Looking back at the first, but not the only, “Sonny Boy” Williamson

I was listening to some music by Aleck Miller the other day, and I got to thinking about his stage name — you know: Sonny Boy Williamson, usually followed by II. And how he just plain stole another man’s name and reputation to help his own fame and reputation.

So I thought I might pass along this odd little piece of blues history, and encourage you to find some of Williamson’s music and enjoy it.

That reminded me that I ought to revisit the work of the original Sonny Boy — John Lee Curtis “Sonny Boy” Williamson — not nearly as well-known today as Miller, but very influential in helping to turn the blues harp into a featured solo instrument in blues bands.

Williamson, who started to record in 1937, was a prolific songwriter, bandleader and sideman until his death in 1948. The two harp players’ careers overlapped, and in 1941, Miller was hired to play the on the King Biscuit Time radio show in Helena, Ark., advertising the King Biscuit brand of baking flour. He appeared with Robert Jr. Lockwood.

The main theory about Millers’ name change says that the Biscuit Time sponsor, Max Moore, began billing Miller as Sonny Boy Williamson in an attempt to capitalize on the fame of Williamson, who was a more well-known performer in Chicago blues and recording circles. I’ve read various ambiguous accounts of whether the two men met, and whether Williamson ever acknowledged or approved of Miller’s name change, but Miller himself seemed to have no objection to building his prodigious career on the taking of another man’s name. Although to be fair, he would often claim that he was the first to use the Sonny Boy moniker, but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence to support this.

Sonny Boy Williamson II, or Aleck (or sometimes Alex) “Rice” Miller (originally Ford).

Before he became Sonny Boy II, Miller performed as “Rice” Miller — a childhood nickname because he loved his rice and milk, or as “Little Boy Blue.” Incidentally, Miller’s mother was named Millie Ford, but he apparently took the last name of his stepfather, Jim Miller.

Williamson’s blues output was immense. He played on hundreds of recordings by many pre–World War II blues artists. Under his own name, he was one of the most recorded blues musicians of the 1930s and 1940s and is closely associated with Chicago producer Lester Melrose and Bluebird Records.

His popular songs, original or adapted, include “Good Morning, School Girl“, “Sugar Mama,” “Early in the Morning“, and “Stop Breaking Down.”

Here’s a web site put together by Stefan Wirz, with a comprehensive list of Williamson’s recordings.

You can find some audio of his work on YouTube, and streaming services. And there are still some of albums around, if the prices haven’t been inflated too much. Interestingly, on a few of the compilations albums of his work, his name is turned around, apparently to capitalize on the Sonny Boy part instead of the John Lee part, as in “The Blues: Chicago 1937-1945 by Sonny Boy ‘John Lee’ Williamson”

So you should give the original Sonny Boy a listen. His harp work is sharp and strong and his vocals full of life. His original songs often the precursors of later blues, like his “Good Morning School Girl,” which, with the addition of the word “Little,” has become a blues classic.

Miller’s music is easy to find. There’s plenty of audio and video of him performing. Williamson’s work is there, but not quite as visible. It’s worth the search.

Here’s a sampling of some audio found on YouTube:

Here’s “Sugar Mama Blues”:

Even cowboys get the blues

I was looking through some of my very old country blues music the other day, and came upon a CD collection of vintage songs titled “Booger Rooger Saturday Night!” by Orvon Grover Autry. You probably know him better as Gene Autry. The rest of the album title is “Gene Autry Blues Singer 1929 – 1931”

You also probably know him better as a movie star (93 films), TV star, recording artist (640 recordings), and baseball team owner. But at the very beginning of his career, Autry was considered the second most important country artist after Jimmie Rodgers.

The songs in this collection are among his first recordings, and some of them are among the 300 songs that he wrote or co-wrote. The photo on the album cover was taken about 1927, and this CD compilation was released in 1996 by Sony Legacy.

His first actual recording hit was in 1932 with “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine,” a duet with fellow railroad man Jimmy Long that Autry and Long co-wrote. In 1932, Autry married Ina Mae Spivey, Long’s niece. But during this marriage he also had a lengthy affair with Gail Davis, the actress who played Annie Oakley in the television series of the same name that Autry executive produced.

I thought it was interesting that Autry — probably most remembered for two things: “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (which he didn’t write), and his movie roles in the 1930s and 1940s, when he was the all-American cowboy hero — started out recording these little blues tunes.

Autry was a man with many interests. He was the original owner of Challenge Records. The label’s biggest hit was “Tequila” by The Champs in 1958.

