MICK JAGGER MENTIONS SONNYBOY
At a blues concert at the White House on Tuesday, honoring both the music and the occasion of Black History Month, Rolling Stones frontman and force of nature Mick Jagger gave a history lesson.
Between tearing into “I Can’t Turn You Loose” (an Otis Redding classic) and “Commit a Crime” by Howlin’ Wolf, Jagger briefly regaled the crowd that gathered in the East Room, talking about the blues, “something I fell in love with when I was about 12 years old.”
“The thing was, we were in England and there was a great blues performer called Sonny Boy Williamson …”
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ROBERT PLANT PRAISES SONNYBOY
Robert Plant speaks about his first exposure to Sonnyboy’s music during a 2014 speech in Tutwiler MS, the home of the Blues.
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The story of Sonny Boy
Sonny Boy Williamson was born Aleck (Rice) Miller in Mississippi in December 1912. He’s not to be confused with John Lee Curtis Williamson, a blues artist and harmonica player who was the original “Sonny Boy” and who died in Chicago in June 1948. (Blues scholars often distinguish between the two with Roman numerals I and II.)
Sonny Boy Williamson II started his career on the King Biscuit Time show on KFFA radio in Helena, Ark., and later performed on a program on KWEM radio, working with blues greats before they were greats — Elmore James and Arthur (Big Boy) Crudup among them. \
He developed his own signature harmonica style. In liner notes for “Boppin’ With Sonny,” producer and blues scholar Marc Ryan observed that “[t]he tone of Sonny’s harmonica was unusually full, the result of a combination of virtuosic breath control and an especially large resonating chamber created by cupping his hands around his … harp.”
Williamson II played and wrote songs throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and was a direct influence on the emerging blues scene in England.
He toured frequently, recorded with early incarnations of the Yardbirds and the Animals. He died of a heart attack in May 1965, but not before inspiring legions of young Brits hoping to make their mark in the world of music. Brits like one Michael Philip Jagger, who took the time to remember him at the White House last Tuesday night.
Black History Month is often punctuated with ritual observances of singular figures in black American history and how their exploits dovetailed with the development of a nation that reviled them. We know the names by heart: Harriet Tubman. Frederick Douglass. Rosa Parks. Martin Luther King Jr.
But it’s regrettable, to say the least, when other names from that history go begging — now much as they did when the people behind those names were alive. It’s a sad sad sad commentary on the immediacy of our attention span when we revere the usual suspects, but fail to remember others whose contributions run deep in the American cultural soil … others who matter … other links to our history, just above our heads.
Image credits: Sonny Boy Williamson top: via www.sonnyboy.com. Jagger: whitehouse.gov/PBS. Sonny Boy Williamson bottom: via YouTube.
Sonny Boy Williamson (II) AKA Alex “Rice” Miller AKA “Willie Miller” or (“W. M.”) or “Willie “Sonny Boy” Williamson AKA “Little Boy Blue” AKA “Sonny Boy Miller.”
“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 to Little Sonny in Detroit MI in 1955
(as reported in Living Blues Issue #207)
Alex “Rice” Miller was probably born on the Sara-Jones (or Selwyn-Jones) Plantation near Glendora MS on or about December 5, 1912, raised on the Pleasantview Plantation in Money MS and died in his sleep in Helena AR on May 25, 1965.
Sources: Alex Miller was listed as seven years old in the 1920 US Census records. His sisters Mary Ashford and Julia Barner both told me personally that he was the youngest of 21 children of Millie Ford Miller and blacksmith Jim Miller and the only musician in the family.
His death certificate lists his date of death is Helena Arkansas on May 25, 1965 (in spite of the fact the grave marker in Tutwiler MS put up 12 years later reads “June 23, 1965” based on the memory of his last two sisters.
“Whole lot of people is talking but a mighty few people know”
“Don’t Start Me Talkin’ (I’ll tell everything I know)”
“Keep It To Yourself (Don’t Tell Nobody)”
Sonny Boy Williamson AKA Alex “Rice” Miller
Sonny Boy was, legitimately, “The King of the Delta Blues Harmonica.” whose career spanned most of the Golden Era of delta blues began as a preacher “Reverend Blue” at age six and by the 1930s he was playing with blues legend Robert Johnson and his stepson Robert Lockwood Jr., with whom he was playing amplified blues as early as 1938 (six years before Muddy Waters owned an electric guitar) to recording with Eric Clapton and the Yardbirds, Eric Burdon and the Animals and Jimmy Page in 1963-65.
