It’s a sad fact that with the recent death of Dave ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards, the genre of music called ‘the Blues’ lost someone who was probably our last link with the people who have made the music what it is today and enriched its legacy out of all proportion to its humble beginnings.
Honeyboy was the last of the Delta bluesmen – as far as we know – and he actually knew and played with people like Robert Johnson. In fact, he stated that he was actually with Johnson when he drank the poisoned whiskey that allegedly killed him.
Having said all that, the world of the itinerant black blues musician in the 1930s and 1940s was so badly recorded (indeed, why would anyone grasp the significance of musical events at this time and preserve it for posterity?) that rumour, speculation and even lies have often obscured the real version of events.
What we’re left with is a mish-mash of anecdotal histories and biographies that both fascinates and frustrates.
Take a blues great like Elmore James, for example.
James was a seminal figure in the Blues, with his trademark slide riffs, his poetic lyrics and his frail but commanding voice. He cut dozens upon dozens of sides for a multitude of record labels – often recording the same songs or slightly adapted versions – and learned his craft in the company of Johnson and other Delta notables of the 1930s and 40s.
However, dig just a little deeper and an interview with his elder cousin ‘Homesick’ James casts some doubt on how much kudos Elmore should really have. Homesick claims that he taught his younger cousin how to play slide, that he either co-wrote or wrote classic Elmore James songs like ‘Dust my Broom’ and played as much, if not more slide as Elmore on record and at gigs.
Quite how much Homesick is to be believed is hard to say. There are obvious financial incentives to be economical with the truth, and no-one ever wrote down what actually went on at the time.
Thus, we’re left with stories that may or may not be true but can never be verified.
And that’s part of the pleasure I get from early blues music and the study of its proponents.
It’s a sort of mythology and as long as you’re content to accept that much of it has little basis in truth then it’s as fascinating, in its way, as any Greek or Roman tale of heroism and divine machination.
One of the most interesting characters in blues history – and one who epitomises everything I find engrossing about it – is Sonny Boy Williamson.
To be exact, Sonny Boy Williamson II.
Actually, to be even more exact, Aleck or Alex or Willie Rice Miller or Ford.
(When I say exact, I mean as exact as Sonny Boy II wanted to be about himself…)
He was also known variously as Sonny Boy Williams, Willie Williamson, Willie Miller, Little Boy Blue, The Goat and Footsie, but that’s another whole shitload of stories that’ll have to keep for another time…
However, I hear you ask, if Aleck was known as Sonny Boy Williamson II, was there a Sonny Boy Williamson I?
To which I can truthfully reply, yes there certainly fucking was.
Sonny Boy the First was actually born John Lee Curtis Williamson in 1914, dying in 1948.
Like Sonny Boy II, Sonny Boy I was a harmonica player and singer who pioneered the instrument as a solo player, had a great deal of success with his many recordings and kept such illustrious company as Muddy Waters throughout his relatively short professional life.
So, Sonny Boy I and II were both significant harp players and singers, but they weren’t even remotely related.
Why then did Sonny Boy II ‘borrow’ Sonny Boy I’s stage name?
Well, if you thought “money”, then you’ve guessed the reason.
As this very informative article puts it:
By the early ’40s, he was the star of KFFA`s King Biscuit Time, the first live blues radio show to hit the American airwaves. As one of the major ruses to occur in blues history, his sponsor-the Interstate Grocery Company-felt they could push more sacks of their King Biscuit Flour with Miller posing as Chicago harmonica star John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson.
It was a rather clumsy deception, but it obviously worked as the name stuck with Miller and there don’t seem to have been any lawsuits. Although the Insterstate Grocery Company didn’t actually pay him much, they allowed him to plug his gigs on air and this helped push up his earnings by getting bigger crowds to see him.
Indeed, such ruses involving aliases and stage names weren’t uncommon, with such luminaries as the late, great John Lee Hooker recording for different record companies under a variety of names early on in his career.
As well as his own name, he recorded under the names of Texas Slim, Delta John, Birmingham Sam and his Magic Guitar, Johnny Williams, The Boogie Man, Johnny Lee (getting slightly less imaginative now), John Lee, and even John Lee Booker and John Lee Cooker.
The latter two names must have taken fucking ages to think up…
Anyway, to his grave, Sonny Boy II dubbed himself the ‘real Sonny Boy Williamson’, in spite of appropriating Sonny Boy I’s stage name whilst #1 was at the height of his career.
It probably helped both men that Sonny Boy #2 didn’t start recording until long after #1 was dead and buried, although his recording career didn’t exactly set the world alight. In fact, somewhat ironically, it wasn’t until his contract was sold on to Checker Records – a subsidiary of the famous Chess Records Company – because he was so difficult to work with that he started to get blues chart success.
Recording with the likes of Willie Dixon and Robert Lockwood Jr, Sonny Boy II wrote and released many songs which have become blues standards – all marked by witty, sometimes desolate lyrics, a quavering baritone and sharp piercing harp lines. Notable successes include ‘Eyesight to the Blind’, ‘Help Me’, ‘Checkin’ up on my Baby’, Nine Below Zero’, ‘Don’t Start me to Talkin’’ and ‘Bring it on Home’, the latter covered by Led Zeppelin on their second album, but attributed to Page and Plant…
Sonny Boy II was a real showman. He’d play with the harp inside his mouth and up his nose.
Here he is from the early 1960s:
He spent a lot of time in Europe towards the end of his career and acquired a rather eccentric image for which he sported a chequerboard suit, a bowler hat, a furled umbrella and a briefcase which held his harps and a bottle of whiskey.
And yes, Sonny Boy #2 liked a drink…in fact, as well as being a drinker he was a gambler, conman, brawler (wiry, but 6 feet tall and often armed with a blade) and ladies man, with a wicked sense of humour,
He was backed by some of the early UK beat groups when he toured the country and dubbed the Animals the ‘Mammimals’ and, with reference to the Yardbirds, he had this to say:
“These British want to play the blues so bad…and they play the blues so bad!”
He died in 1965 soon after he returned to the US, but even his gravestone is somewhat ambivalent – not about his name, but about the year of his birth. Although it states 1908, Sonny Boy #2 claimed it was 1899, although census evidence suggests it was 1912.
If it was 1912, then 53 years of hard living had certainly taken their toll!
However, amongst all the hard living, subterfuge and other roguish antics, Sonny Boy II was generous when it came to helping his fellow players. He mentored a young Howlin’ Wolf – who seems to have been his brother-in-law – and also helped spread the word about a guitarist and singer who went on to be known as BB King.
So, Sonny Boy II was many things throughout his life, but his constant was his music.
As usual, to conclude this post by letting the music do the talking, here’s Aleck, Rice, Sonny Boy II, whoever he was, with one of his classic compositions.
Just him and his harp…
Filed under: Bizarre, Entertainment, Music, Personal heroes, Stuff which makes me happy | Tagged: Aleck Rice Miller, BB King, blues, Chess Records, Elmore James, harmonica, harp, Homesick James, Honeyboy Edwards, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Wil;liamson II, Sonny Boy Williamson I, the Animals, the Yardbirds | 5 Comments »