Monday, November 27, 2006

A conversation with Billy Boy Arnold

A while back I had the priveledge to visit on the radio with Billy Boy Arnold. He had come to town to do a show with Mar Hummel and the Blues Survivors, it was Billy's first time in the Twin Cities in nearly 17 years, so it was a real honor to have the chance to spend some time with him...

Talking about Sonny Boy. The real Sonny Boy.
Interview and Photo's by Mark Fredell

Billy Boy I want to hear stories. James Harman gave me a few points to talk to you about and one of them was to ask you about John Lee Williamson. I guess your were 13 or 14 when you met him?

Yeah, The real Sonny Boy Williamson I was 12. See when I was 11 years old I heard one of his records and was inspired by the way he played the harmonica and was fascinated at the sounds he was getting and I found out he was living in Chicago. I was working at my uncles store at 31st. and Giles and one day I saw a guy pass by with a guitar so I ran out and asked him did he know Sonny Boy and he said yes Sonny Boy just lives right down the street here (That guy with the guitar was none other than Lazy Bill Lucas.) at 3226 Giles, so I went in the store and wrote it down. Then on Saturday me and my cousin and another kid Patshay Jones, my cousin Archie we used to go to the movie theater on Saturday. So one Saturday we were getting ready to go to the movie show and I said lets all go over to Sonny Boys house and they said no, no lets go to the movie first then after we can go over there to Sonny Boys house. So we went to the movies at 63rd and Halsted we got out around 2 in the afternoon maybe 2:30 then we took the elevated train down to 33rd street right around 33rd and State, right between Sate and Wabash and we walked over to Giles and it was a rainy day. It had rained and it was just clearing up, you could still smell the rain in the air. So we got there and we rang the door bell; now we had never seen him so we didn’t know what he looked like but we rang the bell and a well dressed real dark skinned man came to the door and he said can I help you? We said we want to see Sonny Boy, he said this is Sonny Boy. We said we want to hear you play your harmonica, he said come on up I’m proud to have you. So we followed him in he lived on the second floor and we all went up stairs and up there was a piano with Johnny Jones along with a young lady there at the time and he said to them, they came to see Sonny Boy. So I asked him I said Sonny Boy how do you get your harmonica to make that wah wah wah sound? He said you have to choke it. So I told him you know I can play just like you, if you play your record, I can play just like you, but I didn’t know how to choke . But you know he was amazed that I knew the lyrics to his song he said, he told Johnny, he said this boy’s gonna be better than me. Then he demonstrated to show me how to choke the harmonica. Then he hooked up his amplifier and he played every song that we asked him to play. He’d do one then say does that sound like me and we say yeah that sure does sound like you. He took a lot of time with us , my cousin would take the microphone and say stuff in it like calling all cars calling all cars, you know like a kid would do. Then a guy came in with a guitar, his wife said somebody let that man in with the guitar. They were working on a new song, the title was ‘You Sure Make A Man Feel Good’. So, you know we being kids, we told him well we’re going to leave, I shook his hand and said well I’ll see you mister John Lee Williamson and he got a big kick out of that and he said come over any time and I’ll show you every thing I know, he said any time just come on by.
So I met with him another occasion, me and my cousin went by. See he traded comic books with the kids in the neighborhood and we came by, and I had seen his marine band harmonica so I knew what to buy, I didn’t have one but I’d seen his so I knew what to by, they were well worn you know like they had really been through the mill. So anyways we went by and I showed him my new marine band harmonica. So he said where’d you get the money to buy this, how did it cost you? I said 2 dollars and fifty cents. He said where did you get the money, I said well I sell Chicago Defenders after school on Friday and on Saturday’s I work at my uncle’s store. And he told his friend, he had another friend there with him and told him, you see now he sells papers and buys harmonicas and records. Then he told me he said now look don’t steal, if you ever need anything, if you are short for anything, come and see me I’ll give it to you, he said don’t steal. If I ain’t got it, he said his friend; he’ll give it to you. So then, it was kind of late, this was about maybe three weeks or so before he got killed. It was getting kinda late and he had called a cab, he said I sure would like you to see me play, me and my band, but you’re so young they won’t let you into the club but I sure would like you to see me play. So the last time I saw Sonny Boy he was getting into that cab to go to his show.
Now of course being kids, I didn’t come back for maybe three weeks, me and my cousin. We rang the bell and the lady on the first floor she looked out and said who are you looking for and we said we’re looking for Sonny Boy. She said haven’t you heard, Sonny Boy got killed. She said they killed him, they crushed his brain; she said his wife was down in Jackson Tennessee, she’ll be gone 2 weeks, then she’ll be back. I came back about a week or so later and she was back, she had some people with her a lady and a man and I got there and she said, this is the little boy who was taking lessons from Sonny Boy and she told me, oh he had one of your harmonicas, he looked for you to come back, she said let me pay you for it. I told her no you don’t have to pay me for it, he was my friend. The I said I wonder who would want to kill Sonny Boy, she said I don’t know, I said he was a real nice guy; she said evidently somebody didn’t think so. She said whoever it was there had to be more than one person cause Sonny Boy was a good man and he could wup the average two men, that’s what she said. And so at the age of 34 Sonny Boy was wiped out, he had been recording for about ten years. He was a major blues artist like BB King is today, at that time and he was the same age as Muddy Waters and Elmore James and all those guys. But you know he started out, he had a natural gift if you listen to ‘Good Morning Little School Girl’ you can hear where his talent was. You know his first record was a smash hit ‘ Good Morning School Girl / Sugar Mama’ and after that he just put out hit after hit after hit. So Rice Miller, Sonny Boy number 2 knew him, his wife said that he used to come to there house down in Jackson Tennessee and they called him Boy Blue. So Sonny Boys record was so popular, it was so big with the black audience I can’t even describe; the white audience didn’t even know who he was, but with the black audience he was extremely popular. Cause he was the only major solo harmonica player on records and if it hadn’t have been for John Lee Williams there would have been no Little Walter, no Billy Boy Arnold, no James Harman, Junior Wells, Charlie Musselwhite, now the reason why is because we would have never been inspired, see no one had done what Sonny Boy did. See what he did was he made the harmonica so popular that people wanted to do that. Muddy Waters, when Sonny Boy made Good Morning… Muddy Waters was trying to play the harmonica, Jimmy Rogers, Eddie Boyd, see Eddie Boyd was kind of a snob, he didn’t want to play blues, he wanted to be a jazz man; but Good Morning School Girl was such a phenomena that everybody jumped on the harmonica kick. So that’s how it happened.

