Jimmy Reed, Emancipator of the South: An Oral History
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Summer 2000, Issue No. 42
It begins with the discovery of a black-and-white photograph dated 1961. The setting is Walker’s Auditorium, a chitlin’ circuit showcase for touring black musicians in Waco, Texas, the same city where a black man named Washington Jess had been lynched 45 years earlier. In the center of the shot is the performing artist Jimmy Reed, dressed to the nines in a shiny cream-colored suit with black lapels and a black low tie, strumming a guitar and looking back at the photographer beaming a wide-open smile, a pure expression of some kind of ecstasy, wiggling a hip, the fingers of his left hand contorting to make a chord on the fret board while his right hand works the strings below, stroking.
In the foreground are the head and shoulders of another black man in a dark suit, looking off to the side, a guy in the band you can’t see well enough to identify. Over Reed’s left shoulder in the background is a second black man, in a white short-sleeved shirt, holding what appears to be another guitar. It may or may not be Eddie Taylor or A.C. Reed, two of Jimmy Reed’s sidemen, but it really doesn’t matter.
It’s the scene beyond the two microphones set up on the lip of the small stage that counts: a sea of young white faces, most of them clustered around the stage watching, others dancing, all eyes fixed on Jimmy Reed. Most all of them are males, though you can see a couple of young women among them brazenly walking the wild side. One college-aged gentleman clutches a can of Lone Star beer, his brow furrowed, concentrating hard, really hard, as if trying to understand what it all means, working at getting into the groove. The burr-headed man next to him is bent down low towards the ground, face relaxed, lost in a dream. He already knows.
Across the stage are two boys in matching white shirts and dark ties, both resting left arms on left knees propped up on the stage, paying very close attention. The image leaves the impression that it’s still early, but by midnight, no more three hours after the moment was captured by the photograph, everyone in the picture will be foaming-at-the-mouth, stark-raving mad, flat-on-their-ass shit-faced drunk, Jimmy Reed included.
But the more I look at the photograph, the more I see Jimmy Reed the liberator, as well as Jimmy Reed the showman. I’m not certain, but I’m almost absolutely positive that without Jimmy Reed, the integration of the South would have been even far more contentious and difficult fight. By attracting and emancipating white southern youth in the late fifties and early sixties through music and alcohol and the fine art of having a good time, he set the stage for Martin Luther King. Laws legislating change in the wake of the societal crossover that was in play at the time within the realm of entertainment, thanks to Jimmy Reed and his peers. The message may have been one of pure pleasure with a subtext of celebrating being yourself (Jimmy Reed couldn’t have put on an act if he wanted to). The effect was far more reaching.
I sought out five white musicians who were my elders when it came to learning about blues in the first place, to find out whether that’s was the way it really was.
THE FIRST TIME
“Lemme tell you, I know exactly where I was the first time I heard a Jimmy Reed song. I was in Fort Worth, over on the south side, I can’t remember what intersection, when “Honest I Do” came on the radio. I was in the car with about three other guys and I just went apeshit –especially at the big cymbal crash. It wasn’t but a few weeks later we were playing Blue Monday out at the Skyliner Ballroom [on the infamous Jacksboro Highway, the sin strip of Texas], Jimmy Levens [the star black disc jockey on KNOK-AM] always booked us out there. He booked all those shows. Blue Monday was when blacks had the Skyliner [the rest of the week the only blacks in the house were the performers and the hired help] and Jimmy would always put shows on out there.
On this particular night, Red Prysock was out there playing, and I don’t know who all. We played out there a lot, a lot of times played with Bobby Blue Bland, Junior Parker, you know, in fact I think they were there that night. But we were out there, we played on our own [with his band, the Straitjackets], so we got to stay and watch the whole show, sat right on the side of the stage, and I hear somebody playing harp [his voice takes on this faraway wistful tone]. Do you remember the old Skyliner Ballroom? The stage was built for an orchestra, so they would hang this sheer from across the back half of the stage, so it wouldn’t look like such a huge stage. And Jimmy Reed comes walking out behind there playing the harmonica. And I just about shit.
I had been playing harmonica all my life but I was playing stuff like “Dixie” and little Irish jigs, and “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon”, shit like that. The next day, I went over to T.H.Conn music store–that’s back when harmonicas cost seventy five cents a piece–and I got a few harps. I have been playing harp regularly since that day.”
