Sonny Boy Williamson's music legacy (his intimate involvement in the early history of Rock 'n' Roll and Rhythm and Blues from the '20s to the '50s and '60s America and early 60's England) and the Mississippi delta environment from which he remained tied all his life speak volumes about the political and social climate in which we live today.
His mysterious life story, the under-appreciated significance of Helena Arkansas radio station KFFA's "King Biscuit Time" which featured him and the rich history of the Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana delta are very much relevant to Today's history.
Where do you think former President Bill Clinton (AK), New York Senatorial candidate Hillary Clinton (AK), Speaker of the House Trent Lott (MS), and former Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy came from (MS delta)? Mississippi and Arkansas where Plantation politics rules!
Conway Twitty, Ronnie Hawkins, The Band's Levon Helm and more important bluesmen than you can count were born or grew up within a 50-75 mile radius of King Biscuit Time’s that broadcast to roughly 10% of the nation's African-American (then, Black) population in 1941 when KBT premiered. Mid-day "dinner" (the break between the two eight-hour shifts Black farm workers were expected to work) meant listening to King Biscuit Time and, for the first time, many church-going Blacks and music-loving Whites heard a proud man hold his head high and play music that touched their soul. Sonny Boy became the first Black media star of the South. His music literally gave "Eyesight To The Blind" ("Black is Beautiful" in the 1940s). More importantly for Sonny Boy it made money for their sponsor, King Biscuit flour and later Sonny Boy Corn Meal and the irascible Sonny Boy had the run of the delta -- his sponsor would almost always get him out of jail to do the show and he could advertise his appearances free.
The Delta Blues weren't created just to have a good time; the blues expressed pain that could not be spoken in public, but could be sung in poetry. Hint: His "(I Ain’t) Fattenin' (no more) Frogs For Snakes" was neither about frogs nor snakes, but managers who didn't pay Sonny Boy and women for whom he bought dresses only to see them leave with another man. When word of jobs opening up in auto plants in Detroit, slaughterhouses in Chicago, steel mills in Pittsburgh, and elsewhere, delta Blacks began to migrate to jobs that paid and took the music of Sonny Boy and delta bluemen with them -- and they did it by the millions. The Great Migration of Negroes out of the South was, at the time, the largest peacetime migration of all time. The dimensions of the oppression they were escaping were dramatic. For example, the Mississippi River's levee system, built largely by Black labor, is higher and longer than the Great Wall of China.
This is the original major website representing comprehensive original research on the life and times of Sonny Boy Williamson II (Alex "Rice" Miller). (I have interviewed over 200 of his friends, fans and family.) Some of the most interesting and valuable websites we have consulted in our research are included here. Please send us an e-mail if you come across any others of value. His page also includes a bibliography, which we will expand as other publications come to light, and some more general blues links. ...
DELTA BLUES POETRY: THE STORIES BEHIND SELECTED LYRICS OF SONNY BOY II
Delta blues lyrics are, often, very dense, highly-codified poetry that would empower powerless delta Blacks to sing what they could not dare to say. Delta Whites would often dismiss the simple, country images as folksongs rather than admit the Black (often viewed as unreliable and less than human) could create art. Sonny Boy II's songs express many of these themes and feelings.
Without a doubt, Rice Miller AKA Sonny Boy II, was one of the most original and colorful folk blues poets of all time. While self-centered to a fault (65% of his songs listed on this site begin with I, are a command or are autobiographical), Sonny Boy's images are unique in bluesdom. Who else could come up with such Biblical references to sex as "(She gave)Eyesight To The Blind", "She Gave Life to The Dead," "Unseen Eye" or "The Unseeing Eye?" Always fighting with his woman and then begging to get "The Key (To Your Door)" or telling his woman "(You don't have to call no police; I'm) Gettin' Out Of Town", or, about to be caught by a returning husband, knowing "(There Ain't But) One Way Out" he told his life's story.
