Graded on a Curve: Jimmy Reed,
I’m Jimmy Reed

One of the first great electric blues LPs is titled I’m Jimmy Reed, and it’s loaded with twelve songs from one of the 1950s only true blues crossovers. Over half a century later it still holds up spectacularly well and additionally provides a solid contrast to the electrified delta sounds that poured out of the studio Chess during the same period.

Jimmy Reed’s blues is amongst the most accessible ever recorded in either the acoustic or electric permutations of the form. Master of a relaxed, natural style lacking in the rough edges that his contemporaries Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and John Lee Hooker utilized with prideful relish, Reed’s stellar run of sides for the Vee-Jay label displayed how in the bustling post-WWII urban environment the blues could represent more than the power of the plantation transmogrified after traveling up the Mississippi River (Muddy, Wolf, etc.) or the horn-laden high strains of citified sophistication (Louis Jordan, Charles Brown, Tiny Bradshaw, Willie Mabon).

In contrast to Muddy, who instigated a booming ensemble sound that while impressively groundbreaking completely on its own terms would also prove an essential component in rock music’s ‘60s growth spurt, Reed was somewhat closer to the norm of a “folk-blues” player, offering up simple and often insanely catchy guitar figures and an unfussy, plainly sung (some might say sleepy) vocal approach with accents of trilling rack harmonica.

This shouldn’t infer that Reed engaged in any forced gestures of aw-shucks down-home authenticity, at least not in what’s considered his prime. Hell, one glimpse at the picture on I’m Jimmy Reed’s back cover presents a man of top-flight refinement and truly choice threads, and his image intersected with the sound of his records extremely well.

To some extent less celebrated than those abovementioned Chess bluesmen as a key factor in the development of rock, Reed appears in retrospect to be equally if not more influential, both in terms of the user-friendly simplicity of his template, for he was adapted by blues rockers, garage bands, folkies, psyche merchants, and even a few punkers, and in the sheer number of prominent covers; Elvis, The Rolling Stones, Them, Grateful Dead, Steve Miller (no surprise), and four times by Bill Cosby (a surprise), and that’s just for starters.

Plus, that piercing harmonica, much different in tone than the moaning amplified mouth-harp of Little Walter Jacobs and Sonny Boy Williamson, is to my ear quite reminiscent of Dylan’s employment of the rack. Reed is a more controlled, less aggressive blower, however. And I’ve not encountered any instances of old Bob covering or even expressing an affinity for Reed’s music, but the possibility isn’t any kind of stretch.

The story goes that Reed auditioned unsuccessfully for the Brothers Chess, who found his unperturbed brand of blues unpalatable. If this seems strange, the reputation of Phil and Leonard Chess as messianic divining rods of uncut blues talent is nowhere close to accurate. For instance, they resisted recording that ensemble sound of Waters, an innovation perfected on the bandstand, for a good long time, the pair thinking it merely a bunch of racket. The real ear for talent at Chess studios was Willie Dixon, though it’s also true that Dixon’s erudition with the pen helped to soften the Delta roughness of Waters and especially Wolf.

But I digress. The Chess brothers might’ve disdained Reed’s service simply because he was a rather problematic alcoholic. Even in a big berg like the Windy City, gossip gets around. And Reed’s problems with the sauce only serve to underscore the impressiveness of his commercial success, the man’s personal demons unable to waylay his popularity and at times simply superb artistry, and hearing his records stand up tall at such a long remove makes clear that Reed was one of the finest exponents of the electric blues.

And I’m Jimmy Reed is a splendid one-stop pickup for a bunch of his killer early tracks. As such, there will be some who’ll complain that this album is a thinly disguised best of LP, but that’s not a valid criticism. Blues artists simply did not cut full length recs of fresh material at this early stage, the long playing disc still less than a decade old at the time Vee-Jay issued Reed’s LP debut.

