Quick – what blues performer had the most pop and R&B hits between the mid ’50 and the mid ’60s? It isn’t one of the “King brothers” (B.B., Albert, Freddie – no actual relation), or Muddy or any of the Chess Records champions: it was Jimmy Reed.
While Muddy Waters exemplified the harsh Delta vocal and slide tradition of Robert Johnson, Jimmy Reed – another who was born in Mississippi (1925) but came to prominence in Chicago – was the master of a softer, gentler blues style based more on songwriting and storytelling than blistering musicianship and fierce emotionalism. Reed’s “likeable” blues style was very popular with both black and white audiences, hence his success on the charts over more visceral bluesmen such as Waters or Howlin’ Wolf.
In addition to Reed’s appealing songwriting (often co-writing with his wife Mary Lee “Mama” Reed, who also sang harmony and played piano), voice and harmonica style, another key to his success was the guitar work of Eddie Taylor, who essentially invented a walking bass-note shuffle rhythm guitar style that has influenced every blues and rock ‘n’ roll guitarist since.
When turned down by Chess, Reed and Taylor signed to Vee-Jay Records in ’55 and had a string of hits including “Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby,” “Honest I Do,” “Baby What You Want Me to Do” (one of the most recognizable blues songs), “Bright Lights, Big City” and “Shame, Shame, Shame.” In all Reed had 12 charting pop, and 19 R&B hits.
Unfortunately, Reed was ill-equipped to handle success and he sunk into alcoholism, dying of its long-term effects in 1976. A gentler blues doesn’t necessarily mean a gentler life.