Billy Boy Arnold | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Billy Boy Arnold

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Harpist Billy Boy Arnold played with some of the biggest names in Chicago blues history, but he remained a medium-size one himself. Born here in 1935, Arnold grew up idolizing John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson, the Tennessee-born harpist who laid down the template for the urban blues style in the 30s and 40s. After taking a few lessons from Williamson in '48, Arnold insinuated himself into the burgeoning local scene, where modernists like Little Walter were adding phrasing and tonal manipulations adapted from jump-blues and jazz saxophonists to Williamson's countrified licks. In the early 50s, Arnold joined up with a young guitarist named Ellas McDaniel--the future Bo Diddley--with whom he developed a percussive, call-and-response sound that further updated the crossbreed that was the Chicago blues. Arnold played harp on Diddley's landmark "I'm a Man" / "Bo Diddley" session at Chess in 1955, then recorded a series of now-classic sides on Vee-Jay. Although two songs waxed during this stretch, "I Wish You Would" and "I Ain't Got You," were covered by the Yardbirds in the mid-60s, Arnold didn't ride the British blues revival to the kind of mainstream recognition enjoyed by his contemporaries. Since the early 90s, though, he's enjoyed something of a resurrection. On 2001's Boogie 'n' Shuffle (Stony Plain) he conducts a virtual Chicago-blues-harp workshop, displaying influences as diverse as Jimmy Reed and Rice "Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2" Miller and making forays into stripped-down funk and dark jazz-tinged balladry. More of a gifted interpreter than an innovator, Arnold nonetheless remains among the most accomplished instrumentalists still working in the classic Chicago style. With James Wheeler, Willie Smith, and Bob Stroger. Saturday, January 17, 9:30 PM, Rosa's Lounge, 3420 W. Armitage; 773-342-0452.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Fraher.

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