Blues for the 'Big Boss Man'

Sep 6, 2013

Jimmy Reed is one of the most influential bluesmen in history and his songs will always be part of the blues repertoire. "Baby, What You Want Me to Do," "Bright Lights, Big City," “ You Don't Have to Go”, are just some of the songs Reed made popular.

His style was easy-going and non-threatening, which made it accessible to white audiences of the 50’s and 60’s. Perhaps because of that, Reed sold more records than other blues stars like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.

Reed’s music was simple and easily imitated, and his songs were widely covered by artists in different  genres. Jimmy Reed tunes were a staple for the early Rolling Stones, and Elvis Presley recorded several of his songs in the 1960’s. His songs have been called “simple masterpieces” for their economy of language and instrumentation.

Jimmy Reed Recorded “Big Boss Man” in 1960. Its distinctive stomp-shuffle beat has appeared in many other songs, including Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” and Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get A Witness”.  A long search turned up only one film clip of Jimmy Reed performing live. Watch the video from 1975 here: 

Elvis Presley had a history of success with blues songs. His affinity for the blues developed when he was drawn to the music clubs of Beale St. in Memphis, where he heard B. B. King, Junior Parker and Rufus Thomas perform. His first single in 1954 was a version of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s Alright Mama”, and he had a huge hit with Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” in 1956. Elvis performed or recorded no less than 8 Jimmy Reed songs, and his 1967 version of “Big Boss Man” was a Top 40 hit. Here’s a less than perfect clip of Elvis performing “Big Boss Man” in 1975. I’m pretty sure this isn’t an Elvis impersonator:

Bobbie Gentry is one of the first female country music performers to compose her own material. Born in Mississippi, raised in California, her music was earthy but sophisticated. She followed her huge 1967 hit “Ode to Billie Joe” with a 1968 release about the South that included Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man”.

The Sons of Champlin came up during the heyday of San Francisco’s psychedelic rock scene, but had a sound that leaned more to r & b and soul music. They took an entirely different approach in their 1977 recording of “Big Boss Man”, giving the song a driving and funky groove. Singer and keyboardist Bill Champlin went on to sing with the band Chicago.

Here are the complete versions of “Big Boss Man” tracked through time: