Billy Boy Arnold - photo by Erik Lindahl
The truth must be told
Billy Boy Arnold är idag en av de få kvarvarande bluesmunspelarna från 1950-talsperioden då konkurrensen var mördande hård i Chicago. Han föddes där 1935 och var endast 18 år när han spelade in sin första skiva för det lilla okända skivmärket Cool.
Men det var för det betydligt mer kända skivbolaget Vee-Jay han fick sitt genombrott. En av hans mest kända låtar heter I Wish You Would, som ingått i många andra artisters repertoarer. Genom åren har han slingrat sig fram på många olika bolag men hela tiden har han behållit sin egen stil där inspirationen är hämtad från den store John Lee ”Sonny Boy” Williamson. För mig personligen var det en glad överraskning när han skulle spela på bluesfesten i Åmål 2007. Jag lyckades tajma hans ankomst till Stadshotellet perfekt; på min fråga om han orkade ställa upp för en intervju nickade han lite tveksamt “okej bara jag får käka lite först”. Under tiden försökte jag förbereda mig på vilka frågor jag skulle ställa, men jag behövde inte bekymra mig, Billy Boy är en av de mest pålästa artister jag någonsin träffat; det hela blev väldigt improviserat.
Att John Lee Williamson fortfarande ligger honom varmt om hjärtat visade det sig när vi kom in på denne artist. Starka fakta kom fram när omständigheterna kring hans store idols död kom på tal. Enligt honom själv har han aldrig nämnt detta tidigare i samband med någon intervju. Därav anledningen till att jag inte låtit översätta detta till svenska, främst för att tillmötesgå Billy Boys önskan att sanningen måste fram. Om inte jag fått bistånd från min dotter Annica med det engelska språket hade jag kört fast i mina försök att få ihop detta material.
I would like to start with some questions about John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson: If he had survived, do you think that he could have made it in the 50’s?
He was only 34, the same age Muddy Waters was, so why not. Why should he stop?
No, that’s true. But I was thinking more about how the musical style changed in the 50’s, it got a little bit different from what he played. So you think that he could have made it?
Of course, one thing about the blues is that it doesn’t stop. It’s only different musicians. Blind John Davis and those guys were set in a certain mood, Sonny Boy was only 34 when he was killed. Jazz music saw the black escalate to a different level. Of course he could have made it. I mean, he was younger than Howlin’ Wolf. Same age as Muddy, same age as Elmore James. Why shouldn’t he. T-Bone Walker made it and T-Bone was older than Sonny Boy.
But most of the other Bluebird recording artists were a little bit older, but they never made it from Bluebird to other labels, for example Washboard Sam, Walter Davis and Jazz Gillum…
Well you see, Sonny Boy was more aggressive, he was younger and on top of things.They weren’t assertive as Sonny Boy; he was an outgoing type of guy.
I know Sonny Boy taught you some tricks on the harmonica. Was he the only one who taught you something, or did Little Walter and/or Snooky Pryor teach you anything as well?
None of those guys never taught me nothing. I learned by listening to records. Actually, if Sonny Boy had lived, had survived, I probably would have learned a lot of stuff quicker, because he would have shown me. I never asked Little Walter about teaching me, because he was the type of guy who was afraid that everybody was trying to take over his style.
I’ve seen a picture of you when you were quite young. You have the harmonica with you. That must have been something you were really proud of.
Oh yeah. I wanted to be a real blues singer, like Sonny Boy.
Was it taken before the recording you did in 1953?
Yeah, around that time, I was not playing in clubs or with bands. I was playing on streetcorners with Bo Diddley.
I don’t know anything about Bob Carter and his band, who played on your record in 1953, was he more into jazz music?
He wasn’t in my band. Bob Carter was an upright bass player, and a friend of the record company, I guess, but he never played on that record. I guess they only used his name, “Bob Carter’s Orchestra”, even if he never played on that record. All of the musicians were associated to Bob Carter, except Curt Ferguson, a jazz bass player, who played the bass. But they weren’t supposed to play on that record. Blind John Davis, Big Bill Broonzy, Ransom Knowling and Judge Riley were supposed to do that.
