Sonny Boy Williamson II
|Sonny Boy Williamson II|
Detail of headstone at Prairie Road Cemetery, Tutwiler, Mississippi
|Birth name||Alex or Aleck Ford (later known as Aleck Miller)|
|Also known as||
Glendora, MS December 5, 1912 |
Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, United States
May 24, 1965 (aged 52)|
Helena, Arkansas, United States
|Occupation(s)||Musician, songwriter, arranger, bandleader|
|Instruments||Singing, blues harmonica|
Alex or Aleck Miller (né Ford, possibly December 5, 1912 – May 24, 1965), known later in his career as Sonny Boy Williamson, was an American blues harmonica player, singer and songwriter. He was an early and influential blues harp stylist who recorded successfully in the 1950s and 1960s. Miller used various names, including Rice Miller and Little Boy Blue, before calling himself Sonny Boy Williamson, which was also the name of a popular Chicago blues singer and harmonica player. To distinguish the two, Miller has been referred to as Sonny Boy Williamson II.
He first recorded with Elmore James on "Dust My Broom". Some of his popular songs include "Don't Start Me Talkin'", "Help Me", "Checkin' Up on My Baby", and "Bring It On Home". He toured Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival and recorded with English rock musicians, including the Yardbirds, the Animals, and Jimmy Page. "Help Me" became a blues standard, and many blues and rock artists have recorded his songs.
Year of birth
Miller was born Alex Ford (pronounced "Aleck") on the Sara Jones Plantation in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi. The date and year of birth are uncertain. He claimed to have been born on December 5, 1899, but David Evans, professor of music and an ethnomusicologist at the University of Memphis, claims to have found census records that he was born around 1912, being seven years old on February 2, 1920, the day of the census. His gravestone in or near Tutwiler, Mississippi, set up by record company owner Lillian McMurry twelve years after his death, gives his date of birth as March 11, 1908, but has no basis for being recognized as accurate.
He lived and worked with his sharecropper stepfather, Jim Miller, whose last name he soon adopted, and mother, Millie Ford, until the early 1930s. Beginning in the 1930s, he traveled around Mississippi and Arkansas and encountered Big Joe Williams, Elmore James and Robert Lockwood, Jr., also known as Robert Junior Lockwood, who would play guitar on his later Checker Records sides. He was also associated with Robert Johnson during this period. Miller developed his style and raffish stage persona during these years. Willie Dixon recalled seeing Lockwood and Miller playing for tips in Greenville, Mississippi, in the 1930s. He entertained audiences with novelties such as inserting one end of the harmonica into his mouth and playing with no hands. At this time he was often known as "Rice" Miller—a childhood nickname stemming from his love of rice and milk—or as Little Boy Blue.
In 1941 Miller was hired to play the King Biscuit Time show, advertising the King Biscuit brand of baking flour on radio station KFFA in Helena, Arkansas, with Lockwood. The program's sponsor, Max Moore, began billing Miller as Sonny Boy Williamson, apparently in an attempt to capitalize on the fame of the well-known Chicago-based harmonica player and singer Sonny Boy Williamson (birth name John Lee Curtis Williamson, died 1948). Although John Lee Williamson was a major blues star who had already released dozens of successful and widely influential records under the name "Sonny Boy Williamson" from 1937 onward, Miller would later claim to have been the first to use the name. Some blues scholars believe that Miller's assertion he was born in 1899 was a ruse to convince audiences he was old enough to have used the name before John Lee Williamson, who was born in 1914.
Radio show in West Memphis
In 1949, Williamson relocated to West Memphis, Arkansas, and lived with his sister and her husband, Howlin' Wolf. (Later, for Checker Records, he did a parody of Howlin' Wolf, entitled "Like Wolf".) He started his own KWEM radio show from 1948 to 1950, selling the elixir Hadacol. He brought his King Biscuit musician friends to West Memphis—Elmore James, Houston Stackhouse, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, Robert Nighthawk and others—to perform on KWEM radio. In the 1940s Williamson married Mattie Gordon, who remained his wife until his death.
Williamson's first recording session took place in 1951 for Lillian McMurry of Trumpet Records, based in Jackson, Mississippi, three years after the death of John Lee Williamson, which for the first time allowed some legitimacy to Miller's carefully worded claim to being "the one and only Sonny Boy Williamson". McMurry later erected Williamson's headstone, near Tutwiler, Mississippi, in 1977.