His music and life was remembered in the life stories of more blues musicians than any other and more songs were written celebrating his music both during his life and after his death than any other blues musician on either side of the Atlantic.
“Bill Donoghue (‘fessor Mojo) knows more about Sonny Boy
than Sonny Boy did.”
JAMES “SUPERHARP” COTTON (who was raised by Sonny Boy’s band)
“Sonny Boy Williamson (II) was, in many ways, the ultimate blues legend.” The Late Great Blues Researcher Cub Koda (founder & guitarist Brownsville Station)
“Sonny Boy Williamson is the Jimi Hendrix of the Blues Harp.” John Mayall
GOLDMINE (formerly DISCOVERIES) GIVES SONNYBOY.COM A RAVE REVIEW…”An excellent in-depth on the enormously influential blues harpist. Here you will find a detailed discography and song list, a discussion of Williamson’s harp style, a fine photo gallery, RealAudio sound bites and plenty more. The site is nicely done graphically and is full of solid information, plus it’s lots of fun.
The site’s master, Bill Donoghue, has also written a book on the blues legend.” Jeff Tamarkin, Discoveries Magazine
Selected Table of Contents
� The Truth About Of Sonny Boy’s Real Name And Real Birth Date (something his best friends never knew)
� The Sources of Sonny Boy’s Lonesome Harp Sounds
� Sonny Boy’s Mysterious Post 1941 Career
� Sonny Boy’s Quirks and Personality Traits Spoke Volumes
� The Blues Poetry Of Sonny Boy Williamson (II)
� King Biscuit Entertainers 1942 And 1952 Films Discovered!
� Robert Johnson’s True Gravesite Discovered – Breaking News:
� Update On Recently Discovered King Biscuit Time Films In The Archives At University Of Georgia
� King Biscuit Entertainers 1942 And 1952 Films Discovered!
� Learn The Secrets Behind The Mysterious Life Of Sonny Boy’s Sidekick Elmore James
� PBS’ “American Roots Music” (Arm) Series Features A Prominent Delta Blues Segment On Sonny Boy Williamson And King Biscuit Time.
� Long-Rumored 1964 Sonny Boy And The Skunks Recording Session Unearthed After 36 Years. Get Yours Now!!
� Sonny Boy’s Childhood Home Rediscovered
� A Sonny Boy Love Story, New York Style
The Truth About Of Sonny Boy’s Real Name And Real Birth Date
(something his best friends never knew)
Alex (pronounced but not spelled “Aleck” in the Mississippi delta – hence the confusion) Miller was born the legitimate son of blacksmith Jim Miller and his wife Millie Miller who he had married in 1895 Millie Miller on the Sara-Jones Plantation in Glendora MS (later they moved Jim’s forge to Pleasantview Plantation in Money MS). In the 1920 census researched at my request by Memphis-based blues expert David Evans Alex appeared as seven years old.
A “Willie Miller,” Sonny Boy’s older brother was not in the 1900 census but appeared as 12 years old in the 1910 census and later in the 1930 census as 32 years old; thus, he was the “Willie Miller” whose name Alex Miller “borrowed.” Willie was born in 1898, not Sonny Boy.
Obviously he is not “Willie” by any stretch of the imagination; Willie was his brother whose name he adopted as early as 1931 when Robert Lockwood Jr. met him as “W. M.” (Willie Miller) and whose name he used when he signed his Trumpet Records contract as “Willie Sonny Boy Williamson”.
The earliest signed documents by Sonny Boy was representing himself as “Sonny Boy” Williamson on his June 4, 1949 marriage certificate, “Willie Williams” on his September 22, 1949 application for a Social Security card, Willie “Sonny Boy” Williamson on his December 7, 1950 Trumpet recording contract, “Sonny Boy Williamson” on his (never used) management contract with Stan Lewis in Shreveport on June 14, 1950.
