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.

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