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Billy Boy Arnold’s Legacy as a Chicago Blues harpist

Billy Boy Arnold’s Legacy as a Chicago Blues harpist

In the Chicago blues scene of the 1950s Billy Boy Arnold  was doing a whole lot of recordings. He learned harp from Sonny Boy ‘John Lee’ Williamson just before Williamson’s death. He worked in his uncle’s store during those days and Williamson lived close.

As a teenager he debuted at the Cool label with the song “Hello Stranger” in 1952.  A few years later he was part of the Bo Diddley band that recorded ‘I’m A Man’ for Checker records. As a solo musician for Veejay he recorded songs like I Wish You Would” and “I Ain’t Got You”. But Billy Boy Arnold never reached the fame other Chicago bluesman around had. Nevertheless, the bluesman who was born and raised in Chicago recorded some of the finest  Rhythm ‘nd Blues songs.

Learning harmonica from Sonny Boy Williamson I

In an interview with L. “Chicago Beau” Beauchamp Billy Boy Arnold explained how the blues came to him. “Billy Boy Arnold’ s father, mother, sisters and grandparents all like and listened to the blues, so for Billy Boy the blues was the music he had to play. In his teenage years Arnold had a job in his uncle’s Butcher Shop, he learned Sonny Boy lived close and one day a man with a guitar around his neck, probably Lazy Bill Lucas walked by. Billy asked the men if he knew where Sonny Boy lived, the bluesman knew Sonny’s address and with his cousin Archie, Billy Boy went to 3226 South Giles and rang the bell. The blues master openened the door and said “Can I help you?”. Billy wanted to learn harmonica, Sonny boy said “Come on up, I’m proud to have you”.” (BluesSpeak: The Best of the Original Chicago Blues Annual, by Lincoln T. Beauchamp)

“A week later Billy returned to Sonny Boy’s house, he hadn’t improved his harmonica skills much. Sonny Boy thought Billy Boy came by to trade comics, because Williamson traded comics with a lot kids in the neighborhood. Billy Boy made clear he came around for harmonica lessons, the old master showed the kid how to play.” Sonny Boy Williamson was a really optimistic guy, Happy Go Lucky. (BluesSpeak: The Best of the Original Chicago Blues Annual, by Lincoln T. Beauchamp)

Sonny Boy´s Death and performing with Bo Diddley

One day in 1948, Yank Rachell tells, Sonny Boy Williamson stepped out of a cab on his way home, some other guys on the street jumped on Sonny Boy, knocked him down and robbed his money. Sonny Boy “John Lee” Williamson wouldn’t survive the robbery. Billy Boy Arnold lost his teacher but would go on. The Maxwell street market was a popular place for Blues Musicians. Earl Hooker, Muddy Waters and Little Walter all performed there. Billy Boy Arnold met Bo Diddley at the market, they started playing blues together. In 1955 Billy Boy was part of the band that recorded “I’m a Man for Checker records.

Billy Boy Arnold at Vee Jay Records

Billy Boy Arnold believed Leonard Chess didn´t like him, so he signed with Veejay Records . At Veejay Records he released songs like `I Wish You Would` and ´I Ain´t Got You´, here Billy Boy Arnold came to his best Rhythm ‘nd Blues songs. The songs were catchy Rhythmic and easy listenable. Maybe inspired by Bo Diddley but probably by his own feeling Billy Recorded some of the finest tunes around. Listen also to “Rockin’Itis”.

`I Wish You Would`

´I Ain´t Got You´

“Rockin’ Itis”

The late Sixties blues

After releasing the ‘More Blues From The South Side’ album the opportunities dried up which led to a small goodbye to the artist life. Billy Boy took jobs as a bus driver and even became a parole officer.

Billy Boy Arnold at Alligator Records

In 1992 Billy Boy made his come back at Alligator Records with the album BACK WHERE I BELONG. We would see a new Arnold with a repertoire containing more classic blues songs like ‘Fine Young Girl’ . Also ‘Whiskey Beer and Reefer’ is a traditional blues song. Alligator writes about this album: “the combination of Delta-influenced blues with a more urban sophistication not only defines Arnold’s sound, but was also a significant contribution in the early, formative days of rock and roll”. ELDORADO CADILLAC’s was the next album recorded for Alligator. Billy Boy Arnold was like R.L. Burnside and T. Model Ford back on top of business during the nineties.

The great Chicago Billy Boy Arnold can look back at a career that lasts more than sixty years. He plays blues and Rhythm and Blues. He recorded for a whole lot of record labels. The music and legacy of this blues master is worth and ode.

photo credit: Billy Boy Arnold@Mojo Workin’ 2014 via photopin (license)

Billy Boy Arnold Plays Sonny Boy Williamson

Billy Boy Arnold Back Where I Belong

Billy Boy Arnold – Oh! Me! Oh! My! Blues

From Bruce DiMattia – An interview with bluesman, Billy Boy Arnold, world famous blues vocalist, harmonica player and song writer, at the Chicago Blues Festival, June 1992.

An interview with Billy Boy Arnold, June 1992 from Bruce DiMattia on Vimeo.

Shake that Boogie

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