Sonny Boy Williamson - Biography



 

 

           Sonny Boy Williamson II – (known in many quarters as Aleck “Rice” Miller) – was among the most admired and emulated blues harmonica players of the postwar era. His virtuosity was captured on record only belatedly, after decades during which he reigned in the South as a juke joint performer and a radio star. After his final rise to prominence at Trumpet Records and then at Chess Records, he basked in the greatest adulation of his career, playing to acclaim on the concert stages of Europe.

 

            It was as a headliner on those latter-day tours of the continent, as part of the American Folk Blues Festival, that Williamson acted as an inspiration to such young British blues aspirants as The Yardbirds and The Animals, who ultimately had the opportunity to back their idol. A tribute song, “Sonny Boy Williamson,” was penned by another youthful admirer, bassist Jack Bruce (later of Cream), and recorded by such artists as England’s Paul Young and Manfred Mann and America’s Mike Bloomfield & Al Kooper and Carlos Santana. Williamson’s songs found their way into the repertoires of rock acts ranging from The New York Dolls to The Allman Brothers; The Who famously covered one of his numbers on a landmark album.

 

            Among the postwar masters of the blues harp, Williamson’s only real rival was Muddy Waters’ onetime soloist Little Walter, a much bigger R&B star of imposing technique. (Walter, who as a boy played on the same Arkansas radio station as Miller, had little good to say about his much older rival and Chess label mate – a disciple of the late John Lee Williamson, the harp player considered by most to be “the original Sonny Boy,” he believed Miller stole his idol’s nickname.) The towering, sleepy-eyed Sonny Boy II was a formidable showman who could trounce almost any comer on stage: Playing his instrument by breathing into with his nose, or engulfing it in his mouth, he prevailed with tricks he learned decades before as an itinerant performer in the South. His songs – personal, sometimes almost surreal – were as original as his vibrato-laden style.

 

            For a musician who authored a song with lyrics that ran, “Don’t start me talkin’, I might tell you everything I know,” surprisingly little is known for certain about the early years of his life. It is generally acknowledged that he was born in or near Glendora, Mississippi, but estimates of his birth year run from 1897 to 1912. His birth name was Ford; he took the name Miller from his stepfather. His nickname “Rice” was bestowed early, but it’s not known by whom or why.

 

            Blues scholarship was still in its relative infancy when Sonny Boy passed away in the ‘60s, and he managed to duck most prospective interviewers with great skill, so there is little concrete information about his formative years. Even when he did talk, most felt he stretched the truth. Blues historian Mike Rowe has noted, “Sonny Boy would tell nothing of his early years – ‘I had it tough, you know, in them days’ was all he would ever say, and any glimpses of his life in Mississippi are caught only through the reminiscences of others.” There are suggestions that he lived with his family and did some plantation work until the 1930s, when he left home after a clash with his stepfather. No one knows how he developed his facility on the harmonica, but it is known that he taught Howlin’ Wolf, whose stepsister he wed, to play the instrument. It is also known that for a time in the mid-‘30s, he was the preferred road companion and juke house accompanist to the legendary Robert Johnson.

 

            After Johnson’s death, Miller took to the road with other seasoned guitarists like Johnny Shines, Robert Nighthawk (Robert Lee McCoy), and, most notably, Robert Lockwood, Jr., the so-called “stepson” of Robert Johnson, known as “Robert Junior” thanks to his affinity for Johnson’s style. During that era, Miller was often known professionally as “Little Boy Blue” (a handle that became the title of one of Lockwood’s later songs).

 

            In late 1941, Miller and Lockwood approached Sam Anderson, the owner of Helena, Arkansas’ new radio station KFFA, about the possibility of mounting a live broadcast. Anderson hooked them up with the Interstate Grocery Company, which put up the money for a 15-minute midday program, “King Biscuit Time” (named after one of the company’s brands of flour). Max Moore, the head of Interstate Grocery, would maintain in interviews that Miller began calling himself “Sonny Boy Williamson” during this period; Sonny Boy I, as he’s known, was already a popular Chicago-based recording act on Bluebird Records.

 

            KFFA’s signal was strong enough to blanket the Delta, and “King Biscuit Time” became such a prominent attraction that its star was awarded his own brand of “Sonny Boy Corn Meal.” He appeared on the program for several years, although he would often light out unexpectedly, leaving the show to one of the other “King Biscuit Boys,” like vocalist-drummer Peck Curtis or guitarist Houston Stackhouse. He finally quit the show in 1944, and began playing around the Delta with slide guitarist Elmore James and singer-guitarist Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (one of Elvis Presley’s principal early influences). In 1945, he married preacher’s daughter Mattie Gordon, who would remain his wife for two decades, and settled down for a time. By 1948, he was hawking the patent medicine Hadacol on the West Memphis, Arkansas, station KWEM.

