Aleck "Rice" Miller may have appropriated another bluesman's name - that of John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson - but his subsequent career and influence on the course of blues music is important, and certainly did the name proud. This second "Sonny Boy Williamson," with II usually added behind the name, earned his legacy by expanding the vocabulary of the harmonica in blues music, and the list of harp players that followed his lead is exhaustive.
Williamson's on-stage charisma, songwriting skills, and larger-than-life personality also influenced a generation of rock and blues-rock bands. It is a testimony to his talent that both blues artists like Muddy Waters, Mose Allison, and Howlin' Wolf, as well as rockers like the Allman Brothers, Aerosmith, and the Who, have all recorded Sonny Boy Williamson songs.
Mystery In The Delta
The exact date of Williamson's birth is somewhat of a mystery, one that he was in no hurry to solve. Although 1899 is usually quoted as the year of his birth, various estimates range from as early as 1897 and as late as 1912. Regardless, it is agreed upon that he was born on the Sara Jones Plantation near Glendora, Mississippi and worked with his mother and sharecropper stepfather until he turned to music. Little else is known about Williamson's early years, and the artist himself was an intensely private man that was known to change details of his personal life to suit his own whims.
What is known about Williamson is that sometime during the 1920s, he began hoboing across the south, performing in juke joints, levee and lumber camps, and at fish fries and rent parties. In 1930 Williamson, usually known as "Little Boy Blue," began performing alongside other blues legends like Robert Johnson, Robert Jr. Lockwood, and Elmore James. Using an amplified harmonica, Williamson would work the crowd for bigger tips, playing the instrument with no hands, and displaying uncanny and electrifying showmanship.
Live On KFFA
In 1941, Williamson became the host of his own 15-minute lunchtime radio program, "King Biscuit Time," on KFFA in Helena, Arkansas, and it is around this time that he became the "Sonny Boy" of legend. Sponsored by the Interstate Grocery Company, makers of King Biscuit Flour, the program could be heard across western Tennessee, north Mississippi, and eastern Arkansas. Featuring Williamson on vocals and harmonica, and Robert Jr. Lockwood on guitar, the program was so popular that IGC introduced "Sonny Boy Corn Meal," with Williamson's likeness on the label.
King Biscuit Time could be heard across the Delta and influenced a number of future blues music legends, including Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and B.B. King. Although Williamson was paid little or nothing to do the program, he could announce upcoming shows, and considering the show's reach and popularity, it made the harp player a household name in his favored touring region.
Sonny Boy's Recording Career
Due in part to his success as a performer and radio personality, Williamson didn't begin his recording career until 1951, signing with Lillian McMurray's Jackson, Mississippi-based Trumpet Records. Over the course of three years, Williamson's raw juke-joint blues yielded several minor hits for Trumpet with songs like "Eyesight to the Blind," "Nine Below Zero," and "West Memphis Blues" all becoming blues standards.
Williamson accidently launched the career of noted blues slide guitarist Elmore James. During a break in a recording session for Trumpet, James began playing what would become his signature tune, "Dust My Broom," with Williamson on harp. Unknown to James, McMurray had kept the tape recorder running, and she released the song as one side of a single with a local singer. It became a hit and made James a star.
The Real Folk Blues
When Trumpet ran into financial trouble, Williamson's contract landed with Chicago's legendary Chess Records. Williamson began recording for the Chess subsidiary Checkers Records in 1955, knocking out over 70 sides for the label during the next nine years. Songs like "Don't Start Me to Talkin'," "One Way Out," and "Fattening Frogs For Snakes" displayed his considerable skills as a songwriter, Williamson often backed by his long-time friend, guitarist Lockwood, as well as pianist Otis Spann and drummer Fred Below.
As interest in sophisticated Chicago blues became to wane during the early-1960s, Sonny Boy became one of many old-school bluesmen to reinvent himself as a "folk blues" artist. Williamson traveled to Europe for the first time in 1963, as part of the American Folk Blues Festival, dazzling young white audiences with his juke-joint bred showmanship. Williamson made the best of the trip, recording with blues-rock bands like the Yardbirds and the Animals. In 1965, sensing that the end was near, Williamson returned to his old haunts in Mississippi, dying a short time later.
Recommended Albums: The 20-song collection His Best, features the best of Williamson's Chess-era recordings, while King Biscuit Time includes the harp player's early Trumpet label songs.