The evolution of blues is an integral part of African-American history, and Jimmy Reed – the legendary blues artist and subject of a recent discussion at Dominican University – was an integral part of the music’s evolution.
A Mississippi native and longtime Chicago resident, Reed’s life is the subject of a new documentary, The Jimmy Reed Experience. It debuted Feb. 15, at Dominican University as part of the school’s Blues and the Spirit education initiative. A panel discussion featuring educators, fellow blues artists and Jimmy Reed’s children followed the screening. A diverse crowd of more than 300 blues fans, both young and old, attended.
The film, directed by Steven Lattimore, is produced, in part, by the James and Mary Reed Foundation. It showcases the musician’s unique sound and never before shared life stories.
Dominican’s Blues Initiative, its director, Janice Monti, explained, looks to bring such culturally diverse programming to the River Forest school.
“Dominican has an ongoing commitment to civil engagement and diversity,” said Monti, who’s also a department chair at the university. “We have a track record of bringing in musicians, such as Lonnie Brooks and Chuck Barksdale¡a diverse constituency of musicians, journalists, educators, students, scholars and the community.”
The panel included Columbia College music faculty Fernando Jones and George Bailey; Marie Dixon, widow of blues legend Willie Dixon; and Jimmy Reed’s children: James Jr., Loretta, and Rose.
They discussed copyright issues, intellectual property and race, in relationship to blues artists. Reed, a gifted guitarist and harmonica player, achieved fame but his career was stifled due to copyright infringement and managerial exploitation. In spite of his many professional and family problems, Reed enjoyed a great deal of success and popularity. He had more than 11 songs on Billboard’s Top 100 chart during his recording career.
The evening concluded with a jam session featuring a local rhythm section and Jimmy Reed’s children on vocals, lead guitar and blues harmonica. Singing the blues is a family tradition for the Reed family. His daughter, Rose – the youngest of the three – kicked things off, singing one of her father’s greatest hits, and the first song he ever released: “Aint That Lovin’ You Baby.” It was the No. 3 single on the R&B chart in 1956, and was featured prominently in the 2002 film The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisters.
After the jam session, audience members were able to visit with the family, and learn more about the James and Mary Reed Foundation. In addition to keeping Reed’s legacy alive, the foundation also helps educate artists about protecting their intellectual property rights.
James Mathis Reed was born in 1925 in Dunleith, Miss., later moving to Chicago in 1943. Soon after, he was drafted by the Navy to fight in World War II.
After his discharge, he returned to Chicago and married his girlfriend, Mary “Mama” Reed, who often sang background on his recordings. Noted for his open “E” blues sound and lazy slacked-jawed singing style, Reed was a major artist in the “electric blues” field. He’s often cited as a major influence by such rock artists as the Rolling Stones. Reed died on Aug. 26, 1976 shortly after finishing a performance at the Savoy in San Francisco.
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.