May 22, 2024

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Sonny Boy Williamson II nicknamed “King of the Harmonica”: Video

11.03. – Happy Birthday !!! Sonny Boy Williamson II, nicknamed “King of the Harmonica” by his peers, was one of the most inspiring harp players in blues history. With his passionate yet understated style, his metronome-like timing, and his endlessly inventive technique, he has influenced generations of players, including such virtuosos as Howling Wolf, James Cotton and Junior Wells.

Aside from being a harp player who helped set the course of modern blues, he was also a legendary blues character whose colorful personality, unpredictable actions, and frequent stretching of the truth only served to enliven his blues with a rare, but warmly embraced, eccentricity.

According to his gravestone, Rice Miller was born March 11, 1897, in the country between Glendora and Tutwiler, Mississippi. He was raised by his mother Millie Ford and stepfather Jim Miller, and acquired the nickname “Rice” as a young child. Miller, taught himself to play harmonica at the age of five, and became quite adept on it, playing spiritual music at parties for tips as a child. As he grew older, he began playing spirituals at schools and street corners as “Little Boy Blue.” During the 1920s he left his parents’ home and began to hobo, playing blues to support himself.

Miller hoboed through Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Missouri during the 1920s, playing levee and lumber camps, juke joints, and parties. He claimed to have made unissued test recordings in the late 1920s, but these have never been found. During the 1930s Miller teamed up with guitarists Elmore James and Robert Johnson for short periods. He also developed a partnership with a young Johnson protégé, guitarist Robert Jr. Lockwood. During the late 1930s, Jackson, Tennessee, harmonica wizard John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson recorded several hits including “Good Morning Little School Girl” and “Bluebird Blues” for the Bluebird label in Chicago. During the early 1940s, Rice Miller began calling himself “Sonny Boy Williamson” and responded to anyone who questioned it that he was “the original Sonny Boy.”

As Sonny Boy Williamson, he and Lockwood auditioned for executives of Interstate Grocer, the makers of King Biscuit flour, in the Interstate Grocer Co. Building. Interstate Grocer agreed to sponsor the pair and in 1941 they began broadcasting from the Floyd Truck Lines Building on KFFA radio. King Biscuit Time was arguably the most influential radio show in blues history, reaching as-yet unrecorded blues artists Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, and Jimmy Rogers, as well as the large Delta blues audience. As remuneration for hawking King Biscuit flour and cornmeal, Williamson was allowed to announce his upcoming gigs on the air. He became an established star throughout the Delta and recruited guitarist Joe Willie Wilkins to augment the group.

Williamson left KFFA in 1944, and hooked up with Elmore James after the latter’s discharge from the U.S. Navy in 1945. By 1947, Williamson had taken lodgings in the Belzoni, Mississippi, boarding house where James lived. Ever the promoter, he and James broadcast from O.J. Turner’s drugstore in Belzoni, over a hookup to Yazoo City’s WAZF and Greenville’s WGVM, hawking Talaho Syrup. Williamson toured the Delta with James and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup during the late 1940s before leaving for West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1948. In West Memphis, he secured another radio job, this time pitching Hadacol Tonic on KWEM. It was here that he met B.B. King, who had approached Williamson for work as a sideman. Typically, Williamson had a more lucrative job offer in Clarksdale, Mississippi, but was scheduled the same night for the 16th Street Grill in West Memphis. He gave the 16th Street Grill job to King, admonishing the young guitarist not to fail.

Williamson first recorded on January 5, 1951, for Lillian McMurry’s Trumpet label. The session took place at Trumpet’s studio at 309 Farish Street in Jackson, Mississippi, and featured backing from pianist Willie Love, Elmore James, Joe Willie Wilkins, and drummer “Frock” O’Dell. Although nothing was issued from this session, McMurry continued recording Williamson for several more years. Many of the sides he recorded for Trumpet, such as “Eyesight to the Blind,” “Nine Below Zero,” and “West Memphis Blues,” have since become blues harp standards. After Trumpet suspended operations in 1955, Williamson moved to Milwaukee and began recording for Chess subsidiary Checker Records.

At Checker, Williamson began a series of hit singles, beginning with “Don’t Start Me to Talking,” which featured sympathetic backing from the Muddy Waters band. His harp style featured a phenomenal technique that layered a wide dynamic range, complex phrasing, and a variety of effects, all held together by his impeccable timing. Williamson’s singing lacked the dynamism of his playing and his gruff, hoarse vocals conveyed a broad range of emotion unmatched by the range of his voice. He was also an accomplished songwriter, and many of the songs he recorded for Checker, including “One Way Out,” “Fattening Frogs for Snakes,” and “Your Funeral And My Trial,” are considered blues classics. Backed by Lockwood and ace Chess session musicians including guitarist Luther Tucker, pianists Otis Spann and Lafayette Leake, bassist Willie Dixon, and drummer Fred Below, Williamson created a modern sound that revolved around his harmonica shuffles.

Williamson continued to tour the Delta, working his way back to Milwaukee through Helena, Memphis, and St. Louis. He toured Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival package in 1963 and 1964, remaining for some time in England, where he became a sensation. He returned to Helena in 1965 and rented a room at a boarding house at 427 ½ Elm Street, telling everyone who asked that he had “come home to die.” He resumed playing King Biscuit Time, now broadcast from KFFA’s studio atop the Helena National Bank Building.

Sonny Boy Williamson died May 25, 1965, at his boarding house.

For blues harp enthusiasts, here are some further notes on Sonny Boy’s innovative technique:

His preferred harmonica was a 10-hole Hohner Marine Band or OId Standby, but he sometimes played the larger Marine Bands: the 12-hole 364 and the 14-hole 365. Some publicity photographs show him holding an Echo-Vamper, which is similar to the 364. From time to time – for example, on “Dissatisfied” – he used a Hohner Koch Chromatic. It has been claimed that he modified his harps by slightly bending the reeds with a toothpick, but this may have been a misconception.

His preferred harmonica keys were F, C, B flat and D, but he also played in E, G and A.

He generally played in second position, with the occasional exception (e.g., on “Trust My Baby” be played in first position on a G harp, and on “I Don’t Know” he played in third position on a C harp).

He used the tongue-blocking (as opposed to lip-puckering) technique most of the time and was an accomplished note- bender.

His Chess recordings were characterized by single-note runs, but his Storyville sessions reveal a skilful use of rhythm and chords.

He had a largely acoustic sound, playing to a mike on a stand and using his hands extensively for tremolo and wah- wah effects. However, he sometimes opted for an amplified sound, using a mike cupped in his hands (e.g., in “Cross My Heart”).

Almost all his notes are lower than the 5-hole draw. He rarely used the top octave, but when he did (as in “Sonny’s Rhythm”) he used it very effectively.

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