For that matter, the blues has never been a form best represented by the album as album, B.B. King and Hound Dog Taylor aside. While I don’t dislike Muddy Waters: Folk Singer or the problematic Electric Mud (not at all; I own copies of both) it’s a plain cinch that I’ll take The Best of Muddy Waters any day of the week.

And I’ll take Reed’s debut over the much lesser LPs he recorded for ABC-Bluesway after Vee-Jay went kaput. This isn’t to infer for a second that the blues is somehow antithetical to ambition, it’s just that ambitiousness in broad strokes is very often best applied elsewhere, as Jimmy Reed’s small doses of brilliance testify.

After Vee-Jay ended, Reed’s career declined sharply, though new records indeed appeared well into the 1970s. If not really an album artist, he’s not easily summed up by his singles, either. His style, so catchy and inviting but individual (many people sorta sound like Reed, but nobody sounds completely like him, not even the scads of Louisiana bluesmen like Slim Harpo that he impacted heavily), seems best suited to the concept of the radio, at least in the airwaves’ true heyday, where his songs would stand in sharp, glorious contrast to the music that surrounded them.

And it’s obvious that hearing Reed over the crackle of the AM band inspired a ludicrous number of trips to record counters all over the map, impulses that again crossed lines of color and class. One of the most surprising tidbits relating to Reed’s success is that his twelve Pop Top 100 hits exceeds that of B.B. King, the guy many would consider to be the grand champion of blues crossovers.

“Honest I Do” was the first of those hits, breaking into the top 40 in ’57, so it sensibly commences I’m Jimmy Reed’s first side. It shows off the guy’s impeccable mid-tempo lope, communicating the essence of his charms in less than three minutes while also presenting the essentials of an approach some have derided as formula. Sure they say, he picks up the tempo here (“Go on to School”), diverts to an instrumental there (“Boogie in the Dark”), but he’s nearly always doing a variation of the same old thing.

Well, hogwash to that. I won’t deny that I might tire of hearing all of Reed’s Vee-Jay singles in chronological order in one sitting, but that’s not what I’m Jimmy Reed serves up. Rather it is a dozen exceptional early tracks presented in tidy and smartly non-chronological sequence. It ultimately impacts the ear in the same manner as a smartly portioned meal connects with the taste buds and stomach.

That is, the listener is not overstuffed. Seventy plus minute CD compilations of essential bluesmen are very often indispensible purchases, but there is no denying how for sheer enjoyment those discs are best absorbed in bite sized chunks. And if a well portioned meal is to be a truly memorable experience it requires inspiration and excellence in the assembly.

This relates to the quality of the tunes as well as how they’re packaged. The A side can be considered a grand appetizer and first course, ending with “Ain’t That Loving You Baby,”one of Reed’s biggest R&B hits. The song finds him at his scrappiest, so it’s ultimately no surprise it didn’t cross over.

Side B brings the second course, well spiked with the killer instrumental “Roll and Rhumba” from ’53, the title of which should tip off the reader to the appearance of rhythmic action positively begging for some responsive physicality. And desert is served with “You Don’t Have to Go,” another cut of ’53 vintage that plainly shows Reed’s creative ducks well lined up at his career’s earliest stage.

Ducks? Hell, right from the beginning Reed employed some serious sidemen, all in a row and quacking like crazy. John Brim, a true inside Chicago Blues figure if ever there was one, serves as second guitarist on “You Don’t Have to Go.” This disc also features legendary drummer Earl Palmer’s talents in elevated simplicity, and most importantly the unfailing rhythm guitar of Eddie Taylor, an integral ingredient in Reed’s best work.

It all adds up to a delicious statement. Is it the last word on Reed? No, because “Baby What You Want Me To Do,” “Big Boss Man,” and “Bright Lights, Big City” are all absent, and those are just the big hits from the early ‘60s.

But I’m Jimmy Reed is indisputably the first word on its subject, expressed cleanly, calmly and with true class. It was reissued around a decade back in a 180-gm edition by Get Back, so anyone interested in a well-rounded vinyl blues collection should try and locate a copy.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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