Billy Boy Arnold: Sings Big Bill Broonzy
Label: ELECTRO-FI RECORDS
Sweet Honey Bee, Going Back To Arkansas, Girl In The Valley aka Water Coast Blues, Key To The Highway, Looking Up At Down, Rider Rider Blues, Willie Mae Blues, Cell No. 13 Blues, I Want You By My Side, San Antonio Blues, Living On Easy Street, When I Get To Thinkin', I Love My Whiskey, It Was Just A Dream, Just Got To Hold You Tight,
It’s hard to imagine anyone better equipped than Billy Boy Arnold to do a Big Bill Broonzy tribute CD. As a child growing up on Chicago’s South Side, Billy Boy was captivated by the recordings that Big Bill and his musical colleagues made in the 1930s and ‘40s. He was particularly inspired by the music made by Big Bill’s friend, harmonica master John Lee “Sonny Boy No. 1” Williamson, whom the enterprising 12-year old Billy Boy sought out for several private lessons. A few years later, thanks to an introduction from pianist Blind John Davis, Billy Boy got the chance to meet and talk with Big Bill. He saw the older bluesman perform numerous times, in venues ranging from blues clubs on the South and West Side to the prestigious Blue Note jazz club downtown in the Loop. In fact, at one point in the 1950s, the up-and-coming harmonica player and singer even asked Big Bill if he would consider making a record with him. “I wanted Big Bill to play on it because he played with Sonny Boy,” Billy Boy recalls. “I wanted to get that same sound.” But Big Bill declined the offer, suggesting to Billy Boy that he instead ask the members of the Aces, who were then backing Little Walter and were emerging as a formidable musical powerhouse in their own right. Billy Boy believes that Big Bill clearly recognized that his style of guitar playing “wasn’t what was happening,” and therefore steered Billy Boy in the direction of more contemporary players. Over the intervening six decades, Billy Boy has established an international reputation for his distinctive set of contributions to the Chicago blues tradition. Through his recordings and performances, as well as his exceptional powers of recall and his engaging storytelling abilities, he has been both an invaluable witness to blues history and a noteworthy figure in making it. Now, with Billy Boy Arnold Sings Big Bill Broonzy, he has been able to fulfill his longtime wish of recording the music of one of the bluesmen he most admires. The 15 songs that Billy Boy selected for this CD, in collaboration with producer and guitarist Eric Noden, were ones that Big Bill recorded between the late 1930s and the early 1950s. Even though they represent only a small fraction of the several hundred songs Big Bill wrote over his thirty-year career, they showcase his versatility as a songwriter. He was able to write in a wide range of voices, from the remorseful prisoner in “Cell No.13 Blues” who laments “I know I forgot my raisin’/ and I know I’m to blame,” to the unrepentant drinker declaring “I have to be drunk to look for a job/ I got to be drunk to get hired” in “I Love My Whiskey.” The “razor-whet lovely sense of irony” that Studs Terkel identified as a defining characteristic of Big Bill’s writing comes into sharp focus in “Going Back to Arkansas,” where what initially appears to be a sentimental ode to a return to a simpler rural life becomes a far more ambivalent portrait by the song’s end. The talented musicians who have chosen to pay tribute to Big Bill have accomplished this successfully by playing in the spirit of his work rather than trying to reproduce it precisely as it was recorded. So in “Water Coast Blues”, when Billy Flynn plays understated mandolin fills until they burst into a solo, the song is transformed into an evocation of Bill’s early days playing in a black string band in Arkansas. The rhythm section of Rick Sherry on washboard and Beau Sample on standup bass is fully the equal of any that backed Big Bill. And Billy Boy isn’t afraid to update Bill’s extraordinary 1938 composition “It Was Just A Dream,” as he adds a verse that alludes to Bill’s romantic experiences in Europe in the 1950s. Big Bill Broonzy, during his last recording session in July 1957, introduced a Leroy Carr song by saying “I don’t think he’ll ever die, because a song like this don’t die.” With this CD, Billy Boy Arnold and his bandmates make a compelling case for the ongoing impact of Big Bill Broonzy’s creative powers. Their performances demonstrate that Big Bill’s music remains vibrant, dynamic, and a rich source of inspiration to the blues artists of the 21st century.