Featured interview – Billy Boy Arnold

billy boy arnold image 1Attendees at this year’s storm-shortened Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans were treated to a very special set from Billy Boy Arnold. The Chicago blues harmonica legend blasted out a non-stop parade of his seminal mid-‘50s singles for Vee-Jay Records, backed by a band that knew his repertoire intimately.

The set was prompted by Stomp boss Ira “Dr. Ike” Padnos. “It was great,” says Arnold. “Ira’s a fan of the Vee-Jay stuff, so that’s what he wants me to do. I love to do it.”

Those Vee-Jay classics form a sizable part of Arnold’s legacy. Arnold was working as Bo Diddley’s harpist when he waxed “I Wish You Would” for Chicago’s “other” great postwar blues label, Vivian Carter and Jimmy Bracken’s Vee-Jay Records, in May of 1955 at Universal Recording Corporation.

“I was playing with Bo Diddley at the time. We were doing a thing at the Trianon Ballroom with Ruth Brown. And I had wrote a song called ‘Diddy Diddy Dum Dum.’ I was playing the same riff on the harmonica that I (would) on ‘I Wish You Would.’ Bo Diddley only played the guitar behind it. I did the singing and the playing. And Leonard Chess heard the song. He was there that night. He told Bo, ‘That’s your next record!’” Behind-the-scenes machinations scuttled that.

“Bo told me, ‘I’d better take you to another record company, because Leonard don’t particularly like you!’ And that was because he thought I was a smart-alecky kid,” says Billy.

“So I went to Vee-Jay and told Jimmy Bracken, ‘I’m Bo Diddley’s harmonica player, and I’ve got a song, and Leonard Chess don’t particularly like me.’ So he said, ‘Well, come by tomorrow and I’ll have Calvin (Carter, Vee-Jay’s A&R man) listen to it!’ So I went by and I talked to Calvin, and they set up the session. I went and got Jody Williams on guitar, and the rest of the band was there in the studio when I got there: (pianist) Henry Gray and Howlin’ Wolf’s drummer, Earl Phillips. And then they had a bass player named Milton Rector, who was the first electric bass player that was in Chicago.

“Calvin Carter told me, ‘Write a new lyric on the song. We don’t want no competition with Chess, so write a new lyric.’ That’s why I wrote a new lyric, which came out ‘I Wish You Would.’ I wrote it right there on the spot. ‘I Wish You Would’ really established me and put my name on the map.”

Even though he recorded a variation of the song as “Diddley Daddy” with Little Walter on harp (Billy played on the hypnotic flip, “She’s Fine, She’s Mine”), Bo wasn’t happy. “He thought that I betrayed him. But I didn’t betray him. I was going to sing the song. The song would have come out with me singing and playing harmonica, and Bo Diddley just playing the guitar,” says Arnold. “After that, we went back in the studio to do some stuff with Bo, and Leonard told me, ‘You know, when I first met you, I didn’t like you. When I first met Little Walter, I didn’t like him!’ Because Little Walter was cocky, young and cocky.”

Williams brought in “I Was Fooled,” the rolling blues on the other side of Billy’s first Vee-Jay single. “That was Jody’s song. I was caught off guard. I didn’t have a lot of material ready,” says Arnold. “When we went to Vee-Jay, Jody was going to record for them. He had a song called ‘I Was Fooled,’ and I had ‘I Wish You Would.’ So the people at Vee-Jay asked Jody, ‘Well, let Billy Boy do this song, because he’s suited to that type of material.’ So Jody let me do ‘I Was Fooled.’ They did two sides on Morris Pejoe, two sides on me, and two sides on Earl Phillips. That’s how the session went down. Henry Gray was Morris Pejoe’s piano player.”

“I Wish You Would,” issued under the handle of Billy Boy with no last name, did well enough regionally to earn Arnold several more Vee-Jay sessions. The first transpired that October. Arnold penned “Don’t Stay Out All Night,” the blazing shuffle that formed half of his encore single. “I used to like ‘No More Doggin’’ by Rosco Gordon. So I kind of liked that beat,” says Billy. But it was the other side of that Vee-Jay platter that really had legs.