Many of his songs were autobiographical. "(I Ain't) Fattenin' (No More) Frogs For Snakes" was allegedly aimed at an employer who didn't pay him. "Pontiac Blues" was about Trumpet Records' Lillian McMurry's new Pontiac which "Miss Lillian" offered him if his wife Mattie could travel with him as his manager (he declined the opportunity). "309" was not only Trumpet's street address on Farish Street in Jackson Mississippi but the song gave out Lillian's home phone number (for obvious reasons, the song went unreleased for years). "West Memphis Blues" talks about a real fire that happened at his home in West Memphis in June of 1949. I know about it; I found the arrest record on Suspicion of Arson (he was exonerated). I strongly suspect "The Goat" was about a personal encounter Sonny Boy had with the law deciding to give him "time" instead of "fines" that Max Moore, Interstate Grocer's owner, paid. Sonny Boy's braying vocal interjections and his goatee make a good case for why he was called "The Signifying Goat." The stories go on forever and many references may never be fully identified.
Certainly "So Sad To Be Alone (So Inconvenien' To Be Lonesome)" is understood by every road warrior among us. "Your Funeral and My Trial" I suspect was written by his wife Mattie, who had the understandable and unavoidable inspiration in front of her. The song sounds like a woman's perspective on their situation. "Mr. Down Child, " on the other hand, is, according to Robert Lockwood Jr., the one unrecorded song left behind by the late lamented Robert Johnson. (Remember the reference to "the 30th song" in the movie "Crossroads?")
Think about it a bit and you can see the personal inspiration of many of Sonny Boy's wonderful songs. Even "Ninety-nine" with its sad "I needed a hundred dollars and he only had but ninety-nine" tells of the cruel excuse of a man who just isn't going to lend money to a Black man. Sonny Payne, host of King Biscuit Time, claims this was the money for Sonny Boy's mother's medical bills that were eventually paid by the local White church members. On the other hand, Millie Miller (Sonny Boy's mother) died before 1930 and Sonny Payne didn't meet Sonny Boy until about 1939 or spend much time with Sonny Boy until the mid-1950s when he got back from the service. Hugh Smith was the King Biscuit Time announcer from 1944-1951.
- Checker Record Lyrics: "Born Blind (Eyesight To The Blind)*", "Fattening Frogs For Snakes", "Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide", "Lonesome Cabin", "Nine Below Zero*", "Ninety-Nine", "Santa Claus", "Temperature 110", "The Key (To Your Door)", "Help Me", and "Your Funeral And My Trial"
- More Checker Record Lyrics: "Cross My Heart*", "All My Love In Vain", "Cool Disposition", "Checkin' Up On My Baby", "Don't Lose Your Eye", "Don't Start Me To Talkin'", "Down Child*", "I Don't Know", and "Keep It To Yourself*"
- *Checker Records re-recordings of Trumpet Record originals
SONNY BOY'S FELLOW MISSISSIPPI DELTA BLUES LEGENDS (Stories of how they related to Rice Miller's life and times based on my research.)
