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A few weeks ago I was at the City Winery in New York City, watching Phil and Dave Alvin perform a set of acoustic blues, when they brought out Chicago harmonica player Billy Boy Arnold, harmonica player for Bo Diddley.  As a solo artist Billy Boy recorded “I Wish You Would” and “I Ain’t Got You” which were famously covered by the Yardbirds.  (Bo Diddley’s “She’s Fine, She’s Mine” with Billy Boy blowing his harp was the first recording of the song that became “You Don’t Love Me,” recorded as an extended jam by the Allman Brothers and forming the entire second side of “At Fillmore East.”  That story will be in the book The Unbroken Circle.)

After the show I caught up with Billy, who has clear memories of his recordings in the 1950’s, just as the blues and R&B were giving birth to rock and roll.  Billy has a lot of great memories; today’s post will focus on Billy’s most influential recordings and his relationship with Leonard Chess.

Recording as a sideman on Bo Diddley’s first sessions in March of 1955, Billy didn’t get off to a great start with Leonard Chess: “Bo Diddley told me that Leonard didn’t like me.”  Chess’s issue with Billy wasn’t a reflection on his harmonica skills though. Those sessions yielded Bo Diddley’s namesake first single “Bo Diddley” (released as Checker Records 814, reaching Number 1 on the R&B charts) with the flip side “I’m a Man” (reaching number 11.)  Otis Spann played piano on those sessions, joining Bo Diddley’s usual sidemen Bill Boy, maraca player Jerome Green, and Clifton James playing his drum.  Clearly Billy Boy could blow the harp.  Billy explains “At the time I was only 18 or 19. I was a cocky, smart alecky kid.  Leonard was used to those older guys from the south, being docile and humble acting.”

Billy had written another song, and in May, 1955 he wanted to record: “I had wrote Diddley Diddley Dum Dum.”  Thinking that Leonard Chess didn’t like Billy Boy and wouldn’t record him, Bo Diddley suggested an alternative: “I’ll go with you to another record company and record your song.”  While Billy played harmonica in Bo Diddley’s band, like any other ambitious young Chicago musician, he wanted to make his own name: “I said I won’t wait for you to take me, I’ll go to Vee-Jay on my own.”  So Billy Boy went to Vee-Jay records on his own, and went into the Universal recording studios to record “Diddley, Diddley, Dum, Dum.”  “So Vee-Jay set up, I got Jody Williams on the guitar, he was remarkable. Vee-Jay brought Henry Grey in, Earl Philips and the rest of the guys” (that would be Milton Rector.) But Vee-Jay wanted him to change the lyrics: “I changed it to “I Wish You Would.” Right on the spot I made up “I Wish You Would.””  “I Wish You Would” was released as Vee-Jay 146. In 1964 the Yardbirds, with Eric Clapton on guitar, released their recording of “I Wish You Would” as their debut single. It was later covered by Canned Heat, David Bowie, Hot Tuna, Tom Jones, and many other artists.

In the meantime, Chess was planning to record “Diddley, Diddley, Dum, Dum” with Bo Diddley and his band, and Billy Boy Arnold was missing.  “Bo Diddley was supposed to record and they came by my place looking for me, and I wasn’t there. I was downtown at Universal recording.  So Leonard the next day got me to come down there.  And they was going to record in that back room of theirs, and Leonard said “let Billy sing it.” I said I already recorded it for Vee-Jay so I can’t record a song like that.”  Leonard Chess already had mixed feelings about this cocky young harp player.  It didn’t help that he had recorded a song (that Leonard wanted to cut) for another label.  “Leonard was pissed off at me.  Because he wanted the record to come out with me playing and singing it.  It was a total different lyric. I could have probably done it.”  Instead, the record was cut with Bo Diddley on vocals, Little Walter substituting for Billy Boy on harmonica, Willie Dixon playing his bass, and Bo Diddley’s usual band of Clifton James on drums, and Jerome Green shaking the maracas.  The Moonglows (Prentiss Barnes, Harvey Fuqua, Alexander Graves, and Bobby Lester) sweetened the song with their backing vocals.  The song was released as Checker 819 under the title “Diddley Daddy.”

Leonard Chess paid Billy Boy a backhanded compliment, telling Billy “when I first met you I didn’t like you.  When I first met Little Walter I didn’t like him.”  Billy didn’t exactly object to being compared to one of the greatest harmonica players of the 1950’s Chicago blues scene: “See, when he met Little Walter, Walter was cocky. He was comparing me to Little Walter, so that was like a compliment, not a put down.”

Unlike “I Wish You Would,” which Billy Boy wrote himself, “I Ain’t Got You” was written for Jimmy Reed. Billy Boy explains: “Vee-Jay was named for Vivian, she was a Disk jockey, and her husband Jimmy, Jimmy Bracken.  Her brother (Calvin Carter) was a young guy, he was singing with the Spaniels. He wrote a song called “Good Night Sweetheart, It’s Time to Go.”  Him and Pookie Hudson wrote that together.  They had this song “I Ain’t Got You” and they recorded it with Jimmy Reed.  But they never did put it out.  Jimmy Reed was so original; he couldn’t do other people’s material good.  It was slower, it wasn’t what they wanted. See, if Jimmy Reed had done it, it would have been the slow draggy thing that he did.  I ain’t putting him down, he was a smash hit artist. He was another guy like Bo Diddley, he could write his own material and he was original.”  (The Jimmy Reed recording of “I Ain’t Got You” was eventually released on the album “Jimmy Reed: Found Love” in 1960.)

A song that didn’t fit Jimmy Reed became a blues classic with Billy Boy’s vocals and harmonica: “They didn’t release it on Jimmy Reed, they got me to do it.  Mine with Jody Williams and the band is what they wanted.”

“I Ain’t Got You” was covered by The Yardbirds in 1964 as the flip side of their second single.  The A side was “Good Morning, School Girl,” written and recorded in 1937 by John Lee Curtis “Sonny Boy” Williamson I, the man who later gave a young Billy Boy Arnold his first harmonica lessons.  “I Ain’t Got You” has also been covered by Aerosmith, Blue Öyster Cult, The Blues Brothers, and many more. (“Good Morning Schoolgirl” would later be covered by the Allman Brothers Band.)

Billy Boy was pleased that Eric Clapton’s Yardbirds chose two of his songs for their first two singles: “I was proud that the Yardbirds did it, see those two songs put my name on the map.  Those guys covering it, I was proud that they did it, because they liked what I did.”

As happened so often with blues artists of the time, Billy Boy didn’t get the publishing rights to his own “I Wish You Could” or to “I Ain’t Got You.” “I didn’t get the money because the record company got it.” (In this case the record company was Vee-Jay.)  Billy Boy isn’t bitter about it though: “I’m not saying Leonard Chess was the fairest guy in the world, but he didn’t take all the money.  He produced his artists and he pushed them, and he seen that they looked right and they had their Cadillacs and their station wagons when they pulled up at the Apollo Theater.  He wasn’t a guy that took all the money for himself.”