Blind John knew the record company and they were looking for a new talent and he said “ I know a boy who plays the harmonica”, they said “bring him over” and they brought me over. They liked what I was doing and that’s how it happened. Blind John and I were rehearsing, but Big Bill had to go overseas, and Blind John told me to ask for some advance royalties and so I did, and when I mentioned it to the company they said “who told you that?” I said it was Blind John and that was that. That put Blind John out of the picture.
When I listen to Hello Stranger I hear a lot of Sonny Boy.
Yeah, well it was exactly his style. I was just a kid, I didn’t have my own style at all and he was my mentor and I wanted to sound like him, so that’s why.
I guess only you and Eddie Burns are still playing his songs?
Well, Snooky Pryor was playing on his style in his early recordings, and Forest City Joe imitated him, Baby Face Leroy was singing in his style. We must remember that the time Sonny Boy was killed it was common that people imitated him. He was the number one major artist in blues music. He was an influence and important like B.B. King is today. B B. King is the most important man in electric blues. Before he came on the scene, John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson was the front-running and most influential man.
He was the father of harmonica blues. Before him there were De Ford Bailey and Jed Davenport.
Those guys never made a career and they never made any successful records including harmonica solos. John Lee Williamson was the only man who did that. Big Walter Horton was playing on Sonny Boy’s style when he played on the Little Buddy Doyle recordings. See, you play on other people’s styles, when you don’t have a style of your own. You’ve got to start somewhere. And whoever’s popular, like everybody’s singing on B.B.’s style. Before B.B. most of the guitar players where trying to sing on T-Bone Walker’s style. And as for B.B. he got his inspiration in his guitar playing from T-Bone Walker. So we have to remember, Rice Miller had been singing since 1937, and when Sonny Boy did Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, he was singing throughout the South calling himself Sonny Boy Williamson.
What song do you think he was singing? John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, he didn’t have any song, and if he did, the people would want to hear what they could hear on records and on the jukebox. And Sonny Boy was a winner, so if you imitated Sonny Boy you couldn’t loose. When I started out I was imitating Sonny Boy because he was the winner, and I couldn’t loose. I didn’t have any style of my own, I didn’t know what to come up with. Willie Anderson told me he used to go down on 33rd Street and see Sonny Boy, and he’s told me these exact words, he said if Sonny Boy hade lived, Little Walter wouldn’t have become the harmonica king that he is!
There was another harmonica player calling himself Good Rockin’ Charles, he was also known as a very good harmonica player but he didn’t record until the late 70’s.
Good Rockin’ Charles had a problem with facing the audience, he had drinking problems, but he had talent. He played with Otis Rush for a while.
Many of the great harmonica players came through Muddy’s band. But you never worked through Muddy.
I never worked through nobody but Bo Diddley. See, I started out wanting to be a recording artist, a singer like Sonny Boy. Some of the guys had to go through people like Muddy and stuff like that, but I never had the chance to do that, and I don’t think I would’ve wanted to. I made my first record when I was 17 and I was playing on the streetcorner with Bo Diddley. I made my next record with Bo Diddley when I was 18 or 19 and I just launched my career. And all those other guys, none of them started out that young, and they didn’t come up with I Wish You Would or a record like that. Junior Wells recorded for United Records, States Records in 1953, but his records was dated, they weren’t commercial.
Our stuff was commercial like Little Walter’s. They didn’t play Jr Wells’ records on the radio around Chicago, because he was singing off Sonny Boy’s style and he was sort of out, he didn’t have any songs of his own, and you had to come up with your own sound and your own songs at least, that’s why Bo Diddley was a hit.
When Bo Diddley did his first recordings for Checker you also recorded for them, but Checker never released them.