Yes; that makes him only 52 when he died. As many of the photos of him used on his album covers were taken in 1963 to 1965 and used on albums of recordings as early as 1951 for Trumpet and 1955 for Chess, many assumed he was much older. Not even his best friends questioned that he was claiming to be 15 years older than he was as early as when he was 19 and claiming to be 34.
“All the awards I get, three Grammys and everything else, I got them sitting on my shelf, and every time I look at them, I say, “That doesn’t belong to me, that belongs to Sonny Boy Williamson and Jimmy Reed, people like that.” I wind up getting the awards that they should have gotten.”
Buddy Guy, blues singer/guitarist, interview at Amazon.com
The Sources of Sonny Boy’s Lonesome Harp Sounds
If you can close your eyes and imagine the rural setting for Alex Miller in 1918 when he first learned to play his harp and think about what his influences might be an interesting story emerges. He was born in 1912 and was playing by age six in 1918. A local vegetable vendor, Big Jim, came walking past Alex Miller’s father’s blacksmith forge playing his harmonica to the sound of his mule’s saddlebags slapping on the sides of his mule, as Sonny Boy told it to a British reporter in 1965.
Then, I can imagine, he listened to the sounds of his lonely world. The average population density of the delta plantations was about one person per acre. While Sonny Boy lived with a large family, during the day they were all at work. He would have built his blues harp sound on what he heard: a baby’s cry (his trademark Wah-Wah sound), the sounds of a cat and dog fight (listen to “The Hunt”), the lonesome whistle of a train travelling across the delta (the high lonesome riff on “All My Love In Vain” and the chug on “Help Me”) with its rhythmic chugging sound across the lonely delta.
The Mississippi delta is 90 miles wide at the widest and 120 miles south from Memphis.
In the middle, near Parchman Farm the state penitentiary (not far from Glendora and Money where Sonny Boy lived) that means 90 miles of flat delta in every direction.
You can understand why there are no fences on Parchman and trustees holding rifles could earn an immediate release simply by shooting an escaping convict. One choice was to remain on the Farm and become one of the leased convicts who were often literally worked to death with no recourse “(Kill a mule, get another mule; kill a nigger, get another nigger” they would say in the parlance of the day). The other choice was to shoot a fellow prisoner trying to escape.
“Smokestack lightnin’” was the sparks around the smokestack of the coal fueled train. Other sounds included the fans at the cotton gin and the chugging of the spinning machines and ginning machines.
Every sound and sight has a reference point.
“In a hundred years, I think every school child will know Sonny Boy Williamson. I think his music will be part of the curriculum of coming of age in this country. I think there will be statues of Sonny Boy Williamson in his hometown, in Helena, and in other parts of the Delta. I think there will be a musical trail that will lead you to where he lived and where he frequented as a musician.
I think he will be viewed as one of the great artists of the 20th century.”
Bill Ferris Ph. D., Senior Associate Director of the Center for the Study of the American South, professor of history, and adjunct professor in the Curriculum in Folklore at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill . He wasco-editor of The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, former Director of the National Endowment for the Humanities (under Clinton) and former Director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.
Sonny Boy’s Mysterious Post-1941 Career
Finally, pieced together from multiple sources (First-hand interviews, some second-hand but consistently-told family stories, Helena eye-witnesses to the show (two announcers, the owner of KFFA, men working on the Interstate Grocery loading dock, Max Moore’s son and many more confirmable sources) and Sonny Boy’s Sonny Boy’s journey from Helena’s King Biscuit Time to Trumpet Records in Jackson to Chicago’s Checker Records to the 1963 and 1964 American Folk Blues Festival and Sonny Boy’s final days. Visit frequently to witness as the outline is fleshed out with new information.
From a research perspective, one of the most important discoveries from my quest was to discover just how reliable, consistent and objective Sonny Boy’s closest friends, fans, and family and neighbors were in providing my with what they knew themselves without allowing their memories to be swayed by others. Often they had repeated the stories word-for-word among themselves so often that it made no difference if I was hearing the story first-hand, second-hand or even third hand. The pieces nearly always dove-tailed to build a story none of the reporters knew.
