Produced by Randy Chortkoff
Recorded by Glenn Nishida at Pacifica Studios, Culver City, CA
Additional recording by Julian Herzfeld at Acme Studios, Chicago, IL
Mixed by Julian Herzfeld at Acme Studios, Chicago, IL
Mixes supervised by Randy Chortkoff and Bruce Iglauer
Photography by Peter Amft; Cover design by Matt Minde
Production coordination by David Forte
Billy Boy Arnold: Harmonica and Vocals
Zach Zunis: Guitar
Chris Faulk: Guitar (6, 12, 13)
Mike Flanagan: Guitar (7)
Rick Holmstrom: Guitar (1, 4, 9-11)
Willie Brinlee: Bass (6, 7, 12, 13)
Pete Cosey: Bass (14)
Tom Leavey: Bass (1-5, 8-11)
Jimi Bott: Drums (2, 3, 5-7, 12-14)
Lee Smith: Drums (1, 4, 8-11)
Andy Kaulkin: Piano (2, 4-6, 14)
Rob Rio: Piano (3, 12, 13)
Lester Butler: Harmonica (7)
Randy Chortkoff: Harmonica (10, 11)
Hook Herrera: Harmonica (8)
Speak face to face with bluesman Billy Boy Arnold and after a while you have the feeling that something about him doesn't quite add up. This man looks to be in his early forties, with a steady gaze, articulate speech, unlined face, trim build and a head of hair devoid of grey. Isn't this the singer and harmonica player who's near sixty and has been recording since the 1950s? They are one and the same. Billy Boy may have aged over forty years since he began playing the blues, but, like his appearance, his music is that of a mature bluesman who is still full of youthful energy.
This 57-year-old native Chicagoan was a key player in the development of both Chicago blues and early rock 'n' roll. He got his first harmonica lessons from John Lee Williamson, the original Sonny Boy. Billy was an important member of the early Bo Diddley band and, later on, a star in his own right with his widely influential recordings for the Vee Jay label, made between 1955 and 1957. Billy's records and original compositions have made him a significant figure in the blues world; his songs were covered by British bands of the1960s like the Yardbirds and the Animals (I Ain't Got You and I WishYou Would , respectively). Also, he is a highly individual harmonica stylist who chose to utilize Sonny Boy's fluttering "wah wah" vibrato even after Little Walter's "Louisiana Saxophone" style became dominant in Chicago.
So why isn't Billy Boy Arnold a household name? Why wasn't he able to parlay the adulation of young Brits into a solid career as a performer and songwriter? Why is his profile as a nationally touring performer just now emerging? Maybe this release, which is Arnold's most significant recording in almost thirty years, will bring him the recognition he's always deserved. It should make it clear that Billy Boy Arnold is back where he belongs.
Although his family was from Georgia, Billy was born in Chicago in 1935. He literally grew up at the same time as that city's important postwar blues developments. As a Chicago native, Billy had no Southern musical baggage that he had to adapt to meet the demands of an urban musical environment. His chief role model on the harmonica was, and remains, Sonny Boy Williamson I. It was Sonny Boy who showed an admiring twelve-year-old Billy how to "choke the harp" and showed the boy the advantages of playing Marine Band harmonicas. Their meetings were few, however, and Williamson, whose citywide fame and popularity were unmatched by any blues performer of the late 1940s, met with a violent end. This didn't deter Arnold's passion for the blues (he knew most of Sonny Boy's recorded work by heart) and its makers.
The teenaged Billy was tall for his age and baby-faced. In the company of older musicians like Louis Myers, he began frequenting the tough blues clubs like the original Sylvio's at Oakley and Lake Streets. Here he heard blues masters like J.B. Lenoir, Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, Robert Lockwood and Johnny Jones. Billy's first paying jobs as a musician were a series of one-nighters with the likes of veterans Johnny Temple, Johnny Shines and a very young Otis Rush. A chance encounter led to Billy's association with guitarist Ellas McDaniel, later to be known as Bo Diddley. In the fall of 1954, Billy joined Bo's band, then a street corner outfit that often set up shop in front of Ada's Lounge at 51st and Prairie. The give-and-take between Arnold and Diddley was meaningful; electronics buff Bo fabricated Billy's first amplifier (out of an orange crate!) and Arnold wrote the tune that would later become Diddley Daddy , one of Bo's signature songs. Arnold was a creative source of rhythmic input to what came to be known as "the Bo Diddley beat;" his stop time harp phrases gave Bo's music an extra rhythmic layer.