“My momma used to get mad at me. They used to play him on the radio and I’d be working at my mother’s store, and when Joe Anthony [the disc jockey who hosted the Harlem Hit Parade on KONO in San Antonio] would come on, I’d go in the back room and listen to him. She’d know where I was, and she’d find me and say, ‘Junior, get back over there!’
It was between him or Slim Harpo. They both had that almost nasal kind of voice.
First time I saw Jimmy Reed was at a theater on Telephone Road in Houston. I went there on my motor scooter, drove 200 miles from San Antonio, 35 miles an hour. There wasn’t the Interstate back then. I had an Allstate, cost me forty five cents in gas to get there and cost me $4 to get in. It was mostly all-black [crowd]. If the white people were there, they were Cajuns.”
“When I first encountered Jimmy Reed, it must have been on the radio from Dewey Phillips. Around here [Memphis, where Dickinson grew up] in the mid to late fifties, that’s what was going on. I didn’t understand til I got to Texas that the music I was hearing was not universal music. Dewey Phillips used to say ‘It’s a hit!’ and play a record, and I thought it was a hit.
I first heard Jimmy Reed on the radio, then I spent a long time trying to do it. Seeing the picture of him with the harmonica rack, wow, Bob Dylan must have seen a picture of Woody Guthrie. I didn’t see a picture of Woody Guthrie until way later. But I saw this picture of Jimmy Reed with this rack around his neck, I thought, Damn, lookit that. And I made me a rack out of coat hangers, like every other white boy who would tell you this story, of which there are plenty. Steve Cropper can tell you the same story. Steve Cropper used to have a Jimmy Reed amp, like me. I did 10 or 12 Jimmy Reed songs at my peak, and I did pretty good. I never did figure out crossharp until later. I was blowing, I was playing folk harp. I didn’t know you were supposed to suck, although the second night I saw Jimmy Reed in the flesh, I saw him play in at least five keys, using a capo on the double neck. Never changed the harmonica. I have no idea how he did that.
The first time I saw him live was at the auditorium downtown where I saw Elvis in ’56. This was a package show. James Brown was the headliner, must have been ’59, Bo Diddley was on it. Everybody was doing two songs tops, a big band backing them up. Jimmy Reed came out soused. He introduced ‘Goin’ To New York’ and played ‘Take Out Some Insurance’ then kept playing. The band played an ending and he went “Take out some insurance….Jimmy Reed, baby…” introducing himself. They pulled him offstage, he came back onstage, it went on and on. It was a memorable thing.
Albert King was backing him up, and Jimmy would say onstage, ÔTurn me around in G, Albert.’ He’d play some 5-4-1s and he miss it, and sing, ÔTurn me around again.’ I went there with my cousin. Fats Domino was supposed to be on the show. I’ve never known why. You could see him in the wings, we were way in the back, and they said he was sick and he didn’t play. James Brown was the star. They didn’t turn on half the PA until James Brown. The kids in this mostly college crowd kept screaming, ÔBring on the Bullet, bring on the Bullet.’ I didn’t know what they were talking about. After the intermission, the announcer said, ÔNow we’re going to bring on the Bullet and the crowd goes crazy.’ And they bring on this black quadriplegic. And they put a stool in the middle of the stage, and a pillow on the stool, and a microphone in front, and they brought him on and put him on the pillow and he screamed into the microphone. That was it. WAAHHHHHHHHHH!
The audience went nuts. Then they came on and got him.
That was the first time I saw Jimmy, and he was….disappointing.”
“When I eleven, I got my first guitar and that’s when I started finding Jimmy Reed records. I said, ‘Oh man, this is for me, I love this.’ Dad took me down to Montgomery Wards there on Seventh Street [in Fort Worth], bought me a Silvertone guitar, a black one that had the gold glitter thrown into the paint, had that little piece of white plastic around the edges, the case was the amplifier, you opened it up and it was painted the same way: glossy black with gold glitter thrown on it, and up in the right-hand corner this little-bitty ol’ eight inch speaker in the case. You took the guitar out and opened the case and stood it up. And that was the amp. Of course I learned every damn Jimmy Reed song that ever was, then I got into Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, anything that had serious rock and roll in it. ‘Big Boss Man’, ‘Shame, Shame, Shame’–it had to have that kind of feel, that kind of emotion. The song was real. You felt like you were living it. Those guys were pulling it off, where they actually made you believe. It was too much for me.”
