Billy Boy Arnold

His name isn't well known, but few Chicago blues artists have been as intimately involved with the city's blues scenes over the last five decades as Billy Boy Arnold has. One of the first Windy City blues singers who was actually born in Chicago, Arnold was learning harmonica from the original Sonny Boy Williamson in the late 1940s, before even entering his teens. By the early 1950s, he was performing with an unknown Bo Diddley on street corners, playing the classic stop-and-start harmonica riff on "I'm a Man." A stint as a solo artist on Vee-Jay in the 1950s yielded some fine sides, especially "I Wish You Would" and "I Ain't Got You," both to be covered by the Yardbirds when Eric Clapton was in the band. Arnold had only sporadic opportunities to record as a leader from the 1960s through the 1980s, but a deal with Alligator Records in the 1990s boosted his visibility to its highest level for forty years.

When did you first start playing with Bo Diddley?

Around '51. Over on Maxwell Street they played on the street weekends. These were unprofessional guys, mostly. I heard that some of the guys like Muddy Waters and those guys played on the street corner over on Maxwell Street in the early forties, it was real popular to play on the streets around Maxwell Street. 'Cause it's an open market. Most of those guys hadn't recorded as a professional. But it wasn't common to see people just playing up and down the street around the South Side, but every now and then you might see Bo Diddley, like a young group, he wasn't playing clubs, and that was one way of making some money. I heard Earl Hooker used to play on the street corners too. But it wasn't common to walk down the street and see somebody playing on the street.

When I first started playing with Bo, he was playing blues, like doing Muddy Waters tunes, he didn't have any originals at the time. He made up songs, you know. He played a rhythm boogie-woogie type of guitar, and then he played some of the kind of Latin beats that he was known for later. But mainly he was trying to play boogie-woogie blues, same as Muddy Waters, "Catfish Blues" and stuff like that.

He was the type of guy that was always--he wasn't what you'd call a straight blues player like Muddy Waters or Jimmy Rogers. He always had his own little gimmick way of playing, and his tunes were different from most of the other guys. He made up some tunes, and he played the hambone beat on the guitar and things like that. But he doesn't say, I'm gonna write any special songs for that especially. He already had "I'm a Man" and a couple of other tunes, but it wasn't like he said the song "Bo Diddley" wasn't even in the picture. That was created on the spot in the studio. The Bo Diddley name, the song, didn't even exist. He didn't go in the studio and say, I got a song called Bo Diddley and I'm Bo Diddley. His name wasn't Bo Diddley, it was Ellas McDaniels.

How did the song "Bo Diddley" come about?

He was playing the hambone beat, as I said. He was singing, "Papa gonna buy his babe  a diamond ring," and playing the hambone beat. And I suggested, why don't you say Bo Diddley? That's how that name came into the picture. 'Cause instead of saying papa gonna buy his babe a diamond," why don't you say, "Bo Diddley's gonna buy his babe a diamond ring." That's how that word, and that's how--I wrote some of the lyrics on the song, about three of the verses. And we made up on the same song on, just as me suggesting. Why don't you say Bo Diddley gonna buy his babe a diamond ring. Because there was a guy at Indiana Theater, which had Midnight Rambler shows on Saturday night. And his name was Bo Diddley, he was a comedian. And they had Butterbeans & Susie, Big Bill Broonzy. Every Saturday night at midnight, they had what they called a Midnight Rambler. Memphis Minnie would play there sometimes, Big Bill Broonzy played there. They'd feature one major blues star every Saturday night.

The first time I heard the word Bo Diddley, I was playing with him on the street in 1951. And the bass player said, "Hey Ellas, there go Bo Diddley," talking about this guy that played the Indiana Theater. And I thought that was the funniest word in my life, I just cracked up. I never forgot that name, Bo Diddley.

So we was doing this recording thing. We had "I'm a Man," we had which was later changed to "You Don't Love Me, You Don't Care," and we had a song called "Little Girl," and we had a song called "Little Grenadier." He had the Bo Diddley type of rhythm, the hambone rhythm on a guitar. He was singing, "hey dirty mother"...and we had to make up a lyric, 'cause that kind of lyric wouldn't have went on the record. Leonard Chess wanted to know, what did Bo Diddley mean? He thought that was a derogatory word or something, 'cause he had never heard it. So I explained that it meant a comical, bow-legged type of a guy. We didn't know--we made the song up, as I said I wrote three of the verses. I was too young to capitalize on getting half the song. I didn't even pay any attention to that. When the record came out, to our surprise, the song was "Bo Diddley," and to our surprise, he named the artist Bo Diddley.