"Robert Jr." as his stepfather Robert Johnson and other bluesmen referred to him or "Robert Lockwood Jr.," as he prefers to be known, is a living legend. A charter member of Blues University's "Class of 1915" (born March 27, 1915 in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, he grew up in nearby Helena. He first learned to play music on a church organ but turned to the guitar in 1929 when the legendary Robert Johnson followed his mother home and personally taught a quick-minded Robert Jr. to play guitar. In 1931 Robert Johnson brought home a tall man whose slouch bore a strong resemblance to a buzzard. That man was calling himself "W. M." and confided in Robert Jr. that he had escaped from jail. (The "W. M." stood for Willie Miller, the name Alex "Rice" Miller adopted to hide his escaped convict status.) During the 1930s as Robert Jr. was old enough to make forays into the Mississippi juke joints (much to the distress of Robert Jr.'s mother). By the late 1930s both Miller and Lockwood were playing amplified (almost a decade before Muddy Waters bands in Chicago) instruments. In 1941, the got "the gig of a lifetime," a show called "King Biscuit Time" on KFFA radio in Helena. While it was barely heard as far away as Clarksdale until WROX was added to the network in the late 1940s, it was probably the first time that many church-going blacks and whites ever heard the blues. It sold carloads of biscuit flour. Robert Jr. left Helena in 1943 to return to Chicago (where he recorded in 1940) where he would be reunited with Sonny Boy in 1956 when Sonny Boy joined the Chess/Checker Records roster where Robert Jr. lead the studio band. They remained friends for life. In fact, it was Robert Jr. who recommended Sonny Boy go to Europe to perform where he blossomed. March 27, 2000, Robert Jr. celebrated his 85th birthday playing some of the greatest blues of his life garnering Grammy nominations, an armful of W. C. Handy awards, best-selling records and a busy schedule of personal appearances including a weekly gig in Cleveland OH where he lives. He gets better daily. Don't miss his latest Telarc recording "Delta Crossroads." In my opinion, it is career peak until his next
October 12, 1999, Helena Arkansas -- Sad News -- Frank Frost, blues harp player, singer and from 1956-59, Sonny Boy's guitar player, who had been in poor health for several years, finally was taken from us by cancer. His last performance was October 8 at the 14th annual King Biscuit Blues Festival where he borrowed a harp from Arthur Williams (with whom he had recorded for Elvis' guitarist Scotty Moore) and played his last blues as his close friend and drummer Sam Carr shed a tear for him. Frank, who I considered a good friend after interviewing him in depth on four occasions was the successor to Sonny Boy's "Harp King of Helena" title and had served as Sonny Boy's guitarist from 1956-1959 along side of Sam Carr son of Robert Nighthawk. He lived in poverty on a street in Helena named for him. He will be missed by hundreds of thousands of King Biscuit Time and Blues Festival fans who had come to love him.
As a young boy, Cotton was inspired to play the blues harp by, first, his mother and, second as were many important bluesmen, by listening to Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) on KFFA's "King Biscuit Time" show. In 1946, at the age of nine, Cotton's uncle took the orphaned Cotton to meet Sonny Boy in Helena. On hearing him play the King Biscuit Time Theme back to him, Sonny essentially said "You can stay!" and stay he did, living with various members of Sonny Boy's band for the next six years until Sonny Boy went North to follow his wife Mattie to Milwaukee in 1949 after his West Memphis home burned down. Soon afterward, Muddy Waters invited Cotton to replace Junior Wells in his band in Chicago. On arrival, Muddy gave Cotton a chromatic harp (the one with the plunger) and all traces of Sonny Boy's diatonic harp style disappeared as Muddy wanted Cotton to fill Little Walter's harp style as Little Walter continued to record but not appear with Muddy. Check out this fine official James Cotton website.
GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN Bobby Rush played harp and Dorothy ("Misty Blue") Moore sang at Lillian McMurry's funeral in Jackson MS. March 18, 1999, Jackson MS.Lillian McMurry, co-founder of Trumpet Records and first to record bluesmen Sonny Boy Williamson and Elmore James and the brilliant gospel group, The Southern Sons, died last night of a massive heart attack. A member of the NAIRD and Blues Halls of Fame, she is remembered as a woman whose love of Black blues and gospel music was unending. Riding in her car, she surprised me by spontaneously singing the blues apparently unaware she was doing so. For the 44 years since she ceased business she has battled, without pay, to recover her artists' royalties. She even beat the likes of the Chess brothers. Her legacy lives on in classic recordings like Elmore James' "Dust My Broom"; Sonny Boy Williamson's "Eyesight To The Blind," "Mighty Long Time" (her favorite), "Pontiac Blues," "Nine Below Zero," "Too Close Together" and"Mr. Down Child." She was first to record the gospel classic "Peace In The Valley" by the Southern Sons. She was a one of a kind woman and, in recent years, my close friend. We will all miss her greatly.