 

            Sonny Boy had unsuccessfully sought a recording contract for years. His big recording break finally arrived in 1950, when Lillian McMurry began scouring the Delta for him. McMurry was a hard-nosed and persistent woman who operated the Diamond Record Mart, the Diamond Recording Studio, and the label Trumpet Records on Farish Street, the boundary of the black and white neighborhoods in Jackson, Mississippi. Aware of Williamson’s reputation from his radio shows, she searched high and low until she finally unearthed the rambling musician at a Greenville, Mississippi, juke joint.

 

            He began recording for Trumpet in early 1951, and cut sessions for the label until it finally went belly up in 1954. Sonny Boy’s first single was “Eyesight to the Blind,” a tribute to a woman with seductive powers bordering on the supernatural; in a rock arrangement, the song became a powerful centerpiece of The Who’s celebrated rock opera Tommy (1969). He cut a dozen highly rhythmic singles for the label, including original versions of his later Chess sides “Mr. Down Child” and “Nine Below Zero.” His stay at the company was also highlighted by “Mighty Long Time,” an unearthly and altogether unique harp-and-vocal tour de force on which he was accompanied by Cliff Bivens on vocal bass. Sonny Boy also backed Elmore James in October 1951 on his cover of Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom,” the Trumpet single that would define the slide player’s career.

 

            When Trumpet folded, Sonny Boy’s label contract passed into the hands of a Jackson businessman, who in turn sold it to Chicago’s Chess Records, by then the home of such major blues stars as Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Howlin’ Wolf. His first recording session for the label in April 1955, on which he was backed by Waters’ band and Willie Dixon, spawned his first and biggest single, “Don’t Start Me Talkin’,” which reached No. 3 on the R&B chart. (The song would reappear in glam-rock garb on The New York Dolls’ second album Too Much, Too Soon [1974].)

 

            Williamson, who moved north to Milwaukee, recorded sporadically for Chess throughout the ‘50s and into the ‘60s, but failed to score any significant hits, despite his records’ powerful rhythmic thrust and unusually striking lyrics. His only other chart entries were “Keep It To Yourself” (No. 14, 1956) and “Help Me” (No. 24, 1963); the latter was recorded and released at almost the same time as its virtual soundalike, Booker T. & the MGs’ instrumental smash “Green Onions.”

 

            There were many other outstanding sides in Sonny Boy’s catalog; many of them were issued on his three Chess albums, Down and Out Blues (1959), The Real Folk Blues (1966), and More Real Folk Blues (1967). His classic singles – most of them featuring Robert Jr. Lockwood on guitar – include “Fattening Frogs For Snakes,” “Checkin’ Up On My Baby,” “Down Child,” “Bring It On Home,” and “One Way Out.” (The latter became a staple of The Allman Brothers’ live set, and is featured on At Fillmore East [1971].) One of his best-known and most frequently cited of his tracks wasn’t issued until four years after his death: the 1957 number “Little Village,” which was released, with a explosively profane studio exchange between Williamson and producer Leonard Chess, on the posthumous compilation Bummer Road (1969). The song title was appropriated as the name of a ‘90s supergroup featuring John Hiatt, Nick Lowe, Ry Cooder, and Jim Keltner.

 

            The final glorious chapter of Sonny Boy Williamson’s career began in 1963, when he signed on as a troupe member for the second season of the American Folk Blues Festival, a touring concert package mounted by German concert promoters Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau. During dates across Europe, he cut sessions with guitarist Matt Murphy, pianist Memphis Slim, and drummer Bill Stepney, all fellow AFBF members, for Denmark’s Storyville label; they were issued on the LPs A Portrait in Blues and The Blues of Sonny Boy Williamson (both 1963).

 

            He was also captured live during club sets with The Yardbirds, the young blues-rock band that featured guitarist Eric Clapton, and The Animals, then on the verge of their 1964 international hit “The House of the Rising Sun.” These dates have been reissued repeatedly over the years by various labels. Guitarist Robbie Robertson of The Band reported that Sonny Boy said of his English idolators, “They want to play the blues so bad, and they play them so bad.”

 

            Williamson also appeared on the 1964 AFBF tour. He was plainly the star of the show, and he began affecting an onstage manner in keeping with his popularity. He wore a custom-made “harlequin” suit of black and grey fabric, and sported a bowler; he would often carry his harmonicas in a leather briefcase and hook an umbrella on his arm. His richly humorous AFBF appearances are on view in several marvelous DVD compilations produced by Reelin’ In the Years and Experience Hendrix.

 

            He returned from the ’64 European tour a very ill man, and he soon moved back down south to Helena, Arkansas. In Martin Scorsese’s 1978 documentary The Last Waltz, Robbie Robertson recalls an encounter between his group – then known as The Hawks, Ronnie Hawkins’ backup band – and the bluesman in his hometown. Robertson remembers that as he jammed with them, Williamson kept spitting into a bucket, and that he only belatedly realized that the ailing harp player was coughing up blood.

 

            Aleck “Rice” Miller, a/k/a Sonny Boy Williamson, died May 25, 1965, age unknown.

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