“I started listening to Jimmy Reed when I was eleven years old. I was just absolutely sucked in. It was before radio became unified. You know, Little Walter had hit records, so did Tommy Tucker [‘High-Heeled Sneakers’] and Bill Doggett with ‘Honky Tonk’. I was walking around telling everybody about Jimmy Reed, and went over to the record store and got his album and would listen to his record over and over and over, every night when I’d go to sleep. Jimmy Reed was so different than all of those people, he was like so real, to me, it just moved me more than anything. He was my most favorite guy.
The tunes were really cool, the playing was so loose, it was perfect to dance to, it was different. He’s the only guy who did that stuff, really. Nobody else played like that, I don’t really know why. I don’t know why I loved it more than all other stuff, but it was my favorite thing. Jim Lowe and Kats Karavan [a nightly rhythm n blues show on WRR-AM in Dallas in the fifties and sixties] had a lot to do with that. That was the radio station we listened to every night and, what’s the one in Tennessee? WLAC. John R. Those guys, we’d listen to that too. Everybody was into that stuff and if you couldn’t play that stuff, you couldn’t get the gig.
“Until he got drunk, he was just a regular guy, although no way he was just a regular guy. But he wasn’t outrageous. He’d get drunk. Have you got the CD that’s got a bunch of outtakes of him on it? I’ve got it here somewhere. You need to get it because there’s no better example of what he was like when he got drunk. On this CD, they keep trying to start the song and he keeps fucking it up. [adopts voice] Ohohohoh. Ah’m sorry. Ah’m sorry. I should be in the key of C, me n you both are on the wild side of the count.
The voice that’d come out, it just don’t get no lower down. If you could put your hand on the truth and pick it up, his voice is the closest thing to everything there is….I just hung on every word he had to say. He was thrilled to death with his popularity, but all he wanted to do was drink whiskey and go out with women.
I’ve got a microphone I’m looking at right now, big ol Shure 550, the kind they like to use today in videos, big ol mic, and I bought that one weekend when Jimmy was gonna work with us and I went so far as to rent a little Bogan PA system–which if you know what that is, well, two speakers clipped together with the amp in the middle. I rented a Bogan PA system and bought this microphone when Jimmy Reed was coming to play.
For the second set, he’d usually come up just drunk out of his mind, in fact he’d usually have two or three women helping him up there, and he got up there and started to sing a song and puked right on this microphone, the very first night I got it. I’ve got in a little showcase here, it’s one of the only things out of my past. Fortunately it’s something with a story attached to it. I’ve worked on that son of a bitch forever with a toothbrush, I’m still not satisfied it’s cleaned. It wasn’t a full-blown blowing beets, it was just one of them little ol’ liquid pukes that just shoot out of your throat, you know what I’m talking about? I watched it happen, I went Shit! What are you gonna say, man? It’s Jimmy Reed. And he’s my hero.”
“He was drunk. He was always drunk. I seen him three times–once in Houston, once in New Orleans, and in Houston again. The third time, I was onstage with him. You know, he’d walk out, sit down, set that microphone out there. I wasn’t there one night, I don’t know where it was, but Jimmy Reed was sitting up there, saying ‘I’m gonna play for ya’ll, all right.’ Turned around and just passed out. ”
“The thing that sounded so great to me as a kid was, this music sounded drunk. Which, they probably were. Later, Albert King told me he was hired to keep Jimmy Reed sober. I don’t know if was true or not, but Albert King told me he was playing drums, that he had been Jimmy Reed’s driver, that is was his job was to keep Jimmy Reed sober. I don’t think he did a very good job, the few times I saw Jimmy Reed in the flesh.
The second time I saw him was more reassuring, which was about ’63 or ’64 at Clear Pool, which was the roller skating rink that Elvis used to rent, out on Lamar. It was an upstairs-downstairs teenage hoodlum venue for fraternity parties, that kind of stuff, and this was a fraternity party. I was playing in the opening band with Don Nix from the Mar-Keys (sp), this might have been a Mar-Key gig, I don’t remember. This was about the time I was playing phony Mar-Key gigs–when the Mar-Keys broke up, they all would book gigs and everybody would be a Mar-Keys, anybody of a certain age group in Memphis who had an instrument was a potential Mar-Key.
I played in the opening band, and I was such a purist, that I missed my chance to play with Jimmy Reed. I could’ve easily stayed on the stage and played, but I thought to myself, Jimmy Reed doesn’t have a piano player, there’s no piano on the records, so I’m not going to play. So I didn’t play. I got drunk instead.
