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» Jimmy Reed, Emancipator of the South: An Oral History
Jimmy Reed, Emancipator of the South: An Oral History
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Summer 2000, Issue No. 42
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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!'
was between him or Slim Harpo. They both had that almost nasal kind of
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."
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.
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.
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.
King was backing him up, and Jimmy would say onstage, ‘Turn me around
in G, Albert.' He'd play some 5-4-1s and he miss it, and sing, ‘Turn 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, ‘Bring on
the Bullet, bring on the Bullet.' I didn't know what they were talking
about. After the intermission, the announcer said, ‘Now 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!
audience went nuts. Then they came on and got him.
was the first time I saw Jimmy, and he was....disappointing."
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.
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
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.
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."
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. "
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
says, [Dickinson speaks slowly] 'She's back at the hotel. She can make
more money there than I can here.'"
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."
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."
JIMMY REED MOMENT
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.
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
him alone and leave him kept on slepping.'
I like to have fuckin' died. I think I was the only one that laughed.
was the way the talk went. 'Lev him alone and leave him kept on slepping.'
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."
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....'
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.'
asked him, 'How many times that'd happened, Jimmy?'.
looked at me and smiled.
many,' he said."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.'
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.'
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?'
says, 'They love Jimmy Reed--Jimmy Reed, Bobby Blue Bland, Ike and Tina
says, 'Can you book these acts?'
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.
said, 'All right, let's book 'em up. But who should we book first?'
said, 'Jimmy Reed. He is the God of North Texas Push, this is what everybody
gave me the money, I got him booked in."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Push, in my opinion, is a much classier, more interesting dance than the
Shag, but basically it's the same thing.
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.
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."
only guy I know who can sing like Jimmy Reed today is Rocky Morales."
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.
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.'
heard the voice of Jimmy Reed sing it into my ear. I promise you.
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.
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
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.
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."