When Trumpet went bankrupt in 1955, Williamson's recording contract was yielded to its creditors, who sold it to Chess Records in Chicago. He had begun developing a following in Chicago beginning in 1953, when he appeared there as a member of Elmore James's band. It was during his Chess years that he enjoyed his greatest success and acclaim, recording about 70 songs for the Chess subsidiary Checker Records from 1955 to 1964. His first LP record, Down and Out Blues, was released by Checker in 1959.
One single, "Boppin' with Sonny" b/w "No Nights by Myself", was released by Ace Records in 1955.
1960s European tours
In the early 1960s he toured Europe several times during the height of the British blues craze, backed on a number of occasions by the Authentics (see American Folk Blues Festival), recording with the Yardbirds (for the album Sonny Boy Williamson and The Yardbirds) and The Animals, and appearing on several TV broadcasts throughout Europe. Around this time he was quoted as saying of the backing bands who accompanied him, "those British boys want to play the blues real bad, and they do". According to the Led Zeppelin biography Hammer of the Gods, while in England Sonny Boy set his hotel room on fire while trying to cook a rabbit in a coffee percolator. The book also maintains that future Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant purloined one of the bluesman's harmonicas at one of these shows. Robert Palmer, writing in "Deep Blues", stated that during this tour Williamson allegedly stabbed a man during a street fight and left the country abruptly.
Sonny Boy took a liking to the European fans, and while there had a custom-made, two-tone suit tailored personally for him, along with a bowler hat, matching umbrella, and an attaché case for his harmonicas. He appears credited as "Big Skol" on Roland Kirk's live album Kirk in Copenhagen (1963). One of his final recordings from England, in 1964, featured him singing "I'm Trying to Make London My Home", with Hubert Sumlin providing the guitar.
Upon his return to the U.S., he resumed playing the King Biscuit Time show on KFFA, and performed in the Helena, Arkansas area. As fellow musicians Houston Stackhouse and Peck Curtis waited at the KFFA studios for Williamson on May 25, 1965, the 12:15 broadcast time was closing in and Sonny Boy was nowhere in sight. Peck left the radio station to locate Williamson, and discovered his body in bed at the rooming house where he had been staying, dead of an apparent heart attack suffered in his sleep the night before. Williamson is buried on New Africa Road, just outside Tutwiler, Mississippi at the site of the former Whitman Chapel cemetery. His headstone was provided by Mrs. Lillian McMurry, owner of Trumpet Records; the death date shown on the stone is incorrect.
The recordings made by John Lee Williamson between 1937 and his death in 1948 and those made between 1951 and 1964 by "Rice" Miller were all originally issued under the name Sonny Boy Williamson. It is believed that Miller adopted the name to suggest to audiences (and to his first record label) that he was the "original" Sonny Boy. To differentiate between the two musicians, scholars and biographers have referred to John Lee Williamson (1914–1948) as "Sonny Boy Williamson I" or "the original Sonny Boy" and to Miller (c.1912–1965) as "Sonny Boy Williamson II".
- Down and Out Blues (1959)
- A Portrait in Blues (1963)
- The Blues of Sonny Boy Williamson (1963)
- Sonny Boy Williamson and Memphis Slim (1964)
- Sonny Boy Williamson and The Yardbirds (1965, with the Yardbirds)
- The Real Folk Blues (1966)
- More Real Folk Blues (1966)
- Don't Send Me No Flowers (1968)
- Bummer Road (1969)
Singles and EPs
- "Cool, Cool Blues" / "Do It if You Wanta" (Trumpet Records, 1951)
- "Crazy 'Bout You, Baby" / "Eyesight to the Blind" (Trumpet Records, 1951)
- "Pontiac Blues" / "Sonny Boy's Christmas Blues" (Trumpet Records, 1951)
- "Mighty Long Time" / "Nine Below Zero" (Trumpet Records, 1951)
- "Going in Your Direction" / "Red Hot Kisses" (Trumpet Records, 1954)
- "Don't Start Me Talkin'"/ "All My Love in Vain" (Checker Records, 1955)
- "Keep It to Yourself" / "The Key (to Your Door)" (Checker Records, 1956)
- "Let Me Explain" / "Your Imagination" (Checker Records, 1956)
- "No Nights by Myself" / "Boppin' with Sonny" (Ace Records, 1956)
- "Fattening Frogs for Snakes" / "I Don't Know" (Checker Records, 1957)