The piano was still on the stage, he propped himself against it, between the piano and the microphone, giving himself as little room to fall over as possible. He was wearing a custom made suit that looked like cutaway tails, but it was made out of awning material, like canvas, bright green canvas that had snaps like a high school letter jacket and a stripe going down his pants, a plastic bow tie, and black plastic cowboy boots. He was beautiful. He was like three or four days gone, just soused, they put the guitar on him, put the harmonica rack on him and he just stood that way backstage. Nix and I were talking to him before he went on.
And he didn’t have his wife with him. ‘Course, part of the mythology is his wife whispered in his ear, and all those stories. Nix would say anything to anybody and we were jiving with Jimmy and he says, ‘Jimmy, where is your wife?’
Jimmy says, [Dickinson speaks slowly] ‘She’s back at the hotel. She can make more money there than I can here.'”
“My job was to make sure he had everything he needed. I brought him towels and whisky, Jimmy was doing a little heroin, you don’t have to mention that one, I guarded the door.”
“Jimmy was just drunk all the time. That was his problem. That gig I played with him was like that. He was about to pass out. That’s where he was at.”
TRANSITIONAL JIMMY REED MOMENT
“We worked with Jimmy a lot, backing him up a lot at Jack’s Place [on the Mansfield Highway in southeast Fort Worth, where the neon sign of a kicking mule was hard to miss–“If the mule was kicking, everything was cool,” Delbert said. “If it wasn’t kicking, it meant there was gonna be a raid that night.”] back in the late fifties and early sixties. Lot of times, he and Sonny Boy [Williamson] both, we would play with them in Fort Worth or Dallas on Friday and Saturday night, and then go up to Oklahoma with ’em to play a black club on Sunday night. One place I remember, in Lawton, was Mother’s Place. Beer and barbecue and blues. That’s the real deal. Jimmy used to bring this guy with him sometimes, this one-eyed bass player, Hal somebody, he was kind of his manager–who knows what he was–he was with him, he was a bass player, relatively no reason for him to be there, I guess they were good buddies, or he, I don’t know, he waddn’t much on watching out for anybody.
Anyway, we took a station wagon up to Oklahoma. Some other black guy was with us, it might have been someone in Sonny Boy’s band. There were two carloads of us, mixed pretty evenly. There were probably ten people, half-black, half-white. I was sitting in the car with Jimmy, you know, and this one-eyed bass player. This guy was wanting to light a cigarette and he didn’t have a match. He reached over the front seat, tapping this black guy sleeping, wanting to get a light from him, and Jimmy reached over and knocked his hand away:
‘Lev him alone and leave him kept on slepping.’
And I like to have fuckin’ died. I think I was the only one that laughed.
That was the way the talk went. ‘Lev him alone and leave him kept on slepping.’
I guess he didn’t like people smoking ’cause I’ve seen him more than once slap a cigarette out of people’s hands. No smoking on the fuckin’ bandstand.”
“He would sit in the hotel room, and he’d start playing and make up words. We were at a place called the White House Motel out on Main Avenue, a long time ago. We were sitting around talking, and I said something about having to take my son to the doctor. He had his guitar with him all the time, and whatever you were talking about, he’d start singing, that knack or ability, so he sang, ‘I had to take my boy to the doctor….’
I played a two-night stand with him at Liberty Hall in Houston in 1975 [shortly before Reed’s death]. We’d sit there on my bus and tell stories. He told me this one story, he said, ‘Man, I’d got off a gig, got in my car to go to the hotel, got about $5,000, got a bottle of whiskey, got a woman. Wake up in the morning, my car is gone, my $5,000 is gone, the woman’s gone, and the whiskey’s all gone.’
I asked him, ‘How many times that’d happened, Jimmy?’.
He looked at me and smiled.
‘Too many,’ he said.”
“Of my generation of kids who grew up in the fifties, most of us got a guitar and learned to play ‘Honky Tonk’, which is what it is: it is Bill Doggett’s ‘Honky Tonk’. We called the actual riff ‘shifting’ around here. And it became ‘The Twist’, also dada dada dada dada. It’s the same musical notes. It’s part of the interrupted left hand boogie-woogie pattern played on the top two or three strings of the guitar. In both cases, that’s what Chuck Berry does, and that’s what Jimmy Reed does. Or that’s what they appear to do, if you’re a stupid white boy from the suburbs and you can figure out how to do that too.
Soon you realize that they must be doing something else, because when you do it, it doesn’t sound like what they’re doing when they do it. And sure enough, there is a mystery to it. I did finally crack the mystery with the help, the shameful help of a teabag, but sometimes it takes our brothers from across the water to open our eyes to the truth.
