Sonny Boy Williamson (II)

Not to be confused with the predominantly acoustic SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON (I), who scribed the much-covered `Good Morning Little School Girl’, this “electric” Sonny Boy (aka Alex Miller) was famous for classic blues cues, `Eyesight To The Blind’, `Help Me’ and `Don’t Start Me Talkin’’.
Born Aleck Ford, December 5, 1901, Tallahatchie, Mississippi (and not 1899 as once mooted), he mastered harmonica early in life and could also play guitar and drums, and if he had had more belief in himself then he would’ve gone on to be one of the most respected post-war bluesmen. During the late 30s he used many names such as Little Boy Blue, Willie Williamson, Willie Williams and Willie Miller (after his brother), but he decided in 1941, who knows why, to borrow the name of an established fellow harpist, (John Lee) SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON (who could do nothing about the interloper) and after his death in June 1948; Miller actually claimed to be the original Sonny Boy.
WILLIAMSON started to host the King Biscuit Time radio show (sponsored by the affiliated flour company) on KFFA Radio, West Helena, Arkansas in 1941. He was a unique stylist with a resonating baritone and piercing harp; what’s more, he was a better performer than the man whose name he’d taken. WILLIAMSON made his first records (of which `Mighty Long Time’ and `Pontiac Blues’ were two of his finest) in 1951, for Lillian McMurry’s Trumpet label in Jackson, Mississippi, along with Willie Love and ELMORE JAMES.
Sonny Boy was already a seasoned performer by then, having played with ROBERT JOHNSON as well as teaching harmonica to his brother-in-law, HOWLIN’ WOLF, in exchange for guitar lessons. WILLIAMSON had also frequently crossed the paths of Johnny Shines, Sunnyland Slim and Robert Junior Lockwood, with whom he worked frequently during his salad says and who played lead guitar on many of his late 50s Chess recordings.
Although WILLIAMSON had the reputation as a mean, bitter man, he was, in actual fact, generous to up and coming musicians; B.B. KING owed his start to a spot on the blues pioneer’s radio show, whilst he virtually adopted JAMES COTTON as a son. Sonny subsequently moved to Chicago where he started to record for Checker (who bought his contract from a third party after Trumpet had sold it on).
By 1955, he was in the studio with MUDDY WATERS, OTIS SPANN, JIMMY ROGERS and WILLIE DIXON; all backing him on his first single, `Don’t Start Me Talkin’’. This was a minor hit – as well as many other shellacs – and he became a cult figure in Europe during the decade on the back of debut LP: the compilation DOWN AND OUT BLUES (1959) {*8}.
Choosing to relocate to London in 1963 and recruiting The ANIMALS and YARDBIRDS as backing bands, there was further vinyl evidence of his prowess. WILLIAMSON returned to the Delta in 1964, where he recorded an album with MEMPHIS SLIM. Sadly, Sonny Boy was found dead in his bed in Helena, Arkansas, by drummer Peck Curtis on May 25, 1965. The aforementioned debut album went into the UK Top 20 one month after his death, and kicked off a plethora of exploitation releases from “The Real Folk Blues” and “More Real Folk Blues” (1966) to “Don’t Send Me Flowers” (1968) and “Bummer Road” (1969); not counting the post-90s CD compilations.
© MC Strong 1994-2000/GRD // rev-up MCS Nov2019

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