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Freddie Mack

Pittsburgh Blues Society Review
Sonny Boy Williamson
His Best / The Chess 50th Anniversary Collection

MCA / Chess
When I think of great blues harmonica or just great blues in general, one of the first names that comes to mind is Sonny Boy Williamson A.K.A. Alex Ford or Aleck "Rice" Miller. He is considered by many to be one of the primary elements in the foundation of the blues. Many of the details from his early life are shrouded in mystery. He was probably born December 5th 1899, and possibly hailed from the small town Glendora, just a few miles south of Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Very little, if any information is available to confirm even his true name. It is known that by the mid-1930's he had played in most ofthe juke joints in the Delta. During these times he known to use the alias Little Boy Blue as he worked with the blues giants Robert Johnson, Robert Nighthawk, Robert Jr. Lockwood, and Elmore James.

In the early 40's Sonny Boy and Robert Jr. Lockwood were featured in one of the very first live blues shows to hit the airwaves. Radio station KFFA in Helena, Ark. began to broadcast "King Biscuit Time" and the earth shook and trembled. This very successful show went on to become a steady gig for the duo which lasted nearly 15-years.

This man embodied everything that we call the blues, he lived, ate, and breathed the blues it until he'd sweat it out of his pores. Here is a good example: for several years Sonny Boy was married to and then later was divorced from Howlin' Wolf's sister. Please take a moment to enjoy the gravity of the next sentence. "Howlin' Wolf was my brother-in-law." Just how many people do you think can speak words of such might? This guy was no mortal man, he was a blues god, and we are very fortunate to have recordings of his work to enjoy, and to learn from.

His earliest recorded work was done for the Jackson based Trumpet Records in the early 50's. This is where he backed Elmore James on "Dust My Broom" and recorded a dozen of his own classics that he later re-recorded at Chess. He also did some work with Baby Boy Warren in Detroit, and Tampa Red in Chicago. This eventually led to him working with Leonard Chess, where he became part of the "Blues Big Four," (Muddy, Wolf, Little Walter, & Sonny Boy).

Ten years and eighteen sessions for Chess yielded approximately 70 tracks. This CD contains 20 of the most significant recordings from that collection. His casual but masterful approach to recording was spontaneous and powerful. When asked what he planned to record, Sonny Boy would reply: "Well, I don't know, but after we get into it, I'll straighten it out." If the song didn't sound right, he'd make up lyrics on the spot that would fit just as good, and keep right on playing like nothing ever happened.

The Chess 50th Anniversary Collection
The first three tracks of this CD were recorded August 12, 1955, and have the legendary Muddy Waters band backing him like nobody else can. Do I really need to say more? Featuring the brilliant Otis Spann on piano, Muddy Waters & Jimmy Rogers on guitar, Willie Dixon on bass, and Fred Below on drums… you gotta know exactly what I'm talking about. "Don't Start Me Talkin'" & "All My Love In Vain" were released as a single on the Checker label and became a certified hit.

Tracks 4 - 9 were recorded from August 1956 through September 1957 and feature longtime friend Robert Jr. Lockwood, and the great Luther Tucker on guitars. Sonny Boy continues to mine the magic found only at Chess with the legendary Willie Dixon on bass, and Fred Below on drums. Luther Tucker was also known for his red-hot guitar work with Little Walter and later with James Cotton. Especially notable in this group of tunes are "Fattening Frogs For Snakes," "I Don't Know," and the incredible "Ninety Nine."

Tracks 10 - 15 feature either Otis Spann or Lafayette Leake on piano with Robert Jr. Lockwood, Luther Tucker, Willie Dixon, and Fred Below. These tracks were recorded at Chess from March 27th 1958 to September 8th 1961. "Your Funeral and My Trial" is classic Sonny Boy at his finest. This set also features the impressive "Checkin' Up On My Baby," "Down Child," and Sonny Boy's signature song "Nine Below Zero."

Tracks 16 -18 were recorded January 11th 1963. All three songs feature Lafayette Leake on keys, Matt Murphy on the guitar, Milton Rector on bass, and Al Duncan playing drums. Sonny Boy begins to sound more modern here, but its still bedrock blues in its purest form. "Bye Bye Bird" is a jaw-dropping harmonica instrumental. Fasten your seatbelt for one heck of a ride. Next is the blues masterpiece "Help Me," followed by the only real deal version of "Bring It On Home." Robert Plant - Eat your heart out! Nobody can mess with Sonny Boy Williamson.

"My Younger Days" is track 19, and was recorded September 3rd 1963. It has Lafayette Leake on piano, Buddy Guy on guitar, Jack Meyers on bass, and Clifton James on drums. It features Sonny Boy in top form, absolutely confident with his tone and vibrato skills sharp as a knife. Buddy Guy supports the star perfectly as he plays soul tinged rhythms with restraint and cool simplicity. I have always enjoyed Buddy Guy, especially his early work with Junior Wells.

On track 20 "One Way Out" once again features Lafayette Leake on piano, Buddy Guy on guitar, Jack Meyers on bass, but this time they have Fred Below on the drums. This track was recorded at Chess on April 30th 1964 and is the final track on the CD. This is the version that inspired the Allman Brothers to cover this masterpiece. This CD contains 20 reasons why I would call Sonny Boy Williamson the Ultimate Blues Legend. The recording quality is the best available to date, which makes this my candidate as the best example of this mans work.

In Closing
I am certain that the music that Sonny Boy Williamson produced in his lifetime touched so many hearts. During his life he mentored an amazing list of players that included blues legends Howlin' Wolf, Junior Wells, James Cotton, and Junior Parker. He was old enough to have played with Robert Johnson, and hung around just long enough to work with Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Robbie Robertson.

On May 25th 1965 Sonny Boy Williamson failed to appear for his daily King Biscuit Time show. Longtime friend and bandmate Peck Curtis left the studio and went down to the boarding house where he was staying and found him in his bed. Sonny Boy Williamson had died in his sleep of an apparent heart attack.

Sonny Boy Williamson was elected to the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1980

"Sonny Boy Williamson simply wrote, played, and sang some of the greatest blues ever etched into black phonograph records." -Cub Koda

Copyright, Fred McIntosh. All rights reserved.