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To hear tenor saxist A.C. Reed bemoan his fate on-stage, one might glean the impression that he truly detests his job. But it's a tongue-in-cheek complaint — Reed's raspy, gutbucket blowing and laid-back vocals belie any sense of boredom.
Sax-blowing blues bandleaders are scarce as hen's teeth in Chicago; other than Eddie Shaw, Reed's about all there is. Born in Missouri, young Aaron Corthen (whether he's related to blues legend Jimmy Reed remains hazy, but his laconic vocal drawl certainly mirrors his namesake) grew up in downstate Illinois. A big-band fan, he loved the sound of Paul Bascomb's horn on an obscure Erskine Hawkins 78 he heard tracking on a tavern jukebox so much that he was inspired to pick up a sax himself.
Arriving in Chicago during the war years, he picked up steady gigs with Earl Hooker and Willie Mabon before the '40s were over. In 1956, he joined forces with ex-Ike Turner cohort Dennis "Long Man" Binder, gigging across the southwest for an extended period. Reed became a valuable session player for producer Mel London's Age and Chief labels during the early '60s; in addition to playing on sides by Lillian Offitt, Ricky Allen, and Hooker, he cut a locally popular 1961 single of his own for Age, "This Little Voice."
More gems for Age — "Come on Home," "Mean Cop," "I Stay Mad" — followed. He cut 45s for USA in 1963 ("I'd Rather Fight Than Switch"), Cool ("My Baby Is Fine," a tune he's recut countless times since) and Nike ("Talkin' 'Bout My Friends") in 1966, and "Things I Want You to Do" in 1969 for T.D.S.
Reed joined Buddy Guy's band in 1967, visiting Africa with the mercurial guitarist in 1969 and, after harpist Junior Wells teamed with Guy, touring as opening act for the Rolling Stones in 1970. He left the employ of Guy and Wells for good in 1977, only to hook up with Alligator acts Son Seals, and then the Master of the Telecaster, Albert Collins. Reed appeared on Collins' first five icy Alligator LPs, including the seminal Ice Pickin'.
During his tenure with Collins, Reed's solo career began to reignite, with four cuts on the second batch of Alligator's Living Chicago Blues anthologies in 1980 and two subsequent LPs of his own, 1982's Take These Blues and Shove 'Em! (on Ice Cube Records, a logo co-owned by Reed and drummer Casey Jones) and I'm in the Wrong Business! five years later for Alligator (with cameos by Bonnie Raitt and Stevie Ray Vaughan). Until his death from cancer in February of 2004, Reed remained an active force on the Chicago circuit with his band the Spark Plugs (get it? AC spark plugs? Sure you do!).