Sonny Boy, back from England in a bowler hat and tailored suit, 1965.
Wearing the famed two tone suit.
Onstage in the U.K., 1964.
Your Funeral, My Trial, from some European TV Show, mid-60’s
with Matt “Guitar” Murphy, Otis Spann, Willie Dixon and Bill Stepney, 1963.
Playing for the squares, nice set….
Born Alec Ford on December 5th, 1899 (according to him), or 1912 (according to census records uncovered by researcher David Evans), or March 11, 1908 (according to his headstone), today’s subject soon took on the last name of his stepfather– Miller and for reasons no one has ever explained the first name Rice. So begins our story of this fellow named Rice Miller who popped out from between his mama’s legs on the Sara Jones Plantation in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, and would later find fame under the name Sonny Boy Williamson, often given the suffix II, to distinguish him from John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, whose name he found it gainful to adopt for his own purposes. Confused yet? Let’s see if I can’t further complicate the story.
It seems young Rice hung around the Plantation, working the fields with his stepfather Jim Ford and mother Millie, learned to play harmonica, and by the early 30’s had set off to earn his keep as a musician. In these lean years of the first great Depression he would cross paths with, travel with, and often play music with bluesmen like Robert Johnson, Robert Junior Lockwood, Elmore James, Houston Stackhouse, Robert Lee McCoy aka Robert Nighthawk, as well as acquiring a soon to be famous brother in law– Chester Arthur Burnett aka the Howlin’ Wolf, whom he taught to play the harmonica. He played on the street, in juke joints and country frolics, developing a huge repertoire of tunes and great talents as an entertainer, including the ability to play two harmonicas simultaneously, one in his mouth and the other in his nose. Don’t try that one at home kids, you’ll only hurt yourself.
In 1941 he was approached by a the King Biscuit Flour Company to promote their product via a morning radio show on KFFA in Helena, Arkansas. To add celebrity value to their partnership,
Miller took on the moniker of Sonny Boy Williamson, the same as aforementioned John Lee Williamson, then living in Chicago and recording for Bluebird Records under the tutelage of Lester Melrose. John Lee (now called Sonny Boy Williamson I, or #1 to distinguish him from his pretender) was one of the biggest blues stars of the era, whom often in tandem with Big Joe Williams and/or Yank Rachell had scored many “race” hits starting in 1937 with Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, Bring Me Another Half Pint, Bluebird Blues, Sloppy Drunk, et. al. When he found about the character in Arkansas using his name, John Lee took legal action, which went nowhere, since Rice Miller’s defense was that he was calling himself “Sonny Boy Williams”, of course, most blue fans at the time pronounced Williamson as Williams, and the case was thrown out of court. John Lee Williamson would take minor revenge later by recording his own version of Rice Miller’s King Biscuit Stomp, a move that would further complicate matters in everyone’s mind, and most especially in this blog entry. Miller’s radio show was a hit, and soon the King Biscuit folks named their cornmeal after Sonny Boy, with a drawing of Rice Miller on every bag. You can still get it, it makes nice corn muffins. Here’s a recording
, not an aircheck, but a behind the scenes at the radio show recording of Rice Miller on KFFA, recorded sometime in the sixties. In 1951 Miller signed to Lillian McMurray’s Trumpet Records of Jackson, Mississippi, and backed by Willie Love (piano), Elmore James and Joe Willie Wilkins (guitars) and Joe Dyson (drums) cut his first session in January of that year. One 78 RPM was issued– Eyesight To The Blind b/w Crazy ‘Bout You Baby, but few people have heard this disc. This is because, after the initial pressing, a fire destroyed the tapes and the metal stampers, and Ms. McMurray had Miller recut the the tune, re-issuing it in version without Elmore James. Several years ago George Paulus of Barrelhouse Records fame wrote a short review of the original pressing for Blues & Rhythm:The Gospel Truth
magazine. According to Paulus the first recorded versions of these tunes are far superior to the second pressings, and can be distinguished by a deep, red label and the matrix #’s DR1-15/16 in the grooves. At the time few collectors even knew of the existence of this original version. The more common second pressing have the familiar purple label and the DRC 15/16-2 carved into the run off grooves. As far as I can figure the first pressing has never been re-issued (if I’m wrong please correct me), but the more common disc is still a fine recording (the Who would cover Eyesight To The Blind
on their mindbogglingly over rated “rock opera” Tommy)
. Crazy ‘Bout You Baby
is an uptempo, rocker, which showcases Miller’s instantly identifiable percussive harmonica style over Willie Love’s pounding piano. Anyone out there with an original pressing willing to sell or trade please contact me through this webpage. In July of the same year another session was cut in Jackson, Mississippi, but none of these tunes were released, and McMurray called Miller and his band back in August for a session that would be mined for their next four Trumpet releases.