He was the owner of the new Los Angeles Angels team in 1961, which moved to suburban Anaheim and became the California Angels in 1966, then the Anaheim Angels from 1997 until 2005, when it became the Los Angeles Angels.

And he did a lot of other things, too — WWII pilot, rodeo involvement, Melody Ranch — all of which you can read about here.

This was how it was all summed up on his tombstone:

“America’s Favorite Cowboy … American Hero, Philanthropist, Patriot and Veteran, Movie Star, Singer, Composer, Baseball Fan and Owner, 33rd Degree Mason, Media Entrepreneur, Loving Husband, Gentleman”

But they didn’t mention blues singer.

Here’s his original song, “Rheumatism Blues” from the album:

Track List (Album information here)

  • 01. Birmingham Daddy (02:43)
  • 02. Rheumatism Blues, The (02:26)
  • 03. Dallas County Jail Blues (03:01)
  • 04. Jail-House Blues (02:39)
  • 05. I’m Atlanta Bound (02:39)
  • 06. In the Jailhouse Now, No. 2 (02:43)
  • 07. Bear Cat Papa Blues (02:49)
  • 08. Wildcat Mama Blues (02:22)
  • 09. High Steppin’ Mama Blues (02:41)
  • 10. Yodeling Hobo, A (03:00)
  • 11. T.B. Blues (02:56)
  • 12. California Blues (02:33)
  • 13. Slu-Foot Lou (02:41)
  • 14. Stay Away from My Chicken House (02:43)
  • 15. Waiting for a Train (02:38)
  • 16. Frankie and Johnny (02:41)
  • 17. Do Right Daddy Blues (02:44)
  • 18. Blue Yodel No. 5 (02:36)
  • 19. My Rough and Rowdy Ways (02:44)
  • 20. Left My Gal in the Mountains (02:36)
  • 21. I’ve Always Been a Rambler (02:32)
  • 22. Dust Pan Blues (02:44)
  • 23. That’s Why I Left the Mountains (03:09)

“West Texas Blues” a fine album of … West Texas blues, in forgotten formats

Since I opened the Blues Roadhouse late last year, I’ve written about a bunch of new albums that I’ve heard and enjoyed. I’ve resisted the occasional temptation to reach back beyond my start date for new releases, simply because there would be so many. And, you know, so little tiime.

But then I got my April newsletter from Sue Foley the other day, in which she mentioned shooting a video for an album she cut with Mike Flanigin last July, the album being titled “West Texas Blues.”

Available now on Compact Disc, Reel-To-Reel Tape, 8-Track Tape & Cassette from the Store! 180-gram vinyl available now through Experience Vinyl here. Also available on all digital platforms.

Well. I do love some fine B3. Likewise, Foley’s vocals and crisp guitar (plus, my very first girlfriend was a redhead, too). And West Texas itself, always a kind of mysterious place full of folklore, tough music, and tougher hombres (at least that’s how it seemed in the old cowboy movies I saw).

But what really caught my eye here was an image on Flanigin’s web site, promoting the formats in which this new album is available. Normally, you can get a CD, and digital downloads. And usually, streaming platforms. And sometimes, a vinyl version.

But “West Texas Blues” is not only available on CD and online, it’s available on cassettes! And 8-tracks!! And, wait for it, REEL-TO-REEL!!! All right here. I mean, I once knew someone who had a reel-to-reel player, but that was about a half-century ago. It did sound quite good, though.

But you say you only have a turntable, because that’s the only way that recorded music can possibly sound good? There’s also a 180-gram vinyl version available from Experience Vinyl.

The idea of a 21st-century 8-track is somewhat mind-boggling, but I think it was the reel-to-reel that got me. How could I not write about this album?

And, given the talent, and the resulting music, how could I not like it?

“West Texas Blues” is stripped-down, bare-bones blues. No frills. No fancy production gimmicks. It features just three stellar musicians: Flanigin, a Hammond B3 wizard, Foley, a Canadian-born but nonetheless Texas guitar wizardress, and Chris ‘Whipper’ Layton, holding it all together on drums.

It’s a “live” in-studio production that flows effortlessly. The haunting title track opens the album with guitar and organ riffs sensuously entwined around a rock-solid beat.

There’s a pair of sweet-sounding duets between Foley and Flanigin — “If You Think I’ve Lost You” and “Candy Kisses,” but they never lose the underlying toughness of the sound.

It’s not all haunting melodies: “Rooster Blues,” “Congo Mombo,” “I Live Where the Action Is” and “Bad Boy” all kick up the right amount of desert dust for dancing – real or mirage.

