Friday, November 28, 2014

The Blues Soul of Billy Boy Arnold

A few weeks ago, I got a copy of The Blues Soul of Billy Boy Arnold in the mail.  The singer/harmonica player made a comeback to the blues scene in the early 90's and the comeback has actually lasted longer than his early career did, which is a blessing for blues fans.  Arnold's career involves performing and interacting with a host of blues legends, dating back to the 40's.  The 79-year-old is still going strong today, retaining much of his youthful vigor and spirit.  He's still an A-1 harmonica player and his vocals are as strong as ever.  As indicated by the title of his latest album, Arnold is at as comfortable with a soul number as he is with the blues.

This new release, his second with Stony Plain Records, is produced by Duke Robillard and finds Arnold performing some of his favorite songs, regardless of genre.  That means that there's plenty of good blues (standards like "St. James Infirmary," "Ain't That Just Like A Woman," "I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water") and soul (Ann Peebles' "99 Lbs.," Joe Tex's "A Mother's Prayer"), rock & roll (Chuck Berry's "Nadine") and even jazz (Nat Adderley's "Work Song"), and Arnold handles them all.

The Billy Boy Arnold story is an interesting one.  Unlike many of his contemporaries, Billy Boy Arnold didn't make the move from Mississippi to Chicago.  He was actually born in Chicago on September 16, 1935.  He grew up listening to the blues on his aunt's record player, the current fare that was on Bluebird Records from artists like Sonny Boy Williamson (Version 1.0, John Lee Williamson, is the Sonny Boy referred to for the rest of this post), Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, Big Maceo, Tampa Red, and music from the likes of Erskine Hawkins, Glenn Miller, and Tommy Dorsey was mixed in as well.  Arnold was particularly taken with the music of Sonny Boy Williamson, and after hearing "Mellow Chick Swing," which featured a nice harmonica solo at the end of the song, he bought a plastic harmonica at Sears & Roebuck, but soon graduated to the real thing.

Eventually, he got the courage to actually approach the harmonica player, knocking on Williamson's door, who lived close by.  Williamson not only invited Arnold and his friends in, but actually gave him a couple of harp lessons just before he was murdered in June of 1948.  Though their time together was relatively brief (only three visits), Williamson remained a lasting influence on Arnold's music.

In 1952, Arnold managed to land a deal with Chicago's Cool label and released his first record, "Hello Stranger."  He didn't realize until Cool issued the single that they had listed him as "Billy Boy Arnold."  The youngster, who was 17 at the time, didn't particularly like the new moniker, but it stuck.

Later, he teamed up with a young street musician named Ellis McDaniel (you might know him by his nickname, Bo Diddley).  Diddley, an electronic whiz of sorts, made an amplifier out of an orange crate for Arnold.  Arnold convinced Diddley to audition for Chess Records and, in 1955, Diddley recorded his first hit for Chess, a two-sided hit of "Bo Diddley"/"I'm A Man," with Arnold backing him on harmonica.  Arnold, however, signed with Chess rival Vee-Jay Records, after being mistakenly told (by Diddley) that Leonard Chess didn't like him.  He recorded a couple of solo sides for Chess, but they weren't released until many years later.

Arnold enjoyed a nice measure of success with Vee-Jay, cutting his now-classic "I Wish You Would," which used that now-famous Bo Diddley beat, along with some other memorable tunes, such as "I Ain't Got You," "Prisoner's Plea," "Don't Stay Out All Night," and "Rockinitis."  The Yardbirds actually covered "I Wish You Would" and "I Ain't Got You" in the early 60's, and his songs were also covered by David Bowie, the Animals, and the Blasters.

By 1958, Arnold was done at Vee-Jay, though he continued to perform in Chicago clubs and release the occasional 45, and subsequently released an excellent album in 1963 for Prestige Records, called More Blues On The South  Side, that is considered a classic today.  However, the Chicago Blues scene was beginning to dry up, Arnold took a job driving a bus, and later working as a parole officer, to support his growing family.  He continued to perform and record occasionally (a early 60's live set with piano man Johnny Jones, released years later by Alligator Records, is a keeper), playing at various European and U.S. festivals in the 70's, 80's, and into the 90's.

In 1993, Arnold signed with Alligator Records and released his comeback album, the appropriately titled Back Where I Belong, to rave reviews.  The album mixed some nice remakes of some of his classics ("I Wish You Would," "Prisoner's Plea," "You Got Me Wrong") with some great new songs, and tributes to some of his influences (Sonny Boy Williamson's "Shake The Boogie" and Big Maceo's "Worried Life Blues").  Two years later, he released Eldorado Cadillac, following the same pattern with remakes of "I Ain't Got You" and "Don't Stay Out All Night," plus with a few more new originals that stood out ("Man of Considerable Taste," "Mama's Bitter Seed").

In 2001, Arnold signed with Stony Plain and released Boogie 'n' Shuffle, which was produced by Duke Robillard.  The album combined Arnold's brand of blues (in the tradition of his mentor, Sonny Boy Williamson) with some solid Jimmy McCracklin/Ray Charles-based R&B and soul, and even some down-home variety Delta-styled blues.  A nice, solid set through and through, it also included a really cool 15-minute interview with Arnold at the end of the disc recounting his view of the early Chicago blues scene.

Several years, later Electro-Fi Records released Consolidated Mojo, an album that Arnold actually recorded a year before his comeback on Alligator.  For some reason, it was not released initially, though Arnold sounds pretty good and reprises many of his earlier hits like he did on the Alligator releases a few years later.  Arnold also released a couple of tribute albums with Electro-Fi......a wonderful Sonny Boy Williamson tribute in 2008 and a Big Bill Broonzy tribute in 2012.

Arnold also appeared as part of the Chicago Blues:  A Living History series that appeared in 2009 and 2011, with many of the city's current stars (such as Lurrie Bell, Billy Branch, and John Primer) paying tribute to the Windy City's legendary bluesmen of the past.  Arnold was the link between the two generations and sounded just great on both double-disc sets, even touring with the band behind both albums in the U.S. and overseas.  He also appeared on the award-winning Remembering Little Walter disc a couple of years ago.

When you listen to The Blues Soul of Billy Boy Arnold, you will be impressed and amazed at how great Arnold still sounds.  His harmonica playing is as good as ever, but as a vocalist, he has become even better, branching out from blues to soul, R&B, jump, and even jazz.  At 79 years young, he shows no signs of slowing down, thank goodness.


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