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Chicago / The Blues / Today! Turns 50

Last month in mid-June my band (the Blasters) played a couple of nights at Fitzgerald’s in the West side Chicago neighborhood of Berwyn and we were lucky once again to have Chicago blues legend Billy Boy Arnold join us as a guest artist. Sixty years ago, Billy Boy recorded his first hit single for Vee-Jay Records, including the future blues standards “I Wish You Would” and “I Ain’t Got You.”

Although just 20 years old at the time of its release, Billy Boy had already studied harp with Chicago legend John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson AKA “Sonny Boy I” and knew or had played with most of the leading lights of Chicago blues, not to mention performing on the hit single “I’m A Man” with his childhood friend Bo Diddley.

Now nearly 80, Billy Boy is still a strong, focused performer who embodies the best aspects of Chicago blues: deep roots; spontaneous, improvisational performance; and a straightforward, no-frills style. To play with Billy Boy you need to keep your eyes and ears open because arrangements are built on the spot, often based on the most subtle cues. This is where the work you put into learning repertoire, rhythm arrangements, and style pays off; to do the music justice you need to do your homework and then be prepared for anything - it definitely won’t be just like the record, but that’s what keeps each performance unique and the music alive.

billy boy arnoldBilly Boy came of age in the golden era of Chicago blues when now-legendary artists including Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, Sonny Boy Williamson II (AKA Rice Miller), Elmore James, Jimmy Reed and a host of others appeared regularly in local clubs and recorded for Chicago labels like Chess and Vee-Jay. At the same time, Billy Boy and his young contemporaries were creating the next generation of Chicago blues, a sound that would reach its creative peak in the mid-‘60s, bringing us to another significant blues anniversary in 2015: fifty years ago, Vanguard Records recorded the three-album compilation series Chicago / the Blues / Today!  

These sessions were organized by blues author and producer Sam Charters, who convinced the label that between the demand among young, white listeners for “roots” music and the wealth of unheard talent in Chicago there was a chance to sell some records. For blues fans in the US and Europe, these live-in-the-studio albums featuring Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Otis Spann, JB Hutto, James Cotton and others were the closest they would get to being in the audience at a real Chicago club.

The small-band electric sound was something a young rock musician could immediately relate to, and before long, songs, licks, and stylistic nuances from these performances began showing up in recordings by the new wave of blues-rock virtuosos including Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Mike Bloomfield. Chicago / The Blues / Today! became part of the essential record collection of any serious blues musician and helped to spread awareness of the younger generation of Chicago blues far beyond the club scene. The records didn’t wind up selling big numbers, but their influence was undeniable.

chicago the blues today

Ironically, by the time Chicago / The Blues / Today! was released the once-thriving South side blues scene was already withering and the edgy, improvisational Chicago blues style was beginning its evolution into a predictable, classic repertoire. When Billy Boy and Buddy and their few remaining contemporaries are finally gone (long may they live!) the chance to hear a real Chicago blues legend in person will go with them, but fortunately Chicago / The Blues / Today! will still be here to provide evidence of the tough, immediate music that came off the bandstand at Pepper’s or Theresa’s or Turner’s Blue Lounge on any given Chicago night in 1965. 

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