Blues music has had its individualist performers with powerful, poetic feeling, tremendous instrumental virtuosity, or a unique sound. But if the tradition ever had its Everyman, it would be Jimmy Reed, the most popular Chicago blues performer of the 1950s and early 1960s.
Jimmy Reed had a guitar technique that rarely varied, and his vocals were relaxed to the point where hearers couldn't always understand the words he sang. Yet Reed found a groove and stuck to it, creating a sound that any blues fan could identify after hearing only a few seconds of his music. That sound, moreover, influenced nearly every rock music ensemble that had a blues element in its style. Reed's music distilled the essence of the blues.
Reed's life followed a course outwardly similar to those of many other Chicago bluesmen. Mathis James Reed was born in the Mississippi River Delta, in or near Leland, Mississippi, on September 6, 1925, and he and his nine siblings grew up working the fields on a sharecroppers' plantation. Reed and his childhood friend Eddie Taylor, who would later play in Reed's band, taught themselves to play the guitar and harmonica whenever they could get away from farm work. But Reed's main musical activity when he was young consisted of singing in church choirs. Reed dropped out of school in his early teens to work the fields full time in nearby Duncan and Meltonia, Mississippi.