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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.

Chicago Reader Critic's Choice by David Whiteis 


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