We figured that he might use the word Bo Diddley for the song, but we didn't know that he gonna call the artist Bo Diddley. We thought the record was gonna be Ellas McDaniels and the hipsters singing "Bo Diddley." When we saw the record, it was "Bo Diddley" by Bo Diddley. So that's how the word Bo Diddley and the song "Bo Diddley" came about. It was like a fluke, you know. It wasn't something that was made up in his hands.

It was a hit record because of the beat and the guitar. It ain't nothing but the hambone beat, actually. But he's playing it on the guitar with the tremolo. It had that organ effect, and the words was comical. The fact that it was called Bo Diddley might have helped.

What was the atmosphere like, recording at Chess?

When we did the Bo Diddley session, Leonard Chess directed Bo Diddley like a solo act. He would tell him where the solo should come in, and where the singing should come in. And he worked with the artist, like, Play it man! Give me more of this and more of that! Whereas at VJ, they were more laid back. You came in and whatever you had, you just sit down and write it down, so to speak. And that was that.

I was much younger than Bo Diddley. He was about eight or nine years older than me. Leonard did say, he didn't like Little Walter when he first met Little Walter, he told me that. Leonard thought I was a cocky, smart-aleck type of kid. He told Bo he didn't like that harmonica player. Not the music, but my personality. So Bo Diddley told me...see we went there, both, to record. I wanted to record my stuff, he wanted to record his stuff. Bo told me, well, Leonard don't like you, maybe you better go to another record company. And I said okay. And that's why I went to VJ. When Leonard found out that I did, he say, you know, when I first met you, I didn't like you. When I first met Little Walter, I didn't like him. Meaning that he had changed his mind. But it was too late, 'cause I had recorded for VJ.

How did you get set up with VJ as a solo artist?

'Cause when we did the second Bo Diddley record, which was called "Diddley Daddy," that's how that came about. I said if you don't like me, heck, I'll go to another company. And I wrote a song called "Diddy Diddy Dum Dum," and that was supposed to be Bo Diddley's second record. We were playing [live], and I was singing and playing the harmonica like on "I Wish You Would," and Bo Diddley was just playing the guitar. Leonard was there, and he told Bo Diddley, "that's your next record." When they came by for me to go the studio, I was downtown at Universal recording for VJ. But they didn't know it. So Leonard told Bo Diddley, wait till we get Billy tomorrow, and then we'll record it. So when I came to the studio, Bo Diddley started singing and playing, and I was playing the harmonica. And Leonard said, wait a minute, let Billy sing it. And I said, I can't record, 'cause I already recorded for VJ. I had recorded "I Wish You Would," I had changed the lyric, but it had a similar beat and I was using the same harmonica thing. That's how I got from Chess to VJ.

How did "I Wish You Would" come about?

As I say, I wrote the song "Diddy Diddy Dum Dum." And I told VJ I had a song that I wrote for Bo Diddley. And they said, okay. So he told me, why don't you change the lyric around? So I went home and wrote "I Wish You Would." The only reason why I made a record was the Bo Diddley beat. Because I was playing with Bo Diddley at the time. I had no intention of ever capitalizing on Bo Diddley's beat. I had wrote this song, "Diddy Diddy Dum Dum," and I was playing the harmonica like I did on "I Wish You Would." That's how "I Wish You Would" came about. See, Bo Diddley's "Diddy Diddy Dum Dum" went bawm-bawm, bawm-bawm, bawm-bawm, bawm-bawm-bawm, bawm. Well I had Jody Williams, a more advanced guitarist, and he was the same age I am, so he was (sings riff faster). So then I'd made me get a label for the rest of my life with a Bo Diddley type of song. Which I had no intention of ever doing. I was a straight blues guy. I didn't want to be capitalizing on no Bo Diddley type of thing. But once you do something, you're stuck. That's how I got labeled with the Bo Diddley type of thing. Bo Diddley's stuff was rock'n'rollish, it wasn't straight blues, and when I did "I Wish You Would," and it had that similar type of beat, that just throws me in the same pot with Bo Diddley, 'cause everybody identified the song as a Bo Diddley type of song. But I had no intention of ever doing anything like Bo Diddley, 'cause that wasn't my style of music, and I didn't play the guitar like he did. That's his music. But I wrote the song, and he said Leonard didn't like me, and so I went to VJ, and that's what happened.