We actually did that on the same session. When we went to Chess we went there as two guys trying to make records, in fact I insisted; Bo couldn’t care less. I said “let’s make some records” because I had made a record a couple of years earlier. So we went to Chess and I was interested in recording in my own right, but I didn’t have anything Chess wanted. I was still singing on Sonny Boy’s style, and that wasn’t commercial enough to make a big hit, and Bo Diddley had, see, his name wasn’t Bo Diddley when we went to Chess, his name was Ellas McDaniel. There was no Bo Diddley in the picture. We didn’t go there with a song called Bo Diddley. Now, here’s what happened. He had a couple of songs called Sir Popper’s Hop, Little Girl, Little Grenadierand I´m A Man. And he was playing his Bo Diddley thing. See, he used to stand on the streetcorners, singing “ Got Something To Tell You Baby You Can’t Do It”, and instead of saying “Dirty Mother Fucker” he’d say ”Hey Noxema, Hey Noxema”, cause you see at that time saying “Dirty Mother Fucker” was kinda offensive to the audience, and so he sang “Hey Noxema” in that part.
He always played that big type of guy and he had an electric guitar with a tremolo on the streetcorner instead of an acoustic guitar. So anyway, I’m going to tell you how the name Bo Diddley appeared on record. When I first met Bo Diddley in 1951 I was about 15 years old. Me, Jody Williams, Bo Diddley and another guy called Roosevelt Jackson, we were playing on the street. We were walking down the street and Roosevelt said to Ellas, who was Bo Diddley “see here Ellas, there goes Bo Diddley”, it was a little short guy who was a comedian at the Indiana theater, it was vaudeville, like the Apollo, and they called him Bo Diddley. That was the funniest word I ever heard in my life. I just cracked up, I’d never heard the word Bo Diddley, I just laughed and I never forgot that name.
So in 1955 we were at Chess Records to make this record, and he was doing the hambone beat “Papa Gonna Buy His Baby a Diamond Ring” But he didn’t have all the verses, so Leonard Chess said “well we gotta get a story, we’ve got to get this song together”. So I wrote three verses, maybe four, so when he was saying “Dum Du Dum” I said “why don’t you say ‘Bo Diddley’”. I thought of that word, and I said “why don’t you sing “Bo Diddley Gonna Buy His Baby a Diamond Ring”’ Then Leonard said “what does that mean? I don’t wanna put something on the record that’s gonna offence black people” I said “Oh, it’s just a bow-legged, comical guy”. So I was surprised the record came out Bo Diddley by Bo Diddley. I wrote three of the verses on that ”Mojo come to my house, the black cat bone, Take my baby away from home, Ugly ole mojo where you been?, Up your house and I’m gone again, Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley have you heard? My pretty baby said she wasn’t for it”. I might’ve written another one, but I didn’t get any credit, I was young and tried to be helpful and to our surprise when the record came out, we thought the record was going to came out as Ellas McDaniel. We didn’t know he was going to use the Bo Diddley thing that I brought up. If I had never said that name, the name Bo Diddley would never be on the record today. The rest is history!
But you went to Vee-Jay.
Well, here’s exactly what happened. Leonard Chess was not interested in me as a recording artist, and I was interested in being a recording artist. So he told Ellas that he didn’t like me. Now Ellas wasn’t trying to knock me out of the picture; I found this out later. He was relating what Leonard told him. He said: “Leonard said he doesn’t like you”. “I’ll go with you to another record company”. I said: “Oh that’s cool”. I didn’t need him to go nowhere, I went there myself you know, cause I had other songs. Here’s what happened: I wrote a song called Diddy Diddy Dum Dum and I was playing the same harmonica beat that I was playing on I Wish You Would. We was at the Trianon Ballroom with Ruth Brown on the show, and Leonard was in the audience and that Diddy Diddy Dum Dum was my song and I was singing and playing the harmonica, Bo Diddley was just playing the guitar. And it went over real big. I can’t remember all the lyrics to it now, but when we got through playing it I told Bo “we stole the show” and he said “you mean you stole the show”. So Leonard was saying to Bo “that’s your next record”, but that was before he told me Leonard didn’t like me. So I went to Vee-Jay and told Jimmy Bracken I had a song and I told him I’ve played with Bo Diddley, so he told me to come by and see Calvin Carter next day.
I went by and explained to Calvin and he said “write another lyric to it” and I came up with I Wish You Would. And I went and got Jody Williams and at that time he was playing in Howlin’ Wolf’s band and Jody had a song called I Was Fooled. Jody wanted to record it too, just like I did with Chess. But Al Smith was there and he told Jody “let him do I Was Fooled, it’s more suited to his style”. So Jody said “okay”, so that’s how I Was Fooled came about. And I had Jody Williams, Henry Gray, Milton Rector and Earl Phillips with me.
