The Blues Soul of “Billy Boy” Arnold: One of the last living Chicago Blues harmonica legends releases new album


Billy Boy Arnold, who is one of the last living Chicago Blues harmonica legends, released a new CD entitled “The Blues Soul of Billy Boy Arnold” on Oct. 21.

Billy Boy Arnold-Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Billy Boy Arnold-Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“Billy Boy Arnold’s talent as a songwriter, singer, harp master and blues historian is still in full swing here,” said Duke Robillard in a press release. “On this album, he demonstrates his flair and love for many different facets of the blues. This recording is surely a remarkable achievement.”

The CD, which showcases Billy Boy’s talent as a songwriter, singer and harmonica player, was released on Edmonton-based Stony Plain Records and produced by Duke Robillard.

“I would like to thank Duke for his outstanding guitar performances and all the great musicians that made this project a success,” said Arnold.

This new CD emphasizes the soulful side of the Chicago blues that has always been a part of Arnold’s repertoire. It includes 14 songs that Arnold has always loved, in a few different genres. These songs include some Billy Boy originals, early R&B songs, blues/jazz standards and some songs from the 60’s and 70’s.

Arnold’s style is a combination of Delta-influenced blues and a more sophisticated urban sound. This style can be heard in the following song from the new album called “Worried Dream”, which is a B.B. King composition.

William “Billy Boy” Arnold was born in Chicago on Sept.  16, 1935 and began playing harmonica as a child. Arnold received informal lessons in 1948 from his near neighbour John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, shortly before his death. One afternoon Arnold and his childhood friends knocked on Sonny Boy’s door and were invited in the house. Williamson played for the boys.  Shortly after his third visit, Williamson met his untimely death in a robbery and assault. The encounter made Arnold determined to be a blues musician.

Arnold made his first recording in 1952 with “Hello Stranger” on the small Cool label, which is the record company that gave him the nickname “Billy Boy”. Initially, Arnold didn’t like the nickname, because he was 17, looked 15 and told people he was 19. Arnold looked like a teenager, but didn’t want to be known as a boy. He wanted to be recognized as a young man.

In the early 1950’s Billy Boy teamed up with a young street musician and electronics buff named Ellis McDaniel (Bo Diddley), who built an amplifier for Billy Boy out of an orange crate. Billy Boy played harmonica on Diddley’s first big hit “I’m a Man”, which was recorded by Checker (Chess) Records on March 2, 1955.

Arnold signed a solo recording contract in 1955 with Vee-Jay Records, recording the originals of “I Ain’t Got You” and “I Wish You Would”, which was the first blues session to feature an electric bass. The song quickly became a regional hit and local radio airplay for his song was heavy. Arnold began to play across the South Side of Chicago with stars like Little Walter and Junior Wells.

In the late 1950s, Arnold continued to play in Chicago clubs and record 45s. Arnold recorded his debut album entitled “More Blues From The South Side” on the Prestige label in 1963. On this album Arnold is backed by guitarist Mighty Joe Young and pianist Lafayette Leake. However, as playing opportunities began to dry up and the demands of raising a family increased, Arnold pursued a parallel career as a Chicago bus driver, truant officer and a parole officer for the State of Illinois. The following instrumental, “Playing with the Blues” was not released until the album was reissued on CD.

The first generation of British blues bands were influenced in the middle of the 1960s by Arnold’s early songs on VeeJay records. As a result, Billy Boy began to tour and record in Europe during the 1970s, 1980s and into the 1990s. Arnold enjoyed the greatest success of his career, with the release of “Back Where I Belong” on Alligator Records in 1993.  The popularity of the album brought Arnold back into the public eye and provided opportunities for him play at major festivals in the U.S. and Europe.

Arnold released his next album “Eldorado Cadillac” on Oct 31, 1995 on the Alligator label, which was followed by his first album on Stony Plain Records Band Boogie ’n’ Shuffle (2001), which was also produced with Duke Robillard. He released “Blue and Lonesome” featuring Tony McPhee and The Groundhogs in 2012. Arnold was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame at a ceremony on May 9, 2012 in Memphis. He was nominated for a Blues Music Award in the ‘Traditional Blues Male Artist of the Year’ category in 2014.