[15 January 2008]
Shrill country-blues harmonica, a languorous shuffle-groove and raw emotional, half-mumbled vocals—there are those who accuse Jimmy Reed of being a one-trick pony. When that one trick still makes the hairs on your arms stand up well over forty years later, however, it’s no wonder the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honored the Delta bluesman by naming his recordings “Bright Lights Big City” and “Big Boss Man” as two of the 500 songs that laid the foundations of rock ‘n’ roll. As Neil Young eloquently described the singer, “Jimmy Reed proved that it doesn’t matter what you play, it’s the feeling. ‘Cause he played the same thing almost every fuckin’ song ...”.
Possibly that’s what made the Mississippi sharecropper’s son so popular with crossover audiences and a thorn in the side of “serious” blues purists: his instantly recognizable, simple approach and easy accessibility. Here was a musician who lacked the gutsy, vocal delivery of Howlin’ Wolf (in fact there were times when Reed, a chronic alcoholic, relied upon his wife and longtime backing singer Mary “Mama” Reed to whisper the lyrics to songs he’d composed but forgotten) and the dexterous guitar playing of Muddy Waters, yet scored more R&B chart toppers than either legendary bluesmen. Between 1955 and 1961, after Chess Records, the R&B label of choice at the time, had already decided to pass on the artist, Reed had an astonishing 13 Top 20 R&B hits for the then fledgling Vee-Jay Records, 11 of which made it onto the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts.
Initially released as a double album by Vee-Jay in 1961 to capitalize on this success, Jimmy Reed at Carnegie Hall is an outstanding 23-song compilation of all the hits and then some (though neither live as the title suggests nor recorded anywhere near Carnegie Hall). In fact, the first 12 numbers were actually “recreated” stereo tracks laid down at Bell Sound in Manhattan, purportedly taken from a set list Reed used when headlining the Blues at Carnegie Hall festival the previous May, while the remaining cuts constitute a “Best of” collection taken from earlier mono recordings and given the stereo treatment. Whatever marketing ploys were initiated, however, make no difference to the excellent quality of the music and its subsequent importance as a touchstone recording for scores of artists including British bands like the Rolling Stones and the Pretty Things, not to mention a diversity of homegrown talent such as the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll”, Elvis Presley, and the “Queen of Soul”, Aretha Franklin.
Leading off with one of the above-mentioned building blocks of rock ‘n’ roll, “Bright Lights Big City”, Reed’s reigned-in electrified backporch blues, backed by regular rhythm guitarist Eddie Taylor, a boyhood friend and longtime musical collaborator who taught Reed his first guitar licks, shimmers with Delta heat, while “Mama” Reed stands in the shadow of his guitar backing up her man.
Elsewhere, the prolific and influential Chicago bluesman Willie Dixon provides throbbing, rock-steady, slap bass on “I’m a Love You” and the outstanding “Big Boss Man”, while the soon-to-be legendary blues guitarist Albert King plays drums, keeping the beat on both “You Don’t Have to Go” and “Boogie in the Dark”. Then, as Reed’s caterwauling harmonica and high-pitched drawl introduces the listener to one classic up-tempo blues tune after another, you slowly come to realize Muddy Waters was right all along: “The Blues Had a Baby and They Named It Rock and Roll”. And if this collection proves anything, it’s that Reed was one of the few visionaries to make it happen.