Mathis James “Jimmy” Reed, one of the most influential blues artists of the 1950s and ‘60s, was born here on the Shady Dell plantation on September 6, 1925. Reed was one the first bluesmen to achieve “crossover” success, scoring hits on both the rhythm & blues and pop charts with songs including “Honest I Do,” “Big Boss Man,” “Baby What You Want Me To Do,” and “Bright Lights, Big City.”
Few blues artists have ever have ever developed the widespread appeal with both black and white audiences that Jimmy Reed had. Reed toured the country as a headliner and was a favorite act on Southern college campuses during an era when African Americans could not even attend most of the schools where he played. Reed’s easygoing vocal delivery and basic blues beat were ready-made for singing along and dancing, and most of his songs dealt with the everyday joys and problems of love and romance. Legions of listeners were inspired to take up the guitar or harmonica because Reed made the music sound so effortless.
Reed grew up on John Collier’s Shady Dell plantation and first sang spirituals at Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in Meltonia. Blues harmonica player Willie Foster was a childhood friend. Reed received little schooling and spent most of his time working the fields here and on the McMurchy plantation near Duncan. During the 1940s he moved to Chicago, served a year in the U. S. Navy, and returned to farming work with his parents in Clarksdale in 1945. Reed began performing in Chicago’s streets, alleys, and nightclubs after he went back to the city and found work at an iron foundry, a steel mill, and the Armour meat packing plant. Reed played guitar and harmonica at the same time, using a wire rack around his neck to hold the harmonica. His unique sound, developed with his longtime partner, guitarist Eddie Taylor, became one of the predominant styles in blues after he began recording for Vee-Jay Records in 1953.
The first of Reed’s nineteen national hit singles was “You Don’t Have to Go” (1955). His success in the mainstream pop music market came years before B. B. King, Muddy Waters, and most other prominent blues artists were recognized outside the African American community. Among the hundreds of artists who have recorded Reed’s songs are Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, Ike & Tina Turner, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Count Basie, Sonny James, Conway Twitty, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers, Aretha Franklin, and Bill Cosby.
Reed’s career was sidetracked by epilepsy and alcoholism, and although he recovered sufficiently to begin touring again in the 1970s, health problems persisted. He died on tour in Oakland, California, on August 29, 1976. Reed was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. His children, some of whom had sung or played blues with him, embraced gospel music and formed the Seeds of Reed Ministry and a publishing company, Seeds of Reed Music.
content © Mississippi Blues Commission
[ BACK TO TOP ]