“Calvin wrote ‘I Ain’t Got You,’ and they recorded it on Jimmy Reed,” says Arnold. “But they didn’t like Jimmy Reed’s take on it. It was sort of draggy and slow, you know. So he asked me to do it.” Williams dreamed up the distinctive break lick. “Jody was a very creative young guitar player. He had a beautiful tone on the guitar, and he was very creative. Now if I had have made those records with some of the ordinary blues guys around Chicago, they wouldn’t have been effective,” says Arnold. “Jody did his best work on my sessions.”

billy boy arnold image 2The Yardbirds, with Eric Clapton on lead guitar, revived both “I Wish You Would” and “I Ain’t Got You” in 1964, testifying to Arnold’s influence on the British blues explosion. “It really gave me a boost all the way around,” says Billy. “It was a great compliment.”

That same date also spawned Arnold’s next Vee-Jay outing, “Here’s My Picture,” sporting a storming two-chorus Gray piano ride. “That came from Sonny Boy’s record, ‘Black Gal Blues,’” says Billy. Songsmith Jesse Cryor was responsible for the tough flip side, “You’ve Got Me Wrong.” “They would have different guys come by as writers, and they would have some material and (we’d) record it,” says Billy.

Williams was supplanted by young guitarist Sylvester Thompson, later known as Syl Johnson, at Arnold’s next Vee-Jay date in November of ‘56. “I went to Oklahoma and stayed about a month with Earl Hooker. And I came back, I didn’t have a band or a gig. So Shakey Jake said, ‘You’re looking for a band? I know two young guys, Syl (Thompson) and Odell Campbell. I know two great young guitar players!’ So he introduced me to them,” says Arnold. “‘I Ain’t Got You’ had just came out, and it was pretty hot around Chicago. So I started playing at 2711 Wentworth, and I got Syl on guitar and Odell Campbell, and a guy named Duke Tyus on drums.”

Syl’s clippity-clop boogie guitar groove fueled “Kissing At Midnight,” half of Billy’s next Vee-Jay offering (Magic Sam would later borrow its groove for his instrumental “Lookin’ Good”). “I wrote the song, and Syl Johnson came up with that beat that he had heard down in Mississippi,” says Arnold. “I gave him half of the writers’ on that. But I wrote the song.” Arnold also wrote the other side, “My Heart Is Crying.”

Billy waxed his last Vee-Jay session in September of ‘57. Syl’s slashing licks were all over the vibrant “Prisoner’s Plea.” “This guy, C.L. Hawkins, took it there,” says Billy. “Vee-Jay asked me to do it.” The churning “Rockin Itis” brought Billy full circle to the elastic underpinning of “I Wish You Would,” but he had nothing to do with penning it. “Theodore Twiggs was a writer for Vee-Jay,” says Billy. “Him and Calvin Carter and Al Smith got together on all of that.”

Vee-Jay’s braintrust didn’t measure up to that of Chess when it came to production. “They were nice people, but they didn’t have what Leonard Chess had. If you recorded in Chicago, you’d be better off to record for Leonard Chess,” he says. “(Vee-Jay’s bosses) weren’t really deeply into blues. They brought blues guys in and took them down to the studio and let the blues guys record what they were going to record. They didn’t have much input. Leonard was trying to milk the cow of every drop of milk that was there. He was hands on. He would tell you what to do.”

Arnold wouldn’t return to the studio until two days prior to the end of 1963, but it was a historic occasion. More Blues on the South Side, produced by Sam Charters for Prestige Records, appears to have been the first electric Chicago blues album (as opposed to a collection of hit singles) cut in a studio. And for the first time, record buyers learned Billy Boy’s last name.

“Sam Charters was in Chicago, looking for somebody to record. And somebody mentioned Junior Wells,” says Arnold. “But Bob Koester said, ‘Well, Billy Boy Arnold would be a good guy to record!’ And Sam Charters got in touch with me. I wrote all that stuff on there that’s original in a couple of days, because I knew that if you make a record, nobody wants to hear you keep singing Muddy Waters stuff, and Fats Domino. You’ve got to come up with some material of your own. So I got all that together in a couple of days and selected the musicians—my brother (Jerome Arnold) on bass, Lafayette Leake on the piano, Junior Blackmon on drums, and Mighty Joe Young, who was my guitar player for a couple of years, on the guitar.”

billy boy arnold image 3Arnold had been gigging steadily on the South and West Sides in the years between label hookups. “We were playing all-black clubs at that time. The white people hadn’t started coming into the clubs,” he says. “Club Columbia I was playing on 63rd, and the Rock and Roll, right across the street from it. I played Sylvio’s, co-starring with Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters at Sylvio’s in 1957.