Issued under the name Sonny Boy Williamson, his Harmonica and House Rockers (in this case the House Rockers being Willie Love or David Cambell on piano, the guitars of Elmore James and Joe Willie Wilkins, bass player Leonard Ware and an unknown drummer) and released in quick succession were Cool Cool Blues
b/w Do It If You Wanta
(Trumpet 139), Stop Crying
b/w Come On Back Hom
e (Trumpet 140), West Memphis Blues
b/w I Cross My Heart
(Trumpet 144) and in time for the holiday season Sonny Boy’s Christmas Blues b/w Pontiac Blues
, the flip being the hardest rockin’ disc of his career (except maybe the first version of Crazy ‘Bout You Baby, which, since I have never heard it, cannot make a comparison). I love these records, mint copies of the 78’s were quite common and reasonably priced right up until the early 1990’s, and they sure sound good. I think Trumpet and Ace must’ve used the same pressing plant for their 78’s, because both companies issued shellac 10 inchers that were twice as loud as their competitor’s product, and sound like their sound is jumping out of the speakers. They sound even better on old jukeboxes. Musically, they are equally as dynmaic, over the rollicking, shuffle groove, Sonny Boy sings, jive talks, pops his fingers into the mike, and uses his harmonica as both a lead and rhythm instrument, often synchronously. His records are instantly identifiable, they’re what we can safely refer to as “the good shit”.
Trumpet kept recording Rice Miller, who, using his morning radio show to publicize his live appearances was becoming a well known draw all over the Mississippi delta, Arkansas, Memphis and beyond. The musicians on these later Trumpet discs were not the same as his original band, and the discs suffered from the loss of Elmore James, whose 1951 Trumpet recording of Dust My Broom (Trumpet 146) had made him into a good size star in his own right, and the others. The best of the rest of his Trumpet recordings was an instrumental leased to Trumpet’s cross town rival Ace, Boppin’ With Sonny Boy (aka Clowning With The World) b/w No Nights By Myself (Ace 511). Just cuz I feel like it, I present an alternate take
of said disc for your listening pleasure.
By 1955 Trumpet was in receivership, poor distribution and an expensive lawsuit over the services of Elmore James with the Bihari brothers of RPM/Modern/Flair/Kent label fame had left Lillian McMurray in bad financial shape, and the creditors who ended up with Rice Miller’s contract sold it to the Chess brothers in Chicago who brought Rice/Sonny Boy north to record for their Checker subsidiary. For his first session, held in August of ’55, the brothers Chess brought together an all star band with Muddy Waters and a teenage Jody Williams on guitars, Otis Spann on piano, Willie Dixon thumping an upright bass and the propulsive Fred Below on drums.
From this session came Don’t Start Me Talkin
‘ b/w All My Love In Vain (Checker 824), a mighty fine rockin’ disc, which would be covered by everyone from Bob Dylan who preformed it on the David Letterman Show standing in front of a Marshall half stack and three bewildered punk rockers (the Plugz?) to the New York Dolls who got lipstick all over the harmonica. The Chess brothers took to recording Rice Miller once or twice a year for the next nine years, usually with his old pal Robert Junior Lockwood on guitar along with Luther Tucker (guitar), and the Dixon/Below rhythm section heard on his Checker debut. They issued five LP’s (Down and Out Blues
, The Real Folk Blues
, More Real Folk Blues
, Bummer Road
and One Way Out
), the classic Down & Out Blues
was resplendent with Don Bronstein’s portrait of a filthy, street bum on the cover which most white folk at the time took to be Sonny Boy himself. Some of my favorites from the Checker years are Checkin’ Up On My Baby
(only issued on the LP Real Folk Blues
, Checker 1503), The Goat
(Checker 943), The Hunt
(Checker 975), and his final session from ’65 with Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy in support– Bye Bye Bird
(Checker 1036) Also there is this classic bit of studio patter between Leonard “Mother” Chess and Rice/Sonny Boy, issued in it’s entirety on the LP Bummer Road
— Little Village
, it is great entertainment.
In the early 60s Rice Miller, now the only Sonny Boy Williamson in the business, since John Lee Williamson had been murdered on his way home from gig in Chicago (back in ’48), began touring the UK and Europe where he cut LP’s backed by the Animals, the Yardbirds, Memphis Slim and others. They’re all sub-par, as Sonny Boy said– “These English kids want to play the blues so bad… and they play the blues so bad”. Eric Clapton, “gentleman bluesman” and all around cheapskate, still bitter about Sonny Boy’s refusal to kiss his ass, managed to take time out to bad mouth him in his 2009 autobiography. I bet he wouldn’t have said any of it to Sonny Boy’s face. In Europe, Rice Miller appeared on TV, and took to wearing a bowler hat and custom made two toned suit, affecting the style of a regal hobo. But he knew his time was short, and after his last European tour in ’65 he returned to the south, taking his job back at KFFA plugging King Biscuit Flour and Sonny Boy Corn Meal, and on May 25th of that year he died, insisting to the end that he “was the original, the only Sonny Boy Williamson”. His Trumpet and Chess sides are readily available (try the Captain Crawl link to the right), including all the un-issued material, it’s been re-issued by Arhoolie, Charley, Audio Archives, and other labels (avoid anything he cut overseas unless you’re a completest). These recordings are must haves. The Essential Sonny Boy Williamson double CD of Chess material is a good place to start. Or a mint, black label copy of Down & Out Blues on Checker, which might run you $200 on Ebay if you’re rich. His Checker 45’s and Trumpet 78’s aren’t that hard to find (although the Trumpet 45’s are getting pretty scarce). Rice Miller aka Sonny Boy Williamson #2, an American original.