Original Version before Jimmy Reed and Yardbirds cover versions.
His First and Best Disc.
Sure Sounds Good At 78 RPM.
Billy Boy Arnold circa 1993.
In late 1954, when Bo Diddley showed up at Chess Records to record a demo of an x-rated tune called Uncle John (where is that demo today?), he didn’t arrive alone. In tow where three friends, the mainstays on a loose musical aggregation that played on the streets of Chicago for loose change who called themselves The Langley Avenue Jive Cats. With Bo where Jerome Green whose maracas were an important ingredient in the group’s unique sound, drummer Clifton James, and our subject today, harmonica player and singer William “Billy Boy” Arnold (b. September 17, 1935 in Chicago). Missing were guitarist Jody Williams, who’d soon join the group in the studio, Roosevelt Jackson who played washtub bass and another guitarist known only as Buttercup. Leonard Chess, who recorded the demo told Bo to clean his song up and bring his group back to record it for real, which they did on March 2, 1955. In addition to the cleaned up version of Uncle John which was re-written as Bo Diddley and recorded without Arnold, they also recorded Bo’s originals I’m A Man, Little Girl, You Don’t Love Me (You Don’t Care) and three tunes with Billy Boy Arnold leading the group– You Got To Love Me, I’m Sweet On You and the harmonica instrumental- Rhumba. Chess issued Bo Diddley b/w I’m A Man on his Checker label and the rest was history. A second session with the group was scheduled for May.
Billy Boy Arnold had already recorded back in ’53 when he was just 17 years old– I Ain’t Got No Money b/w Hello Stranger, his recording debut, was issued on the Cool label, today it’s so rare that he doesn’t even have a copy and I’ve never seen nor heard it. In the intermittent months between Bo Diddley’s first and second sessions, Arnold, convinced Leonard Chess, who already had Little Walter under contract, had little use for his talents, made his way across the street to Vee Jay Records. There he cut a session for Vee Jay with fifteen year old guitarist Jody Williams (who would re-join Bo’s band, as well as doing session work for Howlin’ Wolf, and recording under his own name for Argo and as Little Papa Joe for Blue Lake), and session men Henry Gray on piano, Earl Phillips on drums and Milton Rector on bass. From this session, in early May of ’55 Vee Jay released under the nome du disque Billy Boy– I Wish You Would b/w I Was Fooled (Vee Jay 146), a smoldering slice of vinyl and/or shellac depending on how many RPM’s you prefer, as ever emanated from Chicago.
Meanwhile, a week later, at Bo’s second recording session, Billy Boy Arnold played on She’s Fine, She’s Mine, but when they set about recording Diddley Daddy, Arnold explained to Chess he’d just recorded the song as I Wish You Would for Vee Jay. Billy Boy was promptly shown the door, to be replaced by Little Walter on Diddley Daddy. The songs were different enough that both men would take writer’s credit on their respective discs, but Billy Boy Arnold was persona non grata with the brothers Chess. It didn’t matter anyway, since that fall Billy was back in the studio for Vee Jay recording four more sides, this time with Fred Below on drums and Syl Johnson and Odell Cambell playing guitars. Two singles were released in 1956– I Ain’t Got You b/w Don’t Stay Out (Vee Jay 171) and You’ve Got Me Wrong b/w Here’s My Picture (Vee Jay 192). His third Vee Jay session came in November of ’56 which produced the single Kissing At Midnight b/w My Heart Is Crying (Vee Jay 238) and two un-issued tunes. His final Vee Jay disc was recorded in September of ’57– Rockin’-itis b/w Prisoner’s Plea (Vee Jay 260), as well as two more outtakes–No, No, No, No and Everyday and Every Night. I Wish You Would was a small, local hit, as was I Ain’t Got You, the next three singles sold very few copies and Vee Jay let him go. Bo Diddley would set on a career as a rock’n’roll star, touring the world for over fifty years and leaving a recorded legacy on Checker that is second to none. Billy Boy Arnold would return to the streets, and later the clubs of Chicago’s south and west sides, where his career as minor, second tiered (in terms of fame and popularity, not musical worth) bluesman lasts until this day. He wouldn’t record again until 1963 when he cut his first LP for Prestige, More Blues From The South Side with Mighty Joe Young on guitar. A surprisingly good album, in my own opinion blues like rock’n’roll is a form best enjoyed on singles, whether 78 or 45, and would suffer from recording sessions where an artist would be expected to produce a whole album instead of two sides of a single. Starting in the early 60’s, these blues albums were mostly aimed at white “folk blues” fans, and most of them are garbage.
But getting back to the five Vee Jay singles, which remain the high point in a long recording career.
All five singles have a rocker on one side and a slow blues or shuffle on the flip. I Wish You Would would become something of a standard after the Yardbirds version, a version even ending up on David Bowie’s 1974 Pin Ups (an album of “mod” covers made while his manager negotiated a new publishing deal) and is still something of a blues standard today. But all five singles are great, as good as anything you’ll ever hear. All use some variation of the Bo Diddley beat on one side, and all his songs are of superior quality. Arnold was an excellent lyricist, clever, never falling back on the cliches of the genre. They have a unique sound, and a touch of menace, making them quite unique.
Eventually, as the big names died off, Billy Boy Arnold would gain fame and respectability with blues fans, especially in Europe, touring often, playing festivals in the summer months, cutting at least a dozen albums, probably more. Having learned to play harmonica from Sonny Boy Williamson (John Lee Williamson, the original Sonny Boy), although he plays harp more like Rice Miller, the second Sonny Boy, he was even making good records into the 70’s, his version of Dirty Mother Fucker, on Red Lightnin’, backed by a charmingly inept white British boogie band called the Groundhogs, remains popular among fans of such things. Billy Boy was re-united with Jody Williams at the first Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans back in 2003 and they sounded great together. Arnold’s still alive today, although he no longer tours much. His best sides- the Vee Jay recordings, are sadly out of print (Charley in the UK had released an album of all his Vee Jay material called Cryin’ and Pleadin’ in the eighties, some of the tunes later showed up in the US on a series of Vee Jay blues compilations A Taste Of The Blues, all have gone out of print). That will hopefully be corrected some day soon. Whoever undertakes such an endeavour should add the Cool single and the three songs from the first Bo Diddley session to the twelve existing Vee Jay recordings, that would make a nice CD, an excellent testament to Billy Boy Arnold’s greatness. That would be called “getting it right”, a rare occurrence in the music biz, Maybe it will even appear before he dies. Stranger things have happened.