“They had three bands. Each band would play an hour. Continuous entertainment. They had Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters and my band. Elmore James was playing there, but he had had a heart attack, and he was kind of taking it easy. But to play Sylvio’s and to be opposite Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf was a great honor. It really was a lot of prestige. The people liked me because I had charisma. I wasn’t probably as good or had the experience that they had, because I was much younger. But I had the charisma, and the young women liked me. The younger people catered to me. And I was singing all the blues—I was singing everybody’s songs.”

A serious student of blues since he was a lad, Billy was probably the first Chicago-born blues artist of note. He encountered no interference from his family regarding his love for blues—specifically those of harmonica pioneer John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson. “My grandfather had a hotel and a restaurant in Toledo, Ohio, and he would send my mother records from the jukebox,” he says. “One record he sent her was called ‘G. M. & O. Blues’ by Sonny Boy Williamson.

“I was just fascinated how to make the harmonica sound like that. So I asked my mother. She said, ‘That’s that guy that made ‘Mattie Mae.’ We had the record by him when I was seven years old, my aunt did,” he continues. “My father was talking to my mother casually. And he said, ‘That guy came in the Club Georgia the other night, and everybody was hollering, “Hey, Sonny Boy, and throwing money to him!”’ I thought a guy like that would be out in California, like a movie star somewhere. And I realized that he lived in Chicago. My father’s brother had a butcher shop at 31st and Giles, right a couple of doors from the Plantation Lounge, where Sonny Boy played at the night he got killed. I was at the butcher shop, and a guy passed with a guitar, and I flagged down anybody with a guitar. I ran outside, and I asked him, ‘Did you know Sonny Boy?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I know Sonny Boy—he lives at 3226 Giles!’”

On the first Saturday afternoon in 1948 after he came into possession of the harpist’s address, Billy convinced his cousin and their pal to accompany him in an unscheduled visit to Sonny Boy’s home. “We rung the doorbell, and this well-dressed guy came to the door, and he said, ‘Can I help you?’ I said, ‘We want to see Sonny Boy!’ He said, ‘This is Sonny Boy!’ I said, ‘We want to hear you play your harmonica!’ He said, ‘Come on up–I’m proud to have y’all!’ He lived on the second floor. So we went upstairs, and the pianist Johnny Jones and a young lady were there as guests. And he told them, ‘They came to see Sonny Boy!’ So I said, ‘Sonny Boy, how do you make the harmonica say “wah-wah-wah?”’ He said, ‘Well, you have to choke it.’ So he started demonstrating to me how to choke it.

“I said, ‘Well, I can sing just like you, if you play one of your records!’ So he put the record on. I thought I could. I couldn’t even play, but I knew all the words. So I’m standing there tooting on the harmonica and singing his song, and he got a big kick out of that. And he told Johnny Jones, ‘He’s gonna be better than me!’

“I met with him two more occasions before he got killed. The third time I went by there, I rung the doorbell, me and my cousin, and the lady said, ‘Who are you looking for?’ I said, ‘We’re looking for Sonny Boy!’ She said, ‘Haven’t you heard? He got killed! They crushed his brain!’ So that a blow to me. But that wasn’t going to stop me from trying to learn how to play the harmonica.”

Little Walter’s early ‘50s emergence, first with Muddy Waters and then on his own, next captured Arnold’s ear. “He became my idol then, because Sonny Boy was gone,” he says. “I knew that Walter was a magnificent harmonica player.” Walter’s use of amplification on his harp wasn’t quite as innovative as it appears. “Sonny Boy played amplified harmonica in the clubs,” notes Billy, who called the Club Georgia to speak to his idol shortly before they met and got an earful. “That was a big, huge sound,” he says. “It was like violins and everything. And it didn’t sound nothing like he did on record.”

billy boy arnold image 4Billy made his own recording debut in 1953 for Collenane Cosey’s minuscule Cool label. “Her brother-in-law recorded for M-G-M Records under the name of Peach Tree Logan. And Blind John Davis and Peach Tree Logan were buddies for years. Peach Tree would sing, and Blind John used to play the piano with him occasionally. So they were starting up a little independent record label. Blind John told ‘em, ‘Well, I know a boy that plays the harmonica.’ They said, ‘Well, bring him over!’ So they brought me over there. I had a song called ‘Hello Stranger,’ and ‘I Ain’t Got No Money.’ So they heard me and they were impressed with me.”