Milton Rector, was he a studio musician for Vee-Jay?
Exactly, he lived right across the street from Bo Diddley. I hadn’t seen him in a while. I didn’t know he was a musician. When I saw him up there in the studio I was surprised that it was the same guy I saw Bo Diddley was talking to. He had a Fender bass, the first time I’d ever seen a Fender bass. And we recorded, I recorded two sides, Morris Pejoe recorded two sides and Earl Phillips recorded two sides. That was the session. Leonard Chess wanted Bo Diddley to do his next record, so Bo came by and he couldn’t find me. So Leonard said “where’s Billy headed”, he said “we couldn’t find him” and Leonard said “well find him, we got to have him on it”. So they got hold of me and I went down there and Bo Diddley was trying to sing my song, and Leonard said “ let Billy do it”. I said “no I can’t sing it because I’m recording for Vee-Jay”. And Leonard said “you know when I first met you I didn’t like you, and when I first met Little Walter I didn’t like him!”.
Jimmy Reed recorded I Ain´t Got You and you also recorded it a few months later. How come Vee-Jay put that one out again?
Well, they never did put it out with Jimmy Reed.
They didn’t? So it was laying on rest for years later?
25 years or something. Calvin Carter wrote Goodnight Sweetheart It’s Time To Go and he wrote I Ain’t Got You. They gave it to Jimmy Reed and he recorded it, but they didn’t like the way he did it, cause Jimmy Reed could only sing his own songs, he wasn’t a guy who could sing other people’s songs. He was real slow at it. Somebody told me that they who thought Jimmy Reed had a better version , they had to be crazy. My version was the best, it was right on time, it was what’s happening. Jody Williams was playing the guitar, Henry Gray the piano, so that’s how that happened. I didn’t even know they had recorded it with Jimmy Reed. I didn’t know nothing about it. They gave me this song to record.
What did you do after Vee-Jay?
After I recorded at Vee-Jay I produced some things I didn’t like, then I recorded for Prestige.
You had Mighty Joe Young with you then.
Yeah, he was my guitar player.
He was great. But he didn’t record so much at that time.
What most people don’t realise, Mighty Joe was a great guitar player. He played in my band and we were very successful together. But he wasn’t a real blues singer, he really didn’t have the voice when he sang the blues. A lot of those guys really didn’t like the blues; they wanted to be more rhythm & blues.
More soul sound maybe?
Yeah, exactly, more of the soul sound.
Did you tour anything during the 50’s and the 60’s?
First time I went South, I went there with Bo Diddley, we went to New Orleans. And the second time was about a year later after I made Kissing At Midnight and all those records. I was on a show with Fats Domino, Joe Jones, Johnny “Guitar” Watson and Donnie Albert. I took Willie Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf’s guitar player, he was on the show with me, on a three week tour. It started in mother’s day in New Orleans and went all the way through Alabama, Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma.
I have a record where you play at the Fickle Pickle together with Little Johnny Jones. Was it a club you often played at?
No, that was the thing, a guy named Pete Welding asked me to come down there. He asked me to come down to the Fickle Pickle and Johnny Jones was there. I didn’t know they were recording ‘til years later when it came out on Alligator. It wasn’t a recording session. Big Joe Williams was there that night, but he didn’t play with the band.
Did Little Johnny Jones remember you as the little boy who came to Sonny Boy. That you were the same person?
No, let me tell you what happened. This is 1948 and I was twelve years old. I saw Little Johnny Jones the first time after that in 1951at a lounge. They had a jam session and I saw him coming out and I said “that’s the guy who was at Sonny Boy’s house”. I walked over to him and said “hey, don’t you remember seeing me at Sonny Boy’s house?” and he said “oh yeah, yeah, yeah”, but I don’t think he remembered, see we were three kids and we were all about twelve years old and Johnny Jones was there with a young lady. So you know people doesn’t pay much attention to kids, but I remembered him.
Did you see him play with Elmore James?
