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Billy Boy Sings Sonny Boy

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Album Review

Harmonica player Billy Boy Arnold is more than just a master of the vintage late 1940s, early 1950s classic Chicago blues harp style, he's also a natural singer, with a warmth and joy in his vocals that just gets bigger and better as his career goes on. This wonderful (and generous) 17-track set (there's also an unlisted 18th track) finds Arnold paying tribute to his mentor John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson, whose electric harp style in the mid 1940s is where the whole modern Chicago blues sound really lifted off of the ground. Arnold had a few harp lessons from Williamson as a child and the two remained close until Williamson's tragic murder in 1948. A more soulfully nuanced and less deliberately explosive singer than Williamson, Arnold does a great job of bringing his own flair to the 14 Williamson tunes here (Arnold also adds three of his own compositions), managing to replicate the feel of the originals while giving them an easy, natural-sounding warmth and verve. Working with a solid band that includes Willie "Big Eyes" Smith on drums, Bob Stroger on bass, Mel Brown on piano and Billy Flynn on mandolin, Arnold delivers urbane and perfectly balanced versions of "1,000 Dollar Bill," "New Jail House Blues," "Polly Put the Kettle On" and the classic "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," finding little vocal corners that Williamson might have missed in the original versions. It's all classic Chicago blues done perfectly, and while there are plenty of harmonica breaks, it's Arnold's quietly brilliant singing that make this album such a pure delight. So much of contemporary blues seems to be about hurrying up to get to the instrumental breaks where everyone can show off what they've got. Arnold, however, understands that it's still really about the song, and he sings his heart out here, no doubt making his mentor proud.

Biography

Born: 16 September 1935 in Chicago, IL

Genre: Blues

Years Active: '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

Talk about a comeback. After too many years away from the studio, Chicago harpist Billy Boy Arnold returned to action in a big way with two fine albums for Alligator: 1993's Back Where I Belong and 1995's Eldorado Cadillac. Retaining his youthful demeanor despite more than four decades of blues experience, Arnold's wailing harp and sturdy vocals remained in top-flight shape following the lengthy recording layoff. Born in Chicago rather than in Mississippi (as many of his musical forefathers were),...
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Billy Boy Sings Sonny Boy, Billy Boy Arnold
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