What do you think were the main ways the Chicago blues scene changed since you started in the 1950s?

In the fifties, it was real hard, electric blues. Muddy Waters in his heyday in 1950 and '51, Little Walter's harmonica was blasting and really on  Muddy's records, which was 75 or 80% of the success of Muddy's records is Little Walter's harmonica playing. That's my opinion. Walter made "Juke," I think, in '52, and that launched him with a hit record. Electric blues and harmonica and Muddy's type of country singing and low-down blues was at its pinnacle at that time. In fact, you couldn't even get a job in a club unless you had a harmonica player in the band. Harmonica players were popping up from everywhere. All up and down the little small clubs on Madison Street, South side, West side, you could hear that harmonica blasting on the amplifiers. The two guitars strumming behind 'em. 'Cause that was the thing. And if you had a saxophone player in the band at the time, nobody wanted it. The saxophone players couldn't hardly get jobs. And piano was just about obsolete. There was a few piano players around, like Sunnyland Slim, Henry Gray, and Otis Spann. Spann and Henry was about the best. Elmore James featured piano, but most bands didn't have a piano.

See, piano started losing ground in the late forties. You must remember that this music changed drastically from 1940 to 1950. Pianos were on their way out in the late 1940s. Piano dominated blues music in the twenties and thirties and til the late forties. See, acoustic blues that original Sonny Boy Williamson was playing, Big Bill Broonzy, and Memphis Minnie, they all used piano. Piano was a dominant instrument. It wasn't guitar. Listen to Big Bill's records, his guitar, it was like fill-in guitar, it wasn't the type of guitar like B.B. King, T-Bone Walker was doing. You listen to T-Bone Walker's records in the forties and everything, the guitar stands out. It's the main instrument. But he had horns and background stuff like that, but T-Bone's guitar stood out like B.B.'s stood out in the fifties. He used piano and everything, but piano started out dying in the late forties. By the fifties, most of those clubs didn't have pianos in 'em. The new clubs that were coming up, they didn't have no pianos. Most of the major old clubs had pianos, old uprights. But a lot of times, the piano wasn't even used, 'caused the bands was using two harmonicas and two guitars, and drums. That was the way the music had changed from, say, 1948 to 1950.

The sixties was pretty good with the blues, blues went on until the late sixties, early seventies, hardcore blues, the style that was going strong in the fifties started fading away more to rhythm and blues type of stuff. Rhythm and blues started taking over, harmonica, Little Walter was sort of like losing ground as king of the harmonica players. And when he was started losing ground, everybody else--the popularity of the harmonica and the two guitars was sort of fading out in '67, '68. The hardcore blues, the type that Muddy and Wolf then was playing, it had this stronghold on the South Side and the West Side and some of the clubs, but it wasn't nearly as popular as it had been in the fifties.

The country blues wasn't as popular in Chicago in the sixties as it was in the early fifties. More bands starting coming in with horns, started coming back. Earl Hooker then was using the organ and horns and harps wasn't in demand, as it was a few years earlier. And Muddy, in the late sixties, Muddy's popularity fell off to the point where he was struggling to hold jobs, and playing for less money, just to keep a band together. Then in 1965 we started playing on a North Side club called Big John's, they didn't even know who Muddy was. We started playing up there, Paul Butterfield was playing there, and I started playing up there in this place on certain days. Then Junior Wells and Buddy Guy and the Aces got a job up there. Then they discovered who Muddy was, and Muddy worked up there for a while. Then Muddy started going on the road. It was more or less, the blues was changing over to a white audience. And Muddy didn't play around Chicago. Wolf played around Chicago continuously, five nights a week, six nights a week, or whatever. But Muddy had lost popularity. Muddy wasn't a hard worker; he relied on his band. Wolf was a dynamic showman, and he kept recording singles, and Muddy's singles was tapering off. Little Walter's popularity wasn't as great as it had been. Junior Wells was playing at clubs, he played a lot of rock'n'roll type of clubs. Then he finally wound up at Theresa's.

