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June/July 2010

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Billy Boy Arnold
Back Where I Belong

Billy Boy Arnold

Billy Boy Arnold was a rarity back in the ’50s, a Chicago harmonica player who was actually born in Chicago. He learned from one of the best, receiving informal lessons from John Lee Williamson (the original Sonny Boy Williamson). Williamson was murdered soon after these lessons started, but Arnold learned his lessons well, releasing a single in 1952, where he received his nickname unexpectedly. Later, he hooked up with Bo Diddley, and played harmonica on Diddley’s 1955 recording, “I’m A Man.”

Anxious to branch out from sideman status, Arnold signed with Vee-Jay Records and released several classic sides, including “I Wish You Would,” “I Ain’t Got You,” “You Got Me Wrong,” and “Prisoner’s Plea.” In the ’60s, the blues scene dried up in Chicago and Arnold worked as a bus driver and, later, a parole officer, but he still played the blues on the side and recorded periodically. In the ’70s, he enjoyed a bit of a resurgence along with the music and he spent a good deal of time performing in Europe. In 1993, he signed with Alligator Records and recorded his “comeback” disc, Back Where I Belong. Producer/harmonica player Randy Chortkoff (now head of Delta Groove Records) teamed the veteran with his band, the Taildraggers (Zach Zunis – guitar, Andy Kaulkin – piano, Tom Leavey – bass, Lee Smith – drums), along with several other members of Los Angeles’ blues constituency, including Rick Holmstrom on guitar, Rob Rio on piano, and Jimi Bott on drums.

The first thing you notice upon listening is that, in the span of time between releases, Arnold’s voice matured into a fine blues instrument, and that he was now able to achieve an emotional feel that was not present in his earlier recordings. The second thing is that he had not lost anything on the harmonica. If anything, he’s even better than he was 20 years earlier.

Arnold introduces some solid new songs on Back Where I Belong. “Move On Down The Road” is a ’50s-era rocker, and “Fine Young Girl” feels like a blues track from the same era. “Wandering Eye” has that “Hoochie Coochie Man” beat, and “Whiskey, Beer, and Reefer” is reminiscent of a John Lee Hooker track. Bass player Leavey’s “High Fashion Woman” is an energetic track as well.

Among the covers is a manic remake of Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips,” which teams Arnold in a harp battle with Lester Butler of the Red Devils. “Worried Life Blues” is a tribute to one of the great barrelhouse piano player, Big Maceo Merriwether, and on “Shake The Boogie,” he honors his mentor, John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson.

Three songs from Arnold’s Vee-Jay years are reprised here, too. His biggest hit, “I Wish You Would,” opens the disc in rousing fashion. “You Got Me Wrong” is as playful as it was some 35-40 years earlier. The remake of “Prisoner’s Plea” features a stellar performance from Arnold, whose vocals better convey the helplessness and regret today than in the earlier version (though I prefer the guitar work of Syl Johnson and Jody Williams in the earlier version).

Back Where I Belong helped restore Billy Boy Arnold to the prominence he deserved in the blues world and in the Windy City. He later released a noteworthy follow-up for Alligator, called Eldorado Cadillac, which featured Bob Margolin and James Wheeler on guitar. At 74, he continues to perform and record regularly, most recently with Electro-Fi, where he released the tribute album, Billy Boy Sings Sonny Boy.

--- Graham Clarke
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