Sonny Boy Gave “Eyesight To The Blind”
The impact of hearing African-American blues music being welcomed and indeed celebrated on the local radio station on Delta Blacks cannot be over-estimated. It was the beginning of Black pride.
Sonny Boy was “the first Black media star of the Deep South.” He was featured on King Biscuit Time on KFFA radio based in Helena and West Helena AR with 10% of the Black population of the United States within its 70-mile broadcasting radius.
Sonny Boy, The Supper Time Super-Star
Broadcast time was originally from 12:15 PM to 12:45 PM probably “the most integrated 15 minutes in the Delta” at the time.
Most Mississippi Delta citizens sat down for supper, the traditional hot mid-day meal between their two eight-hour work shifts. Everyone was listening.
King Biscuit Time Saved KFFA and King Biscuit Flour
KFFA and King Biscuit Time (KBT) debuted on the air on November 21, 1941 and King Biscuit Flour, the sponsor, saw its sales soar from two carloads every six months to two carloads every week! That success story forced even local supermarket chains to carry King Biscuit Flour (an excellent product on its own) next to their house brands.
On December 6, 1941 Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and, because so many local breadwinners were being drafted and/or enlisting, most of the new radio station’s advertisers began to drop their ads. Sam Anderson, the owner, immediately took his message to Madison Avenue ad firms in New York and signed up more flour advertisers to keep his radio station afloat.
The KBT success story literally saved the station and kept flour sales selling well. The combination of King Biscuit as a sponsor and Sonny Boy’s infectious music was phenomenonal and, equally significant, sustainable.
He Was The Best Known Celebrity in the Delta
At supper time, Sonny Boy’s infectious music from KFFA reached nearly everyone in the delta: saints and sinners, music lovers both white and Black, sharecroppers, “river rats,” factory workers, and shopkeepers. Everyone was listening.
On a warm summer day with the windows open I would bet you could walk from one side of Helena to the other through both Black and white sections of town and never miss a note of Sonny Boy’s playing. That kind of acceptance of blues was unheard of; I would bet that many Black church goers and white people had seldom heard the blues at all; now it was in their homes.
Sonny Boy knew what he was doing.
Sonny Boy could reach those likely to come out to his gigs (so well that Muddy Waters, James Cotton, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and other “Chicago” bluesmen left town in part because “Sonny Boy got all the jobs”)
More importantly he was such a known celebrity among the general public (most of which would probably never come to his gigs but sure bought his sponsor’s flour) that the policemen didn’t interfere with his travel to his gigs.
As early as about 1938 Sonny Boy and Robert Lockwood Jr. were plugging their instruments into car radios and juke boxes to amplify their music so it could be heard by larger crowds. (Remember that their close friend Elmore James was a radio repairman by trade.)
This was six years before Muddy Waters even owned an electric guitar. Robert Jr. told me they made hundreds of dollars each night because they could advertise the gigs on the show and play their innovative form of what would become “electric Chicago blues.”
This Was Not His First Radio Show…
I am sure that KFFA listeners were unaware of and the tight-lipped Sonny Boy didn’t tell them that in about 1938 he had appeared as “Little Boy Blue” on WEBQ, a 50,000-watt clear channel station in Harrisburg Illinois.
…Nor Was It His Last.
When Sonny Boy was away from Helena and KBT, he was “Rice Miller” in Little Rock AR and Monroe LA, “The Talaho Blues Singer” on radio in Greenwood MS and Yazoo City MS for Belzoni-based O. J. Turner’s drug store and still “Little Boy Blue” near the Missouri/Arkansas/Tennessee/Illinois borders.
Outside of the 70-mile broadcasting radius of KFFA Sonny Boy had other successful radio shows 100 miles away (perhaps some also sponsored by King Biscuit Flour).
Sonny Boy Gets Less From Moore
Sonny Boy just could not leave a good deal alone. He was getting paid $12.50 a week for KBT and because of the ability to advertise his gigs making hundreds of dollar many evenings.
Apparently Max Moore and The King Biscuit Entertainers (Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Lockwood Jr.) just couldn’t get along. Moore never gave the preparation of their pay a major priority and Sonny Boy and Robert Jr. just had too much attitude and, in Robert Jr.’s case, dignity to stand for not being treated with respect.
