John Lee Sonny Boy Williamson Profile:
Born: March 30, 1914 in Jackson TN
Died: June 1, 1948 in Chicago IL
Whether you call it a harmonica, a mouth harp, or even by the antique term "mouth organ," one thing is for certain - few bluesmen could blow that thing like John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson. It was Williamson who revolutionized the way that harmonica was used in the blues, elevating the humble instrument to lead status and opening the door for a raft of followers, including Sonny Boy Williamson II, Little Walter, and Junior Wells, among many others.
The Original Sonny Boy
Born in Jackson, Tennessee, Williamson taught himself the harmonica as a child, influenced by great players like Will Shade and Hammie Nixon from nearby Memphis. By the time that he had reached his teens, he was already a master of the instrument. Using the name "Sonny Boy" Williamson, he traveled during the depression, performing with artists like Robert Nighthawk and Sleepy John Estes.
By the time that Williamson arrived in Chicago in 1934, he was a seasoned performer, already stretching the boundaries of harmonica playing. His use of his hands and his imaginative fills fit well into the growing "urban" style of blues, increasing the level of expression the instrument could bring to a song. Williamson's call-and-response method of alternating vocals with instrumental verses has become a blues standard.
Good Morning School Girl
Signed to Lester Melrose's Bluebird label, a subsidiary of RCA Victor, in 1937 Williamson's first recording, the classic "Good Morning School Girl," also became his first hit, and it made the harp player a major blues star. Over the next decade, Sonny Boy would cut 120 sides for Bluebird, songs like "Whiskey Headed Women Blues" and "Sugar Mama Blues." Many of Williamson's classic songs would later become hits for blues artists like Jimmy Rogers and Junior Wells.
Sonny Boy was well-liked, and often provided younger players with advice, encouragement, and even lessons. Sadly, he was killed in 1948 just as the Chicago blues scene was about to take off. Another harmonica player, Rice Miller, would assume the "Sonny Boy" name, and is now known as Sonny Boy Williamson II. It doesn't lessen John Lee's contributions to the blues, his influence on a generation of players, or his reputation as one of the greatest.
Recommended Albums: A 24-song collection of singles from the 1930s and '40s, Sugar Mama includes all the hits and then some.