The story goes that, as a young lad in Chicago, Billy Boy Arnold once knocked on the door of his idol, Sonny Boy Williamson, to ask the master for harmonica lessons. Inviting the youngster in, Mr. Williamson proved a gracious and generous mentor, teaching Billy Boy the rudiments and setting him on a course that would shape his life.
Billy Boy never forgot 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 (not to be confused with Rice Miller, the ‘other’ Sonny Boy Williamson), passed away in 1948, mugged and murdered on his way home from a gig. His legacy is large – in addition to stylistic advances on the lickin’ stick, 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 his own compositions to expand the playlist seamlessly.
Arnold certainly has the chops to pull off a tribute to Sonny Boy – his own playing employs as broad a palette, with an astonishing command of nuance and shading. Staying strictly acoustic throughout (modern amplified harmonica didn’t come along ‘til after WWII), he delivers an object lesson in just how versatile and varied a harmonica can be in the hands of a master. He’s supported by a superb cast of veterans that includes 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.
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. Sweet!
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 top-notch outing and a thoroughly enjoyable listen.
Very highly recommended!