Black Ensemble Theater

They say you have to suffer to sing the blues; it doesn’t come with the territory–it is the territory. You can’t just play the notes, you have to live the hurt behind them–before you play them. The moment you start to wail what the dictionary coldly calls “a black folk music characterized by minor harmonies, typically slow tempo, and melancholy words,” you’d better bring the sorrows that carry it across.

No musical genre ever linked itself so closely to special sorrows; the torch song or blues ballad glows with pain. And since it all goes right into the notes, you can’t fake it. Jimmy Reed knew that. Called the “Big Boss Man” of the blues, he was a Chicago legend, launching hit record after hit record (12 between 1955 and 1961) and inspiring the use of blues traditions in soul, rock ‘n’ roll, and country and western. Reed was the first blues act to play Carnegie Hall, and among those who recorded–or stole–his songs were the Rolling Stones, Ike and Tina Turner, Elvis Presley (“Baby, What You Want Me to Do”), Muddy Waters, Freddy King, Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin (“Honest I Do”), and the Chambers Brothers. Last month Reed posthumously entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

If anyone had a right to sing the blues, Reed, who picked cotton as a boy in Mississippi before joining the Navy, did. As they say, “He made it, played it, and drank it.” Despite the best efforts of his wife Marylee and his manager, jazzman Al Smith, Reed was a chronic alcoholic. He was often late for concerts; when he showed up after a binge, he was sometimes too drunk to remember the songs or their keys. During recording sessions Marylee sometimes had to whisper the words to him.

Saying “I need me a taste,” Reed drank because he hoped booze would calm his epileptic fits. (A seizure killed him on August 29, 1976, at the age of 50.) But Reed had other excuses. He feared he was being shortchanged by everyone, including Vee Jay Records. His fears came true when the company was closed by the IRS for tax delinquency–he even lost the house he thought he’d paid for. Following a heart attack, he slowed and then stopped his drinking. It’s said he briefly regained his powers, but by then his career was over.

If Reed earned the right to sing the blues, singing them kept him alive when nothing else did. All of this comes out, however woodenly, in Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby (a name taken from one of Reed’s biggest hits). This musical biography was written by actress and playwright Jackie Taylor (founder of the Black Ensemble) and bluesman Jimmy Tillman–the duo who created Muddy Waters (The Hoochie Coochie Man) and The Story of Otis Redding. The sixth play in the theater’s historical series–which earlier commemorated Willie Dixon, Jerry Butler, and Ethel Waters–it’s the ensemble’s contribution to Black History Month.

The music holds together Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby more than it should have to. The dialogue, mainly stiff exposition, serves as thin filler between hard-driving, soul-stirring re-creations of Reed classics; it sheds little light on how Reed viewed the music he made or where he drew his inspiration from. The script, a compilation of lows in Reed’s life, touches dutifully on his hard times as well as the frustrations of his harried wife and frazzled handlers (it’s hinted that he lost money on more than liquor). But it’s not enough for Reed to lament “Things are happenin’ so fast” when we know so little about the man to whom they happen.

Reed has to wait for the songs to make his case. They do that splendidly. Backed up by Tillman’s terrific three-man combo (with David Ivory on bass and Gerald Sims on guitar), Roy Hytower as Reed gives a terrific performance on electric guitar and harmonica (though his guitar was not tuned during the opening night’s first act).

If Hytower’s musicianship outweighs his acting–he plays a drunk but barely suggests inebriation–the show rewards the emphasis. Tearing into “Bright Lights, Big City” or “Going to New York,” Hytower shows the all-embracing blues bravado he brought to his portrayals of Muddy Waters, Otis Redding, and Jerry Butler. He’s clearly a power in his own right.

The acting in Taylor’s staging is as awkward as the writing–the crises all but announced before they’re overacted or underplayed. But there are exceptions: Ellis Foster’s flamboyant turn as Jimmy’s exasperated manager, Donn Harper as the well-meaning but unlucky record producer, and Lawrence Palmer as Jimmy’s loyal but ultimately disillusioned rhythm man. Less convincing is Sharon Davis who–perhaps overreacting to Hytower’s restraint–goes over the top trying to present Marylee’s many miseries.

Forget the script and love the songs.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin–Jennifer Girard Studio.