So yes, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable effort. Three talented musicians getting together to make some very personal blues to share. It sounds like the album cover looks.

Even if you don’t have an 8-track or reel-to-reel player, you should give it a listen.

Here’s the opening track, “West Texas Blues”

Track List:
West Texas Blues
I Got My Eyes on You
I Live Where the Action Is
Bad Boy
If You Think I’ve Lost You (Secret Weapon)
Rockin’ Daddy
Candy Kisses
Rooster Blues
Congo Mombo

“Raisin’ Cain” is blistering new blues from Chris Cain

Chris Cain is one of those gifted blues musicians whose fame doesn’t extend quite as far as his prodigious talents.

His terrific new album, “Raisin’ Cain,” drops tomorrow (April 9). It’s his first for Alligator Records. Both of those factors — a terrific album, and Alligator’s prominence in the blues recording business — should go a long way toward moving Cain even higher in the blues guitarist pyramid.

I’m not trying to say that Chris Cain has been hidden in the blues witness protection program. He’s been playing his strings off for three decades. He’s a star in his West Coast stomping grounds in the San Francisco Bay area. This is his 15th album. His guitar work, like his vocals, is big, bold and relentless.

On this album, Cain delivers a set of 12 originals that highlight his songwriting skills, his tough and gruff vocal style, and his versatile guitar work.

His entire skill set comes together for me here on two blazing tracks — the scorching “Down on the Ground” and the autobiographical “Born to Play.” They’re filled with lyrical grit and seriously ferocious guitar; the kind of music that should immediately come to mind whenever you hear the word “blues.”

And if those two songs aren’t enough for you, there are 10 more, all just as fine in their own way.

Some highlights: “Can’t Find a Good Reason” finds Cain lamenting a lost love (relationships being a recurring theme here), but with a lighter touch with more liquid, guitar runs; “Found a Way to Make Me Say Goodbye” struts along with muscular vocals out front; “Hush Money” has a funky vibe; “I Don’t Know Exactly What’s Wrong With My Baby” is quieter, looser jazz-infused; “Space Force” wraps up the album with a quirky, jazz-like turn on the ARP Soloist synthesizer. And just to show that’s no fluke, Cain takes a keyboard turn on several songs with piano, Wurlitzer Electric Piano, and the clavinet (think Stevie Wonder on “Superstition.”

“Raisin’ Cain” was recorded in San Jose, Calif., at the prolific Kid Andersen’s Greaseland Studio. Andersen, as he often does, contributes some guitar and even background vocals. Cain’s backer’s here are bassist Steve Evans, keyboardist/organist Greg Rahn, and Chris’ touring drummer Sky Garcia and veteran D’mar Martin sharing those duties.

Cain says “I want my songs to tell universal stories,” and they do. That story-telling, a key to all good blues, lends a cohesive quality to the album that underlies the passion of the music. If you’ve never had the pleasure, or haven’t heard him for a while, check out “Raisin’ Cain.” It’s Chris Cain at the top of his already winning game.

And now for something a little different:

It has occurred to me (yes, sometimes things do) that in today’s world of music, a huge amount is heard through streaming services and is bought online, sometimes a track at a time. This means that today’s music consumer is deprived of one of the physical pleasures of music ownership that was once commonplace to dinosaurs like myself — the record album cover. Or CD booklet. Or cassette label. Or 45 sleeve. I don’t know what eight-tracks had.

You usually get to see the album cover (pictured above, at no extra cost), but you may rarely see the liner notes. It’s true, those notes are infallibly high praise for the contents, but quite often they include biographical or other information of interest to the fan who sometimes enjoys words with her music.

And so (again, completely free and with no obligation on your part), here are the interesting and informative liner notes from “Raisin’ Cain” by the illustrious Dick Shurman . Let me know if this is worth the time it takes me to copy and paste.

Take some influence from B.B. King, Albert King, Ray Charles, and a pinch of Albert Collins. Add in dazzling blues and jazz guitar chops, a rich soulful baritone vocal delivering original, often wry and beleaguered lyrics with sophisticated chord changes and instrumentation, and skills on various horns and keyboards, all delivered with an uptown cool that never lacks searing passion. It all adds up to the one and only Chris Cain, who has gone from being a newcomer phenomenon bursting onto the blues scene in 1987 with a classic debut release, to being a legend, inspiration and long-established member of the blues pantheon. His fifteenth CD, Raisin’ Cain, ranks among his best.

