originally published February 15, 2012
So who is Sonny Boy Williamson? You’ll have to be more specific.
John Lee Curtis Williamson, born near Nashville in 1914, became one of the pioneers of blues harmonica, or ‘blues harp’ (which is an expression that will only hold up until someone figures out how to successfully incorporate an actual concert harp into a blues record).
Being a blues musician in the early 20th century was akin to waking up every morning to a stacked deck. To be black in the American south, in the midst of the Great Depression, with no marketable skills apart from playing music that is generally only listened to by other southern blacks with very little money to buy your shirts at Hot Topic – that’s not an easy life..
Williamson had the advantage of being able to carry his most valuable possession in his breast pocket. He adopted the name ‘Sonny Boy’, probably because it just sounded awesome and blues-ish. “Good Morning School Girl,” his first recording for Bluebird Records in 1937, became a standard. He became a star within the blues world, which probably meant that he earned just enough money to buy some food and hooch. There just wasn’t big money in the blues.
He relocated to Chicago, and released a string of songs that have come to be blues staples: “Sugar Mama Blues”, “Sloppy Drunk”, “Shake The Boogie”, “Stop Breaking Down”, and more. “Shake The Boogie” hit #4 on Billboard’s unsympathetically-named Race Records charts.
The guy was a star. He was playing alongside Muddy Waters. His influences are scattered all over the ever-shrinking blues section of your local music store: Billy Boy Arnold, Junior Wells, Little Walter, Snooky Prior, Sonny Terry – all great artists, and they all learned from Sonny Boy.
So who the hell is Alex “Rice” Miller?
Miller was born either in 1899, 1908 or 1912 (no one is really sure on this) in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi. While Williamson was rising to fame in Chicago, Miller was playing the sticks down south. He joined up with a blues community that included Robert Johnson, Elmore James and Big Joe Williams, which means something now, but back then that was just an assortment of talented guys who could barely pool their money together to buy smokes when they had to. Rice Miller was an entertainer – Willie Dixon recalled seeing him egg on a crowd with novelties, like sticking the harmonica in his mouth and playing hands-free.
In 1941 Miller was hired to shill flour on the King Biscuit Time radio station in Helena, Arkansas. Not a bad gig for a struggling harp player. Max Moore, the show’s sponsor, started billing Miller as ‘Sonny Boy Williamson’, in a bizarrely misguided attempt to cash in on the other Sonny Boy’s fame up north. This would be like an Ipswich band in 1962 calling themselves ‘The Beatles’ because the name was working so well for those guys up north.
Miller didn’t mind. In fact, despite the fact that Williamson had been making records for years and was something of a celebrity in the blues-aware world, Miller decided to keep the name. He began boasting that he had been using the name ‘Sonny Boy Williamson’ first. There was no Internet, no Usenet discussion groups were going to flare up with evidence to dispute this fact. Maybe Miller didn’t like that his first name was Alex, but was pronounced ‘Aleck’. I don’t know where he got the nickname ‘Rice’, but he couldn’t have been happy with that. It’s a horrible nickname that evokes neither greatness nor down-home coolness.
This is where his date of birth gets mixed up. It has been theorized that Miller began telling people he was born in 1899 in order to add a little credibility to his claim to the ‘Sonny Boy’ name (remember, Williamson was born in 1914).
Williamson found out about Miller, and he wasn’t happy. He took no legal action though, probably because Miller hadn’t released any records and the notion of ‘brand name protection’ really wasn’t a big thing in the 1940s. There’s a story of the two of them meeting once in 1942, but according to Miller’s guitar player, Robert Lockwood (who is without question an incredibly biased source for this story), Miller chased Williamson away. According to Lockwood, Miller could play Williamson’s music better than Williamson.
The two men never again crossed paths. Williamson was the recording artist and the toast of Chicago, Miller toured the vast American south, building his reputation as a showman and a vicious harp player. On June 1, 1948, Williamson was walking home from the Plantation Club in Chicago’s South Side (a neighborhood I have been to, and can attest that it is Too Scary For White People), when he was caught up in a robbery just a block and a half from his home. He was killed.
This left only one Sonny Boy. Rice Miller relocated to West Memphis, Arkansas, and became a popular local radio personality. In 1951 he recorded his first record, proudly using the name Sonny Boy Williamson and continuing to spread his gospel that he is the one true Sonny Boy. There was no one left to argue.
Miller would be such an easy villain in this story if only he wasn’t so damn good. He recorded for Trumpet Records but, since his sister happened to be married to legend-to-be Howlin’ Wolf, he linked up with Chess Records’ subsidiary, Checker Records. Williamson II was now the toast of Chicago.
The early 60s saw the blues craze in England which would eventually give us the likes of Eric Clapton, Long John Baldry and Fleetwood Mac (back when they were cool). Williamson toured Europe several times, recording with the Yardbirds (and yes, that means with Clapton), as well as the Animals.
The accounts of Williamson II in Europe have grown to become legendary. He allegedly set his hotel room on fire while trying to cook a rabbit in a coffee percolator. Led Zep’s Robert Plant alleges that Williamson II had to duck out of the country once after stabbing a man in a street fight.
He returned home to Arkansas and resumed his radio show with King Biscuit Time. On May 25, 1965, he was discovered dead of a heart attack at age… well, we don’t really know that.
Two Sonny Boys, two legendary catalogs. Sonny Boy II left us songs like “Nine Below Zero” (covered by Muddy Waters and Canned Heat), “Bring It On Home” (covered by Led Zeppelin), “Eyesight To The Blind” (covered by the Who, Aerosmith and BB King), and “One Way Out” (covered by Elmore James and the Allman Brothers Band and should have been covered by Winnie the Pooh when he was stuck in that hole, because that would have been awesome).
The blues is filled with wild stories and quirky biographies, but these two might have the best.