Mathis James Reed was born on 6 September 1925, the youngest of the ten children of Joseph Reed and Virginia Ross, sharecroppers on a Delta plantation near the small hamlet of Dunleith, Mississippi. Jimmy briefly attended public schools but started working in the fields full-time after third grade. A family member gave him his first acoustic guitar when he was ten, and Reed also started playing harmonica.
In the late 1930s the Reed family moved to Shaw, where Jimmy joined a gospel quartet. Although the group was doing well, Reed decided to leave: he later recalled, “I don’t know what gave me the idea to get up and want to leave from down there and go somewhere.” Reed moved in with a brother in Duncan and continued to work on area plantations. During that time, blues music began to play a more important role in his life. Around noon, he would often slip out of the fields to listen to Sonny Boy Williamson I, Sonny Boy Williamson II, and Robert Jr. Lockwood performing on the King Biscuit Time radio show. Reed also met Eddie Taylor, a young guitarist who was trying to make a living by traveling the Mississippi Delta and playing the blues. The two men developed a rocky musical relationship that lasted until Reed’s death. Taylor claimed that he taught his friend to play the guitar, frequently declaring, “The Jimmy Reed style is MY style. He don’t have no style. And I got the style from Charley Patton and Robert Johnson.” According to Reed, however, Taylor “ain’t had nothing to with it, no more than just durin’ the time when we was down South.” In any case, Taylor and Reed often played together after a day of work in the fields until the eighteen-year-old Reed left for Chicago after a falling out with a white overseer.
Reed briefly worked as janitor at the YMCA in Chicago and at the Hefter Coal Company before being drafted into the US Navy in 1943. He was discharged two years later, returned to Mississippi for a short time, and again left for Chicago. While working at menial jobs for different companies, Reed started playing his harmonica and guitar in the blues clubs in the city and around Gary, Indiana. In 1949 Taylor also moved north, and the two boyhood friends performed together in the bars on Chicago’s South Side. Four years later, Reed and Taylor began recording for the Vee-Jay label, and in 1955 Reed scored his first hit with “You Don’t Have to Go.” It marked the beginning of a tumultuous career on the road and in the recording studios.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, Reed was one of the most popular blues artists in the United States. His music appealed to a broad audience and cut across the color line, although at the height of his career Reed played primarily for white audiences. “Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby,” “Honest I Do,” “Baby, What You Want Me to Do,” “Big Boss Man,” and “Bright Lights, Big City” all became instant classics. Eleven of Reed’s songs appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts, while more than a dozen appeared on the R&B charts—far more than any other blues musician. His music was popular among British bands such as the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, and Elvis Presley, Ike and Tina Turner, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and other artists covered Reed’s music. Reed’s songs not only became blues standards but also crossed over into other music styles, such as rock and roll, soul, and country and western.
But like so many other blues singers, most of the profits from his records went not to him but to various record corporations. The strenuous life on the road took a heavy toll on his health, and he suffered from epilepsy and chronic alcoholism. By the late 1960s his popularity had waned considerably. After receiving treatment for his seizures and alcohol abuse, the Big Boss Man tried to make a comeback during the 1970s, but his days as a successful bluesman were over. He died on 29 August 1976 after a show at the Savoy in San Francisco.
- Jim O’Neal, Living Blues (May–June 1975)
- Will Romano, Big Boss Man: The Life and Music of Jimmy Reed (2006)