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.
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.
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”: