Sonny Boy Williamson II - Happy Birthday Sonny Boy Williamson II - Classic Blues Videos
Over an Hour of Live Video in Celebration of his Birth
Sonny Boy Williamson II leaves an amazing legacy as one of the greatest Blues harmonica players to walk the earth and the ultimate Bluesman. Sonny Boy performed with Robert Johnson in his early days and Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton towards the end and just about every Blues master alive while he was in between. Just to give an example of the incredible impact that Williamson's music has had; a few of the artists who have covered his songs include Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Canned Heat, B. B. King, Van Morrison, Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers, The Who, Aerosmith and The Doobie Brothers. Sonny Boy's harp playing is something else and he is a true master of instrument that could drive an audience wild. Putting in words the full impact his music has had is difficult so I defer to John Mayall who said, "Sonny Boy Williamson is the Jimi Hendrix of the Blues Harp.”
"If you are gonna play a note, play the hell out of that goddamn note! You can take one note and upset a house. Play that damn note; don't let the note play you." - Sonny Boy Williamson II
Aleck "Rice" Miller (March 11, 1908 - May 25, 1965) was a blues harmonica player, singer and songwriter. He was also known as Sonny Boy Williamson II, Willie Williamson, Willie Miller, Little Boy Blue, The Goat and Footsie. Born as Aleck Ford 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 one researcher, David Evans, claims to have found census record evidence that he was born around 1912. His gravestone lists his date of birth 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 entertained audiences with novelties such inserting one end of the harmonica into his mouth and playing with no hands.
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. (This is made somewhat less likely, however, by the fact that Miller was certainly older than Williamson even if one does not accept the 1899 birthdate.) 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.
In 1949 he 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.") Sonny Boy started his own KWEM radio show from 1948 to 1950 selling the elixir Hadacol.
Sonny Boy also 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.
Chess 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.
In the early 1960s he toured Europe several times during the height of the British blues craze (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.
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. 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.
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.
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", "Checkin' Up on My Baby", 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. Many of his most famous recordings appeared on The Essential Sonny Boy Williamson and His Best.
Wikipedia contributors. "Sonny Boy Williamson II." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 14 Feb. 2011. Web. 10 Mar. 2011.