Much of the history of the Blues is a patchwork of stories, lies, exaggerations and myths. This has led to even simple tales of artists' pasts becoming rather complicated affairs. It especially doesn't help that these musicians moved about and kept very few written records. Did Robert Johnson really sell his soul on the crossroads at midnight, or did he just go and practise very hard for a year? Did he die on his knees howling at the moon, or in his bed crying to his mother? Why has he got three gravestones1? Robert Johnson was a master at creating an aura of mystery around himself, but one of his delta associates took it a step further, adopting the career of somebody else and confusing both the public and music journalists for decades to come.
Aleck 'Rice' Millar, a man who had played the same juke joints as Robert Johnson and other delta legends reappeared on the Chicago Blues scene in 1955 as Sonny Boy Williamson, which happened to be the name of the greatest pre-World War II blues harmonica player. So here is a guide to which Sonny is which, and why referring to the elder and the younger2 is just going to confuse matters.
John Lee 'Sonny Boy' Williamson (I) 1914 - 1948
His grandmother nicknamed this boy from Jackson, Tennessee. From his mid-teens he was hoboing around the South from Memphis to Yazoo City through Arkansas and back to Memphis with men like Sleepy John Estes and Big Joe Williams, learning his trade as a blues harmonica3 player. He partnered up with Yank Rachell and after moving to Chicago in 1934 they played numerous gigs as a duo both in The North and back down South.
While touring in St Louis, they met with Robert Lee McCoy and Walter Davis, who helped Sonny Boy get signed by Lester Melrose's Bluebird label in May 1937. His first session in Aurora, Illinois produced the huge hit 'Good Morning Schoolgirl'. This is one of the most covered songs in blues music, and for the next few years Sonny Boy was one of the busiest blues musicians.
Williamson moved permanently to Chicago in 1939, first staying with Tampa Red before living with wife Lacey Belle, who also helped with some of his lyrics. He was a warm, smiling, fun-loving man, who was able to blend a country style with the new urban sounds laying the way for the post-war Chicago Blues Boom. He maintained his popularity after the war, but the blues world was robbed of a great when he was stabbed by a woman in his doorway after playing at the Plantation Club in the Southside of Chicago in 1948.
Aleck 'Rice' Miller 'Sonny Boy' Williamson (II) 1899 (or 1909) - 1965
Given that glancing at two different books can give a gap of ten years in Miller's date of birth shows the level of myth that surrounds the second man to take the name of Sonny Boy. Whatever the date, it is certain that calling him the younger 'Sonny Boy' is rather misleading.
He was born illegitimately as Aleck Ford, but took his stepfather's name to become known as Rice Miller. He had started playing harp by the age of five and earnt his pennies from tips on street corners and playing house rent parties4.
His life took him around the Mississippi Delta, playing with people like Robert Johnson, Robert Lockwood and Elmore James. He was known then as Little Boy Blue, which given that he stood over six feet in height rather underplayed the stature of the great man. He married Mary Burnett, the sister of Howlin' Wolf and taught Wolf harmonica. As his fame in the Delta grew, he had regular spots on KFFA's King Biscuit hour, and his face even graced cornmeal packets.
Many Bluesmen are accomplished liars, being liberal with the truth to make the story that bit more entertaining both in terms of their past and in their boasts in song, but Rice Miller took the (King) biscuit. Due to the original Sonny Boy's fame, people were often adding Sonny Boy to the name of every half-decent harp player going around, Miller just took it further, adopting the whole name, and claiming that he was the artist who had recorded all those classic cuts.
Very few people would have the bottle to claim to be another musician, especially if that musician was so well-loved. Fewer people have the talent to pull it off, but Miller did. Recording for Chess and its subsidiary Checker label his songs such as 'Eyesight to the Blind', 'Nine Below Zero', and 'Fattening Frogs for Snakes' were groundbreaking. He also played harp on the Elmore James recording of 'Dust My Broom' a classic electric blues track.
Audiences loved this larger than life character, and in 1963 he went to Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival and was loved by audiences there. As well as his playing ability, his charm, funny stories, showmanship and casual asides drew people to see him. Sonny Boy loved it there too, staying in Britain when the tour was over and recording and touring with British Blues bands including The Animals and The Yardbirds. He also toured again with the festival the next year. Back in the US, Sonny Boy talked about returning to Europe, however his dream died with him in May 1965.
'Don't start me to talking, I might tell everything I know.' Sonny Boy Williamson II
The legacy of the two Sonny Boys is of two loved and respected performers who moved blues harmonica forward more than almost any other musicians. With his tours to Europe and appearances on TV, the Sonny Boy II is generally the better-known of the pair. Certainly taking John Lee's name helped him gain an audience more quickly, but Rice Miller was talented enough to have succeeded under his own name if he had wanted to, but this way, it's one more story about a larger-than-life man.
You can always catch out somebody trying to bluff you with their blues knowledge as soon as they move onto the topic of Sonny Boy Williamson. Interrupting them to ask which Sonny Boy they are talking about and correcting them if they respond with 'oh, the elder' can raise people's opinions of you in the blues bluffing stakes. As Sonny Boy Williamson II proved, if you bluff with confidence and conviction, people will believe whatever you tell them!