Billy Boy Arnold, born in Chicago during the Depression, was a journeyman in the city’s postwar electric blues scene, working mainly with Bo Diddley (he’s on Diddley’s “I’m a Man”). Tutored on harp by the original Sonny Boy Williamson, Arnold had good luck when he started out, as blues clubs in Chicago now favored amplified harmonica-guitars-drums set-ups over the traditional piano-guitar acts. While during the war every blues joint in town had an upright piano, by 1950 there was hardly a piano left in Chicago, Arnold recalled.
In 1955, tired of being a sideman and told that Chess Records owner Leonard Chess didn’t like him (Chess thought he was too cocky), Arnold cut “I Wish You Would” for Vee-Jay. This was an overnight rewrite of a song Arnold had written for Diddley, “Diddy Diddy Dum Dum,” with the Diddley beat sped up. Arnold’s guitar player on the track, Jody Williams, was tired of traditional blues playing, and his agitated riff fueled the track. Arnold worried that he was blatantly aping Diddley’s sound, but that’s what the label wanted, and the record sold. Arnold still considered himself more a straight blues man. “I didn’t want to be capitalizing on no Bo Diddley type of thing. But once you do something, you’re stuck,” he said later.
“I Wish You Would” is an early rock & roll record with a fatalistic blues heart. Arnold starts out with standards: his woman’s left him, going around town with another man, come back baby, pleading won’t do no good. Then he widens the lens—she left him because he was drinking every night, because he mistreated her, and he’s deserved what he’s gotten. There’s acceptance in Arnold’s voice, and a wryness, too, as if he knows the situation’s never going to straighten out. She might come back, she might go away again: it’s as cyclical and relentless as Williams’ guitar line that repeats, almost non-stop, throughout the track.
Nearly a decade later, The Yardbirds covered “I Wish You Would.” They had been playing the song since they began in ’63, and as it was one of the more commercial songs they had at the time (while still passing muster with their resident purist, Eric Clapton), it was picked as their debut single. While the Yardbirds’ cover was fairly respectful of the original, they trimmed the lyric, excising the man’s part in the mess, and played up the sex. Arnold’s song suggested there was no way out, while the Yardbirds version, which builds to a thrashing rave-up, argues otherwise. They sped up the song, replacing the shaky, thundering beat of the Arnold single with a straight 4/4 attack. “We just sounded young and white,” Clapton wrote in his autobiography.
While the Yardbirds’ “I Wish You Would” didn’t chart, it hit with other aspiring Brit R&B/rock bands, like Davie Jones and the King Bees. It helped that the song was easy to play—it’s basically one chord (A), with a move to G only during the solos, and the bassist and guitarist could play the same riff over and over. More than that, though, the song gave grandeur and mystery to adolescent stumblings; it suggested romance was serious.
Arnold told Richie Unterberger that when you worked a blues club in Chicago in the ’50s, you were among an exiled people. “When you on a job and a club, everybody was from the South. And they all had one thing in common–they was escaping oppression, the thing that gave them the blues in the first place,” he said. “The hard working people who supported the blues, which was all black, they wanted to hear the blues. It was a way of life for them—they lived the life, they go out and hear their music, their singers were singing, experience that the people in the audience had lived. The singers lived the same experience too. [Howling] Wolf and B.B. [King] and all, they lived the same. They worked on the plantations, they had the hardship, they lived under the oppression. They knew what the blues was.”
Still, “I Wish You Would” didn’t reflect this experience. It was new, flashy, a young man’s song. You get the sense that Arnold and Williams are picking apart the blues to find the shiny bits. The Yardbirds, an ocean and a lifetime removed from this (their drummer was a stockbroker in his spare time), took the game even further. “I Wish You Would” granted them access to something beyond their power, so they aped what they could, sped over the rest.
So why did Bowie cover “I Wish You Would,” another decade on? Nostalgia for the R&B circuit days, or Ronson wanting to outplay the young Clapton, or Bowie vaguely recalling his youthful ambitions to be a soul/jazz singer? Bowie’s version rolls along well enough, with Trevor Bolder and Aynsley Dunbar giving propulsion, while the harmonica, which for Arnold and The Yardbirds’ Keith Relf had served as a dueting vocal, is replaced by a Ronson guitar line. Still, something’s way off: Ronson sounds like an automaton while Bowie’s vocal comes off weedy and desperate. He’s less convincing than his teenage self was singing Bobby “Blue” Bland (see “I Pity The Fool”). It’s a harsh, streamlined version of the song, and as hollow as a drum.
Recorded July-early August 1973; on side 2 of Pin Ups. The backstory on Billy Boy Arnold came mainly from Unterberger’s extensive interview with Arnold, done in the ’90s.
Top: Ute Mahler, “Untitled,” from the series Living Together, 1973.