Kevin Winter, Getty Images T.I. and Lil Wayne are teaming up once again, only this…
- Posted on Jul 20th 2007 5:00PM by Gaylord Fields
The story begins with a musician and vocalist named John Lee Williamson, who was born in Tennessee in 1914. Adopting the stage name "Sonny Boy Williamson," he enjoyed a prolific career as a recording artist, appearing on dozens of 78s in the '30s and '40s featuring his highly distinctive harmonica style. His melodic innovations as well as his pioneering of the harmonica as a lead instrument earned him the title "father of the modern blues harp." The now Chicago-based Williamson's signature song, 1937's 'Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl,' was to become a blues staple and is still performed by countless artists to this day.
Williamson's status as the foremost blues harp player naturally gave birth to a host of imitators, including a fellow from somewhere in the Mississippi Delta named Aleck "Rice" Miller who took it perhaps one step too far. For his broadcasts on the Helena, Arkansas, radio station KFFA's 'King Biscuit Time' program in the early 1940s, Miller began calling himself "Sonny Boy Williamson," with the urging of his radio sponsor and much to the annoyance of the genuine article. The fortunes of the innovator and the imitator (as well as their identities) would be greatly affected by the events of June 1, 1948, when John Lee Williamson was the victim of a murder as a result of a brutal mugging in Chicago. This left the field clear for the man distinguished retroactively as Sonny Boy Williamson II (pictured above) to assume his musical forebear's mantle as well as his identity.
The man formerly known as Rice Miller, by the time of his first recordings in 1951, began billing himself as "the one and only Sonny Boy Williamson" (technically true, considering the original had been dead for three years). He also claimed a birth year of 1899 to bolster his inference that he was established long before Sonny Boy I, though evidence subsequently uncovered points to him being a much younger man. The grand deception perpetrated by Rice Miller/Sonny Boy II would have been considered criminal and blasphemous by blues fans but for one fact: The ersatz Williamson was, at the very least, as talented, innovative and important a singer, songwriter and blues harpist in in own right as Sonny Boy the First, with most blues aficionados ranking Sonny Boy II ahead.
Throughout the mid-'50s and early '60s, Sonny Boy Williamson II was one of the leading lights of the Chess Records blues stable; such essential sides as 'Eyesight to the Blind,' 'Don't Start Me to Talkin',' ' Your Funeral and My Trial,' 'Fattening Frogs for Snakes' and 'Nine Below Zero' are just a sample of the bluesman's incomparable output. His influence even reached across the Atlantic to the mid-'60s British blues boom, where he recorded with fawning disciples such as the Animals and the Yardbirds shortly before he passed away in his sleep at his Arkansas home in 1965 at age 65, 57 or 53, depending on who you believe.
So please refrain from judging Mr. Aleck Rice Miller Sonny Boy Williamson Number Two too harshly for his identity transgression: His deception may have gotten him through the door, but his musical gifts placed him among the roll call of the greatest blues artists ever. And besides, in his own misguided way, he also literally kept alive the name of the original Sonny Boy Williamson, a man whose own contribution to the blues canon may have been forgotten otherwise. It would make for a good blues song.