Robert Jr. got a chance to do a Mother’s Best Flour show on KFFA that, frankly, paid better, so, being the responsible person that he was, he gave Moore his notice before leaving. No one had ever given Moore such respect. Still it did not go well.
Sonny Boy was a bit out of control, drinking heavily and losing most of his money and sometimes his band’s money gambling and drinking resulting in Sonny Boy missing some KBT shows.
First he had to deal with John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson showing up at KFFA to demand they stop stealing his name. Rice Miller protested that his name was actually Sonny Boy Williams (pronounced the same as Williamson in the delta). When that didn’t work too well, Sam Anderson, the station owner, was wise enough to give Sonny Boy I his own show on KFFA.
That strategy worked well for everyone except Sonny Boy I. The controversy only made both shows more profitable, Sonny Boy I just didn’t have the chops to keep up with the “new” Sonny Boy and Sonny Boy II was just the better entertainer and harp player than Sonny Boy I who finally left with his harp up his A*%,
Everybody won that time; but when Sonny Boy started missing shows because he was out of town or drunk or hung over, Moore got the judge to start giving him “time not fines.” Moore didn’t worry much about the fines, he could pay then and deduct them from Sonny Boy’s pay; but, Sonny Boy would have to do the time himself.
After some time on the chain gang and being brought into the studio in shackles to do the show, Sonny Boy split town in 1944 as soon as he could. The story is almost literally in the lyrics of “The Goat.”
Max Moore, the entrepreneur
When Sonny Boy checked to see if the “coast was clear” and returned to Helena in 1947, Max Moore of Interstate Grocery Company, enthusiastically introduced Sonny Boy Corn Meal, formed the Delta Network with WROX in Clarksdale MS and promoted “Sonny Boy’s Back.” What he couldn’t seem to do was get along with Sonny Boy.
By 1948 Sonny Boy had moved on to KWEM in West Memphis AR where he gave B. B. King his first paying job and first radio exposure and, by 1956 he was wearing a WDIA pin and showed up on a 1956 WDIA advertisement. (I’m still not sure if he had a show on WDIA.)
One Last Fling On KFFA
In 1952, Max Moore wanted to celebrate King Biscuit Time’s 3000th broadcast. However, he couldn’t find Sonny Boy and had to settle for celebrating the 3115thbroadcast in January of 1953.
A big show was planned at the local theater followed by a sumptuous banquet for King Biscuit employees and distributors at the Country Club. Sonny Boy was, obviously, not invited.
On To Jackson To Record and Chicago To Perform
In the early 1950s he recorded hit singles for Trumpet Records: “Eyesight To The Blind,” “Do It If You Wanna,” the two sided hit “Nine Below Zero”/”Mighty Long Time” and “Dust My Broom” with Elmore James. He began appearing in Chicago with Elmore James and on his own.
In 1956 he joined Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter as the “Mount Rushmore of The Blues” with Chess and Checker Records.
Sonny Boy II regularly appeared as “Sonny Boy Williams” and “Sonny Boy Williamson” (using both names interchangeably as had Sonny Boy I) in Chicago IL, Joliet IN Cleveland OH (where Robert Jr. was living after 1960) and on the road. When he decided to do a tour of the Delta hot spots, he returned to King Biscuit Time and reclaimed his show.
Sonny Boy The Checker Records Star
When his contract was bought by Chess/Checker Records he hit the ground running. “Don’t Start Me To Talkin’” was an immediate hit. It had, at that time been years since even Muddy Waters had had a hit on the R&B charts.
“Keep It To Yourself,” “Fattenin’ Frogs For Snakes,” “Your Funeral and My Trial,” “Born Blind” (Eyesight to the Blind), “So Sad To be Lonesome,” “Help Me” and “Bring It On Home” followed.
American Folk Blues Festival Calls.
“Help Me” was the first Chess or Checker record to be released on both sides of the Atlantic (on Checker in the US and Pye in the UK).
The first Festival was a modest success in 1962. Recruiting for the 1963 Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon recruited an all-star cast of blues superstars: Memphis Slim, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Otis Spann, Big Joe Williams, Lonnie Johnson and Victoria Spivey.