Randy Newman Declares For the One True Sonny Boy Williamson

Aug 25, 2017

It doesn’t require more than a casual knowledge of blues to know that there were two prominent figures in the music named Sonny Boy Williamson. On his new album, Brain Matter, Randy Newman declares unequivocally for one of them, John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson, as the one true owner of that moniker. In his song, "Sonny Boy," a sprightly cadence drives the pianist's dreamy narrative about the Jackson, Tennessee, native's short, productive life. Newman, an Angelino with secondary roots in New Orleans, proclaims John Lee "the only bluesman in heaven," and casts the other Sonny Boy as an "ugly cat" who "stole my name [and] stole my soul," and is "down in hell...far as I can tell."

Most aficionados familiar with the circumstances would agree that John Lee's handle was lifted by Aleck "Rice" Miller, the second, and much better-known bluesman, to have called himself Sonny Boy Williamson. Rice Miller was active as early as the 1920s and '30s in the Mississippi Delta region, and while he became a player of local renown through the fabled King Biscuit Time radio show on KFFA in West Helena, Arkansas, in the early 1940s, he didn't begin making records until 1951, when he recorded the classics "Pontiac Blues," "Mighty Long Time," and "Eyesight to the Blind" for Trumpet Records in Jackson, MS.

Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) with guitarist Houston Stackhouse and drummer Peck Curtis in 1965, 24 years after the premiere of King Biscuit Time on KFFA in Helena, Arkansas

Rice Miller's recording debut took place three years after John Lee was murdered in a late-night Chicago street robbery. Newman's "Sonny Boy" has him being killed by a stray bullet in a street shootout, but his death was actually the result of being bludgeoned with a piece of concrete, and the apparent indifference of his wife Lacey Belle, who assumed he was merely drunk (again) when she answered the early morning doorbell and laid eyes on her disheveled husband. She put him to bed at first, but a few hours later when she realized the gravity of his condition, phoned for an ambulance. Alas, by then it was too late to save the 34-year-old blues star.

John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson's gravesite near Jackson, Tennessee

Did John Lee Williamson, or a proxy, seek to enforce a cease and desist order on Rice Miller when word of his use of the popular bluesman's name got around? Some claims hold that it wasn't Miller, but a KFFA staffer who appropriated the name to increase listenership to the station's daily, noontime broadcast. Rice Miller had used at least two other stage names before then, "Little Boy Blue," which he called himself when he first began broadcasting on WEBQ in Cairo, Illinois, in 1938, and "Harmonica-Blowin' Slim." Trumpet Records historian Marc W. Ryan speculates that the mischievous Rice Miller may have had plenty of cause for employing aliases, and also wonders if his infrequent use of his birth name was "an attempt to leave behind a difficult and unhappy childhood, the details of which Miller steadfastly refused to discuss."

An ad for Rice Miller as "Little Boy Blue" on WEBQ, Cairo, Illinois, 1938

As it happened, this Sonny Boy Williamson went on to become a major name at Chess Records and achieve what Newman sings as the ill-gotten gains of "glory, fortune, and fame." Sonny Boy II's late career ascent occurred between 1955 and '64,  when he recorded dozens of sides for Chess, among them "Don't Start Me Talkin'," "Nine Below Zero," "One Way Out," "Help Me," and "Bring It on Home." In an interview with Pitchfork, Newman recalls hearing his Chess single, "It's Sad to Be Alone" and "The Goat," on an r&b station in Los Angeles in the late '50s.

Unlike his brother-in-law Howlin' Wolf and label mate Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy II didn't live long enough to break through to the white market in the U.S., but he toured England and Europe a few times before his death in 1965. The Animals and the Yardbirds (with Eric Clapton) were among the bands that backed him, and while playing in Copenhagen in 1963, he caught the attention of the saxophonist Archie Shepp to whom he made the claim that he was, as Shepp titled a tune in tribute, "The Original Mr. Sonny Boy Williamson." He was also extensively recorded and filmed overseas, including this soundstage footage with guitarist Hubert Sumlin, bassist Willie Dixon, and pianist Sunnyland Slim performing "In My Younger Days." 

Clapton has said that the encounter with the irascible Sonny Boy II was a game-changer for young UK musicians; while the most driven of the blues-oriented players felt compelled by the experience to double-down on their efforts, others redirected themselves toward the less intimidating worlds of rock and pop. Click here to watch Mick Jagger at a White House concert recalling Sonny Boy's assertion, "These English boys want to play the blues real bad, and they do, real bad." 

It's not conveyed in his song, but in the Pitchfork feature, Newman says Sonny Boy II "was just as good, or better," than the original. While there are partisans for both, there's no doubt that Rice Miller, dba Willie "Sonny Boy" Williamson, was one of the greatest bluesmen of all time, and like John Lee, was a gifted and highly original harmonica stylist, a fine singer, and a great songwriter. In "Sonny Boy," Newman slams him as a purveyor of John Lee's material ("He sang six songs, and five were mine"), but there's little evidence to support that charge. Though their respective discographies are vast, there are only a couple of tunes I'm aware of that they shared in common: "Decoration Day Blues," and Sonny Boy's "Apple Tree Swing" is surely the basis for Rice Miller's "Peach Tree."  