The first Jimmy Reed record was an obscure one. It’s one of the early ones, which we referred to around here as ‘Backed Up to the Window’ which is just a line from the second verse. That’s what everybody called it. The actual name of the song is “Can’t Stand to See You Go”. There’s a mistake in the intro, one of the rare cases where he uses a guitar intro. Usually he uses the harmonica. There’s this guitar figure for the intro and whoever’s playing guitar screws it up and you hear Jimmy Reed laugh. I loved it because of that. You hear this riff, riff, then ‘hahahahaha’ and the next start and finally he starts to sing.
You can’t understand maybe three words out of ten, and it’s a wonderful song. And as a stupid white kid in the suburbs of Memphis back in the fifties, I sat there with the record until I figured out what this guy was saying and it still didn’t make any sense. You can’t tell whether the song is about suicide or what. Great song. Harmonica sounds broken. That was when I started to debate what was the difference between those Jimmy Reed records and other records that represented the same genre. And I didn’t find that out until the seventies: the difference was the engineer, a white guy.
It’s like with Robert Johnson and Don Law. There always has to be the white guy, like Leonard Chess was to Muddy Waters. Like Miss McBurney was to Elmore James in Jackson. There has to be that guy. In this case, it was an audio designer named Bill Putnam who receives label credit. He built Universal Studios in Chicago where they made this stuff. He is the explanation for why Jimmy Reed sounds like it does. It’s primitive music, of course, with no bass. The best recordings on Veejay were made with no bass guitar at all. It sounds like the drums are maybe boxes and the guy’s hitting it with his shoe–BUT, the sound is real good, the audio quality of this lo-fi sound has been recorded in hi-fi by this weird guy Bill Putnam who built studios. He built the studio that is now Ocean Way in Hollywood, probably the highest dollar studio in America. Allen Sides (sp.) the current owner, one of his big selling points is that when he bought the studio, he ripped all the seventies and eighties treatment off the wall and went back to the original Bill Putnam room. That’s why the Rolling Stones are recording there.
I’m sure Bill Putnam would have been more comfortable recording a string quartet. In a way, it’s like George Martin with the Beatles and those guys in lab jackets that you see in early recording pictures. They couldn’t have possibly liked the music. I doubt very seriously Bill Putnam enjoyed the experience in recording Jimmy Reed, but he recorded the crap out of him.
Used to be at the fraternity party, we’d do the third set blues, to make people leave. Bout ’59, ’60, they started staying. Kids coming back from college would actually request Jimmy Reed songs. Because they wanted to do this specific dance, which in Texas was the Push. Around here, it was a little bit different. It was called the UT, and it’s the same basic thing, but a pre-Twist. I remember the night onstage when the third or fourth person asked me to play a Jimmy Reed song. I thought, Something has shifted here. Something has changed. We became known for doing Jimmy Reed stuff. At the same time, Steve Cropper was in a band called the Royal Spades, that became the Mar-Keys, with a rack around his neck would stand at microphone and try to sing Jimmy Reed songs.
“The North Texas Push was the fuckin’ dance. Everybody loved it. It was the coolest dance I’ve ever seen, to this day. It was originally called the North Texas Push, and Jimmy Leavens at the Skyliner touted it as the greatest dance floor in Texas, this was before Gilley’s or any of that shit. It was half the size of Fort Worth. My job was to keep it slick, so he gave me a big box of Ivory Snow detergent that looked like snowflakes and I’d go out and sprinkle that on the dance floor. Boy, you could slide across that sumbitch like it was an ice pond. And I’d help him pick up the beer bottles at night, and that’s how I got the gig. He’d had one bad leg, Jimmy did, God bless him, and all the waitresses were a bunch of idiots and they’d leave the place a mess. This club seats 500 people, big place. And Jimmy’s out there, dragging that one bad leg out there trying to pick up all these beer bottles and carry them out to the bar. I says, ‘Jimmy, you put them away. I’ll go get em.’
That’s how I got the job warming up acts like Ray Sharpe with my band. He’s losing business to the Rocket Club, so he says, ‘Jerry, what am I gonna do? Nobody’s coming to the club anymore.’
I said, ‘Jimmy, you need to book these black artists. The big dance now is the North Texas Push’, and it started up in Denton at the college, and these college kids are flipping out about this dance.’ He says, ‘Who do you have to book to get them to do that dance?’
I says, ‘They love Jimmy Reed–Jimmy Reed, Bobby Blue Bland, Ike and Tina Turner.’
He says, ‘Can you book these acts?’
