Sonny Boy Williamson II

TrackSingle / Album
Eyesight To The BlindTrumpet No. 129
No Nights By MyselfAce 511
Don't Start Me To Talkin'Checker 824
Keep It To YourselfChecker 847
Fattening Frogs For SnakesChecker 864
Your Funeral And My TrialChecker 894
Nine Below ZeroChecker 1003
Help MeChecker 1036
Bring It On HomeChecker 1134
Movin' Down The RiverSonny Boy Williamson (Vol.2)

Sonny Boy Williamson photo 1




Sonny Boy playlist


Contributor: Dave Stephens … with assistance from Cal Taylor

American Gods: a phrase that is now strongly associated with Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel with that title and, to Americans, the TV series which it spawned. However, circa 1963/64 it was a handy way of thinking about a quartet of American artists who, over a very short time period came to define electric blues for us Brits. In large part that was due to sterling work by Pye Records (aided and strongly abetted by Guy Stevens) in making copies of relevant records from those artists available to a UK audience though that recognition process was undoubtedly accelerated by those good people who arranged for said artists to appear in the UK and Europe in a timely manner.

So who were the “said artists”? The ones I’m grouping in this manner are the Chess/Checker foursome: Muddy, The Wolf, Sonny Boy and Little Walter (and for clarity I should say that by Sonny Boy, I mean Sonny Boy Williamson II – see later). I was lucky enough to get to see the first three of these gents in a London club setting which implied a closeness (and ambiance) which wasn’t available in a concert format. They didn’t disappoint.

Were they necessarily better than other blues artists who’d migrated north like Reed, Hooker, Rush, James and Guy? No, but there was that Chess aura that surrounded them. We, and the new so-called R&B groups which were springing up everywhere, worshipped Chuck and Bo from the Chess stable. Muddy and co were just one step further. (I should add that, yes of course, Buddy Guy was also a Chess artist but his relative youth and the fact that his approach – which was more akin to the uptown B.B. King style which took just a little longer to break through here – separated him from the more clearly electrified country blues of the foursome; in terms of popularity, Buddy of course has probably exceeded all the others as the years have rolled on.)

Sonny Boy is the last of the foursome to get the Topper treatment. Perhaps he’s the least obvious of the grouping to get his own essay but he was very, very popular for a short spell: his Pye single Help Me was voted 2nd most popular ‘R&B record’ in one of the music journals at the time (with the first being Green Onions from you know who). One reason for the reverence in which he’s held becomes apparent if you’re lucky enough to own a vinyl copy of Down And Out Blues, his first LP, released by Chess in 1959 (and by Pye in the UK in 1964). Pull out the record and you’ll find that no composers are listed against the songs; instead there’s a line below which says “All composed by Sonny Boy Williamson”. Ditto for side two. Sonny Boy may have borrowed a little – that’s how things worked in the blues world – but he was the prime composer.

A couple of quotes from Robert Christgau from a review of some of his albums are germane to the question “What made Sonny Boy aka Rice Miller, special?”

“Miller’s writing was as factual as a police complaint, his groove as sexy as a swamp in June, and he sang in the strong, slurred, subtle voice of someone who’d been talking his way out of shit since he learned to say maybe.”

and on his harmonica playing:

“Where fools like his star pupil James Cotton strain against the dynamic limitations of that little piece of steel, Sonny Boy plays it like he sings it like he talks it – slyly, lethally, whispering complaints, secrets, existential questions, and promises made to be broken to anyone who ventures within earshot.”

A musical illustration: Let Me Explain (which isn’t even in the Ten) came from Sonny Boy’s second session for Chess held in January 1956 on which he was backed by Robert Lockwood Jr. and Luther Tucker, both on guitar, Wille Dixon, on bass (of course) and Fred Below behind the drum kit. His yelping harp opens the track setting the tone for a bouncy affair with both guitars playing their part – it’s probably Lockwood on those slightly jazzy fills – and with Below’s drums well to the fore:

Lyrically, it has the conversational manner that typified much of the Williamson approach:

Let’s walk a little, and let’s talk a little
Give me a chance to explain (repeat)
If you be my girlfriend
I’ll always be your man

As the song evolves it becomes evident that she’s been two-timing him but there’s also suspicion that he’s not necessarily totally innocent either. The “I will never do you wrong” has the ring of a line that’s been used before.

So, not the high drama of much of the material (and arrangements) as supplied by Willie Dixon to Muddy and the Wolf, nor does the harmonica have the virtuoso mellifluousness of a Little Walter, rather it is an extension of SBW himself, adding commentary and decoration to his side of that dialogue. The unusual title of the flip, Your Imagination once again conjures up a real conversation following the theme of ‘it’s all in your imagination’ which the punch line neatly summarises: She know I think too much about her / For her to be thinking wrong things all the time.

Two things need addressing before venturing into the Sonny Boy Williamson story. Firstly, that name, and secondly his date of birth. Many readers will know that Sonny Boy Williamson wasn’t his birth name and that he’d ‘borrowed’ it from another highly respected blues artist and harmonica player, John Lee Curtis Williamson (who was known as Sonny Boy Williamson). John Lee was born in Tennessee, but moved to Chicago in 1934 establishing a reputation there as one of the pioneer blues harp players – see footnotes for more.

