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James Reed

The best-selling Chicago blues star of the 1950s and '60s, Jimmy Reed's string of classic, straightforward, no-nonsense blues hits like 'Big Boss Man', 'Baby What You Want Me to Do' and 'Ain't That Loving You Baby' not only made him a profound inspiration to early rock & roll acts including Elvis Presley, his influence spread to white blues guitarists like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Ray Vaughan as well as The Rolling Stones. His shrieking harmonica, strident guitar grooves and shuffling vocals created a joyful sound that enraptured R&B audiences and brought him record sales which eclipsed contemporaries like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Little Walter. Yet fame heaped pressures on him that he was woefully equipped to handle and he fell foul to the excesses of stardom and died at the age of 50 without reaping the benefits of the blues boom he helped create.

Born on a plantation at Dunleith, Mississippi in 1925 where he lived until he was 15, he learned to play guitar and harmonica from a local semi-pro musician Eddie Taylor, who went on to become his closest musical collaborator. He started busking and playing small-time clubs before being drafted into the US Navy to serve in World War II, and after the war he moved to Gary, Indiana to work in a meat packing plant. Embraced by the growing local blues scene, his career began to take off in earnest, winning lots of attention for the way he played guitar and harmonica simultaneously. He joined the Gary Kings and, after signing to Vee-Jay Records, had his first hit with 'You Don't Have to Go' in 1956.

His infectious, accessible style then gave him a string of hits and he appeared regularly at the famous Harlem Apollo, his popularity growing further following the 1961 release of a live album from New York's Carnegie Hall. Despite his mounting problems with alcohol resulting in some obviously drunken shows, he maintained a successful recording career, including eleven top 100 hits and 14 records on the R&B Charts. Ultimately, though, drinking and epilepsy took its toll and he died in 1976 during a forlorn period attempting to make a comeback.

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