Saturday, December 4, 2010

Happy Birthday (Maybe) Sonny Boy Williamson II: 5 December 1912

Toward the end, in his custom- tailored suit
Amazingly, we blues fans probably have more information on the elusive and quasi- supernatural Robert Johnson than we do on his one- time running partner, Sonny Boy Williamson II. Not the fine Tennessee- born harmonica player/ singer John Lee Williamson, but the many- named harmonica player/ singer Rice Miller. Known in didactic circles as Sonny Boy Williamson II, he was probably named Alec Ford at birth, which, in typical blues fashion, may have taken place in 1899, 1908, or, according to scholar Dr. David Evans, 1912. Most sources agree on December 5th, but his gravesite has a date of March 11th.

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
Miller's story is the history of modern blues- from the plantations of the south in the early part of the century, to the Chess studios in Chicago in the 1960's, from KFFA in Arkansas to a Swedish radio station, from juke joints and street corners in Mississippi to private parties in Germany, he took it all in stride. He once claimed that he could be broke in a strange town at dawn and full of liquor and money by nightfall, as long as he had his harmonica.

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


SueWho said...

Have you ever considered writing a book about these old blues guys? It would be a really good book I think.

Bret Littlehales said...

That's sweet of you to say.

Unknown said...

Nice job Bret. I tend to believe the 1899 year that he claimed. Hard to believe he was in his early 50's.

I visited his grave a few years back...kind of out in the middle of nowhere in the woods, through a path in some high grass next to some houses.

There is a great live performance from 1963 at from the Amercian Folk Blues Festival tour. It's not on any CD that I know of, but has Sonny Boy at a small club called Jazz House in Wiesbaden, Germany with Memphis Slim and Matt Murphy. It sounds like Sonny Boy is playing through an amp, but may have been the vocal mike through an old tube PA.

Bret Littlehales said...

Tom, he remains an enigma shrouded in mystery. :)

Barry P Beckett said...

It's hard to beleive that the loping old man that I idolised and who spoke to me at the Marquee and the Intrepid Fox pub in london 1964 was only 52 according to your birth date for him. He was a trickster with the facts probably because he didn't really know anyway, 1899, 1908, 2012?? I remember him as a man in his sixties, a grey, laconic force of history for us blues struck kids of 60's London.