- "Cross My Heart" / "Dissatisfied'" (Checker Records, 1958)
- "Born Blind" / "Ninety-Nine" (Checker Records, 1958)
- "Your Funeral & My Trial" / "Wake Up Baby" (Checker Records, 1958)
- "Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide" / "Unseeing Eye" (Checker Records, 1959)
- "Temperature 110" / "Lonesome Cabin" (Checker Records, 1960)
- "Trust My Baby" / "Too Close Together" (Checker Records, 1960)
- "The Goat" / "It's Sad to Be Alone" (Checker Records, 1960)
- "Stop Right Now" / "The Hunt" (Checker Records, 1961)
- "The Hunt" / "Little Village" (Checker Records, 1961)
- "One Way Out" / "Nine Below Zero" (Checker Records, 1962)
- "Trying to Get Back on My Feet" / "Decoration Day" (Checker Records, 1963)
- "Bye Bye Bird" / "Help Me" (Checker Records, 1963)
- "My Younger Days" / "I Want You Close to Me" (Checker Records,1964)
- "Bring It On Home" / "Down Child" (Checker Records, 1965)
- "Baby Let Me Come Back Home" / "November Boogie" / "All Nite Boogie" / "Leavin Blues" (Collectors Special Records EP, 1966)
- In Memoriam (1965, reissued as The Real Folk Blues, 1966)
- Blues Classics by "The Original" Sonny Boy Williamson (1965)
- This Is My Story (1972)
As Sonny Boy Williamson His Harmonica and Houserockers
- "Too Close Together" / "Cat Hop" (Trumpet Records, 1953)
- "Gettin' Out of Town" / "She Brought Life Back to the Dead" (Trumpet Records, 1954)
- "Empty Bedroom" / "From the Bottom" (Trumpet Records, 1955)
- "Mr. Downchild" / "Stop Now Baby" (Trumpet Records, 1954)
- "I Cross My Heart" / "West Memphis Blues" (Trumpet Records, 1954)
- "Come on Back Home" / "Stop Crying" (Trumpet Records, 1954)
- "From the Bottom" / "Empty Bedroom" (Blue Horizon Records)
Some of his better-known songs are "Don't Start Me To Talkin'" (his only major hit, reaching number 3 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1955), "Fattenin' Frogs for Snakes", "Keep It to Yourself", "Your Funeral and My Trial", "Bye Bye Bird", "Nine Below Zero", "Help Me", "Checkin' Up on My Baby", and "Little Village." Multiple unreleased takes of "Little Village" were issued on a 1969 Chess LP reissue titled Bummer Road that became notorious for including a joking but profane exchange between Williamson and Leonard Chess. A blurb on the rear cover warned disc jockeys the song was "not suitable for airplay".
His song "Eyesight to the Blind" was performed by the Who as a key song in the rock opera Tommy (the only song in that work not written by a member of the Who). It was later covered by Aerosmith for the album Honkin' on Bobo.
In interviews in The Last Waltz, members of the Band recounted jamming with Williamson and making plans to perform as his backing band (he died before their plans could be realized), prior to their initial fame performing with Bob Dylan.
Many of his most famous recordings are on the compilation albums The Essential Sonny Boy Williamson and His Best.
Williamson's recordings, both issued and unissued, for Lillian McMurray's Trumpet label have been reissued by Arhoolie, Alligator, Purple Pyramid, Collectables, and a handful of other domestic and import imprints. His recordings made during his at years Chess and Checker are on various compilations released by MCA/Chess. His European recordings have been issued by Alligator, Analogue Productions, Storyville, and others.
Williamson influenced modern blues and blues rock artists, as is shown by the number of his songs that were covered, including
- Muddy Waters, "Nine Below Zero"
- Canned Heat, "Nine Below Zero" and "Help Me"
- Junior Wells, "Help Me"
- Howlin' Wolf, "Cool Disposition"
- B.B. King, "Eyesight to the Blind". In the 1985 BBC Arena television evening, "Blues Night", King credited Williamson with giving him his first break on the King Biscuit Time radio program and arranging a live appearance for him for that same night.
- Mose Allison, "Eyesight to the Blind"
- John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, "Help Me", "Checkin' Up on My Baby"
- Led Zeppelin, "Bring It On Home"
- Van Morrison, "Take Your Hands Out of My Pocket", "Help Me", both on the 1974 live album It's Too Late to Stop Now. Morrison has often sung "Help Me" in live performances.
- Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, "One Way Out," which the duo performed at their Super Session live jam concerts in 1968; a version was released on Fillmore East: The Lost Concert Tapes 12-13-68.