A lot of people started going to Europe in the seventies, mid-sixties and seventies, eighties. They wasn't making any money, they was taking advantage of 'em, rippin' 'em off. Go over there, work for a month for peanuts.  A lot of the guys just wanted to go over to Europe to play, and the European people found out they could get you for nothing. They were playing big auditoriums and packing them in, and people here was telling them, I have to pay 'em too much money. The middleman was probably taking all the money. The people that was getting you over there might have been getting more money than you're getting. So it's always been a ripoff in the blues, as far as the artist is concerned. Everybody made more money than the artists.

We were playing for all-black audiences in the sixties and the early seventies. Now it's all white audiences, it's 100% white. All the blues clubs that are functioning is on the North Side. People who like blues are white audiences. Blacks sort of like, they've heard it, and it's an economical thing too. Most of the black people that used to support the blues became economically uptight. So they couldn't support the clubs, and the music, and it might have been because they heard the music, so it wasn't nothing new. The white audiences, it was like new music to them. They had never heard this type of music before. They heard it, liked it, sort of revived it, and now it's worldwide.

When I was recording for VJ, I was totally inexperienced. The VJ guys were the best musicians that I ever recorded with. Henry Gray, Jody Williams, Earl Phillips, and people of that caliber. The Alligator Records are pretty good, they came out pretty good. Most of the original blues singers, like Otis Spann, Sammy Lawhorn, all those guys, they're no longer around. So you have to use other people to make the blues now.

Jody Williams is a very underrated guitar player.

Jody started on the scene as a very young kid, and he played with Howlin' Wolf, recorded with Howlin' Wolf. He was one of the top guitar players around Chicago. Then he went on the road with Bo Diddley in the late fifties, and he wrote a song called "Love Is Strange." Mickey & Sylvia stole the song. Stole his guitar licks, all those guitar licks on "Love Is Strange" was Jody's creation. He was playing that guitar with Billy Stewart before Mickey Baker ever heard it. They heard Jody playing that guitar style at the Apollo Theater, and they stole the song, Jody had wrote the song. And they stole the guitar parts and the song and recorded it, and ripped Jody off for the money. Chess tried to sue. Anyway, he claimed that Bo Diddley double-crossed him or something. After that, he got disillusioned. He figured that he was tired of producing stuff and getting ripped off, and everybody was coming along like the Rolling Stones using Jody's licks and his thing, and they were making millions and he wasn't making anything, so he quit playing. He went into electronics. That's the story I heard, and I heard him say similar to that.

Why would you say the blues has managed to thrive in Chicago more than it has anywhere else?

Chicago blues--Chicago's one of the cities that, it's more blues in Chicago, it was in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, than there ever was in any other city. If you go to places like St Louis or Memphis, there was quite a bit of blues there. But the Chicago blues is based on the country blues that John Lee Williamson and Big Joe Williams and Robert Nighthawk and all those guys was producing in the late thirties and early forties. It came into the electric blues in the fifties. The reason why Chicago was different from all the other places, 'cause all the singers migrated to Chicago, because all the people came to Chicago. All the jobs--the people came here for the jobs. The steel mills, the restaurants, the domestic work, construction work, factories, and everything. When they came here, the people on weekends could go out and hear Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Boy Williamson, Lonnie Johnson, in Chicago in the forties. You could hear Memphis Slim, all those people was playing Memphis Minnie, all these people was playing in Chicago. Roosevelt Sykes--they was playing all over this city, South Side and West Side. So there was countless clubs where you could go out and hear the blues. I don't think there's any other city where you could hear that many blues singers. Recording companies like Columbia and RCA Victor had their recording studios here. The singers would come here and record in Chicago. The ones who lived here played all the clubs around Chicago, and they could make a living, 'cause of the different spots all over the city. You could go out and hear blues any night of the week.

