Line Out Music & the City at Night

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Jazz Diaspora: Sonny Boy Williamson Vs. Sonny Boy Williamson

Posted by on Fri, Dec 6, 2013 at 3:12 PM

John Lee Curtis "Sonny Boy" Williamson and Aleck or Alex "Rice" Miller were both Sonny Boy Williamson. Both were blues harp players and both had a great impact on the blues in general and on generations of subsequent blues harp players. Sometimes, they are referred to as Sonny Boy I and Sonny Boy II, with Rice Miller landing in the number two spot. Although it appears that Miller was the older of the two by either a dozen years or just two, depending on whose research you choose to believe, he didn't cut his first records until three years after the death of Sonny Boy I who had waxed his first sides in 1937. John Lee had a string of successful records, including the blues standard "Good Morning, School Girl," and was poised to lead the transition of down-home country blues into a modern electric ensemble style with his harp as the lead voice. He was making inroads with this transition when he was murdered during a robbery on the way home from a night-club gig. His influence would linger, but it would be left to others to make the change to urban electric blues.

The likely cause for this confusion of monikers was flour—King Biscuit Flour to be precise. In 1941, Rice Miller landed a gig on Helena, Arkansas station KFFA, a 15-minute spot during which his band would play, promoting the flour and their upcoming gigs in the area. The owner of King Biscuit Flour claims to have bestowed Miller with the name Sonny Boy in a duplicitous attempt to have listeners believe a nationally recognized recording star was promoting his flour. Whether or not people believed this, or if they cared at all, the segment was a hit and Miller milked it for a few years before moving on to other radio stations and other promotions for alcohol-based elixirs like Talaho and Hadacol. For a time his face appeared on "Sonny Boy" brand corn meal bags. Biscuits, booze, and blues—such is the way of commerce.

Sonny Boy II cut his first records in 1951 for the Trumpet label, but he really hit his stride when he landed on the Chess Records roster in 1955. His Chess sides, along with those of the legendary Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, are arguably among the most exciting and most important post-war electric-blues sides ever waxed. These are the sides, along with some early country-blues performers who were being compiled on LPs in the early 1960s, that lit a fire under the asrses of the burgeoning British blues scene and you know the results of that. That Sonny Boy II toured Europe and that some of these young blues acolytes were able to function as sidemen in his ad-hoc bands only stoked the fires further.

A raconteur to the end, Sonny Boy II liked to tell a tall tale. Along with the claim that Robert Johnson died in his arms, he insisted that he was "the original Sonny Boy Williamson, the only one." Blues historians, rabid collectors of minutiae that they are, have sorted out the particulars and we now know the chronologies and the revealed myths of the Sonny Boys. All that is left is to sit back and enjoy their music.


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