Billy Boy Arnold’s beat powered ‘King King’ and beyond

Note: This is one in a series of profiles on the influences of “King King” by The Red Devils for the record’s 30th anniversary. #KingKingXXX

“Billy Ray Arnold” does not exist.

There is no one called “B.B. Arnold.”

For as crucial a role as young William Arnold played during the heyday of the classic Chicago blues scene, he has never really gotten his just due … even in the “King King” record sleeve.

Heck, even the name Billy “Boy” Arnold was assigned to him, in 1953, without the teenaged artist’s knowledge:

Cool Records put out “Hello Stranger” and “I Ain’t Got No Money” as a 78 and as a 45 — 45s had just come out. … I thought they was goin’ to call me “Billy Arnold” on the record label, but when I went over to pick up my copy, they said, “Oh, we gave you a new name — ‘Billy Boy Arnold.'” I didn’t pick that out … the record company gave me that name. I didn’t want to be called Billy Boy, ’cause I wanted to be represented as a man. I was only seventeen, but you know what it’s like when you’re young like that.

— Billy Boy Arnold, “The Blues Dream of Billy Boy Arnold”

I’ve always chalked up the “Billy Ray Arnold” error in the “King King” credits to someone’s bad handwriting on a scrap of paper that was handed to a college intern to type up for the album. Figuring it was “Billy Ray Cyrus” or “who really cares who wrote some old blues song anyway,” some errand boy managed to miscredit one of blues music’s true classic songs, on an album by artists whose devotion to Arnold went back decades.

Without hyperbole, Billy Boy Arnold (the fix “B.B. Arnold” no better on subsequent “King King” pressings) is one of the foundational influences for The Blasters and The Red Devils.

In a 1993 interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune, Lester Butler said it all:

Chicago blues man Arnold, one-time harmonica sideman for Bo Diddley, is a serious god in Butler’s private Temple of the Blues. “He’s one of the greatest blues songwriters,” says Butler.

The Red Devils covered his “I Wish You Would” on their first album. David Bowie covered it once, too. So did lots of pale white guys with blue hearts. Arnold, says Butler, “told us he liked the way we did the song. That was unbelievable.” They’re friends now, and collaborators.

But on “King King” and beyond, Arnold’s spirit (if not his words) go further than a cover of his signature song, the bona fide classic “I Wish You Would.”

Arnold’s ‘Wish’ becomes reality

Today, at age 86, Arnold is one of the last men standing from the fertile, competitive postwar Chicago blues boom of the 20th century. Born in 1935, he came up as a generational peer of icons Magic Sam and Otis Rush. Unlike those two, however, Arnold was born in Chicago, and he benefited from an early friendship with harmonica pioneer John Lee (Sonny Boy “1”) Williamson there.

Inspired by Williamson, the young Arnold became obsessed with harmonica and making his own name (and records) in music.

John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson

As he describes in his compelling new autobiography, “The Blues Dream of Billy Boy Arnold” (with Kim Field, University of Chicago Press, 2021) making it in music — even in Chicago in the ’50s, with a record company set up on seemingly every corner — was not going to be easy.

But over time, Arnold stood out from the pack in three ways: as a songwriter, a performer, and as a man who worked hard to make his dream happen.

If he did nothing else in music, William Arnold would get a mention in any Chicago blues bible for his role in creating two bona fide blues standards: “I Ain’t Got You,” popularized by Jimmy Reed, and his signature song, “I Wish You Would.”

It was when he was a sideman to Bo Diddley — or, Ellas McDaniel as he was known before Arnold says he suggested Bo’s name — that he finally found his hit.

He had worked up a song with Bo’s band that he called “Diddy Diddy Dum Dum,” included at a show with Chess Records impressario Leonard Chess in attendance. Billy Boy picks up the story there:

(Leonard) told Ellas, “That’s your next record.” Leonard said, “Let Billy sing and play the harp on it.”

But I didn’t know if Leonard really wanted me to do it, ’cause Ellas had already told me that Leonard didn’t particularly like me. … So I told Ellas, “Well, if he don’t want to record me …” and Ellas said, “Well, I’ll go with you to another company.”

I didn’t need him to take me to a record company. I’m the one who took him to the record companies. … So I went to Vee-Jay and said, “I’m Bo Diddley’s harmonica player and I’ve got a song called ‘Diddy Diddy Dum Dum’ and Leonard don’t want me to record for him.”

At the urging of Vee-Jay, and to not raise the ire of Chess Records or Bo Diddley, Arnold re-wrote the song that would now be known as “I Wish You Would.” Drafting Jody Williams to play a crucial guitar part on the session was a stroke of good fortune: Not only did his fresh rhythm make the song shimmer, but he brought with him the single’s flip-side.

“I Wish You Would,” with its infectious Billy Boy mambo-flavored beat (Jimmy Reed’s great drummer Earl Phillips is responsible on the track), took the perennial sideman into main event territory. No more C+ Chicago artist: Billy Boy was on the rise.

That was in 1955. Nine years later, and without his knowing, Arnold would reach near iconic status when his song was made a hit in a cover version by a group of young, hip, white Europeans.1

Bateman conjures the beat

David Bowie. Tom Jones. John Hammond. JD McPherson. The Dex Romweber Duo. Canned Heat. Treat Her Right.

Those artists, and so many more, have covered Billy Boy Arnold’s “I Wish You Would,” whether they picked it up from the Yardbirds or Vee-Jay or wherever. Heck, Arnold himself would revisit the tune several times over the course of his career, including the standout version titled “Rockin Itis.”

