The blue legend, Buddy Guy in his club at 700 S. Wabash in Chicago. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times
CHICAGO BLUES FESTIVAL
◆ Friday through Sunday
◆ Six stages in Grant Park
◆ Free admission
Updated: July 8, 2012 6:52PM
Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jimmy Reed had a seminal hit in 1961 with the blues ballad “Bright Lights, Big City.”
Set to dense “walk/don’t walk” rhythms, it was the tale of a young Mississippi man confronted by the menacing shadows of the urban experience.
By age 18, Reed had left his native Dunleith, Miss., for Chicago. He found work in the Gary steel mills, but within a few years Reed became a quasar at Chicago’s Vee-Jay records with hits including “Honest I Do” (covered by the Rolling Stones) and “Big Boss Man” (covered by Elvis Presley) between 1953 and 1963. Even Bill Cosby took on Reed, covering four of his songs on his crossover 1967 album “Silver Throat: Bill Cosby Sings.”
Despite such widespread popularity, Reed flamed out, succumbing to alcoholism and epilepsy. He died in 1976 at the age of 51.
Fittingly, the 29th annual Chicago Blues Festival will honor Reed’s legacy, when the Jimmy Reed Family opens the fest with a set at 11:15 a.m Friday on the Crossroads Stage.
Though Reed was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, “he never got the recognition he should have gotten as a blues giant,” said Jimmy Reed Jr., 64, who played rhythm guitar with his father between the ages of 13 and 19. His family has started an online petition to get Reed a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award (sign at Change.org). There also will be a paper Grammy petition in the Reed Family tent at the blues festival.
At the fest, the Reed Family will cover most of their father’s hits. Besides Reed Jr. on vocals and rhythm guitar, the group consists of Reed’s daughters Loretta, Rose and Marlene Butler on vocals, and Reed’s grandson Jerome Sullivan on drums. The timeless Reed groove will be rounded out by guitarists Eddie Taylor Jr. and Eddie Neese. (The elder Reed played with rhythm guitarist Eddie Taylor Sr. during his early days around Gary and Chicago.)
A resident of Country Club Hills, Reed Jr. went on the road with his father during summer vacations. He played guitar behind Jimmy Reed’s raspy vocals on “Bright Lights, Big City.”
“He didn’t keep an eye out for me on the road,” Reed Jr. said. “I kept an eye on him. It terrified him to have those epileptic seizures. I watched him closely.”
None of this is lost on Buddy Guy, who as a young man in Louisiana, listened to Reed and learned his country-blues songs. He tracked down Reed when he migrated to Chicago in 1957.
“I went to his house, and I was just that dumb,” Guy said earlier this week while en route to a signing for his just-released memoir, When I Left Home, written with David Ritz (Da Capo, $26).
“I thought all the blues artists were living well here,” Guy continued. “When I sat down on Jimmy Reed’s couch, I went straight to the floor. I think [his house] was around 69th and Wentworth. I had met Jimmy at Pepper’s Lounge on 43rd and Vincennes. It was 7 in the morning, and you couldn’t get through the door. He had just been playing. I jumped over guys to get in the club. It turned out I stepped over Jimmy Reed. He was on the floor, with his fedora on his head.”
Reed got worse over the next decade. Mary, aka Mama Reed, his wife and an acclaimed songwriter-vocalist in her own right, would sit next to her husband during recording sessions so she could whisper the lyrics he had forgotten.
Mary Reed died in 2003, and now his children carry on the family tradition. “We really just formed the group this year,” Reed Jr. said. “I don’t have plans to continue doing this, but that might change. In the future, we plan to go to Mississippi to produce another documentary where we will be talking to friends who knew Jimmy Reed in the beginning.”
Steven Lattimore, an adjunct professor in broadcast journalism at Columbia College, is the executive producer of the documentaries “My Business Is the Blues: The Jimmy Reed Story” (2010), and “The Jimmy Reed Experience” (2011), featuring commentary from Guy, B.B. King, Jimmie Vaughan and others. “My Business Is the Blues” is basically a 15-minute public service announcement for the family’s efforts to preserve Reed’s legacy, although it does feature cool, grainy footage of Reed in a rare television appearance from December 1975 on Houston’s KPRC-TV.
In the 2010 documentary, the Reed family also talks about the fear of losing their home. Guy recalled that Mama Reed once came by his previous Legends locale at 754 S. Wabash.
“She was in a wheelchair. Mama said she was losing her house. I don’t want to mention who was ripping them off but she got the house back.”
To help prevent situations like this, the Jimmy and Mary Reed Foundation has been established to educate musicians about how to protect their intellectual property rights. “We didn’t have many copyright issues,” Reed Jr. said. “The problem was getting the royalty- paying entities to pay the royalties. We worked that situation out in court. All Dad did was play his music. He did have people around him, I’m sorry to say, took advantage of him.”
As a nod to generational hometown respect, the Neville Brothers close out every New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. So why not have Buddy Guy close out every Chicago Blues Festival?
“I still live by some of the rules my family taught me,” Guy said. “They told me, ‘Don’t wear out your welcome.’ I just got back from South America. I sold out Sao Paulo [Brazil], and the promoter understood that. But I sold out Rio. He said no one does that. I said I wasn’t coming back next year, no matter how much money you pay me. If I wait, people will be a little more hungry.
“I love red beans and rice, but I can’t eat them seven days a week.”
Jimmy Reed: 'Bright Lights, Big City