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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow Blues to the Bone

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Blues to the Bone

Jimmy Lloyd Rea rests easy in his favorite chair with his pride and joy, a 1951 Fender bass guitar. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
Jimmy Lloyd Rea rests easy in his favorite chair with his pride and joy, a 1951 Fender bass guitar. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By LISA BRITTON

Of the Baker City Herald

Jimmy Lloyd Rea gives the ringing phone a sideways glance, ignoring it as he continues his story.

Suddenly he leans over and grabs the cordless receiver.

"I can't not answer it," he grins after the short conversation. "It might be a music thing."

Rea just can't get away from the blues.

He sits in his easy chair, a blue baseball cap stitched with "Legacy Transplant Services" snug on his head and a yellow and black 1951 Fender precision bass guitar clutched in his hand.

The guitar — along with the 15 guitar cases stacked in the next room — are labeled with the stick-on letters "JLR."

He twists two red, transparent dice screwed to the guitar body below a sticker that proclaims "Less is More!!"

"I use (the dice) to turn the volume up and down," he says. "About everything you see on a blues guy's guitar means something."

And this particular guitar means a little more.

Rea was born Oct. 6, 1951.

The guitar was made Oct. 5, 1951.

There's not much that can stop him from playing.

He's doing what he loves, playing with his band "Jimmy Lloyd Rea and the Switchmasters" at festivals, bars and nightclubs all over the Northwest — and the nation.

He almost always wanted to be a musician.

"At one point I wanted to be an astronaut, but that didn't work out," he chuckles. "My love for blues just grew and grew."

Rea learned his love of music from his father, Lloyd Rea, who served as the Baker County judge for 30 years.

"My dad was really a player. But I started playing professionally with my dad when I was about 5 years old," Rea says. "He had the first big country swing band in Oregon."

In sixth grade, Rea's own band was called "The Wandering Kind," made up of him and three boys from Nampa.

"We had a pretty popular band," Rea smiles.

From there, he just kept going.

In his twenties, Rea moved to Portland. It was there that he met Pete Karnes.

"He was a really well respected harmonica player," Rea says.

He credits Karnes with helping him break into the blues scene.

"I call him my second dad. He just had all the connections — he knew about blues."

Rea rattles off the names of legends he's met — like Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters — and some he's backed up, like BB King and John Lee Hooker.

"When they'd come to Portland, they'd ask to have me back them up. I played with BB King one night when his bass player was sick. What a nice man — he was a nice guy," Rea says.

He admits he's tried to quit several times.

He was an insurance agent for a while.

In 1982, he opened Rainbow Music in Baker City.

But he couldn't suppress his desire for the stage.

A bit of this mentality came from his father's advice, he says.

"He got me aside and said, ‘If you really love it, don't quit. It'll haunt you forever.'"

Then, while playing at a nightclub in 1990, Rea's left foot was crushed during an accident on stage.

Bad went to worse as he developed a staph infection during his hospital stay.

"That eventually went into my pancreas," he says.

That, coupled with a case of "worse than borderline diabetes," also shut down his kidneys and he had to go on dialysis.

He was told he probably wouldn't qualify for a transplant.

In the meantime, he kept playing.

"I never quit," he says. "I'd play and throw up. You just take what you get handed and limp on through life."

This year, everything changed.

In February, a doctor reviewed his case, then had him undergo tests in preparation for getting on a transplant list.

He finished those at the end of April.

"They gave me a little pager," he chuckles, "and said ‘You might have it for a year or five years.'"

He got a call two weeks later.

On May 8, Rae underwent surgery.

"This kidney transplant, it's a second chance at life," he says.

Three weeks later he and the Switchmasters were playing at The Cascade in Vancouver, Wash.

"I wasn't supposed to, but I did," he says.

Though he's won awards along the way — Cascade Blues Association Hall of Fame, Bay Area Blues Society Hall of Fame and West Coast Blues Hall of Fame — he just smiles at the certificates framed on the wall.

"I'm very honored and it probably does get me jobs, but on the other hand, so what? That doesn't make me a better person," he says.

"All in all, it's like anything else — a lot of luck and perseverance. Guys my age — they talk about their 401K. I'm just looking for another bar to play in."

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