and play together on and off throughout Jimmy’s career.
At the age of 17, Jimmy headed north to Chicago seeking better opportunities, but was drafted into the United States Navy. Jimmy was never called overseas during World War II, and was honorably discharged in 1945. He went back to Mississippi and married Mary Lee Davis who would always be affectionately known as Mama. Life in Mississippi would not satisfy Jimmy – he needed the city. So he packed up his family and headed north once again.
Jimmy earned his living through grueling manual labor in the steel and meat-packing industries. It was at this time that Jimmy met Willie Joe Duncan. The two began playing on the street corners, and soon were playing local clubs. An ever-growing confident Reed sent his demos to Leonard Chess, founder of Chess Records, the notable Chicago Blues label with acts that included Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Chuck Berry. However, Chess passed on Jimmy. And that fate would lead Jimmy to Vee Jay Records, a new Blues label founded by Vivian Carter and Jimmy Bracken. Jimmy and Vee Jay would put out a string of hits that spanned a decade and reached the Billboard charts: “Big Boss Man,” “Honest I Do,” “You Don’t Have To Go “Down In Virginia,” “Aw Shucks, Hush Your Mouth” and “Bright Lights, Big City.”
Whether it was his easy-going style or the creation of tunes that made people want to dance, Jimmy’s sound crossed over to a mainstream audience, and his popularity was high among black and white audiences alike. This is a noteworthy achievement in that segregation and Jim Crow laws throughout the South were in full effect. Yet, Jimmy would sell out and please crowds throughout the region and beyond.
But as he moved into the mid-60s, change and setbacks came at Jimmy. His label Vee Jay records began to crumble due to financial mismanagement and would go bankrupt. Also, as it does, music tastes were changing. The sound of Motown was now on the radar, and Jimmy’s style had fallen out of favor with the mainstream audience. He did record a number of albums for the ABC/Bluesway label, but never attained the same success with his Vee Jay recordings. His health began to deteriorate (Jimmy was afflicted with both alcoholism and epilepsy), his marriage had become strained and his touring schedule remained rigorous. It took its toll on Jimmy, and subsequently, he was hospitalized in 1969.
The early 1970s were a period of revitalization for Jimmy. His focus was to stay clean from booze, and put on the best shows he could for his fans. In fact, he was enjoying a comeback on the blues festival circuit when he his life abruptly came to an end. Jimmy Reed died of respiratory failure on August 29, 1976 in Oakland, California.
Perhaps the greatest source of recognition (and flattery) was the influence that Jimmy had on the artists of his generation and those that followed. In the 60s, British Invasion groups, The Rolling Stones, The Animals and The Yardbirds all covered Jimmy’s recordings and his sound is prevalent throughout their works of this era. His appeal was so great that he was able to impress artists from various genres of music. Hank Williams, Steve Miller, The Grateful Dead, and Elvis Presley all paid tribute to Jimmy by recording versions of his songs. James Mathis Reed was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.