The many legends of Sonny Boy Williamson the Second, the original “King Biscuit Boy”

By on October 6, 2015

On Oct. 7-10, the King Biscuit Blues Festival will be held in Helena, AR. The annual showcase’s name pays homage to “King Biscuit Time,” the nation’s longest-running daily radio show, and to the program’s original star, whose picture graces the festival’s logo: the enigmatic blues singer-songwriter-harmonica wizard Sonny Boy Williamson.

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We’re fortunate to have plentiful documentation of Sonny Boy’s astonishing music, which he recorded between 1951-64 for Trumpet Records, Chess Records’ subsidiary Checker Records, and Denmark’s Storyville Records. He was among the titans of postwar blues. Rock listeners know him via the Who’s cover of his “Eyesight to the Blind” and the Allman Brothers’ version of his “One Way Out.” He remains something of a shadow, a phantom, among the blues greats, as elusive in his way as Robert Johnson. The details of Williamson’s life before his arrival at “King Biscuit Time” in 1941 are obscured in a cloud of rumor, much of it perpetuated by the musician’s own misdirection and obfuscation.

Sonny Boy may have sung “Don’t start me to talkin’, I’ll tell you everything I know” on his first single, but little that his interrogators heard from him during his lifetime could be taken as gospel. English journalist John Broven wrote in Blues Unlimited in 1964, “There is much confusion in my mind as to the veracity of [Williamson’s statements]…I implore researchers to get to work to confirm or reject what was told to me!” As blues authority Mark Humphrey wrote in the notes to the 1993 compilation The Essential Sonny Boy Williamson, “He was a biographer’s nightmare.”

Astounding silent color footage of SBW and Robert Junior Lockwood on King Biscuit Time, 1942

Even the basic information about his birth is in question. The details on his tombstone, erected by the owner of his first label home, are certainly wrong. It is generally agreed that he was born in Glendora, MS. His birth date is listed variously as March 11 and Dec. 5. His year of birth is recorded as anywhere from 1897 to 1908. His birth name may have been Aleck Ford – his mother’s name was Millie Ford, and he was apparently illegitimate; after his mother married a man named Jim Miller, he became known as Aleck Miller, and was nicknamed “Rice.”

Virtually nothing – or at least nothing that can be confirmed — is known about his early years as an itinerant musician. He rambled around the Mississippi Delta for years. It’s quite possible he played in latter-day medicine shows, for some of his showy performance tricks – shoving an entire harmonica into his mouth, or playing it with his nose – were typical of those alfresco gigs that peddled patent cure-alls. He unquestionably frequented the Southern juke joints; he claimed to have played with Robert Johnson, and he definitely met up with Elmore James, Johnson’s slide guitar disciple, in his perambulations.

The gifted harp players James Cotton and Junior Parker claimed him as a mentor and influence. In 1941, with another similarly footloose performer, guitarist Robert Junior Lockwood (whose mother was among Robert Johnson’s many girlfriends), he began playing on “King Biscuit Time,” a daily show broadcast on KFFA-AM in Helena and sponsored by the Interstate Grocery Co., makers of King Biscuit flour. The show, which reached black audiences throughout the Delta, made him a regional star – so much so that he was awarded with his own brand of “Sonny Boy Meal.” (The illustration on the sack would become the King Biscuit Blues Festival’s logo.) SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON 1

It’s hard to say when Miller started calling himself “Sonny Boy Williamson” professionally. He was definitely billed that way when he first appeared on “King Biscuit Time.” Most historians assume that he took the name well after John Lee Williamson, a Tennessee-born singer and harmonica player, began recording for Chicago’s Bluebird Records under the same handle during the ‘30s. Thus, Miller is commonly known as “Sonny Boy II” or “Sonny Boy the Second.” (John Lee Williamson was murdered during a robbery in Chicago in 1948.)

Backed by a rotating band of accompanists – known variously as the “King Biscuit Entertainers” and the “King Biscuit Boys” — who included the outstanding guitarists Joe Willie Wilkins and Houston Stackhouse, Sonny Boy held the fort at KFFA until 1944. He continued his rambles, and after the war he played with Elmore James on the radio in Mississippi and performed for Hadacol (the same patent medicine that sponsored Hank Williams’ tours for a spell) on KWEM in West Memphis, TN.

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Sonny Boy (center) with King Biscuit Time musicians and host

Though Williamson claimed to have recorded for one label or another as early as the ‘30s, none of those sides has ever been unearthed. Finally, in 1951, the peripatetic musician cast in his lot with Trumpet, an independent label based in Jackson, MS, operated by a flinty record store owner named Lillian McMurry. Sonny Boy’s highly countrified Trumpet recordings, such as “Eyesight to the Blind,” “Mr. Downchild,” and the original version of “Nine Below Zero,” are classics of their kind, with slashing harmonica work and fluid vocals by the leader. The highlight of Williamson’s sessions for the label was probably “Mighty Long Time,” a mournful number on which his singing is backed solely by his own deep harp work and the faux-bass vocal of Cliff Bivens; it is a staggering performance.

McMurry continued to record Sonny Boy through 1954 (and used him on Elmore James’ first recording of his signature “Dust My Broom” in 1952), but, deep in debt to her pressing plant, Plastic Products, she awarded his contract to the facility’s owner Buster Williams, who in turn sold Williamson’s rights to Chess Records, home of the blues stars Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Sonny Boy’s lone competitor for blues harp supremacy, Little Walter.

