The Blues Dream of Billy Boy Arnold

Univ. of Chicago. (Chicago Visions and Revisions). Oct. 2021. 288p. ISBN 9780226809205. $30. memoir
Harmonica legend Billy Boy Arnold (b. 1935), one of the last surviving musicians of the 1950s Chicago blues explosion era, has penned a lively, illuminating memoir, cowritten by Field (Harmonicas, Harps, and Heavy Breathers: The Evolution of the People’s Instrument). Arnold begins his story as a preteen who met his idol, the blues harmonica great John “Sonny Boy” Williamson, and became entranced with prewar Chicago blues. Arnold recounts the emergence of 1950s electric blues and offers intimate recollections of guitarists Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Otis Rush and harmonica players Rice Miller, Junior Wells, and Little Walter. He discusses his classic “I Wish You Would” (1955) and his influential role in helping Bo Diddley launch rock and roll. Arnold evenhandedly details the cutthroat blues business and vividly describes the South Side and West Side Chicago blues scene, including its inherent racism. He explains that in the mid-1960s the blues hub moved to more lucrative clubs in North Chicago, and blues audiences (once primarily Black) became whiter. The memoir also covers recent recordings and international tours.
VERDICT Arnold’s heartfelt, honest, insider’s view of Chicago blues from the 1940s onward will be essential to anyone interested in blues and the origins of rock and roll.
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