Make no mistake; Chicago/Green Bay Bluesman Billy Flynn is a serious musician. He’s been playing traditional Blues for almost his whole life and can trace his attraction to the guitar back to his infant days riding in the stroller with his mom pushing him.
“I’m not sure exactly how old I was but I know my mom told me when she used to push me in the stroller in the store I would be grabbing toy guitars off the shelf and would never let them go,” Billy said. “When it came to a real guitar, it was too big for me so I started on a ukulele. It was the only thing that was small enough for me. I think I already played guitar before I actually owned one because in my mind I was visualizing it. I had all these toy guitars and believe it or not I said ‘I know my ABCs so I should be able to figure out what the notes are.’ I remember the day; I think I was about 10 years old, when I got my first real guitar. I remember walking around playing songs the same day I got it. Just learning the chords and strumming songs. I was picking the strings and I said to myself ‘You know, I can really do this.’ I was like ‘I’m really doing this.’ Same thing with Blues. I knew that Blues was a part of it.
“I was born in 1956 and Elvis was just starting to get popular and I seem to remember being a kid and hearing the Elvis movies and on Ed Sullivan or some TV shows, but especially the movies,” Billy recalls.
“There was “Jailhouse Rock” and another one from New Orleans, “King Creole.” There were a few bent notes and some Blues that was coming through those movies that I knew. I knew what I liked and what I wanted and I searched and searched. I knew it was the Blues from the beginning. I don’t know and can’t explain why, but I knew I heard it.”
Billy did the usual adolescent garage band thing before being captivated by the playing of his first Blues hero, Jimmy Dawkins.
“I started playing in bands. They were small. We were kind of like the basement bands playing for parties. In 6th grade is when I started playing in bands and worked my way through them. I was originally a drummer, too. Starting in 6th grade I really wanted to play drums in school. I played for a few years. I never could read music very well. I kind of just faked my way through the drum thing but I was playing drums in garage bands when we’d play for teen dances and stuff.
“I was 14 years old and couldn’t get into the place so I was just sitting outside the club where Jimmy Dawkins was, playing along with the band and the jukebox. Jimmy and his drummer Lester Dorsey arranged it with the club owner for me to come in. I was always pretty much in Jimmy Dawkins’s band from about the time I was 19 or 20. I didn’t make all the gigs but I was always the guy he called first. He had another guy named Rich Kirch that was before me and Jimmy Johnson. They were both before me but I think it was around ’76 or ’77 when I first started playing with him. And the last time he was ever on stage with me was at The Smoke Daddy just a few years ago. That was his last performance. When I first met him in 1970 he was kind of just getting started. He had just recorded his first album. His career was just starting to take off. I like to think I’ve been right next to him for a long time.”
Besides Jimmy Dawkins, Billy has played with, for and behind many of the legends in Chicago Blues. He was always the right guy for the job and gained the respect of his peers from a very early age.
“Chicago Blues is the kind of music that makes you want to dance,” Billy says. “When I hear it I feel like movin’. It’s infectious. That’s what it is about Chicago Blues and that leads you to the stories. There are lots of great stories in Blues. I love the words. That’s another thing that drew my attention when I was young was the poetry. I still remember when I was in 6th and 7th grade I would go to the library and read the books about lyrics. They had a couple of old Blues books there and let’s just say they were real graphic. To me that was the greatest thing. How they could get away with saying what they were saying but not saying it. Me and my buddies used to make up our own words. I remember one song that had the words ‘the peaches I love they don’t grow on no trees/the peaches I love they grow above the knees.’
“With Sunnyland Slim I did some shows in Madison (Wis.) with him,” Billy said. “When I would go to Chicago I would occasionally play with him. Matter of fact, I believe I played with him one of the last times he was ever on stage also, in Milwaukee. There was a day they called Hubert Sumlin Day in Milwaukee and Sunnyland was there as a guest. That day Barrelhouse Chuck was playing piano. Sunnyland could barely walk to get up to the stage but once we got him there and behind the piano he
wouldn’t get off the stool there for at least an hour.
“Little Smokey Smothers was another real close friend,” Billy said. “When I was playing in The Legendary Blues Band Willie “Big Eyes” Smith brought Smokey into the band. They were like homies. They grew up together. We instantly became really good friends and pretty much again, to the end of his life, he’d asked me to record his new CD which never happened, unfortunately. When he was unable to play his guitar he told me he wanted me to play it.
“Billy Boy Arnold is just an unbelievable person,” Billy says. “I’ve never met anybody quite like him. He pretty much knows everything about Blues. He knows the words to all the songs and has his own unique take on Blues. Playing with Billy Boy might appear to some other musicians as not being difficult. Playing with Billy Boy you gotta be really good and you gotta know how to be a real professional because his music is just set. There are a lot of riffs to it. You’ve gotta stick with what he does. Billy Boy is one of the greatest preserved Blues educators and musicians I’ve ever seen.
Billy has also played with many of the young guns making their marks today.
