Billy Boy Arnold with Kim Field – The Blues Dream Of Billy Boy Arnold
267 pages – Hardcover edition
Born in Chicago in 1935, William Arnold developed a love of music at a young age, falling under the spell of records by Nat King Cole, Jazz Gillum, Big Maceo Merriweather, and Lil Green. But one artist towered over the others – John Lee Williamson, better known as Sonny Boy Williamson. His singing and harmonica playing so captivated the youthful Arnold that once he learned that Williamson lived in Chicago, he began a personal quest to track down the artist. Ever time he saw anyone carrying a guitar on the street, Arnold would approach them to learn if they knew Sonny Boy.
That was the start of a musical odyssey that is the foundation of this extraordinary autobiography of a musician who was an active participant in some of the seminal moments of American music.
Eventually meeting his hero, Arnold got to share a few visits with Williamson before he was brutally murdered. Arnold applied those lessons he learned to his own playing, gradually gaining an understanding that Williamson was the first to move the harmonica beyond just background accompaniment. By the time he was a teenager, Arnold had a single obsession, a dogged pursuit to make his own record.
Growing up during the golden age of Chicago blues, Arnold has a treasure trove of memories and experiences to share about many of the legendary musicians in their prime. As co-author Field relates in his foreword, Arnold has an amazing memory, often able to recall events down to the finest details. Those recollections bring to life well-known artists like Otis Rush and Jimmy Reed. But more importantly, Arnold highlights some musicians who never achieved the level of recognition enjoyed by others, people like Forrest City Joe, Blind John Davis, and Johnny Young.
One day in 1951, Arnold spotted two guitar players and another musician with a washtub buying some burgers in a corner restaurant. Introducing himself, he met Jody Williams and Ellas McDaniel, the two guitarists. That fateful meeting eventually lead to Arnold playing in McDaniel’s band, the Hipsters, in clubs where the under-aged Arnold was welcome. Soon, a session with Chess Records was arranged, and a suggestion by Arnold helped complete a song that would announced to the world the arrival of “Bo Diddley.” They cut another gem, “I’m A Man,” at the same session.
Arnold’s dream finally came true at the age of seventeen when he cut two tracks for Cool Records. It wasn’t what he had envisioned, as the label changed the backing band, a loose aggregation of players unfamiliar with Arnold’s style. He also received a shock when the record, available as 78 or 45 rpm versions, was attributed to “Billy Boy Arnold,” honoring his devotion to his mentor. The nickname stuck.
His unrelenting determination later pushed him to visit the offices of Vee-Jay Records, a noted Chicago label, where Arnold managed to leverage his participation on Bo Diddley’s record into his own recording session. When the powers-that-be weren’t happy with some of the material, Arnold went home to write a revised song, which became the oft-covered classic “I Wish You Would”. Following that hit, Arnold cut some other notable tracks for the label, including “I Ain’t Got You,” “Rockin’ Itis,” and his original tune, ‘Kissing At Midnight”.
From there, the book chronicles Arnold’s journey through the highlights and perils of the music business. While he finds steady work in Chicago’s vibrant club scene, he is denied songwriting credit on some songs, fails to receive any financial reward from Vee-Jay, and does his best to avoid the pitfalls of alcohol, drugs, and women, who find his tasteful clothing style and youthful features quite alluring.
A page-turner in the finest sense, this well-told story at times makes readers feel like they are there, experiencing events right along with Arnold. Some of the best passages focus on Little Walter Jacobs, who Arnold describes as the greatest blues harmonica player of all time. Credit Kim Field for helping Arnold create such a riveting narrative. Field’s experience comes from authoring the book Harmonicas, Harps, and Heavy Breathers, which delves into the instrument’s impact across virtually every musical genre.
For anyone with an interest in blues music, this book is a must-read. In telling the story of Billy Boy Arnold, it also provides readers with first-hand details and descriptions of a golden era of the Chicago blues tradition. Most highly recommended!