Friday, April 29, 2011
Jimmy Reed Live
Bill Ades lived on Springdale Road, two blocks west and about five blocks south of my family. His dad was a professor of anatomy at Emory med school, also an oil painter, and used his living room for a studio. My dad was a doctor and a professor of clinical medicine at Emory; our families connected as post-WWII university newcomers. Bill and I were the same age, and friends practically from birth. On New Years Eve, the last day of 1961, when we were 15, Bill and I snuck into the Biltmore Hotel on West Peachtree Street in Atlanta to see Jimmy Reed.
The Biltmore, host for the party, built by William Candler of the Coca-Cola Candlers, had two radio transmission towers on the roof with Biltmore spelled out vertically on one. You could see it from a long distance in those days. It was so close we probably rode bikes up Ponce DeLeon, past Peachtree to Juniper, turn right, left on 5th, it’s on the corner. Advertised as Atlanta’s largest hotel, their slogan was “Where Southern Hospitality flowers.” The ballroom was in the front on the main floor. How did we get in? I don’t remember. They were serving alcohol, so we were illegal.
Mathis James Reed was born September 6, 1925 in Washington County, Dunleith, Mississippi, a backwater junction on the Pea Vine Railroad tracks that follow an old trail that became a highway for the blues. You could hop a Pea Vine freight and find yourself in Memphis, or St. Louis, or Chicago.
Washington County, Mississippi, is right next to Sunflower County; I’ve been all over that area. It’s down the road from Clarksdale, where Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero blues club is; down the road from “The Crossroads,” where Robert Johnson is said to have made his deal with the devil—his soul in return for guitar prowess; it’s down the road from Itta Bena, where B. B. (Beale Street Blues Boy) King was born. Cleveland, Mississippi, is right up U.S. highway 61—yup, the very same one that winds up through Minnesota, and was immortalized in a song by Bob Dylan—and Cleveland is the locale of Dockery Farms, where at one time or another Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Charlie Patton and Willie Brown worked. Blues was everywhere in the Mississippi Delta.
After serving in WWII Jimmy Reed moved back to Mississippi, where he married Mary, known as “Mama” Reed. They moved to Gary, Indiana, for a time in the ’50s. He was working at the Armour meat packing plant and playing blues in Chicago joints when Albert King got him in at V-J Records and he was off on a string of hits: “Big Boss Man,” “Honest I Do,” “Take Out Some Insurance.” On some of the more famous ones “Mama” Reed appears as second vocalist.
As a young teen I had heard that Jimmy Reed had a drinking problem—he called himself a “liquor-glutter”—and that his wife stood beside him and whispered the words in his ear, and sang with him at his appearances. Biographers claim he developed epilepsy, which was taken during his life as being delirium tremens, and with an attack he would just fall down unconscious right where he was sitting performing. He died August 29, 1976, in Oakland, California.
However, this was 1961. This night at the Biltmore he did all his hits, sitting behind the microphone with “Mamma” Reed behind him, his big Kay guitar and harmonica holder, we could see he was drinking away. He sometimes played the Silvertone Thin Twin that he bought from Sears. Bill and I, in awe, tried to stay invisible in the back of the room, occasionally edging around the periphery of the stage to get a look. Amazingly, no one bothered us. We left when he fell. As I remember it caused quite a stir.