Our Sonny Boy Williamson was the illegitimate son of Millie Ford and was born Alex or Aleck Ford though early on he took the surname ‘Miller’ from his father. According to the UdiscoverMusic article on Sonny Boy he was Millie Ford’s 21st child. Young Alex picked up nicknames from an early age. ‘Rice’ was one that continued to be used over the years, apparently from a predilection for milk and rice, ‘Little Boy Blue’ was another. According to William Donoughue in his Biographical Notes on Alex “Rice” Miller, he also went by the name of Sonny Boy Miller and “He may have used Sonny Boy Williamson as early as 1934 after John Lee Williamson moved to Chicago”.

In 1941, Rice Miller landed a really big break. He managed to get himself and, later, Robert Lockwood Jr. onto the radio show King Biscuit Time on station KFFA in Helena, Arkansas. This, incidentally, was pioneering for a blues artist at the time. Quite whose idea it was to bill Alex as Sonny Boy Williamson isn’t known, but at some stage early in the show’s history – November 1941 to 1944 – that change took place. The radio show was successful but, in the words of Martin Chilton, the writer of the Udiscover article:

“Perhaps everyone involved believed that because the show was broadcast in the South it would not come to the notice of the real Sonny Boy Williamson – John Lee Curtis Williamson – but word of the deception reached him, and the Chicago-based musician went to Arkansas in 1942 to confront the man who had stolen his name. Lockwood was later quoted as saying that Williamson II “chased” the original Sonny Boy out of town.”

From then on, John Lee, who died in 1948, was known as Sonny Boy Williamson I and Rice Miller as Sonny Boy Williamson II.

Regarding Miller/Williamson’s birth date, the Wiki writer states: “There are various opinions about his year of birth, five of which are 1897, 1899, 1907, 1909, and 1912. According to David Evans, professor of music and an ethnomusicologist at the University of Memphis, census records indicate that Miller was born in about 1912, being seven years old on February 2, 1920, the day of the census.” However, “Miller’s gravestone at Tutwiler, Mississippi, set up by record company owner Lillian McMurry twelve years after his death, gives his date of birth as March 11, 1908”.

It’s likely that Miller encouraged belief in the early dates since they fitted with his myth of having been the original Sonny Boy Williamson with John Lee having appropriated the name. For consistency I’ll refer to him as Sonny Boy from now on (but bearing in mind all the above).

Sonny Boy drank. Heavily. The majority of articles on him mention this fact (or if they don’t one still comes away with the impression that loads of them did). It aged him to the extent that physically he came to resemble someone who actually had been born in the preceding century. Hence it was another factor appearing to back up the ‘original Sonny Boy Williamson story’ though inevitably it came with a cost in terms of life expectation, something Sonny Boy seemed to be well aware of.

His birth location is also in some doubt though he himself used to claim it was Glendora, a small village in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi.

His starting out musical years aren’t at all well documented either, though it’s known that he regularly played with Elmore James and Robert Lockwood Jr. It’s also known that these artists would deliberately play separately on street corners working on a divide and conquer policy in terms of picking up cash. It is documented – William Donoughue and plenty of others – that he lived for a spell in Memphis during which time “he married Howlin’ Wolf’s half-sister Mae and taught Wolf the rudiments of the harmonica.”

Word of his musical prowess – it’s too early to say ‘fame’ – spread and reached the ears of Lillian McMurry, founder of Jackson-based Trumpet Records. She signed him to her label and, after a false start which necessitated the rerecording of the tracks after a fire destroyed the initial masters – this is also covered in the Elmore James Toppermost – his first record appeared on the market in February 1951 (date from the 78 RPM version of 45cat). It coupled Eyesight To The Blind with Crazy About You Baby, with both sides attributed in terms of composer and performer to Sonny Boy Williamson. Mrs McMurry must have had an ear for a standout record not to mention an eye for a title and, of course, punch line.

You talk about your woman
I wish to god you could see mine
Every time she starts to lovin’
She brings eyesight to the blind

An oddity about the record is that Elmore James should have appeared on it but probably didn’t. It’s well documented that he was present in the backing team for the cut that went up in smoke – that’s in both Cal’s Copy of “Blues Records 1943-1970 (L-Z)” from Leadbitter, Fancourt & Pelletier and the Stefan Wirz Elmore James discography – but he’s not present in the team for the rerecording in “Blues Records” and Stefan has “Elmore James?” in his breakdown of the session team. What’s more, the accredited expert on James, Steve Franz, doesn’t have Elmore present on the session in his James discography. However, I should hasten to add that the sources agree that Elmore was present on several of the later Sonny Boy Trumpet sides.

Regardless of all that, Eyesight To The Blind stands on its own as the first blues classic from Sonny Boy. Not a lot of the world was listening yet but they would do – see also footnotes.

Sonny Boy stayed with Trumpet until 1955 when the label had to close due to lack of money. Then, according to the Wiki writer: “When Trumpet went bankrupt in 1955, Williamson’s recording contract was yielded to its creditors, who sold it to Chess Records in Chicago.” For more on the subject, see the footnotes.

While the output from Sonny Boy’s Trumpet period is often viewed as the hors d’oeuvre in comparison to the main course of better-known Chess discs, in fact the quality of his records was remarkably high, comparing well with electrified country blues from anywhere at the time. His final A-side for the label, No Nights By Myself, wherein he bemoans the fact that “she left town” but he was determined not to spend another night by himself, is an excellent example (and it only appeared on Ace Records who were also Jackson-based since Trumpet had distribution issues). The track was one of the more rare items from the Sonny Boy songbook in that it was a slow number with minimalist backing consisting of little more than weary piano boogie lines and sotto voce drums allowing the Sonny Boy harp to occupy the bulk of the foreground.

