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The Traditional Delta and Country Blues

Sonny Boy Williamson I

Williamson established the blues harmonica as a lead instrument in the urban blues.

John Lee Williamson, b. March 30, 1914 in Jackson, TN, d. June 1, 1948 in Chicago, IL.

John Lee Curtis "Sonny Boy" Williamson was a blues harmonica player, singer and songwriter. He is often regarded as the pioneer of the blues harp as a solo instrument. He played on hundreds of recordings by many pre-World War II blues artists. Under his own name, he was one of the most recorded blues musicians of the 1930s and 1940 and is closely associated with Chicago producer Lester Melrose and Bluebird Records. His popular songs, original or adapted, include "Good Morning, School Girl", "Sugar Mama", "Early in the Morning", and "Stop Breaking Down". Williamson's harmonica style was a great influence on postwar performers. Later in his career he was a mentor to many up-and-coming blues musicians who moved to Chicago, including Muddy Waters. In an attempt to capitalize on Williamson's fame, Aleck "Rice" Miller began recording and performing as Sonny Boy Williamson in the early 1940s, and later, to distinguish the two, John Lee Williamson came to be known as Sonny Boy Williamson I or "the original Sonny Boy".

Williamson was born in Madison County, Tennessee, near Jackson, in 1914. His original recordings are in the country blues style, but he soon demonstrated skill at making harmonica a lead instrument for the blues and popularized it for the first time in a more urban blues setting. He has been called "the father of modern blues harp". While in his teens he joined Yank Rachell and Sleepy John Estes, playing with them in Tennessee and Arkansas. In 1934 he settled in Chicago. Williamson first recorded for Bluebird Records in 1937, and his first recording, "Good Morning, School Girl", became a standard. He was popular among black audiences throughout the southern United States and in midwestern industrial cities, such as Detroit and Chicago, and his name was synonymous with the blues harmonica for the next decade. Other well-known recordings of his include "Sugar Mama Blues", "Shake the Boogie", "You Better Cut That Out", "Sloppy Drunk", "Early in the Morning", "Stop Breaking Down", and "Hoodoo Hoodoo" (also known as "Hoodoo Man Blues"). In 1947, "Shake the Boogie" made number 4 on Billboard's Race Records chart. Williamson's style influenced many blues harmonica performers, including Billy Boy Arnold, Junior Wells, Sonny Terry, Little Walter, and Snooky Pryor. He was the most widely heard and influential blues harmonica player of his generation. His music was also influential on many of his non-harmonica-playing contemporaries and successors, including Muddy Waters (who played guitar with Williamson in the mid-1940s) and Jimmy Rogers (whose first recording in 1946 was as a harmonica player, performing an uncanny imitation of Williamson's style). Rogers later recorded Williamson's songs "My Little Machine" and "Sloppy Drunk" on Chess Records, and Waters recorded "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" in September 1963 for his Chess LP Folk Singer and again in the 1970s when he moved to Johnny Winter's Blue Sky label on CBS. Williamson recorded prolifically both as a bandleader and as a sideman over the course of his career, mainly for Bluebird. Before Bluebird moved to Chicago, where it eventually became part of RCA Records, many early sessions took place at the Leland Tower, a hotel in Aurora, Illinois. The top-floor nightclub at the Leland, known as the Sky Club, was used for live broadcasts of big bands on a local radio station and, during off hours, served as a recording studio for Williamson's early sessions and those of other Bluebird artists.

Williamson's final recording session took place in Chicago in December 1947, backing Big Joe Williams. On June 1, 1948, Williamson was killed in a robbery on Chicago's South Side, as he walked home from a performance at the Plantation Club, at 31st St. and Giles Avenue, a tavern just a block and a half from his home at 3226 S. Giles. Williamson's final words are reported to have been "Lord have mercy". Williamson is buried at the former site of the Blairs Chapel Church, southwest of Jackson, Tennessee. In 1991, a red granite marker was purchased by fans and family to mark the site of his burial. A Tennessee historical marker, also placed in 1991, indicates the place of his birth and describes his influence on blues music. The historical marker is located south of Jackson on Tennessee State Highway 18, at the corner of Caldwell Road.