Before I could even think about it, my mouth went ‘Yeah.’ So I went home and got out all the albums that everybody loved to dance to, and called the record label, and found out there managers, and called them up. Ike and Tina were about Eight Grand, Bobby Blue Bland Seven, and Jimmy Reed Six. All of them you had to send half the money up front.
Jimmy said, ‘All right, let’s book ’em up. But who should we book first?’
I said, ‘Jimmy Reed. He is the God of North Texas Push, this is what everybody dances to.’
He gave me the money, I got him booked in.”
“Our house was very integrated. My dad was a doctor in Dallas and he had black lab technicians. He actually got arrested for having a race party, a Christmas party for everybody who worked in the pathology lab. It was like 4:30 in the afternoon, and cops came down and handcuffed him and everybody else, threw him in jail. In my family there were a lot of black people coming and going. T-Bone Walker used to come over to the house all the time, was a good friend of my father’s.
My dad listened to all kinds of music, he was into recording music. He’d go into black Baptist churches and record Sister [Rosetta] Tharpe and people like that, he was recording those people for himself, just for his own collection. Anyone who was a good musician, my dad would end up knowing them. We had all of that music going on in our house all the time, but it seemed there was black music going on in everybody’s house. In a lot of ways the South was a lot hipper than the north, and in a lot of ways, it was a lot worse. The segregation part was terrible, but the two cultures crossed a lot.
I started playing fraternity gigs when I was twelve years old. You had to play Bobby Blue Bland, you had to do Ray Charles, you had to do Little Walter, a little Muddy Waters, some Chuck Berry. Black music was all anybody was interested in. Even the white bands were playing black music. We were way ahead of the curve.
When I was fourteen, my band backed up Jimmy Reed at Lou Ann’s
It was amazing. It’s hard to believe. There weren’t any rock n roll bands. I think we were the second rock and roll band in Dallas, Mario Daboub and the Nightcaps and the Marksmen combo [Miller’s band] were the only two bands in Dallas for a really long time.
We played Jimmy Reed tunes, so getting to play with him was interesting. We did this gig out at Lou Ann’s. It was Ben E. King and Jimmy Reed. We backed up Jimmy Reed, and he was sooooo drunk. I never really get to talk to him. I didn’t even think he was even going to be able to play. He was almost unconscious before he hit the stage. He had this black guy with him, who was sort of his roadie who ran the band, and we were just little kids wearing seersucker suits and Ray Charles sunglasses trying to be cool.”
“Jimmy Reed is a phenomenal lyricist. ‘Course you got to be able to understand what he’s saying. I took it real, real serious to try to understand that. I can’t think of one other person–Jimmy Reed is as unique as Bob Wills. Like with Bob Wills, you hear Bob Wills, you know it’s Bob Wills. It ain’t somebody else. Jimmy Reed, there’s just nobody sounds remotely like him.”
“He had muscles. You ever see his arms? He’d take his shirt off. He was built.”
“Jimmy Reed, like Howlin’ Wolf, is a mystery. Because, A–what is he singing? –and B–what does it mean? The simplicity of what he appears to be doing musically, is again, another mystery. Like Chuck Berry, it appears to be this very simple musical thing that every white boy of a certain generation learned how to do. And it’s not. If you watch his hands, again like Chuck Berry, watch his hands, they’re basically the same riff. Chuck Berry played it in eighth notes and it became rock and roll. The same exact pattern, Jimmy Reed had been playing since God knows when. Which is a pattern. That’s why it became so accessible to a generation of white people. Chuck Berry plays it with all the eighth notes having the same value, like Billy Gibbons does. But Jimmy Reed plays it in a shuffle pattern, where the two eighth notes are divided. He also plays it slower.
I went to Texas in 1960, assuming that music was over for me, that I was going to do something else. But in Texas, I found all these people who loved Jimmy Reed, so at the cast party–I was in theatre–wherever we were, we lived in this apartment on campus in Waco called the Catacombs. We had this unofficial group, the Catacombs Coon Hunters, which was me and this guy John Logan who later wrote ‘Jack Ruby, All-American Boy’, the musical that they did in Dallas, and this girl who later did dinner theater in Dallas named Sharon Bunn, used to read about her, we had a Jimmy Reed in Life pact that we’d do at various social functions. It seemed odd to me to be transplanted into this group of people who all loved Jimmy Reed. But then I did see the West Texas Push, the dance that everybody did to that particular rhythm in Texas.
The feel for the music, the subtle laziness, the swing factor, whatever the drummer would tell you it was in that shuffle, and the tonality of his voice. There was a back of the throat, top of the head sub-nasal tonality. He sounded drunk. He sounded loose. He sounded funky. All those things that I liked.