The only other record cut at the session, which would turn out to be his final one for Trumpet, was From The Bottom which has a unique claim to fame in the Sonny Boy oeuvre in that it’s the only one to feature B.B. King on guitar. That distinctive ringing tone doesn’t show strongly until the break although the relaxed delivery will even before then have convinced the listener that he/she is in the presence of someone who knows his way around a fretboard. The song is also unusual for a blues in that it features a middle eight.

Another track which can’t be ignored within the Trumpet output is the first version of Nine Below Zero which has one of the most chilling punch lines in blues history: She waited until it got nine below zero and put me down for another man – and, yes, the pun was fully intended. I say “first” because the song received a revisit during the Chess era, see later. It becomes apparent as the song progresses that she’s kicked him out and he has nowhere to stay and don’t have a lousy dime hence making the emphasis on temperature a seriously big feature of the situation he’s in.

Leonard Chess didn’t stint on the first session for Sonny Boy’s new label (which was actually the Chess subsidiary Checker hence my occasional reference to Chess/Checker); he only lined up the entire Muddy Waters band as backing team with Jimmy Rogers and Muddy himself on guitars, Otis Spann occupying the piano stool, the great Willie Dixon on bass and Fred Below on drums. And they delivered. Don’t Start Me To Talkin’, his first single from the session (and first on the label) got him his highest R&B chart position, #3 in 1955. A typically brash bouncy affair which introduced the two-guitar interplay that typified a Chess Sonny Boy session, albeit with later ones usually starring Robert Lockwood Jr. who’d followed Sonny Boy to Chicago and Luther Tucker. Plus, of course, those lyrics:

Well, I’m goin’ down to Rosie’s, stop at Fannie Mae’s
Gonna tell Fannie what I heard her boyfriend say
Don’t start me talkin’, I’ll tell her everything I know
I’m gonna break up this signifyin’, ’cause somebody’s got to go

I’ve talked up Sonny Boy’s way with words and particularly titles. Fattening Frogs For Snakes which saw the light of day on the A-side of his fourth Checker single has to be his most spectacular title ever. Unfortunately, in this instance, the song wasn’t fully crafted by Sonny Boy himself with the title definitely having been used before. For more on both the expression and the song(s), see the relevant footnotes which conclude by saying that it’s possible that Sonny Boy drew his inspiration from the Bumble Bee Slim record with that title released in 1935; structurally both are straightforward 12 bar blues with no particular melodic quirks or phrases to make either of the pair stand out. Thematically, they’re similar but the lyrics were Sonny Boy’s own on his “version”. (He also appears solo on the composer line on the record – no surprise there.) But it’s a fine record so certainly can’t be ignored.

It took me a long time, to find out my mistakes
Took me a long time, to find out my mistakes
(It sho’ did man)
But I bet you my bottom dollar
I’m not fattenin’ no more frogs for snakes

The two selections we’ve just heard were typical of Sonny Boy’s Checker output: solidly dance floor aimed – they were competing with that new rock and roll stuff – but with plenty of interest in the arrangements and edgy lyrics which always invited a further listen. Out of plenty to choose from, I’ve selected two more such records for the Ten. Keep It To Yourself, a shuffle with stop time selections and the words are well up to scratch – You have a husband / I have a wife / And if you stop to talk about it we will mess up our lives. Your Funeral And My Trial was a tad different: slower than anything we’ve heard so far on Checker with the edginess factor turned up several notches such that you could just imagine those hooded eyes burning into you. I’m beggin’ you baby, cut out that off the wall jive / If you can’t treat me no better, it gotta be your funeral and my trial.

Certain discs towards the end of Sonny Boy’s Checker stay might have caused a little head-scratching and the question: was the production team aka Leonard Chess, taking more control of proceedings? The revisit to Nine Below Zero resulted in a performance which was agonisingly slow but was undoubtedly more in line with the lyrics than the original version. Had Leonard been listening to what was happening on the East Coast where Bobby Robinson was recording Sonny Boy’s one time sparring partner Elmore James, reinterpreting several of his older songs with the speed dial turned down but intensity level up (or am I imagining things?).

There was something different about the session that took place on 11th January 1963. One of the musicians – the “Blues Records” researcher isn’t sure but thinks it could have been Lafayette Leake or Billy Emerson – was sitting at an organ rather than a piano and the reason for that becomes clear when we listen to the first of the singles that emerged from the session. Yes, I’m talking about Help Me and yes, someone had obviously been listening to a certain organ-driven instrumental that had seen release from a newish label down in Memphis in the previous year, then gradually picked up the pace until it was selling like the proverbial hot cakes. And yes, that record was Green Onions from Booker T. & the M.G.’s.

As far as I know, no one has ever come forward and stated that Chess deliberately set out to make a record utilising the Green Onions riff and I don’t know when the current Wiki entry on Help Me was posted, but that’s effectively what that entry says. Mind you, it was reasonably clear at the time with the only significant difference being in urgency between the in-your-face “Onions” and the much more laidback Help Me. According to SecondHandSongs 75 covers/versions of the song have subsequently seen release from artists including Junior Wells, Jimmy Witherspoon, Magic Slim, Van Morrison, Dr. Feelgood and many more. Wiki also tells us: “In 1987, Help Me was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in the ‘Classic of Blues Recordings’ category”.

