Born: February 15, 1901 in Lovejoys Station GA
Died: November 8, 1968 in Chicago IL
Not only was left-handed slide guitarist James "Kokomo" Arnold an important early influence on artists like Robert Johnson and Elmore James that would follow, he was also, perhaps, the first "shredder" in guitar history. Arnold was known to be a fast player, and at times he would slide his bottleneck up and down the fretboard with such amazing speed that he'd struggle to keep up with his vocals. To further increase the dramatic effect of his songs, Arnold would also frequently drop into a haunting falsetto voice to accompany his fleet-fingered guitar playing.
Born in Georgia, Arnold was taught the rudiments of blues guitar by a cousin named John Wiggs. Arnold moved north in his teens, playing guitar on the side while he worked as a farmhand in Buffalo, New York and as a steelworker in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He moved to Chicago in 1929 and set up an illegal bootlegging operation, which he operated through the last few years of Prohibition. During this time, Arnold would move briefly to Mississippi, later returning to Illinois where he continued his bootlegging until the end of restrictions on alcohol in 1933.
While living in Mississippi Delta in 1930, Arnold traveled to Memphis and recorded two sides for the Victor label, "Rainy Night Blues" and "Paddlin' Madeline Blues," under the name "Gitfiddle Jim." The songs sold few copies, but show a distinctive guitar and vocal style that was unlike any of Arnold's contemporary artists. Forced by the Volstead Act to pursue music as a full-time job, Arnold would be signed by Mayo Williams of Decca Records to a contract, recording his first songs for the label in 1934.
The Decca Years
Between September 1934 and May 1938, Arnold recorded 88 sides for Decca, seven of which have been lost to the ages. Arnold's first single for the company, "Old Original Kokomo Blues," backed with "Milk Cow Blues," would become a minor hit and tag Arnold with his "Kokomo" nickname. Itself a re-working of Scrapper Blackwell's "Kokomo Blues," Arnold's version would be turned into "Sweet Home Chicago" by Robert Johnson, who would also turn Arnold's "Milk Cow Blues" into his "Milkcow's Calf Blues." Arnold performed solo on most of his recordings, although he would be accompanied by pianist Peetie Wheatstraw on a handful of sides.
Arnold also provided his unique guitar talents to two tunes cut in July 1936 by Sam Theard's Oscar's Chicago Swingers. Songs like "How Long How Long Blues," "Sagefied Woman Blues," and "Front Door Blues" would lead to success as a recording artist for Arnold, who along with Wheatstraw and guitarist Bumble Bee Slim (Amos Easton) would be the leading figures in the Chicago blues scene during the 1930s. In 1938, however, Arnold would walk away from the music business in disgust and take a job in a Chicago factory. Although his recordings would be rediscovered during the folk-blues boom of the early 1960s, Arnold was less than interested in getting back into music, and he would die of a heart attack in 1968.
Recommended Albums: Kokomo Arnold's songs are some of the most popular of the early blues era, and have been reworked through the years and recorded by artists like Elvis Presley and Aerosmith. Arnold's recordings have been collected on a number of compilation albums, but for the interested that can endure the early, low-fidelity sound, Blues Classics, Vol. 1 features 20 songs from across the guitarist's brief career, including most of the favorites. Yazoo's Bottleneck Guitar Trendsetters of the 1930s features seven tracks apiece from Arnold and Casey Bill Weldon.