Sonny Boy Williamson Biography

Aleck/Alex Miller, 5 December 1899, Glendora, Mississippi, USA, d. 25 May 1965, Helena, Arkansas, USA. Being a man who would never compromise a good story by affording undue attention to veracity, and mischievous to boot, Sonny Boy’s own various accounts of his life were never to be trusted and led to much confusion. This artist was also known as Alex Ford (after his mother’s maiden name), Willie Miller, Little Boy Blue and Willie Williams. Often referred to as ‘Sonny Boy Williamson II’ he was, in fact, older than John Lee ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson, whose name, and associated glory, he appropriated some time in the late 30s or early 40s. Why he felt the need to do so is odd in light of the fact that he owed John Lee Williamson nothing in terms of style or ability, and alongside the latter and Little Walter Jacobs, was one of the most innovatory and influential exponents of the blues harmonica. He was the illegitimate child of Millie Ford, but he took to using his stepfather’s name and by common association became ‘Rice Miller’. He mastered his chosen instrument (he could also play guitar and drums) early in his life and seems to have taken to the road as soon as he was able, relying on his skill for a livelihood. His wanderings throughout the south brought him into contact with many blues artists.

The list includes Robert Johnson, Robert Lockwood Jnr., Muddy Waters, Elmore James and Howlin’ Wolf, whose half sister, Mary, he married in the 30s. During this period Williamson used many names, working as ‘Little Boy Blue’, Willie Williamson, Willie Williams and Willie Miller (after his brother) and known to his friends as ‘Foots’ because of his habit of razoring his shoes, no matter how new they might be, to make them comfortable. He was cashing in on the popularity of John Lee Williamson (safely out of the way in Chicago) when he secured a job broadcasting over KFFA radio out of Helena on the King Biscuit Show in 1941. The show was heard all over the south and made Williamson famous. He continued to travel but now sought radio stations to advertise his activities. In the early 50s he recorded for Lillian McMurray’s Trumpet label in Jackson, Mississippi, along with friends Willie Love and Elmore James. His work on this label includes many outstanding performances, with ‘Mighty Long Time’ being perhaps the greatest of all. On the strength of his increased popularity he extended his area of work and began to appear in the bars of Detroit, where he worked with Baby Boy Warren, and in Chicago (John Lee Williamson was dead by this time).

He began his career with Chess Records of Chicago in 1955 with his hit ‘Don’t Start Me Talkin’’ and became a mainstay of the label almost until his death. In 1963, he took Europe by storm as a result of his appearances with the AFBF. His impressive appearance - tall and stooped in his famous grey/blue suit (quartered like a jester’s doublet) and sporting a bowler hat and umbrella, along with his hooded eyes and goatee beard - hypnotized audiences as he wove back and forth, snapping his fingers and clicking his tongue in a display of perfect rhythmic control. His skill on the harmonica was augmented by many tricks of showmanship such as playing two instruments at once (one with his large and plastic nose) or holding the harp end in his mouth and manoeuvring it with his tongue. If Europe took to him, Williamson seems to have enjoyed Europe: he stayed after the tour had ended and played his way around the burgeoning blues clubs, travelling as far as Poland. He recorded for the Storyville label in Denmark and with Chris Barber in Britain, then returned to mainland Europe, often stating his intention to take up permanent residence.

He never lived to see the days when Chess tried to convert their roster of blues singers into pop stars by uniting them with the most unlikely material and musical support, but in earlier days he had been quite happy to follow a similar route, by recording with such groups as the Yardbirds and the Animals, and a jazz band led by Brian Auger. Some of these efforts stand up better than others but Williamson did not care - as long as he was paid. Despite moving around extensively, he still maintained a home in the USA with his second wife Mattie Lee Gordon. He was back in Helena, appearing on the King Biscuit Show once more, when he died in his sleep in 1965.

Apart from his skill as a harmonica player and singer Sonny Boy Williamson was also a ‘character’ and anecdotes about him are legendary, both among the blues fraternity and his fans in Europe. If he was difficult, contentious, and unreliable, he was also a charming man who played upon his reputation as an evil, dangerous, hard-living blues troubadour. His music reveals that he was also capable of being both sensitive and humorous. He will always remain something of a conundrum, but as an artist his stature is recognized and his fame deserved.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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