The thing about the lick, OK, it’s obviously ‘Honky Tonk’, until you get to the five chord, which would be B7 if you’re playing the lead, the turnaround, the blues pattern. Then, Jimmy Reed does something. He plays this thing, this riff, instead of the five chord, that eluded me for twenty years, I guess, until Keith Richard showed me backstage at the Astrodome. ‘This is the way you do it.’ And it is.
That takes it across the fuckin’ ocean to another bunch of white boys, another place, hearing his mysterious drunken sound. Mystery is a real important part of it too because it was, and is, remains mysterious, that music pattern. In a way a lot of other blues singers don’t get to. Howlin’ Wolf, certainly, is a more drastic example, but that same sense of mystery is attached to Jimmy Reed. He’s from somewhere else.
And it is ensemble playing. He has a band and they are in the pocket, a way few other bands ever get to. And it sounds like morons playing on boxes, but it is in this unbelievable groove. The bass is being played by a guitar, and they’re all out of tune. The harmonica by nature of its existence. They’re at least drunk, if not more, and yet somehow, it comes together in this pulse that talked to a generation of white kids in a way nobody white was doing. As a musician, it gives you a workable pattern, cause if you can’t play it right, at least you can play it wrong and get by. They were playing on Silvertones and Kays. There weren’t any Les Pauls or Stratocasters.”
“There aren’t a lot of people who know Jimmy Reed cold. Everybody thinks they do, but they don’t even have a clue. All my rhythm guitar playing comes from Jimmy Reed records. Taj Mahal taught me the final ultissimo licks and put it all together for me.
The simplicity of Jimmy Reed stuff and his band and what they did is just so natural, it’s great.”
“One thing, Jimmy worked a lot, he was on the road. He worked a lot, and I can only assume that everywhere else was like Texas. The college kids just fuckin’ loved him. I think it was because he was so unique. I know what an impact he made on me.
My parents didn’t give me shit [for liking Reed], they just didn’t understand it. ‘Course I was way far gone into it before knew what I was doing. My parents never did try to stop me. They worried the hell a lot about me. You can imagine my parents coming from where they came from [Lubbock] and all of sudden rock and roll comes along and then their little boy’s listening to mmmrrruhhuhwuhwuhwuh [making a guttural sound somewhere between a Reed vocal and a mouth harp], just low-down shit.
I played a lot of black clubs back in the late fifties and early sixties, and never ever one time did we catch any shit. ‘Course we were there with the fuckin’ star, too, and we were playing the music pretty damn good. And at this point, everybody in the world wasn’t doing it. There weren’t that many good bands that could supply, and do it well.
All the white folks–I mean, let’s define which white folks we’re talking about. The white folks that came out to the club, they were all into it. And at that time, it was a real novelty for a lot of people to hang out with black people. So, a lot of times, people would try to come through me or other guys in the band to get close to these guys. You know, we’d be their window into hanging with them, because we were backing them up.
I remember another night, at Jack’s Place, Jimmy Reed and Buster Brown. This is right when I started getting into these guys. I had harmonicas in hand, and I was determined to take every opportunity to learn something from these guys. So, before the show ever even started, I’m in the dressing room with Buster Brown and Jimmy Reed, and they’re passing a fifth of Old Granddad whisky back and forth between ’em. And I’m like twenty, twenty one, couldn’t drink [legally], but I’m getting that bottle double, I’m in the middle so I’m getting it twice for every time they’re getting it once. Never saw the show. Never even made it to the opening fuckin’ note, man. I was drunk and passed out in the office at Jack’s Place.
I know that Jimmy Reed music was the most popular thing that we got requests for, because people could do the Push to it. And anytime he was in town, all the Push people, which during a particular few years there was like a religion, as is now the Shag in North Carolina, which is very, very similar, whole lot of the same steps. Hell, I worked down there and people have got gold chains around their neck with SHAG written in gold, I mean they live it, you know. That’s how my popularity grew in the Carolinas, because I was doing all that old music there, this guys comes from Texas, and I’m doing all this music. Hell, there was a period of years back when I didn’t have anything going, North and South Carolina kept me alive. And I’m still a big item down there. I’ve got fans down there that’d take a bullet for me, because like they shag to this music.
The Push, in my opinion, is a much classier, more interesting dance than the Shag, but basically it’s the same thing.
