Band of the Day

2012.10.14

Billy Boy Arnold

A revered Chicago bluesman interprets the songs of a classic blues master
I was just a dream, just a dream I had on my mind. Yeah when I woke up baby not a thing could I find.
lyrics from It Was Just A Dream

It’s hard to imagine anyone better equipped than Billy Boy Arnold to do a Big Bill Broonzy tribute CD. As a child growing up on Chicago’s South Side, Billy Boy was captivated by the recordings that Big Bill and his musical colleagues made in the 1930s and ‘40s. He was particularly inspired by the music made by Big Bill’s friend, harmonica master John Lee “Sonny Boy No. 1” Williamson, whom the enterprising 12-year old Billy Boy sought out for several private lessons. A few years later, thanks to an introduction from pianist Blind John Davis, Billy Boy got the chance to meet and talk with Big Bill. He saw the older bluesman perform numerous times, in venues ranging from blues clubs on the South and West Side to the prestigious Blue Note jazz club downtown in the Loop. In fact, at one point in the 1950s, the up-and-coming harmonica player and singer even asked Big Bill if he would consider making a record with him.

“I wanted Big Bill to play on it because he played with Sonny Boy,” Billy Boy recalls. “I wanted to get that same sound.” But Big Bill declined the offer, suggesting to Billy Boy that he instead ask the members of the Aces, who were then backing Little Walter and were emerging as a formidable musical powerhouse in their own right. Billy Boy believes that Big Bill clearly recognized that his style of guitar playing “wasn’t what was happening,” and therefore steered Billy Boy in the direction of more contemporary players.

Over the intervening six decades, Billy Boy has established an international reputation for his distinctive set of contributions to the Chicago blues tradition. Through his recordings and performances, as well as his exceptional powers of recall and his engaging storytelling abilities, he has been both an invaluable witness to blues history and a noteworthy figure in making it. Now, with Billy Boy Arnold Sings Big Bill Broonzy, he has been able to fulfill his longtime wish of recording the music of one of the bluesmen he most admires.

While Band of the Day often aims to bring you the best new bands, sometimes it’s just as important to look to the past, to the artists who gave rise to the different genres we know and love. Billy Boy Arnold might not be a household name, but he’s been an underground force to be reckoned with since the early days of Chicago blues, a scene that included blues legends like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Bo Diddley. In the early 50s, he played harmonica on Bo Diddley’s song “I’m a Man,” and wrote songs that were later covered by The Yardbirds (“I Wish You Would” and “I Ain’t Got You”) and David Bowie (also “I Wish You Would”).

With his harmonica in hand, the bluesman continued playing in clubs around Chicago and recording material throughout the late 50s and early 60s. However, opportunities slowly began to dry up, leading Arnold to pursue side careers as a bus driver, and even a parole officer. Luckily Arnold never gave up on music, playing a number of blues festivals around the world and recording new material over the past six decades.

Most recently, the bluesman released Billy Boy Arnold Sings Big Bill Broonzy earlier this year, a 15-song homage to the classic blues master. Growing up in the South Side of Chicago, Billy Boy became captivated by Big Bill’s recordings from the 30s and 40s, including Big Bill’s friend, harmonica master John Lee “Sonny Boy No. 1” Williamson. At just 12 years old, Billy Boy sought out Williamson for private lessons, and finally met Big Bill a few years later. He asked Big Bill if he would consider making a record with him, but Big Bill declined and instead steered him in the direction of playing with more contemporary players.

Billy Boy never got the chance to record with his hero (who passed away in 1958), but on Billy Boy Arnold Sings Big Bill Broonzy he admirably pays tribute on classic songs like the Dixieland jazz ditty “Going Back to Arkansas,” the harmonica-heavy “Key to the Highway,” and swingin’ closing number “Just Got to Hold You Tight.” Whether interpreting the songs of one of the original bluesmasters, or writing his own original songs for other people to interpret, Billy Boy Arnold has established himself as one of the genre’s greatest harmonicists.