Also making “I Wish You Would” a key element of their 1980 debut album, and their live set forevermore, were The Blasters. The band was built for this song: Phil Alvin’s spare harmonica and reverbed vocals sound otherworldly, hovering like a dust storm over a primal beat conjured by Bill Bateman.

In the catalog of indispensible drum parts played by Bateman through the years, in a variety of bands and musical science experiments, “I Wish You Would” might stand out as “his” song — at least to Red Devils fans.

Much like the original “Blue Shadows” name came from a Blasters tune, it’s not hard to surmise that Bateman brought “I Wish You Would” from his former group into his new blues ensemble later in the decade.

There might be some overlap over blues standards played live over hundreds of three-hour club shows, but there is something to the fact that only one song crossed over from The Blasters’ debut record “American Music” in 1980 to The Red Devils’ debut album “King King” in ’92.

And that version on “King King” could be one of the definitive covers. Surely, it is the closest in spirit to a Chicago nightclub in the 1950s. In a blind taste test, we are sure someone could ID the era of, say, the Canned Heat or Bowie or Yarbirds versions. The Devils? No, that one is out there floating between time.

During the 2017 Return of The Red Devils European tour, “I Wish You Would” was a fixture in the band’s shows. But, if you can, listen to the version recorded early on the tour for the “Return of The Red Devils” CD vs. the version Bateman unleashed on the last night of the tour, July 30 at the Borderline in London. Compare it to “American Music” and to “King King.” See how “Buster” continually makes the song his own, pushing the groove but always serving the song, and the moment.

Even having played it for four decades, Bateman makes “I Wish You Would” as fresh as it was 67 years ago when Arnold, Jody Williams and the rest cut the song in Chicago.

Billy Boy Arnold performs with The Blasters at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn, Illinois, July 3, 2010. Photos by Tina Hanagan for

Fool me once …

The relationship between Billy Boy Arnold and The Blasters/Red Devils camps would continue beyond their covers. Arnold has joined Phil Alvin and Co. onstage several times through the years (including in 2010 in Berwyn, Illinois, as documented on

Meanwhile, Lester Butler contributed harmonica to Billy Boy’s version of “Shake Your Hips” on his 1993 Alligator Records debut, “Back Where I Belong.” The arrangement owes a small debt to The Red Devils’ own “Your Turn to Cry.” 2

Billy Boy Arnold with Lester Butler (harmonica), “Shake Your Hips”

But there is one more Billy Boy Arnold connection on “King King,” one that isn’t so obvious.

The other side of Billy Boy’s first Vee-Jay single, “I Was Fooled,” a Jimmy Reed-style shuffle with hip city lyrics, shares an incredible amount of DNA with the third track on “King King”: “She’s Dangerous.”

On record, “Dangerous” is a stop-time recounting of a love gone very wrong. The song is credited to Willie Dixon for that “Hoochie Coochie” groove only.

The Devils, however, rarely played the song in the style found on “King King.” Instead, live versions were built around a tough guitar riff and a propulsive triplet workout by Bateman.

Listen and compare Billy Boy Arnold’s recording of “I Was Fooled” from 1955, followed by The Red Devils’ “Dangerous” at Pinkpop 1993:

There are clear musical connections between the “King King,” Pinkpop and Vee-Jay versions, notably the walkdown guitar pattern and a faithful harmonica solo and backing.

But then get into the lyrics. The story structure goes:

  • Act I: Boy meets chick
  • Act II: Boy plays around on chick
  • Act III: Chick turns the tables

Red Devils:

I got to tell you when I get a chance
Girl I know and my best friend
He loved a woman and put her down now
For talkin’ trash all over town yeah

Billy Boy:

Once upon a time, down on 47th Street
I met a fine chick, and tried to knock her off her feet
Now all along, I thought she was playin’
And didn’t know that I was a real sugar man

Red Devils:

And then the other night man knocking on my door
Was the same chick ’bout half past 4
Now had me a shock walking through the door
Was the same little girl she was lying in my bed …

Billy Boy:

Now this same chick tried to put me on the run
‘Cause I gave her a little money, and we had a little fun
Now that time I thought she didn’t know
That I had another chick stashed behind the closet door

Red Devils:

Hey listen baby I’m gonna change my oil
Got to take you in on a newer model
Now the same chick tried to put me on the run
I gave her a little money, we had a little fun

Billy Boy:

Now she found out I was cheatin’ she wanted to put me down
I had holes in my pocket and my feet was on the ground
She said “listen here daddy, I’m gonna change my oil
I’m gonna trade you in for a later model”

Of course, The Red Devils’ tale ends with Lester getting clocked with a baseball bat, which is one step worse than just getting dumped.

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(1) After “I Wish You Would” was recorded for Vee-Jay, Leonard Chess asked for new lyrics on “Diddy Diddy Dum Dum,” which Bo Diddley recorded as “Diddley Daddy” for Chess Records. Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones would later take the guitar part from “Diddley Daddy” to craft the Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown.”

(2) The sessions for “Back” were in California, with Randy Chortkoff producing. Chortkoff put together a rogues gallery of heavy hitters, several with deep ties to The Red Devils or 13: Butler, Chortkoff, Hook Herrera, Andy Kaulkin, Rob Rio, Zach Zunis, Rick Holmstrom, Chris Faulk, Mike Flanigin, Tom Leavy, Willie Brinlee, Lee Smith and Jimi Bott.

Published by J.J.

Drums and barbecue ribs. Blues music.

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