Between him and Sonny Boy, that’s how I learned to play. I’d say how’d you do that? Course you couldn’t see anything they were doing. It’s hard to say how he taught me. I wanted to know, and I had multiple opportunities to be sitting knee to knee with him and listen to him play. By doing that, I’d try to copy him. ‘Course at the same time, I also developed my own style, so it was a good thing. I knew I was in a good place at the time.
He was always gracious. He didn’t give me too much shit. Any time you ask him something, he was available, unless he was stoned out of his mind or he was chasing women. He did whine a lot. I think that’s why he liked to have that one-eyed bass player with him. He was a pure artist.”
“The only guy I know who can sing like Jimmy Reed today is Rocky Morales.”
“When I was writing for music for Ry Cooder doing movie soundtracks, we did ‘Streets of Fire’, it was all futuristic fifties music like Link Wray stuff. He wanted some kind of Jimmy Reed thing. Cooder, the way we used to do things, he’d cut a band track, then he gave it to me to write words to. It was pretty good for where we were and what we were doing, it was pretty Jimmy Reed-esque. It was Cooder and Tim Drummond and Jim Keltner. I sitting in the Miramar hotel in Santa Monica, trying to write words to this thing. I had a couple of verses, I had an idea going. But Jimmy Reed, there was always that one line hook that had any number of vague meanings, specific and universal and all that literary stuff, and I had to have one of those lines. The way I worked with Cooder. I was in the hotel room and had on headphones and a small tape recorder, I’d just play the band track over and over and write words.
I’ve heard other people talk about hearing voices in their head, but never happened to me before or since .but I swear to you as I’m sitting here now, I heard the voice of Jimmy Reed in my head, sing the entire hook line and I just wrote it down.
Which is ‘You got what you wanted but I got what you need tonight.’
I heard the voice of Jimmy Reed sing it into my ear. I promise you.
Jimmy Reed paid the price for being Jimmy Reed. He obviously drank himself to death and he didn’t and couldn’t take care of business. But the thing to remember, it’s hard to keep in context now with the commercialization of rock and roll, is that it was not popular music. It is now. But it wasn’t then. The blues never was popular, it’s a complaint, it’s a bitch, it’s a gripe. Robert Johnson never played for more than fifty people at one time in his career, but the music of Robert Johnson, inexplicably it will not go away. And so it is with Jimmy Reed. He’s singing about the human condition. He was obviously not an establishment figure. He was talking back to the boss man: ‘You’re just tall, that’s all.’ Read his lyrics and tell me it’s not poetry. ‘Baby What You Want Me To Do’, which if you write it out appears to make sense on two or three different levels, if you closely analyze it really doesn’t make any sense at all. Everybody thinks they know what it’s about and it’s not about anything. ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ is the same thing, it’s such a simple one line idea it means anything: ‘Bright lights, big city went to my baby’s head’ fucking says it! That’s the whole story.”
” I got Jimmy to teach me how to play guitar.”
” See, Jimmy sold a lot of records. He probably sold more records than Muddy Waters and Little Walter or those guys in Chicago. In my world, Jimmy Reed had hits. ‘Big Boss Man’ was a big hit. ‘Goin’ To New York’, ‘Honest I Do’. Just one after another. Those were hits that were played on the radio. The radio back then did play a lot of black music. Then about 1960 it got all screwed up. When WLS and Dick Biondi and those guys in Chicago and those guys in the East Coast, we used to laugh our asses off at Fabian and people like that, they were junk. That was manufactured bullshit. Jimmy Reed was real.
When I was thirteen, I spent one summer in Florida and played in a band. The same thing was going on. Bands were integrating stuff and it was touch and go. Sometimes there’d be trouble, most of the time there wasn’t. I grew up in an integrated world, so to me, it seemed weird when people were trying to segregate things. At the same time, I didn’t know any black people as equals until I went to college, and I went up to the University of Wisconsin. They were the first guys I met that were as smart as me, who weren’t yard men or something, like it was in the South, especially in Texas.
I think the music really broke down those barriers. You talk about Martin Luther King, I was a freedom rider, and I was in SNCC [The Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee]. I was very involved in civil rights after I got out of Texas because I that felt segregation was really bullshit.
It was Jimmy Reed and T-Bone Walker and Martin Luther King for me, really and truly. The music definitely broke down the barriers way before the law did or before Martin Luther King did. Guys like Jimmy Reed were making people think. A lot of people weren’t thinking of it in terms of race and segregation, they weren’t thinking about it at all, except they liked the music and danced to it and they got down to it.”
[Blues Access magazine]