Sonny Boy Williamson - Biography

Sonny Boy Williamson was an American blues harmonica player who cut over 120 sides between 1937 and ‘47. He was hugely popular among black audiences throughout the south as well as in the Midwestern cities Detroit and Chicago. He was the most influential blues harmonica player of his generation, influencing Billy Boy Arnold, Junior Wells, Little Walter, Snooky Pryor and Sonny Terry, and among others. His popularity was somewhat diminished after another musician, Rice Miller, adopted the same “Sonny Boy Williamson” moniker in the ‘40s and achieved great success during the ‘60s Blues Revival, recording with his British disciples. 


John Lee Curtis Williamson was born near Jackson, Tennessee on March 30, 1914, but primarily raised by his uncle in St. Louis, Missouri. He started out performing country blues but picked up the harmonica whilst still a teen and played with blues and jug band musicians, Hammie Nixon, Noah Lewis, Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachell before moving to Chicago in 1934. His first single, “Good Morning, School Girl,” was also his first hit and made a star. Dozens more singles followed before the decade ended. 


In the 1940s, Helena, Arkansas blues harp player, Aleck/Alex “Rice” Miller began, around this time, also performing as Sonny Boy Williamson at the behest of the producers of King Biscuit Time Radio Hour. The second Williamson mostly played in the Mississippi delta region and didn’t release any recordings during the first’s lifetime. No legal action was taken although he was allegedly confronted by the original in 1942. His popular harmonica blues style also influenced Jimmy Rogers and Muddy Waters — who also performed with him.


Meanwhile, Williamson recorded frequently for the Bluebird label, first in Aurora’s Leland Hotel, which had a nightclub on the top floor. Bluebird later moved to Chicago and became part of RCA. His first single for RCA was “You're an Old Lady” b/w “Early in the Morning.” His final recording session took place in December, 1947, backing Big Joe Williams. On June 1, 1949, after playing The Plantation Club in Bronzeville, he was bludgeoned to death at the age of 34. The posthumously-released “Better Cut That Out,” became his final hit in late 1948. He was buried at a cemetery off Blairs Chapel Rd at the former site of Blairs Chapel CME. 



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