Friday, September 4, 2009

Blues Greats - The Other Sonny Boy Williamson

By Phil Stutt

Most people listening to the wonderful blues music by Sonny Boy Williamson are actually not listening to the original Sonny Boy, but to someone who took his name, while he was still alive! That Sonny Boy Williams II was a tremendous blues musician is not beyond doubt, but the story of the original is as interesting as he was talented.

Born in 1914 John Lee Williamson is easily the most important harmonica player in the pre-war era. Almost single-handedly he turned the humble harmonica into a recognised and worthy blues band leading instrument. Many followed but he lead the way.

He was taught the harmonica by Hammie Nixon and Noah Lewis, both noted players. By the time he was in his late teens he was recognised as peerless player. When he was 23 he secured his first recording contract with Bluebird. Under the leadership of Lester Melrose he seems to have been seldom out of the recording studio. There were sessions with Big Joe Williams, Robert Lee McCoy, Robert Nighthawk, Big Bill Broonzy and many others. All this time he continued to learn his craft. From 1937 to 1947 he recorded over 110 tracks, released on RCA.

His first vocal release on Bluebird was a sensation. "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" was a smash hit that continues to form the basis of many play-lists of blues bands the world over.

What was it about this genial and gentle (unless he was drunk) man? He developed the call and response style of signing and playing. A line or verse being sung and the harmonica responding, this technique is still used to great effect (listen to almost any modern blues great such as B B King). More than that, however, when else did a single person raise the stature of an instrument to make it respectable and valued?

If his first vocal was a success so was his last. "Better Cut That Out" was a huge posthumous hit after he was killed during a brutal attack as he walked home from a gin mill.

As a man he was known for his kindness. One (probably of many) young lad knocked on his door one day and asked his hero if he would teach him to play the harmonica. He agreed happily, that lad went on to be known as another blues giant, Billy Boy Arnold.

I am passionate about rock and blues which is why I started so that I have an excuse to talk about music, and bore people with my views!

I am in my 50s (it hurts to say that, my mind feels 36 but my body....). I live in the UK. I have all the usual bad habits - alcohol, smoking, etc. I am in a great relationship with a very understanding lady (she has to be).

I love Blues, Captain Beefheart, Wreckless Eric, Tim Fite. I hate Celine Dion, boy bands. 'Nuff said.

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