Friday, September 3, 2010
The Two Sonny Boys
John Lee Williamson began recording in the late 30's and had built an impressive catalog of recordings by the early 40's for Bluebird Records. He also recorded as a sideman with Robert Nighthawk, Tampa Red, Big Joe Williams, and Big Maceo, but he was very popular on his own as an artist, probably one of the most popular blues artists during the 40's.
King Biscuit Time radio show on station KFFA in Helena, Arkansas, and to pitch King Biscuit baking flour. They actually played for free in exchange for plugging their upcoming appearances throughout the area.
It was during this time that Miller was dubbed "Sonny Boy Williamson" by program sponsor Max Moore. Moore thought using the name of a popular, but faraway musician would help boost sales. Miller didn't actually like the pseudonym at the time, since it cast aspersions on his own talent, originality, and identity, but later he would claim that he was the first to use the name.
Miller's King Biscuit Time served as a springboard for lots of blues talent, including B. B. King, who made his radio debut on the show. Other blues legends, like Elmore James, Houston Stackhouse, Robert Nighthawk, and Pinetop Perkins also appeared on the show. Miller later moved to West Memphis in the late 40's and worked on KWEM radio, selling Hadacol.
Unfortunately, John Lee Willliamson didn't live to see the end of the 1940's. On June 1, 1948, he was brutally murdered in a robbery as he walked home from a gig at the Plantation Club on Chicago's South Side, just a block and a half away from his home. According to blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson, Williamson was stabbed seventeen times in the head with an ice pick. He was only 34 years old.
In the 50's, Miller was finally recorded, as Sonny Boy Williamson, first for Trumpet Records out of Jackson, MS, then for Chess Records, where he enjoyed his greatest success, recording about 70 songs for Chess' subsidiary label, Checker. His songs were often witty, often surreal, always entertaining. He also boasted a fine studio band, usually consisting of Lockwood and either Luther Tucker or Matt "Guitar" Murphy on guitars, Otis Spann on piano, Willie Dixon on bass, and Fred Below on drums.
Miller journeyed to Europe in the 60's and became even more popular, even recording with some of the British musicians of the time (the Yardbirds, the Animals, Jimmy Page), though he was less than flattering in his descriptions of their abilities. He even considered becoming a British citizen at one time, but he returned home to Helena to King Biscuit Time in the mid 60's. He passed away in 1965, and is buried in Tutwiler, MS.
Here's a chance for you to decide for yourself who you like best. First up, here's Sonny Boy Williamson I's classic tune, "Sugar Mama," with guitar by Big Joe Williams.
Now, check out Sonny Boy II's wonderful "Ninety-Nine," with Spann, Lockwood, Tucker, Dixon, and Below.....maybe the best studio band ever.
Unfortunately, John Lee Williamson didn't leave behind any video of his performances, but since Rice Miller did travel to Europe and perform, we do have many clips of his performances. Here's one of them from the American Folk Blues Festival in the early 60's. Memphis Slim provides the introduction and Miller is backed by an excellent band consisting of the great Otis Spann (piano), Matt Murphy (guitar), Willie Dixon (bass), and Billy Stepney (drums).
Most of the first Sonny Boy Williamson's recordings are only available as imports. However, in 2003, RCA reissued a volume of his Bluebird sides, which is out of print, but still fairly easy to find at Amazon. This set has a wide selection of John Lee Williamson's best tracks and terrific sound.
Rice Miller's recordings have been issued and re-issued on a regular basis since the mid 80's by MCA and now Universal Music. Any of his work is worth having, but the best single volume is the 50th Anniversary of Chess Records edition called, naturally, His Best