It's hard for us who aren't the right generation to understand what a radical thing it was for Elvis Presley to play what he did back in the 1950s. It had nothing to do with how much or how he moved his hips and everything to do with the skin colour of the musicians that influenced him. Sure he was playing a lot of country music but that beat was pure Blues.
One of the major influences on Elvis and all the other young white musicians who were keen to experiment was Jimmy Reed. He was born down South but like so many others migrated up North and got work in and around Chicago. After two years of working in a foundry in Gary, Indiana though, he was able to quit and become a full time musician.
What made Jimmy Reed so attractive to young musicians were his big, chunky, sound and steady rhythms. Like Big Bill Brozney, he often sang unaccompanied save for his own guitar keeping time and harmonica blowing solos. Listen to any Rolling Stones song from the early '60s and you can almost hear Jimmy Reed playing along. They weren't the only ones as Van Morrison and The Grateful Dead both showed his influence in their earliest recordings.
Unfortunately, he didn't survive as long as some of his contemporaries did, dieing of an epileptic seizure in 1976 at the age of 51 and has missed out on the accolades heaped on the first generation of Blues artists recently.
Thankfully, there are those who still remember how important he was, and a group of them under the direction of Omar Kent Dykes (of Omar And The Howlers fame) and Jimmie Vaughan have put together a disc honouring both the memory and the music of Jimmy Reed.
On The Jimmy Reed Highway, released earlier this year on the German label Ruf Records is a collection of rollicking tunes that Jimmy either penned, or performed, plus a couple written in his honour. Right from the opening song the disc's title track "On The Jimmy Reed Highway" written by Omar, you know you're in for one hell of a ride.
For those of you who haven't heard Omar sing before, or if you've somehow forgotten one of the most distinctive voices this side of Tom Waits, he rasps like a buzz saw in desperate need of oil, growls like a Harley-Davidson that doesn't know what the word muffler means, and is one of the sweetest sounding Blues singers you'll ever hear. If part of Jimmy Reed's popularity stems from the fact that he wrote about the realities of a working life, Omar Kent Dykes' voice was created to sing about them.
There aren't many Blues singers around who you're going to believe have spent time on the floor of a steel foundry, having to shout to be heard over the thousand gallon vats of molten metal boiling and the roar of fires hotter then the flames of hell. But listening to Omar singing "Big Boss Man" you can see him pitching coal into the maw of those furnaces to keep them blasting or doing any number of the back breaking jobs that fuel the North American economy.
Jimmie Vaughan may not be as famous as his brother Stevie Ray was, but the other half of Double Trouble is still a Blues guitar player to be reckoned with. I haven't heard him play since the days of Double Trouble, and he sounds like a far more complete guitar player now then he ever did. He had always been able to match his brother lick for lick when they played together and on this recording he shows he knows how to savour the notes as well as rip them apart.
I can't think of anything better then listening to an accomplished player who can still sound like each note he plays is something new and wondrous to be treasured. His touch is so sure he never overextends his stay or rushes a note. If I can't hear and feel each and every note walking up my spine, it's not Blues guitar as far as I'm concerned. Jimmie Vaughan runs leads and chord progressions up and down your vertebrae so impeccably that their echo lives on in your nervous system long after he's done.
As they tool along, the boys are joined by some fellow travelers on the Jimmy Reed highway. While folk like Delbert McClinton, James Cotton, and Gary Clarke Junior stop by for a song apiece; Kim Wilson and Lou Ann Barton are around for a number of songs each. While Kim is taking care of Harmonica duties on the majority of cuts (not when James Cotton or Delbert are playing obviously enough) Lou Ann is providing vocal counterpoint to Omar's growl.
Now Lou Ann isn't just another pretty voice singing doo-wop underneath and behind some male vocalist, she's a powerful, impassioned singer in her own right. Each time she sings, she at least shares vocal duties with Omar by splitting the verses with him and singing the choruses together. Compared to Omar her voice is like the purr of a finely tuned V8 engine that when fully revved you hear the growl of the power that's driving her.
While she's providing a contrast to Omar's growling vocals with her clean sound, you know that she can get just as down and dirty as him if she needs to. In fact that's what makes them work so well together as a team, the underlying potential that lets you know she's his equal any day of the week.
On The Jimmy Reed Highway is a wonderful disc for two reasons. First, it serves to keep the memory of one of Rock & Roll's and contemporary Blues' greatest influences alive and introduces him to a generation that might never have heard of him. The second is that it's a great CD filled with superlative performances by great musicians.
You really couldn't ask for anything more then that.