sonny boy

Sonny Boy Williamson II

Aleck "Rice" Miller (December 5 1899 or March 11 1908May 25 1965), a.k.a. Aleck Ford, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Willie Williamson, Willie Miller, "Little Boy Blue", "The Goat" and "Footsie," was an American blues harmonica player, singer and songwriter.

Biography

Aleck Ford was born on the Sara Jones Plantation near Glendora, Mississippi in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi. The date and year of his birth are a matter of some uncertainty. He claimed to have been born on December 5, 1899, but one researcher, David Evans, claims to have found census record evidence that he was born around 1912. Miller's gravestone has his birthdate as March 11, 1908.

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 captivated audiences with tricks such inserting one end of the harmonica into his mouth and playing with no hands.

Miller lived in Twist, Arkansas for a time with Howlin' Wolf's sister Mary Burnett and taught Wolf to play harmonica. (Later, for Checker, he did a parody of Howlin' Wolf entitled "Like Wolf.") 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.

It was at this point that the radio 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 John Lee Williamson (see Sonny Boy Williamson I). 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, Aleck Miller would later claim to have been the first to use the name, and 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. Whatever the methodology, Miller became commonly known as "Sonny Boy Williamson," (universally distinguished by blues fans and musicians as "Sonny Boy Williamson number two" or "Sonny Boy Williamson the second") and Lockwood and the rest of his band were billed as the King Biscuit Boys. Sonny Boy's growing renown in the mid-south took him places such as West Memphis, Arkansas, where he performed on a KWEM radio show selling the elixir Hadacol.

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 Jackson, Mississippi's Trumpet Records (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, Sonny Boy's recording contract was yielded to its creditors, who sold it to Chess Records in Chicago, Illinois. Sonny Boy 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 Chess subsidiary Checker Records from 1955 to 1964. In the early 1960s he toured Europe several times during the height of the British blues craze, recording with The Yardbirds and The Animals, and appearing on several TV broadcasts throughout Europe. 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. During this tour he allegedly stabbed a man during a street fight and left the country abruptly.(Robert Palmer's Deep Blues)

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. 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. Due to his many years of relating convoluted, highly fictionalized accounts of his life to friends and family, upon his return to the Delta, some expressed disbelief upon hearing of Sonny Boy's touring across the Atlantic, visiting Europe, seeing the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, and other landmarks, and recording there.

According to his sisters, with his return to the American Deep South, Sonny Boy called upon old friends and asked them to take him around to many of his old haunts in the area. Williamson resumed playing the King Biscuit Time show on KFFA, and managed some performances around Helena, Arkansas. As 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 and headed out to locate Williamson, and discovered his body in bed at the rooming house where he'd been staying, dead of an apparent heart attack suffered in his sleep the night before.

Williamson is buried on New Africa Rd. just outside Tutwiler, Mississippi at the site of the former Whitman Chapel cemetery. His headstone was provided by Ms. Lillian Mc Murray, owner of Trumpet Records.

Some of his better known songs include "Don't Start Me To Talkin'" (his only major hit, it reached the #3 position on the national Billboard R&B charts in 1955),"Fattenin' Frogs for Snakes", "Keep It To Yourself", "Your Funeral and My Trial", "Bye Bye Bird", "Nine Below Zero", "Help Me", and the infamous "Little Village", with dialogue 'unsuitable for airplay' with Leonard Chess. His song "Eyesight to the Blind" was performed by The Who as a key song in their rock opera Tommy (the only song in that opus not written by a band member) and it was later covered on the Aerosmith album Honkin' on Bobo. His "One Way Out", reworked from Elmore James and recorded twice in the early 1960s, became popularized by The Allman Brothers Band in the early 1970s.

In interviews in The Last Waltz, roots-rockers The Band recount jamming with Miller prior to their initial fame as Bob Dylan's electric backing band, and making never-realized plans to become his backing band.

Influence

While tall tales, unlikely fables and outright lies make up much of what Sonny Boy Williamson II had to say about his own life, his most important contributions have been documented well through countless recordings on myriad labels. His output of recordings, both issued and unissued, for Lillian McMurray's Trumpet label, can be found on Arhoolie, Alligator, Purple Pyramid, Collectables, plus a handful of other domestic and import imprints, while his years as a resident of the Chess/Checker house appear on various compilations on MCA/Chess. His European recordings reside on Alligator, Analogue Productions, Storyville, and others.

Sonny Boy Williamson II has had an enormous influence on modern day blues and blues rock artists and other legendary artists, as is shown by the number of his songs that are still covered. Among many others:

References

External links

  • Sonny Boy Williamson (by Gayle Dean Wardlow)
  • Sonny Boy Williamson II - Aleck Ford "Rice" Miller (1899–1965)
  • Sonny Boy Williamson II - Tribute page

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