Oh, all the time! When I was 15 years old I used to go over there every Sunday, they had a jam session at Sylvio’s and Little Johnny Jones was Elmore’s piano player and they had all the musicians with them there.
The Yardbirds did two of your songs, did you know that at the time that they were doing your songs?
No, I did not, no.
How did you react when you found out that British bands used your songs?
I thought it was the greatest compliment I could ever receive, that they thought enough of the songs to want to record them.
What do you think of the lyrics nowadays? Because when you look way back they sang about the terrible flood, the World War Two, Korea and Eisenhower etc. But nowadays they don’t write so much about stuff like that.
Yeah, but you’re talking about things that happened to black people, like the Natchez burnin’. They wrote about things that happened to them as a group of people. It was personally involving, you know. Big Bill Broonzy talked about the Texas flood, John Lee Hooker sang about Tupelo and Natchez. They sang about things that was in their own idiom. They didn’t take on worldwide things. What they did during the war, Jazz Gillum wrote a song War Time Blues about if they could give him a razor so he can slip in through Hitlers backdoor and bla, bla, bla, and Doctor Clayton wrote a song about Pearl Habor and all that. Well, here’s the thing that not only affected white people, it affected black. And the black’s were patriotic even tough they didn’t really have any reason to be patriotic for the way they were treated. Now that’s a total different thing, they don’t write about the Twin Towers and all of that because that was a thing that was worldwide, it belongs to white people.
And then, the blues has changed. The younger blacks don’t really write about blues, you know. When I write, I still think in the blues idiom, in the blues perspective. Blues is about people, a man and a woman, like their kids, she’s the woman and he’s the man! So, it’s not about race so much. What happens , happens to people. And so at that time we were writing about what happend in the blues world, the black world.
But now, if you write something you might write something as more perspective.
I’m gonna tell you something. When I was a kid, I really liked the blues and I thought that everybody ought to like the blues. And I wouldn’t think it in terms for just black people, I thought that anybody could hear the blues like I was hearing it and that they would like it. And you know that came to pass, the blues is worldwide. Exactly what I thought about as a kid, that everybody would like the blues and when they were exposed to blues, not every human being I mean, but other races can appreciate the blues. See when I was a kid every black thought blues music was played only for black people, and the record companies were not prejudiced, they thought nobody would want to hear this except black people.
Just like at the same time RCA Victor had a red label called Red Seal and they had classical music on that. They even had a green label, that was called Green Seal and they had oriental music on that. They didn’t take the oriental music and put in the black joint down in Memphis, because there weren’t any orientals in there, ain’t nobody wanna hear it. That’s what they thought about the blues , I think. And the white people who did hear the blues like Elvis Presley and people like that, they liked the music too.
Nowdays there’s more of a Southern soul in the blues, don’t you think?
Well, the black people always wanted to get away from the real down home blues like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters type of music. They felt that they wanted to upgrade themselves. They thought by listening to Nat King Cole, even T-Bone Walker and B.B. King was a step up from Lightnin’ Hopkins, so they’re not ashamed to hear gospel . That’s why black people love gospel music, because it’s okay to praise God. But it’s against their religion to praise love and sex. They called boogie woogie and the blues the devil’s music. They thought it was like something bad, so that’s where it all comes from. And nowadays younger black people don’t know anything about the blues.
If you listen to early Vee-Jay recordings and the things you did for Alligator, it’s still the same voice; a very young voice. You haven’t changed much there.
When I was young I didn’t like the way I sounded, cause I wanted to sound more mature, you know like Muddy Waters and all of those guys.
But you kept your voice.
Yeah, I’m not doing anything to my voice, I’m just singing, but I just have some more body to it. You’ve gotta remember when I did those Vee-Jay records I never did any singing in public. When I was playing with Bo Diddley I didn’t sing, I just played the harmonica. I didn’t have a lot of experience back then, but most of the time when those guys play and sing , they get more experienced, like when Sonny Boy was 15 years old he used to play with Hammie Nixon, Sleepy John Estes, all those guys. And he was riding his bicycle around in Jackson, Tennessee and playing his harmonica. By the time he was 21 he hade more experience.
When you were a teenager and started out, did you go out listening to blues music at the clubs a lot?