Chicago's always been--I have never been in any other city in the United States where as many blues clubs and many blues musicians congregated as in Chicago. People could just live here and depend on the clubs. In those days, they didn't do a lot of traveling on the road like Jimmy Reed and Bo Diddley and all the people did in the fifties, on those package tours, going down south and touring. At that time, they didn't do a lot of touring. They just played the clubs, they made records and played all the local clubs. They went down south on occasion, but in the fifties it changed over, where B.B. King and all the guys was touring the road, playing different cities all over. But Chicago's been the place--there's more blues clubs in Chicago today, just as many or more clubs than you could anyplace else. Just 'cause the South is the South, that don't mean they like the country blues. It don't have a stronghold like Chicago. You go down to New Orleans now, you can't hardly find country blues played anywhere. You come to Chicago, you can find the guys playing all over the North Side playing blues.

Chicago has always been the greatest city for the blues that I can remember. When I was a kid, the clubs was teeming with blues singers. When I met Sonny Boy Williamson in 1948 I was only twelve, but he was playing at the Club Georgia, Big Bill Broonzy, he was playing at Gatewoods up on the West Side. Memphis Slim was playing, Memphis Minnie.

It's only a few clubs in Chicago, you got a place like the Checkerboard, its popularity rests on Buddy Guy and Junior Wells' popularity. Buddy's no longer affiliated with it now. But Buddy made the Checkerboard worldwide all over, like Junior and Buddy made Theresa. The whole world knows about Theresa's, and the Checkerboard through Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. They put that on the map. Now Buddy Guy is at Buddy Guy's Legends, he has the premier club in Chicago. They have other clubs, but none of them compare with Buddy Guy's. That's the best-playing club, and the club to work. They treat you right. Buddy has a great thing going down there. So Chicago is still the city, where you can come to Chicago and go out every night and hear six or seven different bands, or more. You go into a place like St Louis, you probably won't find no more blues in the city.

It was a way of life in Chicago, Memphis. Bobby Blue Bland, Howlin' Wolf was playing down in Memphis, it was the same thing as it is in Chicago. It was a way of life. The hard working people who supported the blues, which was all black, they wanted to hear the blues. It was a way of life for them--they lived the life, they go out and hear their music, their singers were singing, experience that the people in the audience had lived. The singers lived the same experience too. Wolf and B.B. and all, they lived the same. They worked on the plantations, they had the hardship, they lived under the oppression. They knew what the blues was. If you escaped to Chicago, you escaped here because you wanted to directly off from under your oppression. So they came to Chicago. And when you got here, the reason why Chicago was such a great place for people to come, where there was jobs galore, and everybody here was from somewhere--Memphis, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, everywhere. So when you on a job and a club, everybody was from the south. And they all had one thing in common--they was escaping oppression, the thing that gave them the blues in the first place. If it hadn't been for oppression, there never would have been any blues.

If you look in history, they brought blacks to the Caribbean and all the different islands, right. Only the blacks in America discovered the blues, created the blues. The blacks in America was oppressed more severely than the blacks in the Caribbean and other places, like Haiti. So the blues was created--those are the same slaves that came from Africa in Haiti and Jamaica, same ones--some of them came to Alabama and Mississippi and all of that. Same people, cousins and brothers and stuff. But in America, they were severely oppressed. And this severe oppression created the blues. That's why you hear the blues played in the world today, because it's a severe oppression. And it became a way of life. Not only it relieved tension and pressure, and when you came to Chicago, you was homesick, you didn't want to go back down there because of the oppression, so there was somebody singing, experiencing, you felt a sense of freedom. You was up north where you wasn't under direct oppression. If you lived on the South Side or West side, you didn't come into contact with plantation owners and guys with guns and lynch mobs and this kind of thing. You can listen to the blues and enjoy it, 'cause it was a way of life. People sung the blues when they were happy, sad, or whatever. Then they started singing about their troubles with the women and if you got laid off the job, you had the blues.

Anything else you want to add about the blues?

The blues, as a music that covers all spectrums of all people, 'cause everybody at one time has had the blues, whether you're black, white, or whatever. If you get a pink slip tomorrow and you were planning on getting married in a few months and had this great job, you got the blues, right? If your best girl call you up and say, well, I think I like this other guy better, you got the blues, man, she's floored you, you go and get you a drink and listen to the blues. If you don't even listen to the blues, you have the blues. That's why the blues is so worldwide in appeal, because any time people have had any kind of suffering or oppression in any shape form, whether it's slavery or war or whatever, they have had the blues. That's why I think the Europe embrace the blues so strongly, because they went through a lot of hardship during the wars over there. So they know what the blues is. They like the blues in Japan, they had the blues too.

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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