Sonny Boy’s reputation largely rests on his 1955-64 Checker recordings, on which he was backed by the cream of Chess’ house musicians, including Waters, Jimmy Rogers, Otis Spann, Willie Dixon, and his old compatriot Robert Junior Lockwood. The records all sported a fiercely hard, almost jazzy swing, and sly, rhythmically sophisticated singing by Williamson, who was in a class by himself among Chicago blues vocalists. Unlike most of his label compatriots, who relied greatly on Dixon’s songwriting skills for their material, Sonny Boy wrote nearly all his songs himself.

He landed on the national map immediately with “Don’t Start Me to Talkin’,” his debut Checker single, which climbed to No. 3 on the national R&B chart in 1955. (It would later be covered by rock bands as dissimilar as the New York Dolls and the Doobie Brothers.) It became a cornerstone of his debut album Down and Out Blues (1959), which bore a memorably sleazy cover photo by Don Bronstein.

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A host of other top-drawer recordings followed that first hit: “Keep It To Yourself” (No. 14 nationally in 1956), “Unseen Eye,” “Too Close Together,” “Fattening Frogs For Snakes,” “Checkin’ Up On My Baby,” the remake of “Nine Below Zero,” “Bye Bye Bird.” His final chart single, “Help Me,” was released within weeks of Booker T. and the MGs’ “Green Onions” in 1963, and bore an identical rhythm lick; it’s hard to say who got to the rhythm first. Sonny Boy’s most infamous recording didn’t see the light of day until after his death, when the tapes of a September 1957 session were released in their entirety.

On that date, the musician and producer Leonard Chess got into an argument about the title of the song they were working on. Williamson barks at Chess, “‘Little Village,’ motherfucker, ‘Little Village!’…You name it ‘Your Mammy’ if you wanna.” Issued on the 1969 compilation Bummer Road, that exchange inspired the name of the all-star quartet featuring John Hiatt, Nick Lowe, Ry Cooder, and Jim Keltner. When the album was reissued on CD, it bore a “parental advisory” sticker.

By 1963, Sonny Boy was still largely unknown beyond his black fan base; he eschewed appearances at the U.S. folk festivals that drew young white audiences. Everything changed, however, when he was enlisted as an attraction on the American Folk Blues Festival, an all-star touring package that hit the capitals of Great Britain and the continent under the auspices of promoters Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau. Those appearances are the source of the dazzling live TV shots seen here.

By his second AFBF jaunt in 1964 – at which time he recorded with such young up-and-coming British acts as the Yardbirds and the Animals – the ever-eccentric Williamson was cutting an even more outré figure on stage. He began to wear a bowler hat, garbed himself in bespoke continental suits – including a snazzy two-tone “harlequin” number – and carried a furled umbrella and briefcase (holding his harps) to the microphone with him. In front of adoring European crowds, he was droll, witty, and musically dynamic, and stole the show from his compatriots.

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Sonny Boy, in his bespoke “harlequin suit,” performing at King Biscuit Time with guitarist Houston Stackhouse and drummer Peck Curtis, not long before his death in 1965

He cut a pair of beautiful, intimate LPs with Matt “Guitar” Murphy and pianist Memphis Slim for Storyville, and went so far as to write the song “I’m Trying to Make London My Home.” But, lionized overseas, he nonetheless returned to Helena after the AFBF closed in 1964, to appear once again on “King Biscuit Time.”

“Bye Bye Blues” (all-star performance with Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim, Willie Dixon, Big Joe Williams, Lonnie Johnson, Victoria Spivey, Otis Spann)

In April 1965, not a healthy man, he was still working at KFFA when he was sought out by the members of the Hawks, singer Ronnie Hawkins’ former backup band, who were in Helena to play the senior prom. The group – four Canadians and Arkansas-born drummer Levon Helm, soon to be known as the Band – spent a night carousing with and playing with the blues elder, until a white policeman ran them out of town.

Helm, who recounted part of the story in Martin Scorsese’s 1978 documentary The Last Waltz, recalled the event at further length in his 1993 memoir This Wheel’s On Fire, written with Stephen Davis: “Sonny Boy worked his harmonica like a damn brass section, backward and inside out. He played it sticking out of his mouth like a cigar! He put the whole harp inside his mouth and played. Then he’d spit in the can [next to him] before calling another tune. In the end he about wrung us out, before inviting us to a local booze camp he liked to frequent. Before we left, [guitarist] Robbie [Robertson] happened to glance at the can that Sonny Boy had been spitting in. It was full of blood.”

His career had gone full circle. On May 25, 1965, after he failed to make a “King Biscuit Time” appearance, Sonny Boy Williamson was found dead in his Helena home. Fittingly, the date of his death is incorrect on his headstone. The truth of his life was buried with him; it is unlikely that his legend will ever be interred. It will be celebrated in Arkansas again this week.

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Sonny Boy’s gravestone, purchased by Trumpet Records; the birth date is almost certainly incorrect

About Chris Morris

Chris Morris is the author of Together Through Life: A Personal Journey with the Music of Bob Dylan (ROTHCO Press) and the critical biography Los Lobos: Dream in Blue (University of Texas Press). He is also a contributor to X bassist-vocalist John Doe’s bestselling book about L.A. punk, Under the Big Black Sun (Da Capo Books).