Jimmy Reed was born Sept. 6, 1925, in Dunleith, Mississippi. He began recording in 1953 and had a string of hits in the 1950s and 1960s that included “Honest I Do.” He was a favorite on college and theater tours in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and a leading influence on later rock and southern-styled blues musicians. In 1991 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Reed moved to Chicago, Illinois, in 1943 before being drafted into the US Navy during World War II. In 1945, Reed was discharged and moved back to Mississippi for a brief period, marrying his girlfriend, Mary “Mama” Reed, before moving to Gary, Indiana to work at an Armour & Co. meat packing plant. Mama Reed appears as an uncredited background singer on many of his songs, notably the major hits “Baby What You Want Me to Do”, “Big Boss Man” and “Bright Lights, Big City”.
By the 1950s, Reed had established himself as a popular musician and joined the “Gary Kings” with John Brim, as well as playing on the street with Willie Joe Duncan. Reed failed to gain a recording contract with Chess Records, but signed with Vee-Jay Records through Brim’s drummer, Albert King. At Vee-Jay, Reed began playing again with Eddie Taylor and soon released “You Don’t Have to Go”, his first hit record. This was followed by a long string of hits.
Reed maintained his reputation despite his rampant alcoholism; sometimes his wife had to help him remember the lyrics to his songs while recording. In 1957, Reed developed epilepsy, though the condition was not correctly diagnosed for a long time, as Reed and doctors assumed it was delirium tremens.
In spite of his numerous hits, Reed’s personal problems prevented him from achieving the same level of fame as other popular blues artists of the time, though he had more hit songs than many others. When Vee-Jay Records closed down, Reed’s manager signed a contract with the fledgling ABC-Bluesway label, but Reed was never able to score another hit.
In 1968 he toured Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival.
Jimmy Reed died in Oakland, California in 1976, of respiratory failure, eight days short of his 51st birthday. He is interred in the Lincoln Cemetery in Worth, Illinois.