They say there's six degrees of separation between everyone on the earth. In 1941, shortly after Muddy was recording acoustic with an old fashioned fiddle for the Library of Congress, Sonny Boy was on the radio with and amplified blues harp and the electric guitar pioneer Robert Lockwood Jr., making money. In fact, Muddy told people that he left the delta in 1943 because he just couldn't get a gig when Sonny Boy was in town. While Muddy recorded many Robert Johnson-influenced songs (although he admitted he was not sure he saw him play, at not least up close) Sonny Boy knew Robert Johnson very well, allegedly having met him in 1929 and playing with him off and on up until probably the night of Robert's poisoning. Certainly Robert Lockwood Jr. (AKA "Robert Jr.", Robert Johnson's stepson and Sonny Boy's closest friend, remembered when Robert Johnson brought Sonny Boy home with him in 1931. Muddy may have guested on King Biscuit Time or another show on KFFA. The continuing connection between Muddy and Robert Johnson was that "Robert Jr." kept encouraging Muddy to record Johnson's songs. Muddy even recorded Robert Jr.'s "Mean Black Spider" as "Mean Red Spider" -- twice. Francis Clay, who played drums for Muddy at Newport, reports that Sonny Boy would come to a Muddy Waters gig, be invited to sit in and abruptly dismiss Muddy, Cotton, Jimmy Rodgers and the rest of the band and jam one-on-one with just Clay on drums. You had to be Sonny Boy to get away with that! If you throw out the Robert Johnson re-writes, the Willie Dixon tunes, and Ann Cole's "Mojo" and other covers from Muddy's repertoire, you can appreciate how prolific, original and artistic Sonny Boy was. IMHO Muddy's genius was his vocal delivery, guitar sound and luck to outlive his peers. But he WAS one mighty, mighty man.
Click on "Bluesman" on this excellent website and then "Walter Shakey Horton." Legend has it (or at least according to Johnny Shines and Big Walter Horton himself) that Rice Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson II) took a few early lessons from Big Walter. Walter claimed he taught him his style and then Big Walter changed his personal style so they couldn't confuse them. They certainly were around the Mississippi delta in general and Helena Arkansas at the same time in the 1930s and 1940s. Enjoy this excellent Italian website with the best-written extensive biographical research on Big Walter I have seen. Another fine profile of the impact of
Big Walter Hortonis found on his Cascade Blues Society pages.
B. B. King got his first radio exposure and his first paying gig on the same day in 1950 from Sonny Boy. He had heard Sonny Boy on the radio at "dinner" when he was working as a tractor driver in Itta Bena Mississippi. As KFFA would not have broadcast that far, it must have been during the late 1940s when KFFA and WROX in Clarksdale formed the Delta Broadcasting Network for a few years. He told me he felt he knew Sonny Boy like he feels he knows Bob Barker of "The Price Is Right" today on TV. He visited him at the studios of KWEM in West Memphis Arkansas and requested to play on the show. Sonny Boy auditioned Riley King and, liking what he heard, invited him to play on that show that day. As "fate" would have it Sonny Boy had booked two gigs that night, so he called Miss Annie at the 16th Street Grill in West Memphis, Arkansas and asked if she had heard Mr. King. She said, "Yes" and Sonny Boy told her he was going to send him down to the restaurant that very night. When told he would be paid the princely sum of $12.50 a night if he got a radio show like Sonny boy's, he immediately walked through the rain to WDIA and applied for a job at this station with a new all-Black programming policy. He got the WDIA job and they named him "Beale Street Blues Boy" or "B. B." for short and the rest is history.
Robert Johnson apparently first met Rice Miller about 1929. Robert Jr. first met Rice Miller in 1931 when Robert Johnson introduced him to as "W. M." [apparently for "Willie Miller"]. On Saturday night, August 13, 1938, according to Honeyboy Edwards, Sonny Boy was playing at the Three Corners country store outside of Greenwood Mississippi when Robert Johnson was poisoned. Honeyboy left on Tuesday before Robert Johnson died. Sonny Boy Williamson told Neil Slaven in his first interview with Sonny Boy in England that "Robert Johnson died in my arms." Every interview (Honeyboy Edwards, Houston Stackhouse, Johnny Shines, Robert Lockwood Jr., and others) quotes Sonny Boy as the source of the news that Robert Johnson had died.
