Billy Boy Arnold helped the blues give birth to rock ’n’ roll | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Billy Boy Arnold helped the blues give birth to rock ’n’ roll 

He might be best known as Bo Diddley’s 1950s harmonica player, but he’s 25 years into a comeback of his own.

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Billy Boy Arnold - PHOTO BY PAUL NATKIN
  • Billy Boy Arnold
  • Photo by Paul Natkin

Billy Boy Arnold's career spans no fewer than three historical blues epochs. Mentored as a teenager in 1948 by harmonica master John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson, who'd helped define the mid-20th-century Chicago style, Arnold began playing professionally just as Muddy Waters and his contemporaries kicked off the postwar blues insurgency. Then, in 1955, he participated in what was, for all intents and purposes, the birth of rock 'n' roll—in fact, he's often credited with coining one of rock's most iconic stage names.


Charlie Musselwhite with special guest Billy Boy Arnold
Fri 6/7, 5 PM, Jay Pritzker Pavilion

Billy Boy Arnold
Sat 6/8, 3 PM, Crossroads Stage


Born in Chicago in 1935, William Arnold grew up idolizing Williamson and other midcentury bluesmen, many of them associated with Chicago label Bluebird. They were developing an urbanized update of the sparse acoustic blues still prevalent in the south—and Williamson, who'd revolutionized the blues harmonica by transforming it into a lead instrument roughly analogous to the saxophone in jazz, was one of the luminaries of this new sound.

Arnold got the chance to meet his idol for a memorable tutoring session only a few weeks before Williamson was murdered while walking home from a gig. Inspired, Arnold hit the local circuit, and in 1953 he released his own debut, the single "I Ain't Got No Money" b/w "Hello Stranger," on the tiny, short-lived Chicago label Cool—but these straightforward 12-bar blues outings barely hinted at what was to come.

Within a year or so, Arnold began working with a bold young singer-guitarist named Ellas McDaniel, who was busking on the south and west sides with guitarist Jody Williams and washtub player Roosevelt Jackson in a group called the Langley Avenue Jive Cats. In 1955, McDaniel and his band, now augmented by Jerome Green on maracas, auditioned a raunchy blues with a propulsive, off-center beat for several local labels, finally ending up at Chess Records. They'd been calling the song "Hey Noxema" or "Uncle John," but under Leonard Chess's direction, they cleaned up the lyrics and changed its title to "Bo Diddley"—which almost immediately became McDaniel's stage name. (Several sources, including Arnold himself, say that he was the one who suggested it.) The flip side, "I'm a Man," featured Billy Boy's harmonica atop a lurching, testosterone-driven stop-time cadence. These young African American urbanites were thrusting their manhood aggressively in the face of Eisenhower-­era America, and pop culture would never be the same.

  • Bo Diddley’s 1955 recording of “I’m a Man“ with Billy Boy Arnold on harmonica

Arnold also appeared on Bo Diddley's "She's Fine, She's Mine" later that year, but by then he'd signed with Vee-Jay, which released a series of his singles between 1955 and 1957. These discs, along with the Diddley sides, form the basis of his renown among collectors. Two of his Vee-Jay songs—"I Ain't Got You" and "I Wish You Would," both cut in 1955—eventually earned Arnold some "mainstream" (read "white") recognition when the Yardbirds resurrected them on their 1965 LP For Your Love. For the next few decades, though, Arnold hovered in "living legend" limbo—idolized by collectors and greeted as a conquering hero when he could perform overseas, but otherwise virtually ignored.

  • “I Ain’t Got You”
  • The 1955 recording of “I Wish You Would,” reissued 1964 by Vee-Jay subsidiary Vivid

Finally, in 1993, Arnold launched a stateside comeback with the album Back Where I Belong (Alligator). He's continued to record since then—his most recent release is 2014's The Blues Soul of Billy Boy Arnold (Stony Plain)—and he's been intermittently active as a live performer. For the 2009 anthology Chicago Blues: A Living History (Raisin' Music) he contributed his own "I Wish You Would" along with covers of songs by Williamson, Tampa Red, Memphis Slim, and another of his early role models, Big Bill Broonzy. In 2012, he dug into those roots again for the Electro-Fi release Billy Boy Arnold Sings Big Bill Broonzy.

Even though Arnold's 1950s discography could be considered modest—not quite 20 sides, none of which charted—those early recordings provide a tantalizing snapshot of a music in the throes of radical if not cataclysmic change. Now that this change is a matter of history, Billy Boy Arnold is universally feted as a carrier of living blues heritage who helped the blues and R&B give birth to rock 'n' roll.  v

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