“I’ve worked with Mark Hummel a long time and we’ve worked together a lot. I’ve done the Tribute to Little Walter tours with him and we just did the Chicago Blues Festival. We’ve been friends for a long time. Bob Corritore is another very dedicated musician and brings a lot to the Blues harmonica business for sure. He and Mark Hummel are at the top of the bunch of all the motivated harmonica players that really can play, too. First thing I ever did with Kim Wilson was a live CD recorded at Bob’s club in Phoenix. “Smokin’ Joint” was the first thing we did together and it got a Grammy nomination so we were both really happy about that, too. I just recorded another CD with Kim.
“Everything has been moving so fast. I’ve been overseas and to California. Then I came home and went to St. Louis. Then I went overseas again and came back and did the Blues festival. I just got a call from Kim and he told me how much he loves the new CD. It’s strictly Blues and might be his best stuff. He’s really, really happy with it.”
After many years playing with everyone in the business, Billy still says he doesn’t have a specific sound he’s noted for. He plays whatever the occasion calls for and that suits him just fine.
“My style depends on what day of the week it is for me,” Billy said. “I always try something new every day and try to get into so many different styles and different approaches to playing the guitar. It seems like every time I plug it in I get a different sound, trying to do this with this and that. Playing behind people I try to not be selfish about it. It’s not really about Billy Flynn if I’m playing with Billy Boy Arnold or if I’m playing with Mark Hummel. When I first started playing I went to Clark Kent Super Joint when I was 14 and remember hearing the band. They did all the hits like “Walking by Myself,” “Rock Me Baby.” I listened to “Every Day I Have the Blues” and I said this isn’t just a big jam, what they’re doing is a real song. Each song is treated with that particular respect of an arrangement so you have to know the song. This isn’t just a 12-bar jam. These are things you have to know. I try to know all the songs. I keep my ears open to everything and as far as an artist goes I try to get behind them and play something that makes them the best they can be.
“I’m really not a permanent member of any band, even my own because I’ve always been a freelance,” Billy said. “When I work with people that’s pretty much the thing, I’m not really tied to one band. I have the freedom to work and take the jobs that are the best for me. I think it’s just the nature of the Blues. It’s kept all the doors open for me to choose what I thought was best at the time. I find every band I play with very satisfying. All the musicians I play with are the best. I can’t think of anybody I’ve stepped on stage with who I wouldn’t want to be seen. I’ve worked hard for people to have a good opinion of me to have in their band and to work with.
“When I did the music for the movie “Cadillac Records” they sent me a CD and asked me to do the Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters because they knew I could play that music but when it came to giving me the CD for learning the songs, all the Etta James songs were on there and I thought maybe they might want me to play on this so I gotta be ready. So for two weeks all I did was listen to Etta James and I worked on all her music. I wrote out charts because these are not the typical Blues changes. I listened to those records and started to hear things I never heard before. And I worked on all the guitar parts and when we got there and I did the Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry they said ‘Tomorrow we’re gonna do the Etta James.’ I said ‘OK.’ Then after we did the Etta James they said tomorrow we’re gonna record the surf music. I said ‘OK. When we went in there we had to record The Beach Boys because that was the song The Beach Boys stole from Chuck Berry. “Surfin’ USA.” If you listen to the movie and listen to The Beach boys, that’s an iconic intro. It’s a piece of America. I had to record the whole song and I did it without blinking. The producer had nothing to worry about. He completely trusted me. I think he knew that I could do anything he needed. I think of it as acting with the guitar.
“I guess another attraction of the Blues to me is the tradition of it,” Billy said. “It gives you all the things you need to create your own style. When Little Walter came along everybody wanted to play like him but they all played different. Same with BB King. You just have to put yourself into it. That’s something I learned from Jimmy Rogers and Jimmy Dawkins. They said ‘You’re not the same as everybody else so just be yourself. I always thought that was the best advice they ever gave me. The two biggest guys around when I was starting out were Johnny Winter. I love Johnny’s playing but I did not want to play like him. The other one was Mike Bloomfield.
“To me I just naturally gravitated to my hero and that was Jimmy Dawkins. When you’re 14 and have the opportunity to see Johnny Littlejohn play slide. I avoided the Allman Brothers and I love all those bands. I avoided them because I think I have a fresh perspective on Blues because I didn’t have the normal influences of somebody my age. I liked music that was older. I was attracted to
different things instead of the standard Top-40 Blues. I want to go get it from the source. Licks from Elmore James and JB Hutto. The off-the-radar kind of stuff. I listen to that and it inspires me a lot.
I have no connection to them I’m just getting this great Blues vibe. It seems like the lesser known the more I was attracted to them.
“I remember when I first started out and I was playing a lot of the styles I’m now known for, the ‘50s and ‘60s kind of guitar,” Billy recalls. “I was thinking I might have been one of the only people who was playing like Jimmy Rogers or Jimmy Dawkins. I also blow a harp and I thought if I ever wanted to be a harmonica player I could never find a guitar player who could play behind me. But now, there are ton of guys that play in that style. I think people have learned how to play the Blues better. I think Blues seems like it’s doing real good now.
“I have to let everyone know how much I appreciate my family and how much they’re behind me and the support of what I do as a musician. When it comes down to it I love the Blues and I feel it when I play. I can pretty much feel the Blues running right through me when I play. I pretty much just let it take over. Definitely the Blues chose me because hearing those few notes when I was a kid; I was searching for that sound. It’s something I could feel way back then.”
Visit Billy’s website www.billyflynn.com
Photo by Bob Kieser.