Chester Burnett AKA "The Howlin' Wolf" started playing guitar about 1928. Apparently, soon after, Sonny Boy Williamson (Alex “Rice” Miller) taught Wolf to play blues harp. These harmonica lessons were obtained during times when, in Wolf's words "Sonny Boy was kissin' on my half-sister Mary." The two, for a time, were brothers-in-law. Not unexpectedly, no wedding certificate has yet turned up. An unpublished wedding photo doe exist [I have it]. "Mary" [her full name unknown] certainly has Wolf's eyes and mouth. The family resemblance is amazing. It is even possible, according to Rice, himself, that she and Rice had two sons and at least five grandchildren. Wolf would play the harp like Sonny Boy and Sonny Boy would imitate Wolf's raspy voice and "crawling on the floor" act. Wolf would later be filmed at Newport showing off doing Sonny Boy's minstrel show (Rabbit's Foots Minstrels) trick of playing the harmonica, no-hands, held in his mouth like a cigar. Wolf did not start his recording career until the early 1950s when he was recorded by Sam Phillips at the Memphis Recording Studios in Memphis. Phillips, at no small risk leased the sides to the highly competitive Bihari brothers of Los Angeles (RPM, Modern, and Flair records) and the Chess brothers of Chicago (Chess, Checker and Argo records). Phillips would often describe Wolf, not Elvis, was his greatest discovery. He would also describe Wolf's voice as coming from "where the soul of man never dies."
If you can close your eyes and listen to that amazing fills and loping guitar lines of Howlin' Wolf's "Howlin' For My Darlin'," "Wang Dang Doodle." and The Red Rooster," you know the sound Hubert Sumlin. You heard a lot of Hubert in dozens of great guitarists (he spent a lot of time in Austin TX with a young Stevie Ray Vaughn) but only Hubert is Hubert. Once a young Hubert Sumlin was added to Wolf's band, the classic Wolf sound was complete. Hubert, however, was no one trick pony. While in Europe with Wolf and Sonny Boy in 1964, he showed his jazz chops, especially on the rare performance film, "The Blues Came Walkin'" with Sunnyland Slim and Willie Dixon joining Hubert and Sonny Boy on a Basie-style "Gettin' Out Of Town" which evolves into Ellington's "C-Jam Blues."
Robert Nighthawk was both a Pre-War (born Robert McCollum and recording primarily as "Robert Lee McCoy") and Post-War (as "Robert Nighthawk") blues singer and slide guitarist. His chilling and charismatic appearance in the Mike Bloomfield Maxwell Street documentary "And This Is Free" (on audio as "Robert Nighthawk Live on Maxwell Street" is classic Chicago street corner ("electric cord out the window") blues. His rendition of "I'm Gonna Murder My Baby," cover of Doctor Clayton's "Cheating And Lying Blues" is, to say the least, "killer." Born in Helena Arkansas and part of the Depression era delta blues scene, he was the stepfather of W. C. Handy award winning drummer Sam Carr who backed Sonny Boy in the delta from 1957 to 1959 and was, with Big Jack Johnson and Frank Frost, the Jelly Roll Kings. Robert Nighthawk was the immediate successor to Sonny Boy on King Biscuit Time after Sonny Boy's death in 1965. He learned guitar from sometime King Biscuit Entertainer Houston Stackhouse who, in turn, learned from delta legend Tommy Johnson.
Young Alex "Rice" Miller's musical influences on harmonica ("French [blues] harp") had to include Noah Lewis of Cannon's Jug Stompers. Lewis was a regular traveler around the Mississippi delta and Memphis in the late 1920s and early 1930s and was known to do harp tricks like playing two harps at once, one with his mouth and one with his nose. Other prospects for possible influences include Jazz Gillum and, for his dapper dressing style, Robert Lockwood Jr., his friend and associate who he first met in 1931.