That platter gave Arnold his lifelong nickname. “When the record came out, they said, ‘We have you a new name! We called you Billy Boy!’ Well, I didn’t particularly like that, because I’m in an adult setting,” he says. “Billy Boy sounds too immature. But what could I do?” Mrs. Cosey’s son Pete became a ‘60s Chess Records session guitarist.

Billy joined forces with Bo Diddley in 1951, when the guitarist still answered to Ellas McDaniel. “I was walking past this restaurant, and I saw two guys with a guitar and a washtub with a stick on it. Of course, I knew they were musicians. So I walked in and I introduced myself, and they said, ‘We’re going to the Midway Theater, right up the street, and do an amateur show. Come on and go down there with me!’ They didn’t invite me to participate, just go down there to hear them do it. I told him I played harmonica, and Ellas said, ‘Well, we play on the street corners every Saturday. Come by my house in the morning and play on the street with us!’” says Arnold. “So I went down there that Saturday morning, and we started playing on the streets.” Jody Williams eventually joined them on guitar.

Arnold’s ongoing desire to be a recording artist spurred him to bring a dub of several of Bo’s songs to United Records (where they rehearsed for two weeks in Al Smith’s basement to no avail) and Vee-Jay (a secretary declared she didn’t like their sound after a few seconds of auditioning their disc).

“So we go across the street to Chess. Little Walter was packing some records for Leonard, because Leonard had to go up to the bank to take care of some business,” says Billy. “He said, ‘We don’t need nothing right now!’ He tried to shoo us off. Just as he was saying that, Phil Chess came out of the back. And he knew me. He didn’t know Ellas or nobody else. He knew me. He said, ‘Hey, man! What’s up? What you got?’ I said, ‘Well, we’ve got a dub here!’ He said, ‘Well, let me hear it!’” Phil dug it. “He said, ‘Well, I tell you what—I want my brother Leonard to hear this. Can you bring your equipment by tomorrow at two o’clock?” So we said, ‘Okay!’”

One song with a very unusual beat really impressed Leonard. “He said, ‘Well, we’ve got to get a song together on this hambone thing!’ Bo was saying, ‘Papa’s gonna buy his baby a diamond ring.’ I said, ‘Why don’t you say, “Bo Diddley’s gonna buy his baby a diamond ring?”’ And Leonard looked at me and said, ‘What does that mean? I don’t know. Wait a minute! I don’t want to put nothing on the record that’s gonna offend the black public!’ I said, ‘No, it just means a little comical guy.’

“When I first met Bo in 1951, we were playing on the street corner. And the bass player said, ‘Hey, Ellas—there goes Bo Diddley!’ A little short guy on the opposite side of the street, about four feet tall, and he was extremely bowlegged. Well, he was a comedian at the Indiana Theater.” The lyrical changes were made and the groundbreaking song was committed to tape.

“We didn’t come in there with a song called ‘Bo Diddley,’” says Billy. “His name was Ellas McDaniel & the Hipsters. To our surprise, the record came out ‘Bo Diddley’ by Bo Diddley. That was Leonard that did that. And it was a smash hit. ‘I’m A Man’ was the flip side.”

Bo Diddley’s thundering hambone rhythms made him a star. And more than 60 years later, Billy Boy Arnold’s career is still going strong too, as his more recent tribute CDs to Sonny Boy and Big Bill Broonzy elegantly underscored.

“I’m always working on stuff to record,” he says. “I want to do an album with a few Muddy Waters songs that you don’t hear, and a few Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup songs. I’ll call it My Type of Blues, (or) My Favorite Blues.” And you don’t have to travel all the way to New Orleans to see him play.

“I didn’t ever intend to stop,” says Arnold.

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