Saturday, June 21, 2008

Billy Boy's Heartfelt Tribute to the First Sonny Boy

Its been sixty years ago that John Lee Williamson, best known as the original Sonny Boy Williamson, was murdered. His death left a major impression on his fellow Chicago musicians and was a topic many volunteered to Paul Oliver when he visited the United States in the early 1960s and interviewed many blues musicians. One of those affected by Sonny Boy’s death was William ‘Billy Boy’ Arnold, who as a youngster met and given a lesson by his idol. Now Arnold pays tribute to the blues pioneer on his new Electro-Fi recording, “Billy Boy Sings Sonny Boy,” performing 14 songs of Williamson and three originals that are very much in the same style. Backed by a band that includes Billy Flynn on guitar and mandolin, Bob Stroger on bass and Willie Smith on drums, with Mel Brown guesting on both piano and guitar, Arnold revives such well known blues that Sonny Boy made popular like ‘Half-a-Pint’ (‘Sloppy Drunk Blues’), ‘Good Morning Little School Girl,’ ‘Cut That Out,’ and ‘Sugar Mama,’ along with such choice numbers as ‘Mellow Chick Swing,’ ‘Polly Put That Kettle On,’ ‘Black Gal Blues,’ ‘Tell Me Baby,’ and Billy Boy’s own ‘Squeeze Me Tight,’ which sounds based on Sonny Boy’s ‘Rooted Groundhog Blues’. Arnold brings a relaxed vocal style and his harp playing still shows his indebtedness to Sonny Boy’s choked, crying style. Listening to his direct delivery of the ironic ‘Decoration Day Blues,’ on which Sonny Boy lamented the death of a girl friend. The irony was Williamon was murdered on Decoration Day. Another fine performance is the lively ‘Polly Put the Kettle On,’ with its easy swing and a swinging solo by Flynn that evokes Willie James Lacey who played on many of Sonny Boy’s latter recordings. Stroger and Smith keep the backing simple and Brown’s guitar and piano fills out on several tracks the understated, but most effective backing throughout. Arnold’s heartfelt love of Sonny Boy is evident throughout and the backing complements his own delivery resulting in this very charming and moving musical remembrance.

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