The two are easy to distinguish. Williamson I played the harmonica acoustically and was essentially a pre-War artist. Williamson II was entirely an electrified harpist, in the style of Little Walter, reflecting the advent of the jukebox and electrified instruments following World War II.
(Compare the albums Sonny Boy Williamson I ~~ Sonny Boy Williamson II)
Sonny Boy Williamson I (30 March 1914 - 1 June 1948)
also known as John Lee Curtis Williamson, was an American blues harmonica player, born in Jackson, Tennessee, whose first record Good Morning Little School Girl was a hit in 1937. He was widely popular throughout the whole southeast of the U.S., and was practically synonymous with the blues harmonica for the next decade, making his a commonly used stage name by the time he was murdered in 1948. He is buried at the Old Blairs Chapel Church, south west of Jackson, Tennessee.
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Sonny Boy Williamson II (11 March 1908 - 25 May 1965) also known as Willie Williamson, willie miller, Little Boy Blue, The Goat and Footsie.
Aleck “Rice” Miller was an American blues harmonica player, singer and songwriter.
Born as Aleck Ford to Millie Ford on the Sara Jones Plantation in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, his date and year of birth are a matter of uncertainty. He claimed to have been born on December 5, 1899, but one researcher, David Evans, claims to have found census record evidence that he was born around 1912. His gravestone lists his date of birth as March 11, 1908.
He lived and worked with his sharecropper stepfather, Jim Miller, whose last name he soon adopted, and mother, Millie Ford, until the early 1930s. Beginning in the 1930s, he traveled around Mississippi and Arkansas and encountered Big Joe Williams, Elmore James and Robert Lockwood, Jr., also known as Robert Junior Lockwood, who would play guitar on his later Checker Records sides. He was also associated with Robert Johnson during this period. Miller developed his style and raffish stage persona during these years. Willie Dixon recalled seeing Lockwood and Miller playing for tips in Greenville, Mississippi in the 1930s. He entertained audiences with novelties such inserting one end of the harmonica into his mouth and playing with no hands.
In 1941 Miller was hired to play the King Biscuit Time show, advertising the King Biscuit brand of baking flour on radio station KFFA in Helena, Arkansas with Lockwood. It was at this point that the radio program’s sponsor, Max Moore, began billing Miller as Sonny Boy Williamson, apparently in an attempt to capitalize on the fame of the well known Chicago-based harmonica player and singer John Lee Williamson (Sonny Boy Williamson I). Although John Lee Williamson was a major blues star who had already released dozens of successful and widely influential records under the name “Sonny Boy Williamson” from 1937 onward, Aleck Miller would later claim to have been the first to use the name, and some blues scholars believe that Miller’s assertion he was born in 1899 was a ruse to convince audiences he was old enough to have used the name before John Lee Williamson, who was born in 1914 (this is made somewhat less likely, however, by the fact that Miller was certainly older than Williamson even if one does not accept the 1899 birthdate.) Whatever the methodology, Miller became commonly known as “Sonny Boy Williamson”, and Lockwood and the rest of his band were billed as the King Biscuit Boys.
In 1949 he relocated to West Memphis, Arkansas and lived with his sister and her husband, Howlin’ Wolf (later, for Checker Records, he did a parody of Howlin’ Wolf entitled “Like Wolf”). Sonny Boy started his own KWEM radio show from 1948 to 1950 selling the elixir Hadacol.
Sonny Boy also brought his King Biscuit musician friends to West Memphis: Elmore James, Houston Stackhouse, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Robert Nighthawk and others, to perform on KWEM Radio.
In the 1940s Williamson married Mattie Gordon, who remained his wife until his death.
Williamson’s first recording session took place in 1951 for Lillian McMurry of Jackson, Mississippi’s Trumpet Records (three years after the death of John Lee Williamson, which for the first time allowed some legitimacy to Miller’s carefully worded claim to being “the one and only Sonny Boy Williamson”). McMurry later erected Williamson’s headstone, near Tutwiler, Mississippi, in 1977.
When Trumpet went bankrupt in 1955, Sonny Boy’s recording contract was yielded to its creditors, who sold it to Chess Records in Chicago, Illinois. Sonny Boy had begun developing a following in Chicago beginning in 1953, when he appeared there as a member of Elmore James’s band. It was during his Chess years that he enjoyed his greatest success and acclaim, recording about 70 songs for Chess subsidiary Checker Records from 1955 to 1964.
In the early 1960s he toured Europe several times during the height of the British blues craze, recording with The Yardbirds and The Animals, and appearing on several TV broadcasts throughout Europe. According to the Led Zeppelin biography ‘Hammer of the Gods’, while in England Sonny Boy set his hotel room on fire while trying to cook a rabbit in a coffee percolator. Robert Palmer’s “Deep Blues” mentions that during this tour he allegedly stabbed a man during a street fight and left the country abruptly.
Sonny Boy took a liking to the European fans, and while there had a custom-made, two-tone suit tailored personally for him, along with a bowler hat, matching umbrella, and an attaché case for his harmonicas. He appears credited as “Big Skol” on Roland Kirk’s live album ‘Kirk in Copenhagen’ (1963). One of his final recordings from England, in 1964, featured him singing “I’m Trying To Make London My Home” with Hubert Sumlin providing the guitar. Due to his many years of relating convoluted, highly fictionalized accounts of his life to friends and family, upon his return to the Delta, some expressed disbelief upon hearing of Sonny Boy’s touring across the Atlantic, visiting Europe, seeing the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, and other landmarks, and recording there.
Upon his return to the U.S., he resumed playing the King Biscuit Time show on KFFA, and performed around Helena, Arkansas. As fellow musicians Houston Stackhouse and Peck Curtis waited at the KFFA studios for Williamson on May 25, 1965, the 12:15 broadcast time was closing in and Sonny Boy was nowhere in sight. Peck left the radio station and headed out to locate Williamson, and discovered his body in bed at the rooming house where he’d been staying, dead of an apparent heart attack suffered in his sleep the night before.
Williamson is buried on New Africa Rd. just outside Tutwiler, Mississippi at the site of the former Whitman Chapel cemetery.
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Edited by headey on 15 Jul 2012, 19:15
Sources (view history)
Godrich and Dixon, “Blues and Gospel Records, 1890-1943”
Liner notes from various reissue LPs (Origin Jazz Library among others)
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