June 1, 1948 – “Sonny Boy” Williamson was born John Lee Curtis on March 30, 1914 near Jackson Tennessee. While in his teens he joined Yank Rachell and Sleepy John Estes, playing with them in Tennessee and Arkansas. In 1934 he settled in Chicago.
Williamson first recorded for Bluebird Records in 1937, and his first recording, “Good Morning, School Girl”, became a standard. He was popular among black audiences throughout the southern United States and in midwestern industrial cities, such as Detroit and Chicago, and his name was synonymous with the blues harmonica for the next decade. Other well-known recordings of his include “Sugar Mama Blues”, “Shake the Boogie”, “You Better Cut That Out”, “Sloppy Drunk”, “Early in the Morning”, “Stop Breaking Down”, and “Hoodoo Hoodoo” (also known as “Hoodoo Man Blues”). In 1947, “Shake the Boogie” made number 4 on Billboard’s Race Records chart. Williamson’s style influenced many blues harmonica performers, including Billy Boy Arnold, Junior Wells, Sonny Terry, Little Walter, and Snooky Pryor.
He was the most widely heard and influential blues harmonica player of his generation. His music was also influential on many of his non-harmonica-playing contemporaries and successors, including Muddy Waters (who played guitar with Williamson in the mid-1940s) and Jimmy Rogers (whose first recording in 1946 was as a harmonica player, performing an uncanny imitation of Williamson’s style). Rogers later recorded Williamson’s songs “My Little Machine” and “Sloppy Drunk” on Chess Records, and Waters recorded “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” in September 1963 for his Chess LP Folk Singer and again in the 1970s when he moved to Johnny Winter’s Blue Sky label on CBS.
Williamson recorded prolifically both as a bandleader and as a sideman over the course of his career, mainly for Bluebird. Before Bluebird moved to Chicago, where it eventually became part of RCA Records, many early sessions took place at the Leland Tower, a hotel in Aurora, Illinois. The top-floor nightclub at the Leland, known as the Sky Club, was used for live broadcasts of big bands on a local radio station and, during off hours, served as a recording studio for Williamson’s early sessions and those of other Bluebird artists.
He is often regarded as the pioneer of the blues harp as a solo instrument. 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 1940 and is closely associated with Chicago producer Lester Melrose and Bluebird Records.
Sonny Boy Williamson is easily the most important harmonica player of the pre-war era, who almost single-handedly made the humble mouth organ (blues harp) a worthy lead instrument for blues bands, leading the way for the amazing innovations of Little Walter and a platoon of others to follow. His harmonica style was a great influence on postwar performers. Later in his career he was a mentor to many up-and-coming blues musicians who moved to Chicago from the fields of the south, including Muddy Waters.
His final recording session took place in December 1947, backing Big Joe Williams.
He was killed in a mugging on Chicago’s South Side on June 1, 1948 as he walked home from his performance at The Plantation Club at 31st St. and Giles Ave., a tavern just a block and a half away from his home at 3226 S. Giles. His final words are reported to have been “Lord have mercy”.
One of the curious things about the lore of the blues harp is that there are actually two great players, both known to history as Sonny Boy Williamson, which of course led to no small amount of confusion. Sonny Boy Williamson I is the true Sonny Boy and he was so popular in the late 1930s and early 40s that another blues harp player born Aleck “Rice” Miller began using his name, because his own name wasn’t as cool. He became known later as Sonny Boy Williamson II, but ironically he was not really a name thief or a phony when it came to music – he was a superb harmonica player, singer, songwriter in his own right. He just had some ethics problems. In 1941 he was hired to play the King Biscuit Time show in Helena, Arkansas and the radio program’s sponsor began billing him as Sonny Boy Williamson, capitalizing on the fame of the first Sonny Boy. Miller later claimed that he used the name first, but that was a fib to protect the sponsor.
At any rate he began recording as “the one and only Sonny Boy Williamson” in the early 1950s, which ironically again was kind of true since Sonny Boy I was murdered in 1948.