I’ll say no more, just listen and treasure it.

I said “first of the singles that emerged …”. There was to be a second but it was released posthumously, in 1966. That record was Bring It On Home To Me and it sounded even less like a typical Sonny Boy record than Help Me did. This was it: written by Willie Dixon and starting out for all the world as if it intended to be a single chord chugalong but then changing its mind to permit 12 bar-ish variation and a final mini end verse climax. Maybe this was the track that linked to the often solo (or near solo) Sonny Boy people would hear on his European tours.

Which allows me to segue very neatly to a track from one of the two Storyville LPs which were released. That track is Movin’ Down The River from Sonny Boy Williamson (Volume 2); the tracks for that album and its predecessor, Portraits In Blues Vol.4: Sonny Boy Williamson were cut in Copenhagen on 1st November 1963. And I’d add that it becomes abundantly clear as soon as he starts singing (or semi-speaking which is what he actually does), that the river is the Rhine. Liner Notes writer, Paul Oliver, has these words for the track:

“This is an impressionist blues composition, a floating, drifting improvisation: “I’m just cruisin’” he says. The river is the Rhine and it impressed Sonny Boy as he followed its course by train through the undulating landscape of the Black Forest. “I been … I been … cruisin’ down the River Rhine …” he sings softly, alternating the words with short bursts on his harmonica. Slowly the beat begins to generate more of a rocking, train-like motion and the snapping of his fingers like the rattle of the points gives a pronounced syncopation to the piece.”

If that segue seems on the extreme side with a switch of continents involved, I should point out that both recording and release of the two tracks took place within the same year, Sonny Boy was still contracted to Checker but was in Europe due to his inclusion in the list of artists for the 1963 American Folk Blues Festival – he was on the list again for the 1964 version – and Storyville, one assumes with full agreement from Chess, took the opportunity to cut sufficient tracks for a couple of albums. Accompanying Sonny Boy were Matt Murphy, guitar, Memphis Slim, piano and Bill Stepney, drums.

The new trend of recording Sonny Boy outside the US caught on and the next LP to see release was Sonny Boy Williamson And Memphis Slim on Disques Vogue in 1964 featuring the pair captured live in the Blue Bar, Paris, on 1st December 1963. A channel crossing then followed plus a meeting with some UK talent. Sonny Boy Williamson & The Yardbirds (that’s the Eric Clapton version of the band) was cut live at the Crawdaddy Club (in Richmond) on 8th December 1963 – they didn’t exactly hang around in those days – and released in 1966. This was the first time Sonny Boy had worked with anyone other than American supporting musicians and the results were mixed; Sonny Boy is on record as saying, on his return to the States, “I played with this British band over there, and they wanted to play the blues so bad … and they really did play them so bad.” That said, they did play other gigs with him in the UK. Part of the problem with the Yardbirds set is that the band seemed to be lacking in confidence, so their playing was often tentative. They also seemed to be – deliberately? – well down in the mix. Take It Easy Baby is one of the better tracks just slightly marred by the fact that Clapton seems to lose his way a bit in the break.

A similar live session with the Animals was cut at the Club A Go Go, Newcastle, on 30th December that same year (but not released until considerably later – it can now be found as The Animals With Sonny Boy Williamson on Charly, in 1985). Perhaps rising to expectations, this band didn’t suffer in any way from lack of confidence. Finesse isn’t the album’s strong point, however, but that’s compensated for by enthusiasm and one heck of a live atmosphere. The content includes an unexpected slow version of Fattening Frogs For Snakes plus a take of The Night Time Is The Right Time (with Eric Burdon on lead vocal and Sonny Boy in the Margie Hendrix role as on the Ray Charles single). One track I’m a tad partial to is the team’s version of the Chicago classic, Little Walter’s My Babe – this one slots neatly in my ‘also-rans’ which I’ll come to in a minute or so. Sonny Boy obviously knows the original well but doesn’t let that get in the way of him giving us his version rather than anyone else’s. There’s also a gorgeous “so what” in that he gives us a beaut of an ending to the break after a couple of near bum notes.

Those weren’t the last of the sessions with UK artists. There were a couple held with the Chris Barber Band in January and May 1964, the output from which eventually appeared on multi-artist sets, and, in April 1965 (just a bit over a month before his death), a set of tracks were cut with a session team headed by Brian Auger and Jimmy Page which also included Rick Brown (bass) and Micky Waller (drums) plus Joe Harriott (alto sax) and Alan Skidmore (tenor sax). The tracks were released on a set entitled Don’t Send Me No Flowers in 1968. Apart from the title track which was a rather atypical blues ballad, the content was brassy mid tempo blues; Walking gives a flavour of the set.

The last few paras don’t quite cover all the tracks that Sonny Boy laid down during his globe-trotting years but they probably include the more interesting ones. In addition, as hinted at earlier I was tempted into a second batch of selections given the high quality of Sonny Boy’s output:

Stop Crying(Trumpet) – you’d expect this to be a slow weepie with that title but no, would you expect him to conform? – it’s a mid tempo boogie with Sonny Boy unveiling some unexpected falsetto skllls

I Cross My Heart (Trumpet) – an everyday expression turned into a song and one that got revisited during the Checker years

Pontiac Blues (Trumpet) – a jumper which stayed in the set judging by the fact that he later cut it with both the Yardbirds and the Animals – Sonny Boy evidently loved car songs

Sonny Boy’s Christmas Blues (Trumpet) – I got some mighty bad news and I don’t have nothing to say / My baby left me, start me to drinking on Christmas Day – one to be added to any list of great Christmas blues – and I don’t know about just drinking on Christmas Day, as reported earlier, Sonny Boy hardly ever seemed to stop drinking, often preferring to do so before performing

I Don’t Know (Checker) – has fascinating a cappella singing on the title line but it comes where you least expect it

So Sad To Be Alone (Checker) – a good example of how he would use spacing between words

Unseen Eye and, Unseeing Eye (Checker) – not some incorrect transcription of a title, these are genuinely two different songs though one would suspect that one led to the other

One Way Out(Checker) – that’s the official version featuring Sonny Boy upstairs with a lady when hubbie arrives unexpectedly at the front door – however, there was subsequently an even better version with something near a Diddley beat and Buddy Guy on guitar cut in ‘63 which appeared on the Chess album, The Real Folk Blues – the song was also cut by Elmore James, maybe there was some self-identification in those lyrics

The Sky Is Crying (Storyville) – the Elmore James number given a fine reading by Sonny Boy with Matt (or M.T. as S.B. refers to him) Murphy only in support

Rebecca Blues(Storyville but not in the two LPs released at the time) – in which our hero and Memphis Slim trade what sound like improvised reminiscences about “that gal we met in Paris” – there’s also some excellent instrumental work from the pair

On My Way Back Home (Storyville) – Paul Oliver quoted the words from this one on the back of Sonny Boy Williamson (Volume 2) LP– below is the second verse:

But I’m leavin’, goin’ back to the States
Boy I really had my fun, and I got my kicks
I met some nice peoples and everybody was
Okay … Okay … Okay … Okay …
You know it?… you’se Okay
Make me feel so good a thousand miles away from home

In an interview held with Chris Strachwitz, founder of Arhoolie Records, on Sonny Boy Williamson, Strachwitz made the observation below regarding Sonny Boy’s return to the US after his first European tour:

“That must have been a horrible, horrible culture shock. You know, when you’re adored by suddenly a whole lot of white people in another continent and here you are back again in segregated United States, which is supposed to be your country, you know?”

The Historical Marker Database article on Sonny Boy includes the following statement in relation to his return to Mississippi after his second European tour in 1964/65:

“In 1965 Williamson made his way back to Glendora and stayed a few weeks with his cousin, Willie James Stewart. He performed at Stewart’s juke joint, the King Place, which stood at this site, according to Glendora mayor Johnny B. Thomas, also a cousin, who worked for Stewart. Williamson eventually returned to Helena, where he resumed playing on King Biscuit Time, and reportedly told his guitarist, Houston Stackhouse, that he had come home to die.”

He died on 25th May 1965. His grave is near Tutwiler, Mississippi. As stated earlier, the gravestone and its erection were paid for by Lillian McMurry.

Given the “American Gods” label I stuck on Sonny Boy at the start, it’s fitting that I finish with a few words from others about him. Given also that when reading about him one picks up stories of occasional volatility when dealing with others, I felt that a quote that summarised that shouldn’t be ignored. Hence:

“Sonny Boy was evil, just like somebody might go to cuttin’ you. He’d just get mad and cut you with words you know … he’d never hurt someone but he was always actin’ like he would just so nobody try and start something … yeah I really miss him, y’know?” (Those words came from Boogie Woogie Red who played with him in the Baby Boy Warren band and were reproduced by Cub Koda in the Notes to a double Sonny Boy LP)

Even Gods, American or otherwise, could be irascible at times. I’m spoilt for choice of quotes on Sonny’s more positive side. Below are just a few:

“He was in fact one of the most genuinely creative, persuasive, strikingly individualistic performers the blues has ever seen.” (Pete Welding from the liner notes of Chess LP CHV417)

“Known far and wide as a teller of tall tales and as a flamboyant personality, he impressed his wizard-like image indelibly on the Blues scene.” (Bob Groom, Blues World 1965)

“Above all, it is his incredible sense of timing and of rhythm that seems to mark out Sonny Boy as a quite exceptional musician. When he sings he uses pauses and intervals as significantly as he employs the words, nodding, swaying in punctuation. This sense of rhythm and of softly stated music pervades all that he does and says.” (Paul Oliver from the Notes to ‘Sonny Boy Williamson: Portraits In Blues: Vol.4’)

“Where Sonny Boy’s voice rests, his mouth harp talks. Always his feelings pour out. Always the blues. Big Bill (Broonzy) once commented re a popular young blues singer: ‘I don’t like the way he sings, he’s too satisfied’. Bill would have liked this Sonny Boy. He’s dissatisfied.”
(Studs Terkel, author “Giants Of Jazz” from the Notes to ‘Down And Out Blues’)


Sonny Boy Williamson poster 1




1. I managed not to mention in the main text the fact that Pye introduced a new label, Pye International R&B Series to cover the likes of Sonny Boy. According to Discogs, Help Me was record #2 in the series preceded only by Chuck Berry with Talking About You. However, 45cat shows Talking About You first appearing under the blue Pye International banner with the red & yellow colouration and the addition of “R&B Series” text part way through its life. So maybe, Help Me was actually Pye’s first disc on its International R&B Series.

2. Below are just a few of the words on John Lee Williamson (or Sonny Boy Williamson I) contained in the Wiki article on him:

“Williamson was born in Madison Country, Tennessee, near Jackson, in 1914. His original recordings are in the country blues style, but he soon demonstrated skill at making the harmonica a lead instrument for the blues and popularized it for the first time in a more urban blues setting. He has been called “the father of modern blues harp”. While in his teens he joined Yank Rachell and Sleepy John Estes, playing with them in Tennessee and Arkansas. In 1934 he settled in Chicago.

“Williamson first recorded in 1937, for Bluebird Records, and his first recording, Good Morning, School Girl, became a standard. He was popular among black audiences throughout the southern United States and in Midwestern industrial cities, such as Detroit and Chicago, and his name was synonymous with the blues harmonica for the next decade.”

Williamson was tragically killed while walking home from a gig at the Plantation Club in Chicago on 1st June 1948. He was collateral damage in a robbery that was taking place.

3. The Wikipedia writer on Robert Lockwood Jr. has put together a very comprehensive article on the man. and I strongly commend it to the reader. The paragraph below (which has the heading “Early Life”) is a taster:

“Lockwood was born in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, a hamlet west of Helena. He was one of two children born to Robert Lockwood Sr. and Esther Reese Lockwood, later known as Estella Coleman. He started playing the organ in his father’s church at the age of eight. His parents divorced, and later the famous bluesman Robert Johnson lived with Lockwood’s mother for 10 years off and on. Lockwood learned from Johnson not only how to play guitar but also timing and stage presence. Because of his personal and professional association with Johnson, he became known as “Robert Junior” Lockwood, a nickname by which he was known among musicians for the rest of his life, although he later frequently professed his dislike for this appellation.”

4. During his Chess/Checker days, Sonny Boy cut a record entitled Like Wolf which was a kind of tribute to Howlin’ Wolf. Note the attempt at a vocal impression of the man.

5. A couple of other points are of interest with regard to Sonny Boy’s Eyesight To The Blind record:

A version of the song performed by Eric Clapton with the Who was included in the 1975 film of Tommy, the rock opera. This is it.


Sonny Boy himself recut the song – hence creating his third version – as Born Blind in the Checker days and it was released as a single in 1958. Elmore certainly wasn’t on this one – Robert Lockwood Jr. and Luther Tucker shared guitar duties and that was Otis Spann tickling the ivories.

6. According to William Donoughue in his biographical notes on Sonny Boy, there was more to the bankruptcy of Trumpet Records than met the eye. Below is the relevant paragraph:

“The record business was played hardball in those rough and tumble days and Chess and Modern’s distributor in Jackson Mississippi quietly informed the record stores that, if they wanted their product, they couldn’t buy Trumpet’s. Faced with no sales and heavy returns, Trumpet was forced out of business. Sonny Boy’s contract was signed over to the pressing plant owner to settle the bill and Lillian and Willard McMurry worked four and one half years to pay off the company’s debts.”

7. I found an explanation/definition of the phrase “fattening frogs for snakes” in the Doggone Blues blog:

“The title ‘Fattening Frogs for Snakes’ refers to an old American proverb about putting loads of energy into something and not reaping the benefits, you spend ages fattening up a frog with lots of delicacies and then a big snake slips into his cage and eats him.”

In the case of the Sonny Boy song, the frog represents his woman while the snake is a predatory man.

8. There are a number of places on the net where the genealogy of Sonny Boy’s Fattening Frogs For Snakes is tracked. I’ve made usage of the one from Sundaybluesorg in putting together the paragraphs below:

The first known appearance of the Frogs/Snakes phrase in a song title was in 1925 and the record was I’m Sick Of Fattening Frogs For Snakes from Virginia Liston (though she actually sings “tired” instead of “sick”). In this case the frog was her man of course and the verses documented his cheating. A further record followed (in 1932) from Carrie Edwards with the title reduced to the phrase only, Fattening Frogs For Snakes though the song was actually new in terms of both melody and lyrics. This one was covered by Clara Smith a few months later.

The first male to use the title was Bumble Bee Slim in 1935. This was his take on the theme. Melodically he used a conventional 12 bar blues rather than anything more complex. Further male variants followed from the Mobile Strugglers (a string band), Memphis Slim and more, often using new or modified lyrics. It’s thought (but without any solid evidence) that Sonny Boy is likely to have based his version on the Bumble Bee Slim track. Slim, real name Amos Easton, was a known influence on other artists including Muddy Waters.

9. In “B.B. King – The Authorized Biography”, the author Charles Sawyer tells the story of an occasion when Sonny Boy did a favour for the young B.B. who was then still known by his forename, Riley. The latter moved to West Memphis in 1948 and as soon as he arrived made a bee line for Sonny Boy who, at that time had a daily fifteen-minute radio program on station KWEM. Riley asked Sonny Boy to allow him to play one number in his show that day.

Sonny Boy did better than that, but for a reason. He’d managed to get himself double-booked on gigs that coming weekend which initially was insurance in case one of them cancelled. However, it was looking as if both were going ahead and he needed to get out of one pronto. So, after a quick run through of a song from Riley, he featured him on his show that day asking listeners if they would phone in if they liked what they heard. After the phone calls obligingly flooded in, Sonny Boy called Miss Annie, of Miss Annie’s Saloon, the poorer paying of the two gigs and offered her, in place of himself, “a “new sensation” who had “burned up the phone wires” with listeners calling in to rave about his guest appearance on Sonny Boy’s show. It worked, and Miss Annie was so pleased that the one-off appearance turned into a regular slot.

