SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON II
Born Alex Miller, 5 December 1912, Glendora, Mississippi
Sonny Boy Williamson is a blues legend. He was an excellent harmonica player, a great lyricist and he had a beautiful voice. But it’s not easy to write his biography. He once told Willie Dixon that he couldn’t stand nosey interviewers, so he just made stuff up about himself, which explains the contradictory stories about his life. Even his birth date is uncertain. He claimed that he was born on December 5, 1899, but census data from 1920 indicate that he was only seven years old at the time. Nothing is known about his childhood days in Mississippi. Beginning in the 1930s, he travelled around Mississippi and Arkansas and encountered Big Joe Williams, Elmore James, Robert Johnson and Robert Lockwood Jr, who would play guitar on his later Checker sides. At this time he was usually known as Rice Miller or Little Boy Blue.
In 1941 Miller was hired to play on the “King Biscuit Time” show, advertising the King Biscuit brand of baking flour on radio station KFFA in Helena, Arkansas. This was the first live blues show to hit the American airwaves and it was a great success in the South. The program’s sponsor, Max Moore, began billing Miller as Sonny Boy Williamson, in an attempt to capitalize on the fame of the well-known Chicago-based harmonica player and singer Sonny Boy Williamson (1914-1948, real name John Lee Williamson). Miller has always insisted that the other Sonny Boy Williamson was an impersonator and that he was the original SBW, even though John Lee first recorded in 1937 and Miller in 1951! Miller’s assertion that he was born in 1899 was probably a ruse to convince audiences that he was old enough to have used the name before John Lee Williamson.
In 1948 he moved to West Memphis, Arkansas, and had his own radio show there on radio KWEM for two years. With all his local success, Sonny Boy was not particularly anxious to record, until Lillian McMurray, the owner of Trumpet Records in Jackson, Mississippi, enticed him to record for her. The music Sonny Boy made for her between 1951 and 1954 shows him in great form, his vocal, instrumental and songwriting skills honed to perfection. Classics from this period include “Eyesight To the Blind” and “Nine Below Zero”, both local hits. By early 1955, after leasing a single to Johnny Vincent’s fledgling Ace label, McMurray had sold Williamson’s contract to Buster Williams in Memphis, who in his turn sold it to Leonard Chess in Chicago.
There would follow a decade of brilliant recordings (1955-1965), all released on the Checker label. The first Chess session took place on August 12, 1955 and resulted in the single “Don’t Start Me Talkin’” (Checker 824), which became an immediate hit, reaching # 3 on the R&B charts. On this session he was backed by the Muddy Waters band, but thereafter he was reunited with Robert Lockwood, Jr. Another chart entry was “Keep It To Yourself” (# 14) in November 1956. The first Sonny Boy Williamson record to be released in Britain was “Help Me” in 1963. It didn’t make the UK charts (in the US it was his third and last chart entry, peaking at # 24 R&B), but its impact on the British music scene was considerable. In the autumn of 1963, Sonny Boy came to Europe for a Blues Festival tour and appeared on several TV broadcasts throughout Europe. He recorded with the Yardbirds and the Animals and was so appreciative of all the attention he was getting that he stayed in England for a considerable time. When he returned to Europe in 1964 he was welcomed like a hero. He even thought about settling in London for good, but circumstances forced him to return to his wife Mattie Gordon in Milwaukee.
In May 1965 he was back where he got his first break, in Helena and broadcasting on “King Biscuit Time”. When he didn’t show up for the broadcast of May 25, his fellow musician Peck Curtis went to the rooming house where Sonny Boy had been staying and found him dead in bed, apparently of a heart attack. He was buried in the Whitfield Cemetery in Tutweiler, Mississippi, and his funeral was well-attended. In 1980 Sonny Boy Williamson II was elected to the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame.
More info : http://www.sonnyboy.com
CD recommendation :
Acknowledgements : Cub Koda, Bill Donoghue, Wikipedia.
Dik, December 2016
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