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Sonny Boy Williamson II.

 

Alex or Aleck Miller (né Ford, possibly December 5, 1912 May 24, 1965), known later in his

career as Sonny Boy Williamson, was an American blues harmonica player, singer and

songwriter. He was an early and influential blues harp stylist who recorded successfully in the

1950s and 1960s. Miller used a variety of names, including Rice Miller andLittle Boy Blue,

before settling on Sonny Boy Williamson, which was also the name of a popular Chicago blues

singer and harmonica player. Later, to distinguish the two, Miller became widely known as

Sonny Boy Williamson II.

 

He first recorded with Elmore James on "Dust My Broom" and some of his popular songs

include "Don't Start Me Talkin'", "Help Me", "Checkin' Up on My Baby", and "Bring It On

Home". He toured Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival and recorded with English

rock musicians, including the Yardbirds, the Animals, and Jimmy Page. "Help Me" became a

blues standard and many blues and rock artists have recorded his songs.

 

Year of birth

 

Born Alex Ford (pronounced "Aleck") on the Sara Jones Plantation in Tallahatchie County,

Mississippi, his date and year of birth are a matter of uncertainty. He claimed to have been

born on December 5, 1899, but Dr. David Evans, professor of music and an ethnomusicologist

at the University of Memphis,[6] claims to have found census record evidence that he was

born around 1912, being seven years old on February 2, 1920, the day of the census.[7][8] His gravestone in or near Tutwiler, Mississippi, set up

by record company owner Lillian McMurry twelve years after his death, gives his date of birth as March 11, 1908, but has no basis to be recognized

as accurate

 

Early years

 

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 entertained audiences with novelties such as inserting one end of the harmonica into his mouth

and playing with no hands. At this time he was often known as "Rice" Miller — a childhood nickname stemming from his love of rice and milk — or

as Little Boy Blue.

 

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 Sonny Boy Williamson (birth name John Lee

Curtis Williamson, died 1948). 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.

 

Radio show in Memphis

 

In 1949, Williamson relocated to West Memphis, Arkansas and lived with his sister and her husband, Howlin' Wolf. (Later, for Checker Records, he

did a parody of Howlin' Wolf entitled "Like Wolf".) He started his own KWEM radio show from 1948 to 1950 selling the elixir Hadacol. He brought his

King Biscuit musician friends to West Memphis, Elmore James, Houston Stackhouse, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, Robert Nighthawk and others to

perform on KWEM Radio. In the 1940s Williamson married Mattie Gordon, who remained his wife until his death

 

Recording career

 

Trumpet Records

 

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

 

Checker Records

 

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. Sonny Boy's first LP record was titled Down and Out Blues and was released by Checker Records in 1959.

 

Ace Records

 

One single, "Boppin' With Sonny" b/w "No Nights By Myself" was released with Ace Records in 1955.

 

1960s European tours

 

In the early 1960s he toured Europe several times during the height of the British blues craze backed on a number of occasions by The Authentics

(see American Folk Blues Festival), recording with The Yardbirds (see album:Sonny Boy Williamson and The Yardbirds) and The Animals, and

appearing on several TV broadcasts throughout Europe. During this time Sonny was quoted as saying of the backing bands who accompanied him,

"those British boys want to play the blues real bad, and they do". 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. The book also maintains that future Led Zeppelin vocalist

Robert Plant purloined one of the bluesman's harmonicas at one of these shows as well. Robert Palmer's "Deep Blues" mentions that during this tour

he allegedly stabbed a man during a street fight and left the country abruptly

 

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. He appears credited as "Big Skol" on Roland Kirk's live album Kirk in Copenhagen

(1963). 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

 

Death

 

Upon his return to the U.S., he resumed playing the King Biscuit Time show on KFFA, and performed in the Helena, Arkansas area. As fellow

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 to locate Williamson, and discovered his body in bed at the rooming house where

he had been staying, dead of an apparent heart attack suffered in his sleep the night before. Williamson is buried on New Africa Road, just outside

Tutwiler, Mississippi at the site of the former Whitman Chapel cemetery. His headstone was provided by Mrs. Lillian McMurry, owner of Trumpet

Records; the death date shown on the stone is incorrect

 

Name issues

 

The recordings made by John Lee Williamson between 1937 and his death in 1948, and those made between 1951 and 1964 by "Rice" Miller, were

all originally issued under the name Sonny Boy Williamson. It is believed that Miller adopted the name to suggest to audiences, and his first record

label, that he was the "original" Sonny Boy.[  In order to differentiate between the two musicians, many later scholars and biographers now refer to

Williamson (1914-1948) as "Sonny Boy Williamson I" or "the original Sonny Boy", and Miller (c.1912-1965) as "Sonny Boy Williamson II".

 

 

 

The Forum post is edited by bninna Aug 12 '15, 11:20AM
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