The story goes that, as a boy growing up in Chicago, Billy Boy Arnold once knocked on the door of his idol, Sonny Boy Williamson, to ask the master for harmonica lessons.
Whether Mr. Williamson recognized raw talent right from the start, or simply admired Arnold’s chutzpah, he graciously took the youngster in, teaching young Billy Boy the rudiments of the lickin’ stick and in the process setting him on a course that would shape his life.
Billy Boy remembered Williamson’s kindness, and now, some sixty years after the latter’s untimely passing, he pays tribute with a disc celebrating one of the humble harmonica’s greatest innovators.
The original Sonny Boy Williamson (John Lee, not to be confused with Rice Miller, the ‘other’ Sonny Boy Williamson who brazenly appropriated the name), passed away in 1948, mugged and murdered on his way home from a gig. His enduring influence is enormous – in addition to stylistic advances on the harmonica, he composed a number of songs that remain staples of the blue repertoire, including the original “Sugar Sweet” and “Good Morning Little School Girl,” both included here. Billy Boy adds a handful of originals, all borrowing classic themes and structure, to expand the playlist seamlessly.
Arnold certainly has the chops to pull off a tribute to Sonny Boy – his own playing employs an equally broad palette, with an astonishing command of nuance and shading. Staying strictly acoustic throughout (modern amplified harmonica didn’t come along ‘til after WWII), Arnold delivers an object lesson in just how versatile and expressive a harp can be in the hands of a master. As the only instrument in Western music to employ both draw and blow notes, the harmonica is arguably the closest one can get to the organic act of breathing; here the harp is an extension of Arnold’s voice, in effect expanding his vocal range to encompass everything from raucous whoops to moans that seemingly originate in the very darkest realms of the soul.
He’s supported by a superb cast of veterans, including Billy Flynn on guitars and mandolin, ex-Muddy alumni Bob Stroger (bass), and Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith (no slouch on the tin sandwich himself, though here he sticks to the drum chair), with guest Mel Brown adding additional guitar and piano on several cuts.
Given the roster it’s no surprise that performances are universally excellent. Arnold’s vocals are ideal for the material, laconic yet hinting at an undercurrent of danger – he absolutely nails that strange tension that gives blues its irresistible edge, seemingly without breaking a sweat.
There are no real surprises here, but as a loving tribute and a superior-sounding recording (with typically stellar Electro-Fi production thanks to Alec Fraser), this is a superb outing and a thoroughly enjoyable listen.