- The Allman Brothers Band, "One Way Out"
- New York Dolls, "Don't Start Me Talkin'"
- Ten Years After ,"Help Me"
- The Who, "Eyesight to the Blind"
- Aerosmith, "Eyesight to the Blind"
- Gary Moore, "Eyesight to the Blind", "Don't Start Me To Talkin'"
- The Blues Brothers, "From the Bottom"
- Lester Butler, "I Cross My Heart"
- Rory Gallagher, "My Baby, She Left Me" and "Don't Start me Talkin", on the album Defender
- The band Nine Below Zero took its name from his song of that title.
- The Downchild Blues Band took its name from his song "Mister Downchild".
- John Popper, of Blues Traveler, noted that Williamson was a strong influence on his harmonica playing.
- Joe Bonamassa, "Your Funeral and My Trial"
- Dr. Feelgood, "Checking Up on My Baby", on the band's live album Stupidity
- The Doobie Brothers, "Don't Start Me to Talkin'", from their albumToulouse Street
- Joan Osborne, "Bring It On Home"
- Johnny Winter, "Help Me"
- Donoghue, William E. (1997). Fessor Mojo's "Don't Start Me to Talkin'". Elliott and James. ISBN 0-9637899-5-3.
- Goio, Bertrando (2003). Sonny Boy Williamson II: L'ultimo poeta del Blues. Foreword by Fabio Treves. Tipografia Gariazzo.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Sonny Boy Williamson II.|
- "Sonny Boy's Lonesome Cabin". Sonnyboy.com. Retrieved July 11, 2014.
- "Sonny Boy Williamson". Mississippi Blues Trail. Mississippi Blues Commission. Retrieved July 11, 2014.
- Koda, Cub. "Sonny Boy Williamson". AllMusic. Rovi Corp. Retrieved December 12, 2010.
- Cochoran, Robert. "'Sonny Boy' Williamson II". Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Retrieved July 11, 2014.
- "The BluesHarp Page: Legends: Sonny Boy Williamson II". Bluesharp.ca. Retrieved 2014-07-11.
- Herzhaft, Gerard (1992). "Help Me". Encyclopedia of the Blues. University of Arkansas Press. p. 450. ISBN 1-55728-252-8.
- "Dr. David Evans' Expertise on Memphis' Musical History to Help Build Academic Field Overseas". Memphis Commercial Appeal. Commercialappeal.com. February 17, 2011. Retrieved 2014-07-11.
- "Sonny Boy Williamson profile". Furious.com. Retrieved 2014-07-11.
- "1920 Census". Sonnyboy.com. Retrieved 2014-07-11.
In the 1920 census researched at my request by Memphis-based blues expert David Evans, Alex appeared as seven years old
- "Sonny Boy Williamson (died 1965)". Findagrave.com. Retrieved 2014-07-11.
- "Rice Miller (Sonny Boy II)-A Biographical Note by Glenn Weiser". Celticguitarmusic.com. Retrieved 2014-07-11.
- "Sonny Boy\'s Lonesome Cabin". Sonnyboy.com. Retrieved 2014-07-11.
- "Ace Records discography". Globaldogproductions.info. Retrieved 2014-07-11.
- "Roland Kirk Catalog". Jazzdisco.org. Retrieved 2014-07-11.
- Barry, Sam. "How to Play the Harmonica and Other Life Lessons". Books.google.co.uk. pp. 89–90. Retrieved 2015-09-06.
- "The Rough Guide to Chicago – Rich McHugh". Books.google.co.uk. July 1, 2009. p. 267. Retrieved 2015-09-06.
- "Sonny Boy Williamson (2) Discography". Discogs.com. Retrieved 2015-09-06.
- "Songs". Sonnyboy.com. Retrieved 2015-09-06.
- Archived November 6, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
- "Fessor Mojo's Don't Start Me to Talkin': William E. Donoghue: 9780963789952: Amazon.com: Books". Amazon.com. January 1, 1997. Retrieved 2014-07-11.
- A Sonny Boy Williamson website (by William E. Donoghue)
- A Sonny Boy Williamson website from Brazil (by Antonio Carlos Cabrera)
- "Sonny Boy II told his sisters "Keep it to yourself" but they told me his best-kept secret" (by William E. Donoghue)
- Bluesworld.com article Sonny Boy Williamson (by Gayle Dean Wardlow)
- Mississippi Blues Trail Marker
- Bluesharp.ca website Sonny Boy Williamson II (from All Music Guide to the Blues – Paperback – 658 pages 2nd edition (1999) Miller Freeman Books; ISBN 0-87930-548-7
- Sonny Boy Williamson II at the Internet Movie Database
- Works by or about Sonny Boy Williamson II in libraries (WorldCat catalog)