Roadhouse Album Review: Lil’ Jimmy Reed digs deep into the blues on “Back to Baton Rouge”

Lil Jimmy Reed — “Back to Baton Rouge — Nola Blue Records

From the opening bars of “Down in Virginia,” you can hear the echoes of the legendary Jimmy Reed, who wrote this tough shuffle, accented by a piercing high-end harp, with some very tasty piano runs.

This is the song that opens the new album “Back to Baton Rouge,” but now the artist is Leon Atkins, better known as Lil’ Jimmy Reed. He earned the nickname in 1958, when, as a teenage guitarist and Reed fan, he filled in for the original Reed, who was purportedly too far under the influence to perform himself. Lil’ Jimmy Reed was born.

Fast forward 60-plus years. The original is long gone, but the Lil’ One is 84 and still cranking out the only music he wanted to play in his younger days. He’s since branched out into other blues styles, but “I still stick to my Jimmy Reed numbers.”

He’s joined here by the very young piano man Ben Levin, who at 23 is finely tuned in to some of the great old blues piano masters, despite his youth. Levin and Lil’ Jimmy worked together for a song on Levin’s fourth album, “Take Your Time,” and the
bond apparently stuck. Levin also produced the session.

The rest of the band includes Aron Levin, Ben’s father, on second guitar; Walter Cash on bass; with Ricky Nye and Shorty Star on drums. There are five covers and five originals written by Lil’ Jimmy and/or the Levins.

Although the album’s title pays tribute to the Louisiana area when Lil’ Jimmy grew up and earned his stage name, the music begins with the gritty “Down in Virginia,” one of the many songs instantly recognizable as a Jimmy Reed creation. The harp work is especially memorable.

“They Call Me Lil’ Jimmy” is the story of Lil’ Jimmy’s origin and musical travels, written by Ben Levin, highlighted by stinging guitar; “Wish You Wouldn’t” pairs Reed and Levin trading bluesy solos; “Cincinnati’s The Place to Be” is Reed’s original tribute to Levin’s home town; Levin repays the favor with the lovely and languorous “Back to Baton Rouge.”

Lil’ Jimmy Reed and Ben Levin.

“In The Wee Wee Hours” turns the focus on Levin’s piano in a rugged version of this slow-boogie romp from Joe Liggins and the Honeydrippers; “Engine Light” is a kind of slow shuffle warning of a love breakdown; “I’m The Man Down There,” was a 1965 Jimmy Reed answer song to “It’s a Man Down There” (Interesting explanation below*), and Lil’ Jimmy does it just right.

“A String To Your Heart” is another masterful take on the Reed original, with a stinging guitar intro; and the closer, “Mailbox Blues,” is a fine tribute to Slim Harpo, another Baton Rouge contribution to swampy blues.

This is a deeply felt album of down-home blues. Lil’ Jimmy Reed / Leon Atkins takes his inspiration from Jimmy Reed and transforms it into a set of good old-fashioned blues. Ben Levin on piano is worldly beyond his years, adding a mood that could’ve been ripped from any juke joint. Highly recommended for late-night sipping and listening.

*Interesting explanation as promised above: The story of Jimmy Reed’s 1965 song “I’m The Man Down There” actually begins with the song “One Way Out,” reportedly written in 1960 by Sonny Boy Williamson II (Aleck Miller). Or maybe written with Elmore James. It’s unclear.

Anyway, James recorded the song in late 1960, but his version was not released until 1965. Sonny Boy recorded the song in 1961, and it was released then with some success. In 1965, G.L. Crockett reworked and recorded the song as “It’s a Man Down There.”

These lyrics from “It’s a Man Down There” help explain the answer version:

“Girl, I ain’t going out that door,
“Cause it’s a man down there.
“May be your man, I don’t know.”

Crockett’s version was enough of a hit (number 13 on the Billboard R&B chart) that Jimmy Reed created his version: “I’m The Man Down There.” I guess he just wanted to be The Man.

“They Call Me Lil’ Jimmy” from the new album:

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