Billy Boy Arnold

Billy Boy Arnold
Billy Boy Arnold Sings Big Bill Broonzy

Electro-Fi Records (3430)

By David Wilson
October 2012

There are not many authentic living bridges back to those original Delta bluesmen who, seeking a better life, transplanted themselves and their art into the urban ghettos of the north. Chicago’s Billy Boy Arnold is one of those bridges, and perhaps the foremost of a dwindling number. Chicago born in 1935, now in his late 70s, Billy Boy still sings and plays as if he was much younger and with an assured confidence that begs no forbearance.

With a few informal harmonica lessons from Sonny Boy Williamson I (John Lee) and as a teen, having a keen ear for the local bluesmen, Arnold immersed himself in the music. Still in his teens, in the early ‘50s he performed on the street with partner Ellas Bates. soon to be known as Bo Diddley.

When cutting his first record at 16, Arnold asked Big Bill Broonzy, who had previously recorded with Sonny Boy Williamson I, to back him. Big Bill, a keen observer of market forces, advised Arnold to use musicians with a more contemporary style than him.

Billy Boy Arnold managed to make a mark on the scene with well-crafted original songs, a flowing, emotionally-rich harmonica technique and a straightforward vocal style that echoed traditional Delta songsters.

With CD compilations of Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson creations to his earlier credit, Arnold now takes on the songs of Big Bill Broonzy and does so in a manner that makes us appreciate the genius of Broonzy and the consummate artistry of Arnold himself.

A true songster, Billy Boy is not above a bit of variation in Broonzy’s originals. He tweaks not to improve on Big Bill, but to mold the material to his own interpretive style without sacrificing the ultimate intimacy of Big Bill’s revelations.

Broonzy donned and shed personas in real life as if they were mere costumes. In the songs he wrote, so does he don a wide variety of narrative personas, each with a unique story to tell. Billy Boy handles the diversity without a hitch.

Producer Eric Norden provides acoustic guitar accompaniment and Billy Flynn handles the chores on electric guitar and mandolin. While respecting Broonzy’s melodies, each adds their distinctive stamp to an always fluid, always supportive, always measured vehicle that gives Billy Boy a stable platform for his vocals. Add Beau Sample’s acoustic bass and Rick Sherry’s tasteful ornamentation with percussion and an understated clarinet along with Billy Boy’s harp and the result is a lush textured musical soundscape.

Picking just 15 songs from the hundreds that Broonzy wrote can not have been an easy task. While the ones that they chose are all worthy, the real strength of the choices lies in how comprehensive a range of Big Bill’s perspectives they managed to corral. “Key To The Highway” was of course essential, as close to a Big Bill signature song as there is. Of the rest, my favorites, though not by much, are “Looking Up At Down” and “It was Just A Dream,” but they could change the next time I listen.

I like this one a lot.

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