Well, I always liked the blues when I was a very young kid about six or seven. I heard blues records and I really liked the records. When I was eleven years old I heard John Lee Williamson’s records and I wanted to learn how to play the harmonica like that. I didn’t want to be a musician, I didn’t want to make a career at the time, I just wanted to know how that guy made the harmonica sound like that. So I bought more records by Sonny Boy, at the record shop they had eight or nine different titles with him all over the South Side. And the more I listened to him, the more enthusiastic I got! A burning desire. Then I found out where he lived. I worked in my uncle’s butchershop on 31st and Giles on Saturdays sometimes and I saw a guy pass with a guitar and I ran outside and asked him did he know Sonny Boy? “Yeah I know Sonny Boy, he lives right down the street at 3226 Giles” he said. I run back to the shop and wrote that down. But at that time I didn’t know that this guy was Lazy Bill Lucas. So I went down there to Sonny Boy’s house, and he was teaching me how to play harmonica. Then Sonny Boy got killed. Now the story about Sonny Boy’s death is no longer a secret, have you heard that?
The only story I’ve heard is that he was stabbed in the head with an ice-pick and crawled to his wife’s front door.
No, that was all a lie. Rumours! A booking-agent, I won’t call him by his name, he booked me a couple of times. I was talking to him about Little Walter, he played the harmonica and he asked me different questions about Little Walter. I said “oh yeah I played on his shows with Little Walter”. Little Walter became my idol after Sonny Boy died, that’s because Little Walter was the king of the harmonica players. And I said to him “I knew the real Sonny Boy Williamson, he used to teach me how to play the harmonica”, a few people could say that. He said “what happened, how did he die?” I said “well, they say he got robbed, some people told the lie about the ice-pick” Those vere rumours put out by the people who knew the truth. He said “I know exactly how he died”, Jimmy Rogers was at his place and Jimmy told him the real story. Jimmy Rogers was an eye witness, he was there when it happened. That was the after-hour’s gambling’s joint on 29th of February. Sonny Boy was a compulsive gambler, and the guys, when they got through playing, they came down there, they said they had whiskey, they had prostitutes, they had drugs, they had several dice games going, card games going, you know all that. And he said “the houseman, I tell you who he was, everybody knows it, the houseman and four other guys jumped Sonny Boy and they carried him out, they had him under both arms.
Jimmy Rogers was eye witness, he saw this, he told the guys “now don’t mention this ‘til after I’m gone. Please, don’t say nothing until I’m gone”. That’s how they took him home, they took him home in a car, which was a few blocks away, not too far and they rung the door bell and left him leaning against the door. His wife came downstairs and helped him upstairs. He said “they got me, they got me, I won more money tonight than I’ve ever won”. But he didn’t have no money, no watch, nothing. Now I think it was jealousy and greed. See, Sonny Boy was the most popular blues singer in Chicago, over everybody. He was more popular than Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red and all of those guys. They played the straight up blues, but Sonny Boy was alive and young and varying on the stage, sold lots of records. He was just you a dynamic person and they were all jeaous. Muddy Waters, Sunnyland Slim and all those guys, they wanted to be where Sonny Boy was. Sonny Boy’s wife said “whoever killed Sonny Boy had to be more than one person” Cause Sonny Boy could whop the average”. But if you’re drinking, he was drunk, got too high, won all the money, and they were all jealous with him, cause he was a major blues artist on a major label, consistent for recording artist.
All those other guys wanted to be there where he was and he didn’t have to tell it to make it that. Muddy made it that because it took two guys to make Muddy what he was. Now listen to this. Little Walter made Muddy Waters, I’m gonna tell you why. Listen to Muddy’s Aristocrat records, he only did one record, two sides for Aristocrat that I thought was significant to me, Screaming And Crying and Where’s My Woman Been. These were the good records. Then he made Rolling’ Stone with his guitar. And it wasn’t until Little Walter started backing Muddy Waters that Muddy’s style make recognition. Little Walter’s harmonica was dynamite. It was 75% of the success of Muddy Waters’ records. If you don’t belive me, listen to the records and track the harmonica. Now listen to Jimmy Rogers’ Ludella and That’s All Right. Jimmy is a good singer and a fairly good country type of blues guitar player, but subtrack Little Walters’ harmonica and see what kind of record you get. Little Walter stole the show, after that Jimmy Rogers didn’t want to use Little Walter again cause the record was all about Little Walter. Everybody who heard the record said “who’s that harmonica player?” He was that dynamic. So after that Jimmy Rogers didn’t want to use Little Walter in the next session.