10. Rather than give you the typically dry Wiki description of the genesis of the American Folk Blues Festival, below I’ve transcribed just a few of the relevant (and rather more colourful) words from Charles Shaar Murray’s “Boogie Man: The Adventures Of John Lee Hooker In The American Twentieth Century”:

“Like not a few other things, the American Folk Blues Festival was the brainchild of Willie Dixon, the gargantuan bassist/ songwriter/ producer/ session fixer who’d served as Chess Records’ ramrod and all round éminence grise since 1954. Dixon and the pianist Memphis Slim had toured Israel in 1960 and had a lot of fun but made so little money that they’d had to gig their way through Europe in order to finance their trip home. Along the way, the German jazz critic Joachim Berendt had put Dixon in touch with Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau, two German jazz fans turned promoters. Together they hatched the idea of bringing a package tour of blues artists to Europe under the auspices of Lippmann and Rau’s Concert Bureau agency with Concert Bureau organizing the shows and Dixon coordinating the talent.”

The first festival was held in 1962 and it was on mainland Europe only. (John Lee was in it hence the back filling by Murray in his book.) Subsequent tours included the UK. The tours continued, with the odd exception year, to 1972 and there was a brief revival of the festival in the eighties.

11. There was mention of Sonny Boy appearing live with the Baby Boy Warren band in the main text. He also cut four fine tracks as a member of Baby Boy’s band in a session held in 1954 for the J-V-B label in Detroit. The tracks saw release the same year as two singles: Sanafee / Hello Stranger and Chicken (an instrumental) / Baby Boys Blues. Note the percussive presence of Washboard Willie. The second single subsequently reappeared on the Drummond label in 1956 and two of the tracks were reissued on Excello (with title changes) in 1962. (Info from Cal as the reader has probably already deduced.)

12. Not all that long before his death, after his final return to the US, Sonny Boy met members of the Band. Robbie Robertson tells the story in this clip which was recorded by the House of Blues Radio Hour. It’s long – 11:40 – but well worth a listen. It starts with the Band who happened to be in in Helena, Arkansas (which was close to a place called Elaine where Levon was born and brought up) and, knowing about the King Biscuit Time radio show and the Sonny Boy connection, decided to go search for him. Which they did successfully, etc., etc. – I won’t spoil the main story for you but would just mention that Sonny Boy’s one liner on the quality of British bands is in there. In addition to the Robbie clip there’s also an excellent one of Levon and Garth playing Don’t Start Me To Talkin’ followed by more reminiscences from themselves plus Rick Danko of meeting Sonny Boy:

13. The Best Song You’ve Never Heard: “Sonny Boy” by Randy Newman. The song appears on Dark Matters, released in 2017, Newman’s first album for nine years.

“Newman tells a tale based on the true story of Sonny Boy Williamson, an influential blues musician from the 1930s until his death in 1948, who was best known for his unique harmonica style. In 1951, a Mississippi Delta blues artist using the same name started releasing songs. This led to much confusion over which Sonny Boy Williamson was which. The 2nd Sonny Boy Williamson went on to be successful as one of the great Chess Records blues musicians and was influential to 60s British rock stars who were inspired by similar artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.”

It’s me comin’ at you
From the land beyond
I’m up here in heaven
Where I belong
I’m gonna yell you my story
About a man who’s down in hell
He ain’t up here anyway
As far as I can tell
This man stole my name
He stole my soul

14. I mentioned in the introductory paragraphs that I saw Sonny Boy in a London club setting. The club was the Marquee and I’m reasonably sure that the date was 13th March 1964. Also on the bill, Long John Baldry with his Hoochie Coochie Men and the Yardbirds. The Baldry band set up to back Sonny Boy, he came on, there was dialogue and it gradually became clear that he was telling them to scarper. Which they eventually did and Sonny Boy gave us his performance, part solo and part backed by the Yardbirds. The whole incident struck me as (a) odd since the Hoochie Coochie Men being the relics of Cyril Davies’ Rhythm & Blues All Stars were probably the more musically accomplished of the two bands, and (b) rude, since this had evidently been arranged for Sonny Boy but, at the last minute, he was turning it down. I should add that he was excellent.

15. On 22nd March 1984, Bob Dylan appeared on the David Letterman TV show ostensibly to plug his album Infidels or at least that’s what Letterman was assuming judging by his introduction. However, from a report from Ray Padgett via his “Flagging Down The Double E’s” mailshots, when Dylan and the band were “… walking out on stage, he just said, “Sonny Boy in E” and launched into Don’t Start Me To Talking probably to the surprise of said compère. While he did play a couple of songs from Infidels afterwards, he has never, according to Padgett, been heard playing the Sonny Boy song since then. Two of the members of the backing band were from the latino punk outfit Plugz. They had been rehearsing a very wide variety of songs with Bob in his Malibu home and it’s from one of that pair that this information came.

16. As usual in the “assisted by Cal Taylor” Toppermosts I want to put on record my heartfelt thanks to Cal, not only for his input – which was massive and there’s a lot which has not been used – but also for keeping me on the straight and narrow and, if I might have been flagging (or falling for temptations like World Cup football), keeping me to it.

17. Because of the European tours one thing we’re not short of are clips of Sonny Boy on stage. I’ve selected three. The first and second are from his first tour with the American Folk Blues Festival in 1963. The introductions are from Memphis Slim. The backing group consists of Otis Spann (piano), Matt Murphy (guitar), Willie Dixon (bass) and Bill Stepney (drums). Clip #1 is Keep It To Yourself. Note the bowler and the positioning of the brolly.

Clip #2 features Nine Below Zero from a similar time frame but we have a location and it’s “at Großer Kursaal in Baden-Baden, Germany for Südwestfunk TV as part of the American Folk Blues Festival”. Both this clip and the third have been “colourised” but I don’t think that’s done them any harm.

Clip #3 was filmed during the 1964 American Folk Blues Festival at the Fairfield Hall, Croydon. Note the two shade suit which he had had made in London and also the way he plays his harp during the last minute. It’s worth adding that his original Bye Bye Bird was cut at the January ’63 session which produced Help Me and I’m assuming that “Bird” was Charlie Parker.




Sonny Boy Williamson poster 2


Sonny Boy Williamson photo 2


Sonny Boy Williamson II (Wikipedia)

Sonny Boy Williamson II discography (45cat)

Many photos of Sonny Boy at Bob Corritore’s great website

Sonny Boy Williamson II biography (AllMusic)

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Cal Taylor has avidly collected records since the early 1960s, gravitating to deep soul and blues. As time went on he got more and more into studying pre-war blues and accumulated a vast record collection. Cal saw many such artists live in the sixties. He has written several posts for this site including Charley Patton, Blind Willie Johnson, Robert Johnson and Otis Redding.

The Stephens/Taylor toppermosts include Johnny Ace, Arthur Alexander, Ray Charles, Cyril Davies, The Falcons, Guitar Slim, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Elmore James, Alexis Korner, Little Walter, Johnny Otis, Junior Parker.

TopperPost #1,053


  1. Andrew Shields
    Jan 6, 2023

    Yet another superb Stephens and Taylor Toppermost. As a curiousity, thought I would mention Williamson’s recording of a song called ‘Wake Up Baby’. It has a strong similarity to the Dubliners ‘Seven Drunken Nights’ which in turn was based on an older song called ‘Peigin is Peadar’ recorded by Joe Heaney. There is more about the history of the song here.

  2. Cal Taylor
    Jan 7, 2023

    Thank you very much for your kind comment, Andrew.
    Thank you also for the very interesting link re ‘Wake Up, Baby’/‘Seven Drunken Nights’ and the song’s history. The song goes back over 250 years and is so widespread that many different countries have their own versions in all different languages. I can remember in the early 1960’s when non-electric blues was called folk blues it seemed nearly every LP had a version of this song on it.
    Overall Sonny Boy’s lyrics were highly original but not always. As with most blues something was ‘borrowed’ from somewhere else. I guess Sonny Boy’s lyrics on ‘Wake Up, Baby’ were a little different from other versions for him to be able to claim a songwriting credit but it would have been more honest to say ‘traditional’.
    Separately, just after Dave and I finished doing this Toppermost I found this … a tribute to Sonny Boy from fellow harp playing bluesman Jimmy Reed, on his first record after leaving Vee-Jay in 1966. It’s called ‘Dedication To Sonny’.

  3. Carl Parker
    Jan 10, 2023

    Is this the most diligently researched Toppermost yet?
    An excellent, informative and of course, and most importantly, entertaining piece.
    It sets an intimidating standard.
    Well done and thank you.

    • Dave Stephens
      Jan 10, 2023

      Many thanks for those kind words Carl. I have to say that the fact that there were the two of us handling the research helped considerably as I attempted to say in footnote #15. In the case of this artist I’d also add in that there were two specific challenges to overcome. Both Sonny Boy’s propensity to “write his own history” (not unlike a certain Mr. Zimmerman) plus his changeable attitude to other people could well have necessitated a subconscious requirement to dig deeper than usual in order to get as close as possible to what went on – I almost said “the truth” but that seemed too heavy – and to be fair to Sonny Boy at the same time. Toppermosts are first and foremost about the music but events in the artist’s life and how he or she reacted to others could well have had significant impact on that music.

  4. Ilkka Jauramo
    Jan 18, 2023

    Thank you for this Toppermost. I have waited for it for more than fifty years after I purchased my first blues record. Worth waiting! – That was the Crawdaddy recording with Yardbirds and with ‘Pontiac Blues’. I still play it sometimes. I mean ‘Pontiac Blues’ with harmonica. It was the first blues I learned (?) to play … and also the last one. (I soon found my limitations.)
    I have said this hundreds of times: British blues is underrated.

    • Dave Stephens
      Jan 31, 2023

      Ilkka, thanks for your Comment and yes, that was a very long wait. And yes too, I have to confess to some blues snobbery for want of a better word. It was the case back then and it hasn’t really gone away now. Much as I enjoyed seeing bands like the Yardbirds and the Animals live – and I did several times – with a few exceptions, it was black American records I used to purchase, initially via British release and then through import channels. (I didn’t even start purchasing Stones LP’s until “Aftermath” but I did subsequently backfill.) Although Brit bands deserve masses of credit for what they developed from a blues base it was those two adjectives that I just used before “records” that I’ve always seen as essential for real blues. But hey, we all have different tastes and thank god for that!

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.