Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Happy Birthday, Mr. Williamson

How Getty can lay claim to a copyright on this is anyone's guess.

There were two Sonny Boy Williamsons.

That's the first thing you need to know. They were both great harmonica players. They were both interesting, soulfull singers. They were both excellent songwriters, so good, in fact, that their songs are still being sung on stages all over the world, and someone is probably recording one of them right now.

It's confusing.

If you go to the link in the title, you'll find a "Happy Birthday" piece I wrote on one of the Sonny Boys, the one whose name was really Aleck "Rice" Miler- no Williamson in there at all. He lived long enough to see blues embraced by an intellectual white audience and enjoyed fantastic success, mostly in Great Britain and Europe. He died in Mississippi in 1965 and had, by that time, numerous albums out, including a live recording with a very young Eric Clapton.

That's not the Sonny Boy whose birthday it is today.

John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson was born near Jackson, TN in 1914. His early story is similar to almost every rural musician of the time: poor, sharecropping family, began performing as a teenager, etc. He teamed up with Sleepy John Estes (another fine songwriter) and Yank Rachell, an extraordinary blues mandolin player, who went on to record extensively himself later on.

In 1934 he made his way to Chicago where in 1937 he began an extensive recording career, beginning with a song that's played even today: Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl. Along with his road buddy, Big Joe Williams, he recorded a number of sides, some of which were released in Big Joe's name.  The early recordings include Sugar Mama, Black Gal and Early in the Morning, among others. He recorded Robert Johnson's Stop Breaking Down with his own additional lyrics.

As Williamson's fame grew outside of Chicago, Aleck Miller decided to capitalize on the fact that few people knew what Sonny Boy looked like. Like his namesake, Miller was also a harmonica virtuoso who could invoke John Lee's style, although Miller was evidently too individualistic to actually ape it perfectly, something he could  have done, had he cared to. When I say both these guys were great, believe me, I'm not exaggerating.

Physically they were worlds apart. John Lee was short ("... shorter than me!" Junior Wells told me one night.) Rice Miller was about 6' 4". John Lee stuttered, Miller sang smooth. Rice's harmonica style is mostly based on lines, John Lee's later work is very chordal. Both have impeccable time and rhythm.

In Arkansas, where Rice Miller had a daily radio show on KFFA in West Helena, and Mississippi and Tennessee, Rice was encouraged to keep the name. In the north, however, it was a different story. John Lee Williamson was outraged. However, he was  unable to do anything about it. The fact that Rice Miller did not record until after the death of John Lee probably kept any legal efforts at bay. Perhaps, had he recorded, the RCA/ Bluebird people would have interceded on their artist's behalf, but there is no evidence of this ever happening.

Robert Junior Lockwood maintained that John Lee Williamson did travel south to confront his spurrilous namesake, but if so, nothing came of it.

SBW I playing through an Astatic (I'm pretty sure)
Back in Chicago, Sonny Boy I was in huge demand on other people's records and in clubs. Billy Boy Arnold, who idolized him, claimed that John Lee was the first man to amplify the harp with a hand held microphone. Certainly he did amplify it- there's a picture of him holding either an Astatic or a Green Bullet. When I asked Billy Boy if it were true that Snooky Pryor was the first (as is Snooky's claim), he said, "If that's true, why was Snooky there night after night, sitting in the front row with his eyes glued to Sonny Boy?" Why indeed?

Junior Wells told me he learned everything from him. "He was the best," said Junior. "He was the first and best."

Even the greatest of the Chicago blues harmonicists, Little Walter Jacobs, based his first vocal recording for Chess on a Sonny Boy song, Black Gal,  changing the words to "Ba-by".

Williamson was, by all accounts, a loyal husband, married to Lacey Bell, the star of his Bluebird Blues. He was hardworking and personable, accessible to the neighborhood children of whom Billy Boy Arnold was one.

But he was reportedly a mean drunk who liked his liquor. Muddy Waters took a backing gig with him soon after Muddy's arrival in Chicago. Muddy hated it. He claimed that Sonny Boy tried to get out of paying what he owed, and only used him because Muddy had a car. Although it can be endlessly interesting to speculate what the sound of the old Chicago- styled blues may have sounded like mixed in with the burgeoning new style, much like the famous lost recording of Rice Miller with Robert Johnson playing electric guitar (the Holy Grail of rumored sessions lost forever) we'll never know.

John Lee Williamson's final session had him backing Big Joe Williams in December of 1947.

On the night of June 1st, after leaving a gig at the Plantation Club, 31st St. and Giles Ave., John Lee Williamson was mugged and robbed on his way home at 3226 S. Giles, only a block and a half away. He made it to the front door and fell into Lacey Bell's arms. She called an ambulance, but he died shortly afterward. His last words were, "Lord have mercy."

