Born in Mississippi in 1925 and moving north to Chicago in 1943, blues great Jimmy Reed helped blaze a trail for the post-war electrified blues movement in the heart of the Illinois city. Palling around from a young age with his musician-friend Eddie Taylor (who is credited for teaching Jimmy his first licks on the guitar and a little harmonica as well), the two would continue to record and perform together throughout Reed’s career.
Aside from ushering in an “electric blues” movement, Reed also reinvented the way the blues was played by giving it a “rolling” sound that smoothed out edges and provided warmth. His groove was always unique and easily captured audiences’ attention, which made him a popular bluesman to cover. He sang, wrote his own songs, and was a multi-instrument expert. Legends from Elvis to The Rolling Stones credit Jimmy’s works as some of their most influential.
For a deep dive into the musician’s repertoire, take a look at the best Jimmy Reed songs below.
10. Sun is Shining
A jaunty blues classic featuring all the trademark elements, from rhythmic shuffles to musical stops, ‘Sun is Shining’ features our bluesman, Jimmy Reed, celebrating a pocket full of change. In the ’57 release co-written by songwriters Ewart Abner and Calvin Carter, Reed sings to the woman he’s courting and playfully says, “Come on baby, help me defend this gold.” At about 1:40 into the song, Reed rips into one of his fiery harmonica solos. Not only was he a skilled guitar player and singer, but he could play the harp with the best of them. This jovial number was released among a string of hits for the artist (though this one didn’t chart like others). As he released single after single throughout the ’50s, he gained international fame as one of the blues genre’s most relatable musicians. All in all, Reed racked up 19 hits over the course of his career.
9. You Got Me Dizzy
A satisfying piece of Chicago blues work, Reed helped define what is known as the “electric blues movement,” a trend that transformed the genre from the languid, acoustic-based confessionals of the Mississippi delta to swagger-filled, rock-tinged grooves before rock ‘n roll music was even a thing. Like many other blues greats, Jimmy hailed from Mississippi, but eventually found himself in the Windy City recording for Chicago-based Vee-Jay Records. Along with popular musicians like Muddy Waters, Reed ushered the blues forward with a complete sound hard to find anywhere else. The “rolling rhythm” he perfected is ever-present in ‘You Got Me Dizzy.’ The drums crash perfectly, giving the recording a grainy, garage-type vibe. What’s even more impressive is he wrote the tune as well. During a time when interpretation of blues standards already written was many artists’ bread and butter, Reed made a name for himself by penning his own hits.
Recommended: Our list of Muddy Waters greatest hits.
8. High and Lonesome
An early release by Jimmy Reed, ‘High and Lonesome’ explores heartbreak and the hard decision to break free from a bad relationship for good, even when the other person wants to try and make things work. More in the vein of the delta blues, one might feel like this is what delta blues forefather Robert Johnson might have sounded like if he would have lived through the electric blues renaissance. Despite an amped-up, compelling performance, Reed keeps things slow-churning, in perfect alignment with the song’s painful message. After all, it’s hard to talk about being in the midst of heartbreak when backed by a boogie shuffle. Instead of grooving, this tune simmers, creating the perfect bluesy vignette and an uncommon heartbreak song from Reed, who experienced a long, loving marriage to Mary Reed.
Recommended: Our pick of the most important Robert Johnson songs.
7. Honest I Do
A solid electric blues number reminiscent of the early rock and roll days, ‘Honest I Do’ debuted in 1957 and helped bring Jimmy Reed into the national spotlight. This became one of his most popular tracks and paved the way for hits like ‘Bright Lights, Big City.’ Full of soul, Reed’s vocal ability was just as smooth as his guitar-playing abilities. Decorated with bouncing acoustic guitar, shuffling drums, and high-flying harmonica, Reed professes his love to his one and only within the lyrics. The romantic number is representative of post-war blues of Chicago, where Reed moved to after growing up in Mississippi. Rock bands like The Rolling Stones covered this track in the mid. ’60s, and cited bluesmen like Jimmy as one of their greatest influences.
6. I Ain’t Got You
If the rhythm of ‘High and Lonesome’ feels like a marathon for you, its counterpart is ‘I Ain’t Got You,’ which hustles along like a sprint. Rounded out by feverish piano work and a caffeinated shuffle rhythm, as interesting as the instrumental work is (including Reed’s howling harmonica riff at the end of each chorus), the lyrics are equally as poignant. From an Eldorado Cadillac to dressed-up mojo, Reed lists off in seamless fashion all the expensive things he owns. The only problem? He doesn’t have his one and only by his side, evidenced by the song’s beautifully resolved hook, “But I ain’t got you.” Jimmy released this quick-paced ditty first in ’55, but many others went on to cover it over the years because it’s just so catchy. Everyone from The Animals to the Yardbirds took a crack at it, but none hold a candle to Jimmy’s.
5. Bright Lights, Big City
By the time Reed released what would become one of his signature tracks, ‘Bright Lights, Big City,’ in 1961, he had come into a style all his own. Credited with a “steady rolling” rhythm that influenced much of contemporary blues, Chicago’s bustling music scene is in full swing with the single. One really cool aspect of this hit is that he co-wrote it with his wife, Mary Reed, who went by the nickname “Mama.” The most ardent Reed enthusiasts can tell the difference between which songs had her influence and which ones didn’t. This eventually gave way to listeners and critics calling their collaborations “textbook Jimmy and Mama Reed duets.” Though the electric blues song seems to celebrate big cities like Chicago, it also acts as a warning not to get too caught up in the nightlife, as tempting as it may be. The tune has been covered by so many artists it is recognized as a standard, one of the blues genre’s most enduring works.
4. Shame, Shame, Shame
Another true blues shuffle that sashays right along, Reed’s ‘Shame Shame Shame’ was an early 1960s recording the Brits loved, though it never became a hit in the states. Much of Reed’s work debuted during the blues revival in Europe, so he often found himself playing for audiences across the pond alongside his fellow bluesmen and folk artists. This tune weaves a classic R&B tale about a man who’s been wronged by his woman, and he’s finding it hard to shake it off. Though Jimmy was happily married, he battled substance abuse issues and health problems for much of his career. In some recordings, you can even hear Mary, his wife, softly whispering lyrics to him because he couldn’t remember them. Perhaps his deteriorating state contributed to the song’s spirited performance. ‘Shame Shame Shame’ was so beloved by audiences that it remained a setlist staple his entire career.
3. Big Boss Man
“Mama” Reed can be heard on this track, backing up Jimmy on vocals while he holds down harmonica work too. A blues work song about an unrelenting boss, it’s an upbeat number that climbed into the top 20 on blues charts and on Billboard’s Hot 100 list. ‘Big Boss Man’ was a 1960s single release that would go on to be one of his biggest hits and one of the last to really race up the charts. Part of the song’s staying power is in other artists’ penchant for covering it over the years. Everyone from Elvis Presley to B.B. King have put their own spin on it. Aside from Reed laying down one of his most famous groovy rhythms, he rips into a grand harmonica solo at about 1:30 into the track.
Recommended: Our breakdown of the best B.B. King songs.
2. Take Out Some Insurance
A popular blues song among both blues and rock genres, ‘Take Out Some Insurance’ has been around since the early 1950s and has changed hands many times. Capitalizing on several well-received releases, Reed debuted a cover version of the tune in ’59. His emotive, dancing vocals command your attention for most of the time, while a driving, plucky blues guitar shuffle makes it irresistible. Electric guitar accents color the shuffle rhythm, giving it that timeless ’50s vibe. It’s another addition to Reed’s playfully romantic numbers. The tune features a lovestruck protagonist telling his girl that he can’t go on without her, thus, if she plans to leave him, make sure she’s got a life insurance policy in his name so she can cash in on his misfortune. Ain’t love grand?
1. Baby What You Want Me To Do
A dazzling blues hit, ‘Baby What You Want Me To Do’ is one of the blues musician’s most magical efforts, and our number one pick for the best Jimmy Reed songs. Immediately entrancing is his wife’s vocal work. While Mary “Mama” Reed often sang backup, her harmony is more prominent in this single, giving it a nostalgic, swampy glow. The easy-going rhythm pulls you in close, and you can’t help but gently sway to the sexy track. The closeness of Mary and Jimmy really shines in this number. A top ten R&B hit and reaching into the top 40 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1960, the release would go on to be inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. Its legacy is timeless, and it really should be recognized as a blues standard. So many artists have kept its flame alive by recording their own versions, from Elvis Presley (one of Reed’s biggest fans) to blues-soul queen, Etta James.