The Blues Dream of Billy Boy Arnold
The Blues Dream of Billy Boy Arnold
Simply put, Billy Boy Arnold is one of the last men standing from the Chicago blues scene’s raucous heyday. What’s more, unlike most artists in this electrifying melting pot, who were Southern transplants, Arnold—a harmonica master who shared stages with Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf, plus a singer and hitmaker in his own right who first recorded the standards “I Wish You Would” and “I Ain’t Got You”—was born right here and has lived nowhere else. This makes his perspective on Chicago blues, its players, and its locales all the rarer and all the more valuable. Arnold has witnessed musical generations come and go, from the decline of prewar country blues to the birth of the electric blues and the worldwide spread of rock and roll. Working here in collaboration with writer and fellow musician Kim Field, he gets it all down. The Blues Dream of Billy Boy Arnold is a remarkably clear-eyed testament to more than eighty years of musical love and creation, from Arnold’s adolescent quest to locate the legendary Sonny Boy Williamson, the story of how he named Bo Diddley Bo Diddley, and the ups and downs of his seven-decade recording career. Arnold’s tale—candidly told with humor, insight, and grit—is one that no fan of modern American music can afford to miss.
“Billy Boy Arnold’s great Vee-Jay sides were a big influence on me when I was first starting out. The first two singles I ever played on were covers of Billy Boy Arnold tunes that I recorded with The Yardbirds. I'm very happy to see Billy Boy Arnold's amazing personal story finally appear in print.”
Eric Clapton, Grammy Award-winning member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
“No one has lived the Chicago blues like Billy Boy Arnold, and no one has more stories. This book is a journey through eighty years of history with an incredible supporting cast and a particularly charming and observant guide, who saw it all and is still making wonderful music.”
Elijah Wald, Grammy Award winner and author of Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues
“The Blues Dream of Billy Boy Arnold is in every respect not just excellent but exemplary: a blues autobiography to be reckoned with. Arnold—by dint of his unusually long career, his exceptionally detailed memory, and his many friendships with key figures on the scene—is the only one who can tell this particular story. His shrewd, candid appraisals of his peers, leavened with quirky detail, add significantly to our understanding of postwar Chicago blues.”
Adam Gussow, author of Whose Blues?: Facing Up to Race and the Future of the Music
Table of Contents
Billy Boy Arnold
Chapter One: Born in Chicago
Chapter Two: Sonny Boy Williamson
Chapter Three: Billy Boy
Chapter Four: “Juke”
Chapter Five: Bo Diddley
Chapter Six: Bluesman
Chapter Seven: The Blues Breaks Out
Chapter Eight: All around the World
Chapter Nine: My Blues Dream
By the time he was five, he had found his life’s passion—the blues.
At twelve, he knew that music would be his vocation.
Six years later, he was a recording star.
Single-minded self-propulsion has been the story of Billy Boy’s life, and so it is the theme of this memoir. The Blues Dream of Billy Boy Arnold is a revelatory account of a remarkable and unique journey—by someone who was both a keen observer and an important participant—through no fewer than five landmark events in the history of American music: the creation of the Chicago blues style, the birth of rock and roll, the arrival of white musicians on the Chicago blues scene, the appropriation of the Chicago blues sound by white rock groups in the 1960s, and the transition of black blues to a predominantly white audience.
Billy Boy Arnold is the only musician alive today who has lived the entire history of the Chicago blues scene. Its zenith was the mid-1950s, when the new, raw, amplified approach of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf reigned supreme, but the city had established itself as a major blues center two decades prior to that, thanks to the extensive and impressive output—much of it captured by producer Lester Melrose and released on RCA Victor’s Bluebird label—of Windy City legends like Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy, Big Maceo Merriweather, and Jazz Gillum. Thrilled by these recordings as a schoolboy, the young Billy Boy made a commitment to seek out what he calls “the blues world.”
Had he not become a musician, Billy Boy might have made an excellent police detective. Henry Morton Stanley’s legendary search for David Livingstone has nothing on the twelve-year-old Arnold’s dogged pursuit of his idol, blues legend John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, across the South Side of Chicago. Billy Boy’s method was to accost anyone carrying a guitar and ask that person two questions: Do you know Sonny Boy Williamson? How do you get to make records? Those weren’t idle questions. They were focused queries that demonstrated the interrogator’s desire to make contact with the blues world and his determination to find a place for himself in it.