Here's a video of Yank Rachell recalling that night:

Did he really take a cab for a mere block's walk? Yank thinks so.

And what happened to our friend Rice Miller?

After John Lee's death, Rice began recording, as Sonny Boy Williamson, for the Trumpet label in Jackson Mississippi. Trumpet's owner, Lillian McMurry, sold Sonny Boy's contract to Chess Records in Chicago, where he journeyed to make several of the finest blues records ever recorded. Was there a backlash from John Lee's friends, many of whom, Big Bill Broonzy, for instance, were still around?

The answer is no. Nothing happened. Had there not been a blues revival involving anal- compulsive fans, it's possible no one would have known or cared. And even when the old trickster was exposed, no one really flipped out.

Such is the world of blues.

Sunday, March 27, 2011


The Hindu holiday Holi was celebrated Saturday March 19th (the same day the Mardi Gras Indians parade in New Orleans, see: and 20th all over the world, wherever Hindus gather in large numbers.

Holi is the one where everyone throws colors onto everyone else. Colored powders, colored water, whichever. Everyone is fair game and children seem to enjoy it the most.

Once again, I recommend the always- fantastic coverage from the Boston Globe's The Big Picture.

Here are a couple to get your Holi juices flowing.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Happy Birthday, Harry

Today is Harry Houdini's 137th birthday. Of course, Houdini's not here to celebrate it. He died of appendicitis, complicated by a punch in the stomach back in 1926. Halloween Day as a matter of fact.

According to one of the numerous legends that surrounded him, he would attempt to contact his wife, Bess from beyond, if it were possible. He never did.

Oddly enough, no one knew how impossible contact from beyond was more than Houdini. The latter part of his career concentrated on exposing spirit mediums, a trend that reached a peak in popularity after WWI, when so many young men died so quickly. The need for contact had never been so keen, and, apparently, organized religion fell short of assuaging that need.

Houdini, one of the last of the pre- Freudian mother lovers (not literally, of course) fell into an inconsolable funk after his mother died. She lived with him and Bess in their spacious Harlem brownstone (see L by L entry He constantly referred to his mother and his wife as his "two best gals," and there is evidence that Bess was not entirely happy about the relationship, or her place in it.

Houdini wanted to believe he could contact his mother, but the skeptic in him told him otherwise. Whether because of anger, frustration, compassion, ego or the usual combination of all of these, he set out to disprove that communication with the dead was possible. At all. And he pretty much single- handedly derailed what could have amounted to a large cult- ish religion, much to the anger and dismay of its millions of followers worldwide.

Houdini was, from all accounts, at best a mediocre stage magician. Aside from the escapes, which everyone agrees were terrific, his card work and illusions were ill- presented, compared to Kellar or Thurston. He lacked the grace and patter of Tommy Downs, the King of Coins, or the breathless skill of David Devant. What he had was a kind of immigrant bravura, a sense of confidence so huge as to dwarf those around him. 

But it was his crusade to debunk spiritualism that is his most lasting contribution to to the culture of America. This, ultimately, is why Houdini is a truly great man. He risked his life, and his reputation for several years, right up until his premature death, in fact.

By the time Houdini died, he was worn out. He was in terrible condition, battered, scarred and beaten. His escapes had taken a terrible physical toll on hisi once impressive physique. But he was unable to retire; his essence just would not allow it.

Perhaps his death was the best possible for a mythic entertainer like Harry. He didn't die in failure, secrets exposed (although most were common knowledge within the tight- knit magicians' community.) He died on Halloween, at the height of his fame, just as stage magic was on the verge of being replaced by the wonders of talking pictures.

You know, in show biz, timing is everything.

Harry and Bess

Escape from jail. Often these escapes were done nude.

Demonstrating his seance expose methods

A mock fight with Jack Dempsey. Houdini had a genius for promotion.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Vootie: It Never Gets Old

Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis- Today Show Parody- J. Fred takes over and says...

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Happy Birthday, Nat!

Today is Nat "King" Cole's birthday. He' d have been ninety- two, had he not died of cancer in 1965.

Growing up in the 'fifties and 'sixties, I only heard the later, lush, overproduced Nat Cole. It wasn't until 1968 that I heard the great piano trio work, with Oscar Moore on guitar,   that produced "Gee, Baby, Ain't I Good to You" and "Hit That Jive, Jack!" Once I did hear it though, I knew I had heard genius. That smokey voice (three packs of Kools a day!) and that great piano; Oscar Peterson used to say that no one comped behind their own singing as well as Nat, and of course, he was right.

A huge influence on the young Ray Charles, one can hear Nat's voice in Ray's first Swingtime and Atlantic work, songs like "It Should Have Been Me" and "Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand."

He recorded with the unlikely grouping of Les Paul, Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker on a Jazz at the Philharmonic session. Nat and Bird's playing are the undeniable highlight of the concert.

