|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
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
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.
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