Billy Boy’s youthful single-mindedness earned him two momentous meetings with his hero, but the promise of a deeper, mentoring relationship was abruptly shattered when Williamson was murdered two weeks after their second meeting. Although the profound shock of Sonny Boy’s premature death still reverberates for Billy Boy, at the time it made him determined to expand his blues circle by seeking out popular artists like Blind John Davis, Big Bill Broonzy, and Memphis Minnie. More importantly, Billy Boy launched his own career by singing and playing on the streets. The ambitious teenager had already spent five years in the blues world when Muddy Waters assumed the throne as the Windy City’s blues king in the early 1950s, and before he reached voting age Billy Boy had joined the slim ranks of Chicago blues artists who had a bona fide hit record on their résumé.
In 1955, six months after Elvis Presley’s recording debut blew open the door to rhythm and blues for white teenagers, Billy Boy contributed to two of the earliest and biggest rock-and-roll hits (“I’m a Man” and “Bo Diddley”), both produced by the legendary Leonard Chess.
In the early 1960s, when young white musicians like Paul Butterfield and Charlie Musselwhite began jamming in the black blues clubs, Billy Boy was one of the first established Chicago blues stars to work with them and accept them as equals.
By the middle of the decade, when blues-based British bands like the Yardbirds and the Animals made their assault on the American pop charts, they came armed with cover versions of American blues records, including Billy Boy’s Vee-Jay sides.
By the 1970s, Billy Boy and the other black blues artists were navigating a profound cultural shift as the blues audience became mostly white, a simultaneously challenging and liberating sea change that rejuvenated the careers of those who were able to make the transition.
I first became a fan of Billy Boy’s music in the 1970s, when I bought the LP Blow the Back Off It, a collection of his recordings for Chess and Vee-Jay on the British Red Lightnin’ label. When Billy Boy resurfaced in the 1990s with two comeback CDs on Alligator Records, I was impressed all over again with the vitality of his sound.
The first time I saw Billy Boy perform on stage was in 2015, when he came to Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley in Seattle as part of the Harmonica Blowout series hosted by Mark Hummel. This was an ideal showcase for Billy Boy, since the program was designed as a tribute to Sonny Boy Williamson, and Billy Boy gave compelling and faithful performances of several of his hero’s tunes.
Mark made an evening full of great music even more memorable by inviting me to join him, Billy Boy, Steve Guyger, Rick Estrin, Rich Yescalis, and an all-star backing band on stage for the finale. Afterward, I made my way upstairs to the dressing room to thank Mark, but when I popped my head in the door, the only person in the room was Billy Boy. He looked up and complimented me on my harmonica playing. I planted myself in a seat across from him, and it wasn’t long before he was telling me about the meetings between his twelve-year-old self and Sonny Boy. I left our brief encounter very much taken by Billy Boy’s friendly but dignified personal manner, his passion for the music, and his detailed recall of events that had occurred sixty years before.
All of that rattled around in the back of my head for the next couple of years as I learned more about Billy Boy’s significant and enduring career. I kept coming back to his remarkable personal story and how it needed to be documented—in his own voice. I talked with several friends who knew Billy Boy, and they all praised his talent, his warmth, his integrity, his uncanny memory, and his willingness to share his story.
In 2018 Mark Hummel brought Billy Boy to the Alberta Rose Theatre in Portland, Oregon, for another Harmonica Blowout... I told Billy Boy about my background as a musician and a writer, did my best to explain why I thought his memoir would be not only a great read but a historically important and culturally valuable document, and asked him whether he would be willing to let me pay him a visit in Chicago to explain more about how I might help him with such a project. Billy Boy was amenable.
A couple of months later, I enlisted the help of Dick Shurman, the Grammy Award–winning blues producer and a close friend of Billy Boy’s, in arranging a lunch with the three of us in Chicago at the Valois diner in Hyde Park, a favorite eatery of both Billy Boy’s and Barack Obama’s. I had barely launched into my sales pitch when Billy Boy interrupted me and got right down to business: “If Dick says you’re all right, that’s good enough for me. When do we get started? Do you have a tape recorder with you?”