The recordings made by Williamson between 1937 and his death in 1948 and those made later by Rice Miller were all originally issued under the name Sonny Boy Williamson. It is believed that Miller adopted the name to deceive audiences (and his first record label) into thinking that he was the "original" Sonny Boy. In order to differentiate between the two musicians, many later scholars and biographers have referred to John Lee Williamson (1914–1948) as Sonny Boy Williamson I and Miller (c.1912–1965) as Sonny Boy Williamson II.


Sonny Boy Williamson Biography by Bill Dahl

Easily the most important harmonica player of the prewar era, John Lee Williamson almost single-handedly made the humble mouth organ a worthy lead instrument for blues bands -- leading the way for the amazing innovations of Little Walter and a platoon of others to follow. If not for his tragic murder in 1948 while on his way home from a Chicago gin mill, Williamson would doubtless have been right there alongside them, exploring new and exciting directions.

It can safely be noted that Williamson made the most of his limited time on the planet. Already a harp virtuoso in his teens, the first Sonny Boy (Rice Miller would adopt the same moniker down in the Delta) learned from Hammie Nixon and Noah Lewis and rambled with Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachell before settling in Chicago in 1934.

Williamson's extreme versatility and consistent ingenuity won him a Bluebird recording contract in 1937. Under the direction of the ubiquitous Lester Melrose, Sonny Boy Williamson recorded prolifically for Victor both as a leader and behind others in the vast Melrose stable (including Robert Lee McCoy and Big Joe Williams, who in turn played on some of Williamson's sides).

Williamson commenced his sensational recording career with a resounding bang. His first vocal offering on Bluebird was the seminal "Good Morning School Girl," covered countless times across the decades. That same auspicious date also produced "Sugar Mama Blues" and "Blue Bird Blues," both of them every bit as classic in their own right.

The next year brought more gems, including "Decoration Blues" and "Whiskey Headed Woman Blues." The output of 1939 included "T.B. Blues" and "Tell Me Baby," while Williamson cut "My Little Machine" and "Jivin' the Blues" in 1940. Jimmy Rogers apparently took note of Williamson's "Sloppy Drunk Blues," cut with pianist Blind John Davis and bassist Ransom Knowling in 1941; Rogers adapted the tune in storming fashion for Chess in 1954. The mother lode of 1941 also included "Ground Hog Blues" and "My Black Name," while the popular "Stop Breaking Down" (1945) found the harpist backed by guitarist Tampa Red and pianist Big Maceo.

Sonny Boy cut more than 120 sides in all for RCA from 1937 to 1947, many of them turning up in the postwar repertoires of various Chicago blues giants. His call-and-response style of alternating vocal passages with pungent harmonica blasts was a development of mammoth proportions that would be adopted across the board by virtually every blues harpist to follow in his wake.

But Sonny Boy Williamson wouldn't live to reap any appreciable rewards from his inventions. He died at the age of 34, while at the zenith of his popularity (his romping "Shake That Boogie" was a national R&B hit in 1947 on Victor), from a violent bludgeoning about the head that occurred during a strong-arm robbery on the South Side. "Better Cut That Out," another storming rocker later appropriated by Junior Wells, became a posthumous hit for Williamson in late 1948. It was the very last song he had committed to posterity. Wells was only one young harpist to display his enduring allegiance; a teenaged Billy Boy Arnold had recently summoned up the nerve to knock on his idol's door to ask for lessons. The accommodating Sonny Boy Williamson was only too happy to oblige, a kindness Arnold has never forgotten (nor does he fail to pay tribute to his eternal main man every chance he gets). Such is the lasting legacy of the blues' first great harmonicist.