"Early in the Morning" can be read as a harbinger of the independence young women would begin to assert after World War II ("Girl reach the age of eighteen, She began to think she's grown, That's the kinda girl you can't never, Find at home"). It's also a classic example of the "Bluebird beat," a commercial term for the urban blues style that John Lee and other St. Louis and Chicago bluesmen popularized in the 1930s and '40s on RCA's subsidiary, Bluebird Records. Sidemen on the 1945 original include the blues greats Tampa Red and Big Maceo; Chick Saunders, who keeps such emphatic time, is on drums. The tune remains one of the most enduring blues standards. Junior Wells recorded it in 1954 under the title "'Bout the Break of Day," and later as "Early in the Morning," on his album from Pepper's Lounge, It's My Life Baby. Charlie Musselwhite played it on his 1967 debut album, Stand Back, and Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds released a nightclub version of it on his 2001 album, Smokin' Joint.

John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson was one of the most influential figures in blues history, a master harmonica player who not only brought the instrument onto equal footing with guitar and piano as a solo voice, but a singer, songwriter, and frontman who established a prototype for harmonica-led bands that’s been followed ever since, albeit with modernizing enhancements along the way. Like Rice Miller, he was a brilliant wordsmith who fashioned tunes out of his personal life with Lacey Belle, and worked with a stable of superb musicians (Big Joe Williams, Walter Davis, Robert Nighthawk, Yank Rachell, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind John Davis, Ransom Knowling, Judge Riley) in creating music that still teams with freshness and spontaneity. But with his premature death in 1948, John Lee’s mantle was assumed by Little Walter and a new generation of players whose highly-charged electric blues made Williamson's legacy even more remote by the time whites discovered the music in the 1960s. By that time, Little Walter had become the most revered and influential harp player, and while he was notoriously taciturn when it came to acknowledging other musicians, he gave John Lee serious props in a 1964 interview with the English journalist Max Jones. Walter said, “On the harp, well, I heard them all, and I give Sonny Boy Williamson the credit as a creator. I was crazy about his records. He had a true balance [between voice and harmonica]. He was the only man I really admired, but I didn’t model myself on him. Know him? Yes I did—used to be with him all the time.”

John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson

Walter’s renown is based primarily on his innovative use of amplification, but while John Lee played unamplified harp on records, the photo above shows him playing directly on a mic in person, and he would have been among the first to utilize that technique in the Chicago clubs. (Coincidentally, Rice Miller played acoustic harp almost exclusively, though on "Ninety-Nine" and "Dissatisfied" he's clearly playing on the mic.) John Lee’s credits include his 1937 debut recording, "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," and the blues standards "Sloppy Drunk" ("Bring Another Half A Pint"), "Hoodoo Man Blues" ("Hoodoo Hoodoo"), “Wonderful Time,” “Shake the Boogie,” "Stop Breakin' Down," and “Better Cut That Out.”

Junior Wells and Billy Boy Arnold were among the next generation of young Chicagoans who became keepers of John Lee's legacy— young being a relative term, as even Little Walter was only 18 when Sonny Boy was murdered, Wells was 14, and Arnold, who'd just befriended his Southside neighbor, hadn’t yet turned 13. Arnold has recalled the visit he paid on Sonny Boy as "the most important day of my life," and says that in the black community, the kindly young bluesman was "akin to Joe Louis as a folk hero." In an interview for BluesHarmonica.com, Arnold said that John Lee and Rice Miller became friends in the late '30s, "drinkin' buddies and harp players," when Williamson spent a couple of years living in Helena, Arkansas, after the success of "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl." He noted that B.B. King always hailed John Lee as his favorite harp player, and said that if all he ever heard of the harmonica was Rice Miller, he wouldn't have been attracted to playing the instrument.

A day or two after learning of Randy Newman’s new song, I came upon this testimonial in a biography of Mose Allison by Patti Jones. The Tippo, Mississippi native was raised in a world pervaded by blues, from the town square to the front steps of sharecropper shacks to the jukebox in his father's filling station. As he matured musically, he went from playing boogie woogie and barrelhouse piano to emulating the urbane styles of Nat King Cole and Charles Brown. Like many musicians who came of age in the forties, he was drawn to modern jazz and called himself a "bebop fanatic," and said, "Bebop was my crusade. Dizzy Gillespie was my hero." He saw Dizzy's orchestra in Jackson, MS, Jackson, TN, "and even at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville." But in One Man’s Blues, he describes a revelatory experience he had at age 20 that brought him back to basics.

"On one of my trips to Memphis in 1948, I heard the first Sonny Boy Williamson at the Beale Street Auditorium, an afternoon performance for whites, a "Sepia Revue," as it was called then. I went primarily for the high-note trumpet players and the dancing girls. Toward the end of the program, this guy comes out on stage in an old suit with a harmonica. He did ten minutes alone and it was one of those moments. The emotional force and rhythmic purity that he was able to generate were in complete contrast to the rest of the proceedings, It turned out to be the original Sonny Boy Williamson, who was killed soon afterwards. He reopened my eyes to blues."

Here's Sonny Boy in 1946, way ahead of the curve as a harp player and bandleader, performing a tune brimming with verses that Junior Wells and others adopted, with solos by pianist John Davis and guitarist Willie Lacey, and a powerful drive that makes "Shake the Boogie" as prototypical as anything we know as Chicago Blues.

One wonders what's suddenly motivated Newman to not only revive the old debate over Sonny Boy I and II, but to come down so harshly against Rice Miller? (I've requested an interview with Newman, but his office has yet to reply.) Perhaps he finds in this myth an analogue for the shifting sands of a business that increasingly erodes musicians' control of sales, copyrights, and composer credits, and on-line sites that make artists vulnerable to modern-day identity theft. Or maybe it's just an intriguing old story whose time had come for a musical treatment by Newman. Whatever the case, by wrapping his brief for John Lee around a satirical condemnation of Rice Miller, Randy doth protest too much.