He went and got Eddie Ware on the piano and Ernest Cotton on the saxophone. He made some pretty good records, but every record he ever made was with other people’s songs . He never really wrote anything. Muddy knew the significance of Little Walter and Muddy knew that without Little Walter, his records wouldn’t have been what they were. Jimmy thought he would try and make it on his own, but he couldn’t . And so Leonard told him “look, you’d better get Walter back man, your records sucks!” So that’s why Walter came back on the Chicago Bound session. Listen to Goin’ Away Baby and listen to the harmonica, and take the harmonica off, you’ll see.
Yeah, the harmonica does the big part of it.
The harmonica was the whole record! Little Walter was no average, ordinary harmonica player, he was a creative genius on the harmonica.
What you told me before about the death of Sonny Boy Williamson, can I use that in the magazine?
Because with respect, I don’t want to mention your name if you don’t want to.
You can mention my name. And I’ll tell you who the guy was who then rent the house party and who did it!
Oh, but you don’t have to tell me that.
But I want to and I don’t mind! Sunnyland Slim, he rent that house party. I went there three years later with Jr Wells and Louis Myers. The same house, and people were playing cards and bla bla bla. And there was an article in Living Blues with Jimmy where he talks about how everybody would go to Sunnyland Slim’s house. When he told this guy about the guy who killed Sonny Boy, he didn’t mention the man, he said “the man who ran the after hours run and four more guys did Sonny Boy in”
So, they beat him to death?
They beat him yeah. They must’ve hit him with something. See, he was, if he wasn’t drunk or high, it would be hard to do that to him, cause he knocked Memphis Slim out. Memphis Slim tried to cheat him on the money and Sonny Boy’s brother was there and he said “Sonny Boy hit him with a Joe Louis punch and knocked him out cold”.
But he survived til he got home?
Exactly. They carried him, see they couldn’t leave him there, they took him out and they took him home in a car, cause he couldn’t walk. Jimmy Rogers said they had him under both arms and his feet were dragged. And they took him home, for somebody in the building said they heard a car out there around three o’clock in the morning. They said they heard a commotion and a car. The car drove off with several people in the car, and his wife said they rang the bell, and when she got down there he was mortally wounded, he wasn’t dead yet. And he said “they got me, they got me, I won more money tonight, than I ever won in my life!” But he didn’t have any money on him.
Was he robbed and killed for the money?
He was robbed and… But I think it was jealousy. When a celebrated artist like that, the biggest blues singer in town and worked everywhere. These guys who were around him were jealous of him, they couldn’t confront him man to man. It wasn’t so much of a conspiracy like people thought it was. I think a lot of people knew really what happened, cause after they carried him out, Jimmy Rogers said “there’s a whole lotta people there, you know , spectators” he said, “now ain’t anybody saying nothing, got that!” Jimmy Rogers wasn’t the only musician there, so there was some other musicians there. But ain’t nobody talked about it, nobody said nothing, afraid to get involved or whatever you know. And some of the jealous guys thought that “if we remove this guy, I got a chance to climb up”
And the tragic thing about it is that they killed one of the most important musicians in history of the blues. And the only man who ever surpassed that in influence and success is B. B. King. Even T-Bone Walker, great as he was, wasn’t that influential as B. B. King. Because with that harmonica and his records just spoke for itself. He could work anywhere. That’s a story that needed to be told. It’s a shame the way it happened. And you know Sonny Boy’s brother died a couple of years ago, but do you know what he told me? He said he belived the musicians had something to do with Sonny Boy’s death and Jimmy Rogers said they were. See, I wouldn’t lie, it’s too important to me. Everything that I told you is what Jimmy Rogers told this booking agent, he’s a white fellow. Jimmy Rogers told him and I’m telling you exactly what he said.
Text: Ingemar Karlsson / Jefferson #155