The band attracted the attention of Leonard Chess and they recorded I'm A Man and Bo Diddley in February of 1955. (Two sides under Arnold's leadership were also cut but remained unissued until one was included in this year's Chess Blues Box on MCA.) A misunderstanding ("Leonard don't like you," Bo told Billy) sent Arnold across the street to Vee Jay to seek his own record deal. The resulting body of recorded work made young Billy Boy (the label gave him the nickname) a blues star on Chicago's South Side. He shared bills with Howlin' Wolf, Junior Wells, Little Walter and other legends of the late 1950s, at clubs like McKie's Lounge, Club Columbia and the Rock 'n' Roll Lounge.
Arnold continued working as a regular on the Chicago blues scene into the 1960s but seldom ventured out of town to work. He recorded infrequently but sometimes quite effectively (his 1963 album for Prestige/Bluesville is ripe for reissue). Billy didn't venture to Europe until 1974 and by this time his music career was an avocation. Career work as a truant officer, a bus driver and with the State of Illinois as a counselor to women parolees kept Arnold's musical aspirations at bay. Until now, that is.
For this recording, producer Randy Chortkoff put Billy in the company of Randy's band, The Taildraggers (guitarist Zach Zunis, pianist Andy Kaulkin, bassist Tom Leavey and drummer Lee Smith), a respected Los Angeles blues aggregation. This core group is augmented throughout the fourteen songs with key players from L.A.'s thriving blues scene. The material performed represents a wide range of blues-related forms and musical sources. I Wish You Would, You Got MeWrong, and Prisoner's Plea are from Arnold's Vee Jay years. Shake The Boogie is Billy's nod to his mentor, Sonny Boy Williamson; it's one of the latter's great jump tunes. Big Maceo Merriwether's Worried Life Blues is a tribute to Merriwether, the tremendous barrelhouse pianist and one of Williamson's Chicago contemporaries. Slim Harpo's Louisiana mantra, Shake Your Hips, is turbo-charged by Zunis' rocking guitar work. The structure of Kaulkin's Move On Down The Road recalls Chuck Berry's Almost Grown while Art Wade's and Billy Boy's joint composition Wandering Eye is reminiscent of Willie Dixon's Hoochie Coochie Man. Billy's own Whiskey, Beer And Reefer suggests John Lee Hooker's modal vamps. Arnold's contribution to the Bo Diddley beat is summed up on I Wish You Would, propelled by Zunis' tough guitar riffs. Billy considers Rob Rio one of the most inspiring pianists he's ever worked with; Rob's keyboard contributions to Fine Young Girl summon the memory of the late Memphis Slim. Fool For You is a recent composition by Billy, who thought so much of Zunis' guitar contribution to the tune that he cut him in on composer credit. San Diego bluesman Art Wade came up with the title Wandering Eye, and Arnold liked what the phrase suggested so he wrote his own lyrics. Lester Butler of the Red Devils achieves a train-like harmonica on Shake Your Hips with the help of a "bullet" mike. "I think," says Arnold, "that Lester is one of the greater harp players that I have heard and I appreciate his participation in this album."
As an indication of Billy's influence, harpist Hook Herrera cheerfully states his own debt to Arnold: "I've been ripping him off for years, man." Herrera respectfully plays in the Sonny Boy/BillyBoy vein on Whiskey. Prisoner's Plea is the kind of one-chord ramble that would have been right at home on a Howlin' Wolf show. It also serves as a reminder of just how far Billy has matured as a vocalist. Compare the original Vee Jay version and you'll see that the years have added a depth of expression that is out of a young man's reach.
It's that maturity that is the hallmark of this recording. You can hear it in the vocals, the harp playing and Billy's songs, especially the newer ones. If you're only familiar with Billy's older recorded work, let this serve as your reintroduction to a worthy talent. If this is your first meeting with the music of Billy Boy Arnold, this recording can act as his calling card, his resume and his creed. It signals that he's back in the blues game for good. He's back where he belongs.
-- Kirk Silsbee
Kirk Silsbee writes about jazz and blues from Southern California for a number of local and national publications.