Legendary bluesmen Lil Jimmy Reed, ‘Teddy’ Johnson blaze paths promoting musical expression

Blues – an art form birthed from heartbreak as well harmony – was so obscure in its infancy that its origins are often debatable. Louisiana’s juke joints that once heavily marked the Swamp Blues Trail help the Bayou State claim a healthy part of the blues as its own.

The blues wasn’t created or developed. It was born in the often-laborious years following the U.S. Civil War. It was a product of the South and took hints of work songs, field chants, minstrel show music, ragtime, church music, and the folk and popular music of White society.

“Down-home Blues, Down home blues. All I wanted to hear was some down home blues, all night long every other record or two. She said, I’m going to get my head banged and party on the down home blues.”

Lil Jimmy Reed started playing the blues in a little village fitting called Hardwood more than six decades ago, but he makes no attempt to put a long definition on the blues. That would be a disservice to the simplicity of what he knows as the blues. “The blues is everyday life, and you live it every day,” he said. “You hear that baby crying; she’s got the blues. You put that pacifier in her mouth; she stops.”

Hardwood was a fitting backdrop for the 1950s blues — hard work and segregation colored with a strong sense of making the best out of less-than-best situations. Reed, born Leon Atkins, recalls being gifted a guitar when he was about 16 from his father. No lessons, no mentoring, just instinctive messages wanting to be heard. “He bought me a guitar on a Monday and Saturday night I was in the club playing,” Reed said.

The original Jimmy Reed was a Mississippi-born blues singer and songwriter who played the guitar and harmonica. He produced a series of hits in the 50s that made him the most successful blues singer of the era. 

Elvis Presley recorded the gritty “Baby What You Want Me to Do,” but Jimmy Reed did it first and that was style young Leon studied and mastered. 

You’ve got me runnin’ You’ve got me hidin’. You’ve got me run, hide, hide, run. Anyway you wanna let it roll. Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’ve got me doin’ what you want me. A-baby why you wanna let go?

Lil Jimmy Reed plays ‘Down Home Blues’

“Well, there was a Jimmy Reed and I imitated him,” he said. “He was playing, and he got drunk, and he couldn’t play so they took him out the back door and brought me into the front door. I got that name ‘Lil Jimmy Reed,’ and people didn’t know the difference.”

Reed took his new name and the old music and took off. He spent his youth playing in small clubs and venues and then joined the military. When he left the military, his career took off. He shared the stage with renowned blues legends like B.B. King and Bobby Blue Bland and toured festivals in the United Kingdom, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and other countries thirsty for the American music genre.

Before the blues graced venues in big cities and music halls across the world, it moved from the fields and rural paths directly to the juke joints. Black American communities in the South had minimal spaces dedicated to listening to music and nightlife long before night clubs and concert halls welcomed the blues.

Lloyd “Teddy” Johnson

One of the last remaining juke joints can be found just north of Baton Rouge and near the campus of Southern University. The blues, like Lloyd “Teddy” Johnson, was born in the modest front rooms of rural shacks and shotguns where Black folks gave life to and nurtured a sound that was part music, part heart and part experience.

Teddy’s Juke Joint has been home to musicians for decades and Dixie Taylor now calls it home. “We’re kind of a different breed and not everybody’s going to get that, but Teddy does,” Taylor said. “This is a musician-friendly venue. They care for the individual, so it becomes a place of healing.”

Johnson and late wife Nancy held together one of the last remaining juke joints in the South that formed the legendary Swamp Blues Trail. In the 1950s, when Johnson was a young boy, Baton Rouge became the melting pot for Louisiana-centric tunes. Swamp blues took blues tempo and mixed in Cajun, zydeco and home brews.

In 1979, Johnson converted the home where he was born into a bar and grill with a stage for live music. While just a spot on the road leading to town, Teddy’s Juke Joint gained international fame as the birthplace of careers and one of the few places left in the country where one could be immersed in the authentic swamp blues experience.

‘Cause you know I’m here. Everybody knows I’m here. Yeah, you know I’m a hoochie coochie man. Everybody knows I’m here.

Swamp blues’ most successful pioneers included Slim Harpo and Lightnin’ Slim, who enjoyed national rhythm and blues hits. The style has a laid-back, slow tempo with bits of the boogie patterns used on (the original) Jimmy Reed records and the work of Lightnin’ Hopkins and Muddy Waters.

Johnson’s award from the BB King Recording Studio

The remaining juke joints and supporters of the craft like Johnson serve as springboards for new acts as they have for decades. Writer and musician Alex Cook plays in a band called the Rakers and he sings the praises of the local blues juke joint and all it did to help his band develop. We’ve been together for nine years now and we did our album release for our first record, ‘Regina,’ there,” he recalled. “Teddy and his wife Nancy treated us like rock stars.”

Cook first walked into Teddy’s Juke Joint in the mid-2000s to write a magazine story. “It was Teddy’s birthday party, and I was holding a plate with some turkey necks and greens and was ordering a Crown and Coke setup — they bring you a pint bottle, can of Coke, bowl of ice and a couple glasses,” he recalled. “Teddy waltzed up in a red suit, red cowboy hat and a red cape. You can’t dream up scenes like this.”

The B.B. King Recording Studio on the campus of Mississippi State University honored Johnson in 2017 for his efforts to continue the blues legacy, but the blues road is a long and rocky one with the COVID-19 pandemic dealt challenges to both Johnson and Reed as they both approach 80 while still doing what they love. 

Johnson explained in a 2016 interview that blues genre is defined by the will of who play it. “The blues man is dedicated—he’ll play till he dies,” he said.

By Frances Y. Spencer
Freelance Journalist

Frances Spencer is a career journalist living and working in Metropolitan Baton Rouge. Her interests include faith and community-based journalism and Web and reader engagement. She is inspired by her daughter-collaborator Cecilia Grace.

Enjoy these videos of Lil Jimmy Reed:

Teddy Fest and the Swamp Blues Trail — https://youtu.be/m06GGsZIDWk

Down Home Blues performed by Lil Jimmy Reed — https://youtu.be/7nDWm6216sk

Lil Jimmy Reed performs The Night Time is the Right Time — https://youtu.be/3J_teWmJQpM

Lil Jimmy Reed performs See Me Coming, Go Get Your Rocking Chair — https://youtu.be/jhd9LfLGGiU

Enjoy Lil Jimmy Reed Live playlist : https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLUC0CP7aqJAIIqAI–ykbeKj2RJREI9_C

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