His relationship with Bo Diddley.

Now I wanted to ask you, you are just one of a handful of guys, still around that are one of the direct links that connects blues to Rock & Roll, now it was back in the early fifties I guess 51 to maybe 53 that that you were playing on the street corners with Bo Diddley. Now where you aware that you guys were doing, creating something totally different and new.

Well I was aware that Bo Diddley had something special. Of course then he wasn’t Bo Diddley, see he was named Ellis McDaniels and we were called Ellis McDaniels and The Hipsters and I was aware that he had something different from most people. See he wasn’t a straight blues player he had something extra a little jazz and calypso thing he’d do. He had an acoustic guitar with a tremolo on it and he played that hambone beat. So when we went to Chess Records, we didn’t have a song called Bo Diddley and his name wasn’t Bo Diddley. Now how that came about, when I was 15 years old we were playing on a street corner and Roosevelt Jackson , he was the bass player, well once he said hey Ellis, there goes Bo Diddley, pointing to this little short bow legged guy on the opposite side of the street. Now that guy was a comedian at the Indiana Theater, see back at that time movie theaters were every where, television had just came in in 1948. So then at the Indiana Theater they showed movies all day, then every Saturday night they had what they called the midnight ramble. And at the midnight ramble they had singers, dancers comedians and they featured a major blues artist. Well the blues artists that they featured the most was Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Minnie see I used to pass by there and I saw that they had a big life sized portrait of them, now they wouldn’t be there together maybe Big Bill would be there three or four weeks then Memphis Minnie would. So anyways when he said there goes Bo Diddley, that was the funniest thing I think I had ever heard in my life I just cracked up I had never heard that before and I just laughed and laughed. So anyhow when we went to Chess Records we were Ellis McDaniels and The Hipsters and we didn’t have a song called Bo Diddley, he was playing the hambone beat on the guitar with the tremolo. And he was just making stuff up, singing papa’s gonna buy you a diamond ring, if that diamond ring don’t shine he gonna take it to a private eye. So then I said to him why don’t you say Bo Diddley. then Leonard Chess said wait a minute, what does that mean, what does Bo Diddley mean? is that something derogatory would that offend the black people, would they get angry? I said no it just means a little bow legged comical guy. So then he started singing, Bo Diddley gonna buy his baby a diamond ring… Now I wrote three or four of the versus of that song right there in the studio. Cause really we didn’t have a song we made it up there in the studio and I wrote, I know three but I think it was four of the lines, but I didn’t get the credit because you know I was just 17 or 18 and I didn‘t know to say wait a minute I‘m helping to write this song. Then to our surprise when the record came out, we thought it was going to be by Ellis McDaniels, but a couple weeks later it came out Bo Diddley by Bo Diddley. Now if I had never said, why don’t you say Bo Diddley, the name Bo Diddley would have never appeared on records.

Just talkin’ bout the blues.

Maybe you could talk a little about those early days, all the great players and maybe even why some hit it big and some didn’t…

Well you know the blues is about telling a story. You know and you had some great story tellers, like Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon and such, but the you know a lot of the players for them guys didn’t ever step out cause they weren’t good singers. Hubert Sumlin, or Matt Murphy, there great guitar players but they can’t sing, and you need to be able to sing the blues you gotta tell the story. Jody Williams he left music pretty early, he never really presented himself as a star then he quit. But you blues is about the story, jazz is about the music and that’s where the great players can step out. But if ya don’t sing your not gonna make it real big I blues.
And you and your own career, did you do a lot of sessions for people in those days?
No, no not at all, I did I think two sessions with Ellis (Bo Diddley) then I went over to Vee Jay and got my own career as a recording star. Over at Chess they had Little Walter and he had surpassed everyone you know, even Sonny Boy. Walter was the main guy over there and I didn’t record with anyone after Bo. Only did my own thing.
From this point we chatted a little about that nights show and a few other non specific things and then we were done….

It was a real treat to have the chance to visit with this true legend of the blues world, and when you consider that Billy Boy Arnold was there at the very beginning with Bo Diddley, as well as penning what has become a certified classic song which has been covered by countless blues and rock artists over the years, ranging from John Hammond, The Yardbirds and David Bowie just to name three to record I Wish You Would. Billy is a true gentleman and a wealth of blues history. I thank him sincerely for the time he spent in studio with me. It was a blast.
Later that night, the show was a lot of fun Hummel and the band were as good as ever and Billy was solid as a rock...


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