|Toward the end, in his custom- tailored suit|
Apparently, the least accurate source was Sonny Boy himself, who loved to play fast and loose with the facts.
He claimed to have made a recording with Robert Johnson playing electric guitar that never ever surfaced.
He claimed to have tried to warn Robert not to drink the poison liquor that fateful night on the Money Road outside of Greenwood. Johnson died weeks afterward of pneumonia as he tried to recover from the poisoning.
He claimed to have been the artist who recorded under the name Sonny Boy Williamson for RCA Bluebird. When that didn't work, he claimed that he had the name first and that the other Sonny Boy copied him.
While these last claims are definitely not correct, who is to say the others aren't? What connoisseur would not give anything for an acetate of Rice Miller and Robert Johnson?
His sly, sparse style of playing enabled him to record with artists as diverse as B. B. King, Eric Clapton, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, British jazzman Chris Barber (on a Duke Ellington song, no less) and the Animals. And on all these, he is the leader!
Not to say he wasn't a gifted accompanist. His playing on Elmore James' original of Dust My Broom is, well, perfect. His playing with Muddy Waters on the American Folk Blues recording is, well... interesting. Recordings behind Baby Boy Warren in Detroit, Tampa Red in Chicago and Memphis Slim in Paris are wonderful.
He was also one of the truly great blues songwriters. His lyrics reflect his "trickster monkey" sensibilities- his baby needs a hundred dollars but he only has ninety- nine, or if you cross your heart, you're not supposed to tell a lie, and if you say wrong or do wrong, then it's so long and even... goodbye. His woman can bring eyesight to the blind (and cure the dying. What a woman!) The car radio in his Pontiac picks up that great music from the north. All this punctuated by that remarkably distinctive harmonica and mellow singing.
|With Robert Lockwood, Jr. at the KFFA Studios|
Archival footage shows him leaving an airplane in Europe, loping (there's no other word for it) into the airport. Unlike Little Walter, he loved Europe and especially Great Britain, where he made several recordings that introduced him to white audiences around the world, most notably his live session with the Yardbirds, a young Eric Clapton holding down the guitar chores. While in London he had an incredible suit made by bespoke tailors on Saville Row: of his own design, it was made from two different colors of material. He wore it back to West Helena, where his old friends refused to believe he'd been anywhere like Europe.
That's when he came back, after the final European tour. He said, "We're like elephants, we have to come home to die." Levon Helm remembers him spitting blood into a coffee can during a jam session.
He died of a heart attack on May 25th, 1965. Fortunately, he was able to feast on his success prior to his death, unlike Robert Nighthawk, or Elmore James.
There's a story from his time in London: coming back from a gig with Paul Oliver at dawn, Sonny Boy asked to be let out at Picadilly Circus. Oliver's last glimpse of him that day was harlequin- suited Sonny Boy loping down Broad Street, blowing his harmonica, coattails flapping in the dawn breeze. The trickster god at leisure.
|Glory Days, as Little Boy Blue|