The San Francisco Bay Area has nurtured an illustrious coterie of blues guitar greats, including Chicago transplant Mike Bloomfield and Robben Ford. So blues fans took notice when word started coming from the South Bay in the late ’80s that a serious new contender was stepping into the ring, with major league string bends, a fluid touch, a soaring tone and a master’s approach to composition. Chris’ first CD, Late Night City Blues, was issued on Robben Ford’s brother Pat’s Blue Rock’It label. Containing all the essential elements of Chris’ excellence, conveyed via shuffles, slow blues, swing and funk, framed by keys and horns, it garnered raves. The album received four W.C. Handy nominations including Band Of The Year and Guitarist Of The Year.

Chris was born in San Jose on November 19, 1955, as he recounts in “Born To Play.” Both his parents were blues-enlightened, especially his Memphis-raised, African-American father but also his Greek mother. He was taken to concerts by blues and jazz immortals from the get-go; he remembers attending a B.B. King show when he was three. His father gave Chris a guitar at age eight; by the time he was 18 he was playing professionally (and had also taught himself piano). His mother introduced Chris to Mike Bloomfield’s music early on; it served as an affirmation that someone like him could achieve what he was chasing. Vocal inspirations came from Curtis Salgado, Gary Smith, and big-voiced jazzy blues singers like Jimmy Witherspoon and Big Joe Turner. Chris has described his efforts to sing in a voice like his speaking voice, and his vocals reflect a conversational quality as well as a full quotient of melodicism. He studied music at San Jose City College (where he also took up saxophone); soon he was teaching jazz improvisation there. Eventually, to help him get jobs, he recorded the songs that became Late Night City Blues. Chris says, “Today that record is still a favorite. It was me doing it my way.” It sent him into the blues public consciousness and onto the touring circuit. He made an immediate splash, earning the respect of his fellow musicians, including that of his heroes Albert King and Albert Collins, who invited Chris onstage to jam with them.

Since then Chris has cut a dozen CDs on Blue Rock’It, Blind Pig, Little Village, his own label and a 2015 release fronting a New Zealand big band. It is a sign of the esteem from his peers that he has been in demand for recorded cameos, with Mighty Mike Schermer, Luca Giordano, Sista Monica, E.C. Scott, the Ford Blues Band, Robben Ford, Chester Thompson and Nancy Wright, plus many others. His previous album, Chris Cain, on the Little Village label, was produced by Kid Andersen and recorded at Kid Andersen’s Greaseland studio in San Jose in 2017. Things went so well that the principals returned to the scene of the crime. Raisin’ Cain is the happy result.

Chris’ path to Alligator has been the proverbial long and winding road. Early on, Chris sent some of his music to Alligator; the label took a pass. After all these years, it’s extremely gratifying to see that the stars finally lined up, and Raisin’ Cain more than justifies the mutual faith between Chris and Alligator that should benefit both parties and blues fandom. The program is all originals, with Chris stinging and swinging over mellow but insistent grooves in well-crafted settings and on top of his game, even venturing to an Arp Soloist synthesizer for the concluding “Space Force.” The autobiographical “Born To Play” reiterates that few can or could dig as deeply into a slow blues as Chris. But it’s his versatility as well as his musical mastery that continues to mark Chris as special. Chris continues his globetrotting (he’s performed in Argentina, Uruguay, Italy, Spain, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Ukraine and more) and racking up highway miles in the U.S.. He retains his reputation as one of the tastiest and most powerful artists on the scene and a musician’s musician. He’s a beloved cult figure in the Bay Area, and his licks resound through the playing of many locals. But there was never a hit song and he never sustained visibility on the national scene. Now he has an opportunity with a label which has proven to be a major asset for its roster.

For all his booming voice, Chris will never be known for the imposing physical stature its depth suggests. But that’s the only lack of stature about Chris. When a lucky listener enjoys his music, there is absolutely no doubt that Chris Cain is a giant.

Dick Shurman
Dick Shurman is a blues producer and historian. He has produced over 60 albums and been published worldwide. He has been inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame and the Chicago Blues Hall Of Fame.

“Raisin’ Cain” tracklist:

1. Hush Money
2. You Won’t Have A Problem When I’m Gone
3. Too Many Problems
4. Down On The Ground
5. I Believe I Got Off Cheap
6. Can’t Find A Good Reason
7. Found A Way To Make Me Say Goodbye
8. Born To Play
9. I Don’t Know Exactly What’s Wrong With My Baby
10. Out Of My Head
11. As Long As You Get What You Want
12. Space Force