Nat with Frank Sinatra
After his phenomenal cross-over success, Nat contended with terrible racial anger. He was beaten onstage at a show in Birmingham, Alabama, and a cross was burned on the lawn of his Los Angeles home in 1948. His primetime television series was cancelled prematurely due to a lack of sponsorship.

Unfortunately, it was the cancer that did him in, pretty much at the height of his success. He was at the top of his pop game in 1965 when the three- pack- a- day habit caught up with him.

To me, and to my aging hipster pals and cohorts, it will always be the early stuff, the original of "Sweet Lorraine" with that little stutter, the rare version of Mel Torme's "Christmas Song" before Johnny Mercer dubbed in the string section, or even the Cole/ Mercer duet on "Save the Bones for Henry Jones", Danny Barker's sweet novelty song.

In the Studio

A truly unique musical voice in the annals of American music, Cole died on February 15th, 1965 at the age of 42.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Big Picture in Japan

Last night, as my wife and I watched the mind- numbing videos of the destruction of Japan that seem to flow endlessly from CNN, I saw a devastatingly quiet series of still pictures showing people in a shelter looking at the lists posted of the missing, the found, the dead and the living.

And I thought, because I'm a photographer, this is incredible- I could actually take it in- moments, full of humanity, that told me more than the endless repetition of the same awful scenes, where one is shown everything and ultimately nothing.

So, if you are frustrated by the network coverage, and really want to see what's going on in a way that actually communicates what life is like in Japan at this time, please go to The Big Picture.

Incredible pictures, communicating tragedy, frustration, destruction of a way of life and also hope and the resilience of a nation.

A sampling of the photographs published by the Boston Globe on The Big Picture

Don't Eat the Brown Acid: Owsley is dead.

"Bear" with overrated guitarist Jerry Garcia
Seventy- six years old, a virtual recluse in the Australian Bush, he died in a car crash, survived by his wife, who was in the car with him, but not fatally injured.

To those who actually remember the so- called '60's, Augustus Owsley Stanley III, or Owsley as he was known popularly, was the last famous chemist on the planet. He was responsible for the first really clean illegal LSD.

LSD- 25 was invented sometime in 1938 by a Swiss chemist named Albert Hoffman, who worked for Sandoz Chemists in Basil, Switzerland. In 1943, Hoffman took acid and, essentially, liked what he saw, as did writer Aldous Huxley, among others.

Albert Hoffman, inventor of LSD -25
The Army famously experimented with the drug, as did a pair of Harvard professors, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert. Harvard fired Leary and Alpert and the government took a beating on television's 60 Minutes for the experiments.

Owsley learned to synthesize the drug in 1965, and by 1967, it was illegal in this country.

But that, in many ways, is only the beginning of the story.

Owsley's acid became THE drug of the '60's, with terribly mixed results. In many ways it opened the doors to incredible bursts of creativity: Hendrix, the Beatles, R Crumb, Bob Dylan and others changed how we interpreted our own culture here in the West, and Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was written on LSD.

However, the Grateful Dead and other mediocre (to say the least) groups rode the same wave. Peter Green, the gifted guitarist and founder of Fleetwood Mac was dosed by members of the Dead and never really recovered. To a certain type of person, LSD was the gateway to permanent psychosis. And Owsley's version, famously potent, opened up a lot of minds. Some, however, never closed again.

According to the New York Times obituary, Owsley believed that there was going to be a new Ice Age, and so moved to the Australian Bush where he lived out his days.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Tragedy in Japan

Japan's Coastline February 27th, NASA Satellite Image

Japan's Coastline March 11, After the Tsunamai, NASA Satellite Image

The Japanese have a remarkable relationship with the physicality of their country. Their resilience in the face of physical disaster, whether man- made or natural, should be a model of behavior to all of us in the rest of the world.

In the wake of the earthquake and subsequent tidal wave that have killed over a thousand people, the images pouring from the tiny country have been overwhelming. Finally phone cameras are being used for something more than catching fatuous worthless celebrities partaking in fatuous stupid behavior.

Let us give our support to the people of Japan in whatever form we can, whether it's prayer, thoughts, aid or money. Let's keep them in our thoughts as they try to cope with this terrible disaster. Let us hope that the leaders of Japan handle this with much more intelligence and diligence than Washington did when Hurricane Katrina struck. No doubt they will.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Day After

At exactly midnight, Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, police ride through the French Quarter in a ceremonial parade, clearing revelers from alchohol- drenched Bourbon Street.

Clean- up after Mardi Gras is very important: political careers rise and fall over who gets the clean-up contract. Trash collection in AGC is no laughing matter. The issue dogged former mayor Ray Nagin, and delighted the Times- Picayune, who had a field day with it.

Most of these photos are from the Pic, and are taken by Michael DeMocker, one of their fine staff photographers.