Sonny Boy Williamson
By: Brian Berger | Categories: HiLo Heroes

This is a tale of two Sonny Boys; JOHN LEE “SONNY BOY” WILLIAMSON (1914-48) was almost certainly the first. Born and raised near Jackson, Tennessee, from his first 1937 recordings onward, Williamson — who’d settle in Chicago — was one of the blues’ leading figures: a virtuoso harmonica player and an inspired, slurry vocalist of darkness and wit. Of his many sides as leader, two favorites are the madcap “Blues That Made Me Drunk” (guitarist Big Bill Broonzy and pianist Blind John Davis contribute to the racket) and the scarifying “Black Panther Blues” (“you could hear me holler/and man, I didn’t have time to swallow”), the latter contemporary with Victor-Bluebird label-mate Spike Jones’ late 1942 Nazi-mocking “Der Fuehrer’s Face.” Not to be outdone, in November 1944 — a two-year-long musicians’ strike having intervened — Williamson came back fighting, ready to “Win The War” (below) in both the European and Pacific theaters. In the end, Williamson was defeated: his murder unreported in the Chicago Defender or Billboard and forever unsolved. Only later did friends like Yank Rachell recall the news (below). Meanwhile in Helena, Arkansas, another highly talented blues singer, Alex “Rice” Miller (1912-65) billed himself Sonny Boy Williamson! And, indeed, from 1951 onward, Millers’ own great, loud and poetic records followed. Who was greater? “Shit! That Big Foot motherfucker could play that harp, man,” said fellow Arksansan, Robert Lockwood Jr. “There wasn’t no comparison to then and there ain’t no comparison to Sonny Boy today.” I disagree, delighting in the disorder of both.

WIN THE WAR

YANK RACHELL on Sonny Boy

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Frankie Laine.

READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the Partisan (1904-13) and New God (1914-23) Generations.

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Brian Berger is a historian, journalist and poet. He was coeditor, with Marshall Berman, of New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg.